I can’t recall, in all my travels, having come across a country quite like Cambodia, that crept into my heart with biting agony and joyful euphoria all at once. It is an incredible country to visit and will leave you spellbound by its tragic past and vibrant present. Quite simply, though, Cambodia really has it all.
In fact, there is a lot I want to say about the country so I thought for now I would just do a small recap of our time there and leave specifics, including a post about the islands, which feel like a different scope entirely, to their own post a little later. We have also been up and down South East Asia for nearly three months now and there is a lot I haven’t got around to writing about so I feel like I am jumping the gun a bit here but really felt I wanted to get a word in on Cambodia even before I start writing about some of the other great places we have visited, simply because I don’t want it to be too far of a recall before I set it down in words. Ok, enough about that.
Flying from Laos we entered Cambodia via Siem Reap in the north. Siem Reap, wow, it really had me taken aback from the word go. In a sense, it’s a true melting pot with a little something for everyone. Years ago I watched a documentary on a Cambodian fighting style known as pradal serey (or Khun Khmer), a form of Cambodian kickboxing very much like its cousin, muay thai. In this documentary, the hosts were afforded the chance to train at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap. At the time I had never heard of Angkor Wat but after seeing just those tiny snippets I told myself I would visit there one day, so coming to Siem Reap, I knew that was almost priority number one.
Let’s quickly look at Angkor, as it will almost certainly be on your to-do list if you ever visit in the area. We convinced ourselves a sunrise viewing was the way to go. That meant getting on the road before 5am, with a packed brekkie from our hotel. We were excited. Lining up behind the throngs of fellow tourists who all had the same idea, in the black of the early morning, at an overcrowded ticket office soon took some of that spark away, though. It is a necessity, however, so we pushed on. You can do a one, three or seven day pass or even a month-long entry pass if you wish, with the one-day pass starting at $37. Oh yea, everything in Cambodia works in dollars. They have their own currency, the Riel, but they pretty much only use this as small change or the locals use it for their bus trips and so on. Angkor is a must-see, even if you just do a one-day pass like we did, there is so much to see and so many strings of temple complexes to visit but my absolute favourite was Ta Phrom, or the Tomb Raider temple as everyone refers to it. Whatever you do, just get there and take in as much as you can in whatever amount of time you have.
See, this is why I can’t do a play-by-play on Cambodia – I haven’t even explained one aspect in nearly as much detail as I would like and it already chows a chunk of a page. Ok, let’s try do a real glancing over from here on out.
Siem Reap has it all, as I said, the bustling city life, the people on their bicycles, the markets, the street food, the cheapest massages around and one thing, importantly if you ask me, an absolutely fantastic nightlife. Head up to Sok San road or Pub Street and you will find a plethora of clubbing, bar-hopping, karaokeing and street bars options that will knock your socks off with their buckets and pumping tunes. It was a real treat heading out of a club at 5am and seeing the street vibe was still in full effect, so it definitely has that going for it (kicks Thailand’s Khao San road in the butt imo)… Also, do yourself a favour and go watch the Phare Circus – it’s a great acrobatic show that tells an immersive story about Cambodian history in spectacular fashion and I highly recommend it. Plus – highlight reel – I even got to do some Khun Khmer myself at a local gym called Angkor Fight Club.
From there, we shot off to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Here things got a lot more serious as the reality of the history of the Cambodian people set in. I knew a bit about the Khmer Rouge killings as I had seen some of this, again, in documentary form, so I really wanted to go experience the Killing Fields first hand. If you know me, you know that I am a nutter for taking photographs, especially when I want o share an experience. I couldn’t bring myself to take a single photograph at the fields or at the S21 torture prison and genocide museum in the city. Not a single photograph. I was so heavily present and heartsore, solemnly and humbly so, that I simply floated, ghost-like, through these experiences, being wholly present and taking it all in. It is the most powerful piece of history and pain I think I have ever experienced and I can’t really put into words quite how devastating it can be. I did walk away with something I found surprising, complete gratitude for the blessed life I live, in reflection of the pain dealt to an entire nation. You can see some info on the killing fields and the torture prison here.
Ok, that was the deep side, but Phnom Penh had its fun side too. Ask about Riverside at a hotel if you want to go for a bite to eat or on a sunset cruise or, again, go sample some of the nightlife as you can go til the sun comes up here too. Again there are temple complexes, museums and the palace to visit or if you want an immersive local experience cross the river and go check out the fun fair across town (we were literally the only foreigners there the night we went and people stared at us in awe so I feel like it isn’t a very common thing to do haha but you can enjoy some fun fair rides, games, market stalls and cheap food all in one go, so it was definitely worth it)
After the capital we set off south for the seaside town of Sihanoukville and the southern islands of Koh Rong and the smaller Koh Rong Samloem. They blew me out of the water as much as they had me in it. I think I will leave that entire two-week affair for its own post, and look forward to sharing what has now become one of the highlights of our trip when we get to writing about that.