I spent over a week in Cambodia in my SE Asia adventure, between Laos and before going back to Thailand. It was one of my favourite countries.
TOP 10 OF CAMBODIA:
1. Angkor Wat and archeological park
We woke up bright and early at 4:30AM to arrive at the main temple at Angkor Wat for sunrise. Angkor Archaeological Park is the largest religious monument in the world originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the god Vishnu, it was adapted to a Buddhist temple in the 12th century, and so has elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism. We arrived with the other tourists in the dark, with sparkling torches, hushed whispers, and the palpable excitement as if we were about to see a rock concert. The star of the show was the main temples of Angkor Wat and the spectacular shifting colours of the Cambodian sunrise. As the sun rose and the beauty of the ancient Angkor Wat temple was slowly revealed, the crowd was silent in its reverence, but I almost felt like applauding. The Angkor Wat temple site is vast and people can spend up to 3-days touring all of the different temples. In addition to the main Angkor Wat temple, we also saw the temple sites of Angkor Thom (with its smiling temple and elephant pavilion), Ta Prom (with its trees encroaching all over the temple site) and Banteay Kdei. I loved the magnificence and grandeur of the construction, the intricate details of the carvings and reliefs and the optical illusion created by the symmetry of the structure which felt like you were walking in a hall of mirrors.
2. Chilling on Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island)
Koh Tonsay (aka Rabbit Island) is a small, secluded island a short 25-minute boat ride from the town of Ket. It is one of the least developed islands with basic infrastructure, no electricity (they use a generator that gets turned off at 10pm), very few residents and incredibly rustic with an individual cabin with a basic squat toilet (that you have to flush by pouring in buckets of water). And no shower. My cabin also had the added complication of chickens and roosters in the beams directly outside that were clucking all night and were too brazen to be scared by basic shooing. After some hilarious trial-and-error (which my travel buddies caught on video) I developed a complicated towel system that chased them away and scared them into not coming back. In addition to these shenanigans, we were able to swim, sun tan, walk on the beach, have indulgent oil massages and wile away the hours reading our books on gently rocking hammocks. It was absolute bliss!
3. Snorkelling in Sihanoukville
Sihanoukville is a vibey beach town and is an access point to a number of small islands, the most popular of which is Koh Rong, where many tourists spend at least a night. The also all seem to get sick from food poisoning because the island has no fridges. We took a day snorkelling trip to one of these private islands which included snorkelling at three different spots and a barbequed lunch a remote island. This was my first time that I was back in the sea after weeks of travelling inland and I absolutely loved it.
4. Killing Fields in Phnom Penh
We went on a tour of the killing fields and s21 prison in Phnom Penh. I had never been exposed to the exploits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide which saw about 3 million people murdered or killed from starvation just over 30 years ago. The Communistic philosophy that was applied to drive everyone out of the villages into the rural areas for farming and kill intellectuals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, those who wore glasses or those with soft hands seemed so irrational and bizarre. The stories, survivor accounts, skulls, clothing, teeth and photographs from those condemned and tortured were incredibly haunting. I was able to borrow a travel buddy’s book “Survival in the Killing Fields” by Haing Ngor to try to understand the sheer brutality and cruelty directed towards people by others from the same country. His story recounted his incredibly survival as a former doctor in disguise, forced to farm in a rural village, and his eventually escape to America where he won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in the move the “Killing Fields” based on another survivor’s life. It impressed on me how raw these wounds were because it happened not long ago and how fragile Cambodia as a country was in trying to pull together after the recent violent fracturing of its society. It made me reflect on the history of my own country, South Africa.
The history of the killing fields also raised questions about the current political situation of Cambodia which I was able to discuss in-depth with our Cambodian tour guide. Cambodia has two political parties: the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CPP has been in power since 1979 (the end of the Khmer Rouge) but are now facing fierce opposition from the CNRP which has seen the CPP involved in suspect tactics to retain power such as the arrest of the deputy leader of the CNRP. The leader of the CNRP has fled Cambodia and is living in exile. There has been some silent protest in Cambodia against the CPP but the situation remains tense and volatile.
5. Homestay in Battambang
We travelled to a small village on the outskirts of Battambang to stay with a local family in their wooden hut. The visit included us walking around the village to be greeted by the local children shouting the only English word they knew “hello”, making our own spring rolls and being treated to the most delicious home-cooked meal including chicken yellow curry and fish amok. And that is when things got a bit weird… we had already started the day stopping off at a street vendor where we tasted frog legs, crickets and some fresh rat (very crunchy and not like chicken). Our tour guide produced a cooked chicken head (which we nicknamed “Steve”) for a drinking game where we had to spin the chicken head around with the beak indicating whose turn it was to drink. The drink was Cambodian rice wine with a dollop of cobra blood. Fortunately for me, it seems that Steve had his beady eyes and beak focused on other members in our group more than me and when it was my turn, I got by with taking the smallest sips.
6. Phare circus in Siem Reap
The Phare circus is the second biggest tourist attraction in Siem Reap (second only to Angkor Wat). It is run by a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 1994 by 8 young Cambodian ex-refugee artists from Anchanh Village in Battambang province. Today they help develop the careers of Cambodian artists with the aim of reviving Cambodia’s art scene and is focused on recruiting these artists from off the streets. It is a 1-hour show with a few different themes for each show. Our show’s theme was “same, same but different” which portrays the similarities and differences between East and West. Particularly evocative was a performance by the two female artists who showed the impact on Western culture on the clothes and attitude of the traditional Cambodian woman
7. Drinks in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh
The main tourist cities in Cambodia have a big bar/party scene to cater to the youngish tourist population. After having a relatively low key time in Thailand and Laos, I was joined by two new travel buddies, a 31-year old Irish hairdresser from Cork, Ireland and a 26-year old Brazilian that we nicknamed “vote for Pedro” and a few others who stirred things up. Michelle, the Irish lass, introduced as to “Tinder Bingo” a drinking game where you swipe right to all the guys (swipe right indicated a “yes”) and each time you have a “match” you have to take a sip. We were all in hysterics as the girls faired exceptionally well and the boys seemed to only match with bar ladies (a polite term used for prostitutes).
8. Bamboo train in Battambang
On our way towards our homestay in a village, we stopped off at the Bamboo train which is basically bamboo slats on wheels attached to a motor on the back. Four of us and a driver could fit on these trains and they can reach up to speeds of 40km/h on the railway tracks. The only problem is that if you encounter another train coming the opposite direction, one of the trains has to concede right of way, and the train and all occupants is quickly taken off to the side of the tracks before being re-instated.
9. Pub Quiz in Kampot
After a day of exploring the rural villages in Kampot including a local pepper plantation we went out for dinner opposite our hotel at a place that was hosting a quiz night. Our team (two British, one South African and Brazilian) were reluctant participants but since we were there to eat our meal, we thought we might as well participate in the quiz. As the evening wore on and our unique combination of knowledge sets allowed us to win, we got more into the quiz, and ended up winning a massive beer keg which we shared with the other teams. It was an evening of unexpected nerdy fun and I enjoyed winning a pub quiz for the first time ever.
10. Cambodian city life
In addition to the party scene, I loved the Cambodian cities which offered great restaurants, shops, bakeries, beauty salons, hairdressers and an assortment of night markets. I felt comfortable and safe walking around the streets at night and loved that you could get anything (from having your hair braided into two braids for $2, to laundry for $4) at almost any time.