This post may contain affiliate links, for which we earn a small commission at no additional expense to you. Click here to read our Disclosure.
Arriving into Cambodia was a welcome change from the chaos of Vietnam. Cambodia is mostly a rural country of 14 million people and it reminded us more of Thailand and Laos. Hence the title “Same same, but different” which is an extremely popular phrase in SEA. We arrived into Cambodia on a slow boat from the Mekong Delta. We piled onto a bus for the last part of the journey to the capital, Phnom Penh and after a small electrical fire, we were on our way.
Although Cambodia is a rural country, the capital is quite a large city, with 1 million inhabitants. Right away we were impressed by the attempt at order in the city and were impressed that the motorbikes actually followed the street signs some of the time. You couldn’t help but notice the many expensive cars, cruising the city. At first we thought this was due to the large expat population because many NGOs are based in Cambodia. We later realized that the majority of these cars are owned by wealthy Khmers. You also notice the American English schools that are on almost every corner. Learning english is very important for Cambodians and most
people seemed to have a basic grasp of the language. Cambodia has their own currency, the riel, however the mighty US greenback is used just as frequently and prices are quoted in US dollars.
We did not know a lot about Cambodian history before arriving in the country. Cambodia was part of France’s Indochina until 1953 when it gained independence. It has a history of being occupied by its neighbours including Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. The country is rebuilding itself after the brutal 3 year reign of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. When they gained control in ’75, they procliamed it Year Zero and immediately forced the entire population of the capital city into the countryside to work as slave labour in the fields. They abolished currency, the postal service, religion and cut off ties with the rest of the world. They executed the former leaders, intellectuals and scholars. The leader, Pol Pot, was a brutal leader and disobedience of any kind was punishable by execution. It is not known how many Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge, although it is believed to be between 1-3
We visited Tuol Sleng Museum, which had been a high school before the Khmer Rouge took it over and transformed it into a a prison, also known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It was a large detention and torture centre and walking the now peaceful grounds is eerie because of the suburban setting. More than 17,000 people were held here before being taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their prisoners and the photographs of the men, women and children held in the prison line the walls. The pictures of the children are particularly disturbing. It certainly makes you question the United Nations action after procliaming “Never Again” after WWII. When the Vietnamese liberated the prison in ’79, there were only seven prisoners alive! There are some wonderful photography exhibits at the museum that really drive home the message of the suffering of the people. Unfortunately, most of the Khmer Rouge leaders will probably die before they are tried for the war crimes they committed.
Cambodia is an extremely poor country and there is evidence of this throughout the countryside. In Phnom Penh the poverty is not
as apparent because the wealthy government officials driving their luxury cars dilute the evidence of people living on less than $1/day. There are many street children roaming the street and it is particularly sad to see young boys or girls with a tiny baby strapped around them begging. There are also thousands of amputees on the streets, that have lost limbs due to land mines.
We visited Psar Tuol Tom Pong Market (aka Russion Market), where you can get cheap brand name clothing like GAP, Old Navy, etc, that are made in the garment factories of Cambodia. Since it was my birthday, we went for a nice dinner at a French restaurant where we enjoyed delicious steaks, salad and wine.
The next day we headed for the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. This is a complex very much like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but not quite as lavish. In the afternoon, we took a tuk tuk out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. During the Khmer Rouge regime 17,000 men, women and children were sent here from S-21 to be exterminated. There is a monument that contains many of the remains of these victims that were
killed and thrown in shallow, massive graves. As you walk around the grounds, which were once an orchard, you can see the many depressions where the bodies were excavated from. Again, it was a very sombre place to visit where you can only imagine the horrors that occured here.
The roads in Cambodia are notoriously bad, although some of the major roads have been surfaced recently. We headed north to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. The bus was very efficient and along the way we caught glimpses of the way the majority of Cambodians live.
Since we had so much fun on the motorbikes in Vietnam, we decided to do a motorbike tour through the countryside surrounding Battambang. Again we did not have to search hard for motorbike guides because one found us on our way to our hotel. We arranged to go with three young locals and it is always interesting to have the opportunity to hear about Cambodian life first hand. They took us to two hilltop temples, a killing cave (used in much the same way at Choeung Ek) and to see fruit bats. You could see how these three youths were struggling between
their rural peasant roots and their desire for an easier life and modern conveniences. They had all come from large farming families, but all desired to work in tourism, and were still in school studying English. We got to see more of the rural villages and the subsistence way people live here.
Our last stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap to visit the famous Angkor Wat. To get there, the road is not paved all the way and therefore many travellers are encouraged to take the boat. For this priviledge you get to pay $15 US, which is a higher amount that we usually pay for transport (bus tickets are $4). When we arrived at the “port”, we were met with hordes of travellers and locals and two tiny boats. Somehow they managed to squeeze us, our packs, the locals’ bundles of rice, fruit and veg and live chickens, onto the boats. We ended up sitting on the roof and spending 8 hours in full sun! The flooded river meandered through very narrow and shallow passages. We had to continually duck branches as the boat crew jumped into the water to clear debris from the propeller. After being fried
in the sun all day, we eventually made it to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap was once a small village. Now it is a full fledged tourist centre that caters to travellers of all kind on all different budgets. We spent two days visiting the many Angkor temples that are spread out around the surrounding countryside with our tuk tuk driver. The government is making a killing off these temples, as we have to pay $20/p/day.
The Angkorian period spans from AD 802 to 1432 (Lonely Planet), during which the temples of Angkor were built and the Khmer empire was the greatest power in SEA. At its peak, the city sustained a population of 1 million at a time when London was a town of 50,000. This region of Cambodia has traded hands with Thailand and was only recently returned to Cambodia in 1907. The French rediscovered the Angkor temples in 1860 (Lonely Planet) and they have been a tourist mecca ever since.
It is hard to put into words the scale and creative genius of Angkor. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat and it truly is stunning to walk the promenade approaching the temple
for the first time. A lot of these temples are in good shape and you can walk through the corridors and climb the extremely steep steps up to the highest towers. Each temple has its unique characteristics with ones being known for their carvings, bas-reliefs, jungle encroachment, tranquility, size, and preservation. You really don’t get tired of visiting the endless ruins and temples (well maybe by the end of day 2!). The temples are not concentrated in a small area, but are spread out with some being 30 km from the centre. There are tons of tourists around the major sites, although many of the smaller sites are very peaceful. At some of the sites the jungle has overtaken the ruins and you have these large trees and their root systems winding up through the rubble. Angkor was used to film Angelina Jolie’s famous “Tomb Raider” movies. At each site you visit, before your tuk tuk can even come to a complete stop, you are accosted by a plethora of women and children selling everything from books to bracelets to drinks to flutes to overpriced meals. Most of these children are from the surrounding villages, and are very poor and
are trying to make a little bit of extra money for their families. One of their favorite selling techniques was to ask you where you were from. You would then be met with a chorus of “Capital, Ottawa. Population….” Their ability to make money through various means was quite creative. They would either ask you for a coin from Canada or they would try to get you to buy a coin that a previous Canadian traveller had given them.
We also dropped into the Aki Ra Land Mine Museum. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world with an estimated 4-6 million dotting the countryside. Mines do not discrimate between soldiers and civilians and they are left behind long after the conflict has ended. As a result land mines explode regularly in the fields and forests where the locals work. Throughout the country, we saw a lot of men and children with missing limbs. In a country where there is virtually no social safety net, these amputees either have to rely on their families for support or struggle to survive on the streets. Aki Ra is a Cambodian who has been intstrumental in demining efforts. He also has taken
in numerous amuptee children into his home and many of these children run tours of the museum. The museum runs land mine education campaigns for both tourists and locals and is a wealth of information on the destruction of land mines. The UN Land Mine Treaty has been signed by almost all Western countries, with the exception of the US.
The Bus, Cambodia Style
The bus between Siep Reap and Bangkok is notoriously bad. Apparently, the Thai airlines have paid the Cambodian government to NOT improve the road. The road is nothing more than a dusty, pot-holed country road leading to the border town of Poipet. We bumped along, covering 175 km in 6 hours. At the border, we switched buses and did quite a bit of hurry up and wait. Eventually after over 2 hours at the border, we got on a nice Thai bus and the smooth, paved Thai roads were a welcome sight.
Arriving back into Bangkok and Khao San Road can only be described as wrapping a cozy comforter around you and snuggling in. You can let out your breath and relax in a place that is almost starting to feel like home.
We can tell we are ready to come home. One night after a long journey, I wrote a list of all the things I am tired of that come with travelling.
-tired of being squeezed on buses, boats, trains like sardines
-having to negotiate the price of every purchase
-being accosted by beggars and people wanting to sell us things we don’t need
-lugging our packs around
-being thought of as a walking wallet
-being swarmed by touts when we emerge off a bus after a long journey
-seeing the inequality in a lot of the countries we have visited, that have arisen with the onset of “development”
Our patience with the trials of travelling is sadly wearing thin. We are excited to get home to see all of you, our friends and family. Although we are sure that once we get home, we will be wishing we were on the road again. All of these annoyances are part in parcel of travel and it wouldn’t be as rewarding without them. We fly out Saturday night and after a 12 hour layover in Korea, we arrive home Sunday evening. We can’t wait to see all of you!