After our time in Vietnam (click here for my travelguide) we headed to Cambodia for a few days. Here’s a brief summary (check out our couple of seconds a day video on youtube!) of the time we’ve had there and hopefully some hints and tips for those of you that fancy visiting in the future.
Did you know?
- There has never been a McDonald’s in Cambodia.
- The Cambodian flag is the only flag in the world featuring a building (Angkor Wat).
- During the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s rule around 2 million people were killed (one fifth of the population), because of this up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under thirty.
- Cambodia has the largest population of amputees in the world caused by landmines. Over 64,000 casualties related to landmines have been recorded since 1979. Almost half of the landmines are yet to be removed.
- The krama is a popular Cambodian garment, it’s a gingham-check swathe of fabric in either red or blue which can be used as a head scarf, skirt, bag, baby sling or pillow. We were given lovely blue ones as a leaving gift from our hotel in Siem Reap which I now use to keep me warm on planes.
- Despite being one of the poorest countries in Asia (more than two and a half million people in the country live on less than $1.20 per day), it received 5 million visitors during 2016, bringing in about $3 billion in revenue. Tourism is playing a vital role in helping the economic growth of the country.
- Cambodians do not celebrate their birthdays. Many older people do not even know how old they are.
Where did we go and what were the highlights?
STOP 1 – Siem Reap
- Landing in Siem Reap airport late at night we took a taxi to Gold Smith Residence Hotel (£16 per person per night). You can definitely get cheaper accommodation, but now we know we’re heading to Australia soon to work we decided to go for a bit of luxury and a pool was a major requirement as it’s nearing the hottest part of the year in Cambodia (average 37°C).
- Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, a massive complex of Hindu and Buddhist monuments and temples built by several Khmer Kings during the 12th century. Originally we wanted to buy a 3 day pass and cycle to the temples to explore at a leisurely pace. However weighing up the costs of the 3 day pass ($62), bike hire ($6 per day) and the fact it’s ridiculously hot we decided against our original plan. Instead, on our first day in Siem Reap we arranged a tuk tuk ($18) through our hotel to take us to the Angkor Wat ticket station at 4:30pm which is located a few kilometres from the start of the temple complex and bought a 1 day pass ($37). If you purchase your 1 day pass ticket around 4:45-5pm the evening before your pass is dated you are allowed in to some of the temples for free. From the ticket station our tuk tuk driver took us to Pre Rup where we explored and then watched a beautiful deep red sunset. The next morning our tuk tuk driver picked us up from the hotel bright and early at 4:45am to take us to Angkor Wat for sunrise (costing $42 for a full days transport). Arriving at Angkor Wat in the pitch black we followed the crowds using the light from our phones towards a little lake in front of the iconic Angkor Wat silhouette. As it became a little lighter we decided to explore the temple and it’s grounds before sunrise and the mass of crowds descended. Just as 6:40am arrived, the long awaited sunrise, it began to drizzle and it was cloudy… we couldn’t actually see a sunrise (sooooo typical)! Still, this didn’t ruin how beautiful it was, the reflection of the temple in the water as rain came down probably made it even more special. It also made it a little less sweaty for us! After Angkor Wat our driver took us to Bayon which was the last temple to be built at Angkor. It’s purpose was a shrine to Buddha and features 216 faces, some speculate that the faces were actually designed to look like the Khmer King Jayavarman VII who created Angkor Wat. From Bayon we headed along dusty roads to Ta Prohm which is one of the least restored temples, trees grow out of the ruins and crumbled rocks lie everywhere. Ta Prohm was my favourite temple because it was more authentic, left in it’s original condition and not least because it was the scene of the film Tomb Raider… yes I did do the odd Lara Croft impression. In total we probably spent about 5 hours exploring these Angkor temples, we even managed to make it back to our hotel in time to catch the end of breakfast. By starting dead early we managed to miss most of the big Chinese tour groups and the midday heat.
- Possibly due to the poverty in Cambodia there are many social enterprises, responsible brands and initiatives in place to help local people. The day after Angkor Wat we hit up the Made in Cambodia Market which showcases local artisan products, many of which are made from recycled materials. After the market we walked to Artisans Angkor who train young people in traditional crafts providing jobs and keeping old traditions alive. The centre has open workshops where you can see the craftspeople hard at work carving statues, making jewellery and weaving silk.
STOP 2 – Phnom Penh
- From Siem Reap we took a 6 hour bus to Phnom Penh where we are staying at Penh House & Jungle Addition (£20 per person per night). Right next to our hotel is a quirky lane with cool street art that hosts a couple of ethical fashion shops and a really nice cafe, Artillery (black bean burger is a winner).
- A couple of months ago I read First They Killed My Father. If you haven’t read it then you really should, forget about the Angelina Jolie film on Netflix, pick up the book and read the horrifying story of Loung Ung’s life under the Khmer Rouge. The book taught me about a history I was completely oblivious to. Yesterday we visited the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum here in Phnom Penh to learn a little bit more and pay our respects. It was a sobering experience, but one very much worth doing. The Killing Fields is located 13km outside of the city and is one of hundreds of sites across Cambodia where Pol Pot’s followers murdered men, women and children under his Khmer Rouge regime. Included in your entrance fee is an audio guide that re-lives the history through real life accounts as you walk around the mass graves where bones and bits of clothing are still being revealed in the soil when it rains. I have to say I was pleased to be wearing sunglasses as at many points there were tears in my eyes. After the Killing Fields we went to the Genocide Museum which used to be the S-21 prison, again a place where men, women and children deemed ‘intellectuals’ were taken captive, tortured and killed under Pol Pot’s orders. Many people find it strange to visit these sorts of places, it’s called ‘dark tourism’. But the locals want people to visit as it educates and it gives them hope that an atrocity like that would never happen again.
Apologies for the lack of photos here, I didn’t feel it was very respectful to take snaps where many people suffered and died.
How to get around?
- Tuk tuk’s are reasonably cheap and they will take you anywhere. Cambodian ones are also some of the comfiest tuk tuk’s I’ve been in, like a proper royal carriage.
- Remember Cambodia uses dollars as well as their own currency (riel).
- Don’t buy from children, if they earn a wage on the streets it will stop them from wanting to return to school. The only way to break the cycle is through education. There are posters and leaflets everywhere advising what to do.
Cambodia, like the rest of South-East Asia, is quite cheap. It’s probably a little bit pricier than Vietnam and Thailand, however as usual if you eat local you can keep the costs down.
What will I remember Cambodia for most?
Bowing low with hands in the prayer position to say “soursdey” (hello) and “arkoon” (thanks), children selling things on the streets, so much dust, delicious fish amok, Cambodia beer (cheaper than soft drinks), super smiley children, great sense of humour.
While we haven’t been here long, Cambodia has really left an impression on us, mainly because of the people and their history. The foods really good too which helps, a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese.
Tonights our last night here. Tomorrow we leave behind the dusty streets where you fear for your toes getting ran over by a moped and head to Singapore.