Of all the destinations in Southeast Asia, no country has a sense of intrigue and mystery attached to it (except for Burma perhaps) quite like Cambodia. War torn for much of the second half of the 20th century, Cambodia had built a reputation as a shady, dangerous place over that time. First, they fell victim to a massive bombing campaign by the Americans during the Vietnam War, and then they promptly fell under the control of a genocidal madman known as Pol Pot shortly afterward. Even after he was chased from his perch in 1979 by Vietnamese forces, his guerrilla army, known as the Khmer Rouge, continue to terrorize the country for 20 years after their ouster from power.
Finally, after the capture of Pol Pot in 1998, and the formal dissolution of the Khmer Rouge, security matters finally began to improve. Intrepid backpackers began to blaze a trail to Siem Reap and Sihanoukville again, leaking out word of an epic labyrinth of ruins in the central interior, and empty, white sand beaches on the countries’ southwest coast. Slowly but surely, travellers started to discover this culturally significant Southeast Asian country once more.
Today, Cambodia is rapidly modernizing, as China pumps money into the country to develop their under tapped resources, transforming the skyline of its capital city, Phnom Penh. Roads are improving all round, and resort development to attract more visitors is in full swing. While not everything about this complex nation may be perfect, things are much better than they were even one decade ago, and their doors are wide open. Just be sure to take your shoes off before you come inside, ok? Manners first!
Currency: Cambodia Riel, U.S. Dollar
What To Do
There are many ways to enter Cambodia and see the sights of this fascinating country. Let’s start in Siem Reap though, the site of Cambodia’s most highly trafficked tourist attraction. Angkor Wat, located a few short kilometres north of Siem Reap, is a massive complex of temples, canals, and former city works associated with what was the largest pre-industrial age city in the world, many hundreds of years ago. Avid photographers will want to do a dawn visit for the best light and fewer tourists to trip over. Sunset, while much more crowded, also offers many photographic opportunities. Temples that you should be certain not to miss include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Phrom, and Phnom Bakheng for sunset photos.
After you have templed yourself out, head down highway number 6 to the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh. Chill out in the bars and cafes of Sisowath Quay to recover from a hectic bus ride down, then see the Royal Palace and check out the ornately decorated Silver Pagoda, along with the well-appointed National Museum.
When you have finished seeing the normal tourist sites in Phnom Penh, it’s time to delve into the dark history of Cambodia at the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Museum. A former high school transformed into a hellish horror show of torture and death, this place will shake your soul to its core, with graphic pictures, implements used to torture detainees (with illustrations on how these contraptions worked), and even the skulls of some of those killed in this grim place are contained in a glass cabinet on site.
If this hasn’t saddened you quite enough, hire a tuk-tuk and head out to the Killing Fields, located 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Here, those not killed at Tuol Sleng were executed by firing squad: men, women, children, everybody. Scraps of clothing from the murdered can still be seen on the ground, and a glass stupa containing the skulls of 8,000 unfortunate victims stands at the centre of this gloomy site.
To get over the depression induced by this, escape to the southwest coast of the country to Sihanoukville. While the beaches located in and close to town are quite nice, the level of disruption caused by touts may cause considerable annoyance for some.
To get away from this, but still enjoy some time on the beach, book some accommodation on an offshore island, and take a boat from Sihanoukville to one of the area’s many offshore islands. We recommend Koh Rong, a 77 square mile island (the size of Hong Kong) that is ringed by blinding white sand beaches, has verdant jungle in the mountainous interior, bathtub warm water with NO ROCKS, and only one Khmer fishing village.
Apart from the locals, and a scattering of bungalow resorts, NOBODY ELSE IS HERE. You can walk along 4-7 kilometre long beaches that are basically flawless, and you can count the number of people encountered on one hand. Try finding that in Thailand these days!
What To Eat
Cambodia has a few distinctive dishes worth checking out. First, be sure to order an Amok Curry when you find a restaurant that is popular with the locals. This dish is made with a coconut milk base, served with chicken, fish, or shrimp and is less spicy than the Thai Massaman variant. Be sure to get it served in a coconut shell if the opportunity presents itself!
Lok Lak is a Cambodian dish that has its origins in the era of French colonization, and is made of chopped up beef strips, fried in a sauce consisting of lime juice, black pepper, lettuce and onions, and often, it is served with a fried egg on top. In Phnom Penh, your carbs on the side may be French fries instead of rice, so don’t be too surprised if this happens to you.
Finally, if you’re looking for a Cambodian style breakfast, be sure to ask around for Bai Sarch Ch’rouk. This is simply rice with BBQ’ed pork served over the top, with pickled vegetables served on the side. It is said to be quite tasty, and with a mix of protein and carbs fueling you, it will make you ready to get through another day exploring this epic nation!