Nestling snugly between the borders of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is becoming one of South East Asia’s ever more appealing tourist destinations. Thanks to its incredible temples and grim history of genocide, of which memory is still fresh, it is of great interest to the culture-seeking traveler.
On the flight to Phnom Penh, my first destination of choice and capital of the kingdom, I imagined poor roads, rundown buildings and limited supplies of basic amenities. To an extent I was right, but it was surprisingly well built. Large, ostentatious hotels dominated sections of the river front, which boasted a moderate café and bar culture, and the silver pagoda’s grand presence along the Tonle Sap made for a great first impression.
This impression was somewhat dampened, however, by the scores of homeless locals. Makeshift beds and kitchens littered the pavements and children as young as three or four carried heavy books and jewellery in a bid to make a few ril to eat. Begging is a big problem in Cambodia and children are forced to beg by their parents as they attract more sympathy, and in return, more cash.
Whilst walking along the promenade on the west side of the lake, a park bustled with families socialising with one another in the cool evening air. Street stalls served dried fish, sautéed insects of numerous varieties and bottles of green tea. A strange snack selection I thought, so just took the latter. Couples sat by the water’s edge and motorbikes chugged about the disorganised road system where both lanes travel in both directions.
The roads in Cambodia were probably the one preconception of mine that rang true. With pot holes galore, worrying driver awareness and immense overcrowding, it is not surprising to discover that most motorcyclists don’t have driver’s licences and that no road safety unit currently exists.
Phnom Penh itself is the home of the S21, the former school, turned prison of torture, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It is also the place where Pol Pot ordered the brutal murders of over a million people in the killing fields throughout the seventies. Now a museum, S21 still bears the blood of prisoners and drawings depict the horrific scenes that took place. A must visit, but the memorial of skulls at the killing fields further out of town is not for the faint hearted.
Over on the west side of the country, Siem Reap is South East Asia’s hidden gem. It is the temple lover’s dream by day, with over a hundred temples covering nine square miles, and by night the aptly named 'Bar Street' provides the party seeker with a surprisingly upmarket experience.
The mother of the temples, Angkor Wat, which lies 5.5km north of Siem Reap, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. For this, I decided to pull myself out of bed at 4.30am to watch the sunrise over its towers and experience it in its full glory. Unfortunately for me, it was cloudy! But, I had woken up from the breeze of the tuk tuk journey by this point, so I just sat on the grassy lawns between the gate and the main building and breathed in the cooler air before the humidity kicked in with the arrival of the sun.
It wasn’t a complete waste of time getting up so early though; the best was yet to come. A temple called 'Ta Phrom' set back deep in the forest was my highlight. Walking through the trees at 6.30am to find a completely deserted, moss-green ruin was almost indescribable. Wildlife rustled and branches snapped as I clambered through the eerie structure.
To my previous knowledge it had been used partially as a set for a Tomb Raider film so I felt somewhat of a Lara Croft! Just minus the guns of course. Trees had wrapped their roots over whole sections of the temple, proving just how ancient it all was. I explored for a good hour before deciding it was time to stop and move on to another temple that I knew wouldn’t be as awesome.
I also prepared myself to navigate through the abundance of child beggars that surrounded the temples without opening my wallet. I was determined not to fuel the fire that kept the innocent youngsters at their job.
Siem Reaps nightlife was slightly pricier than that of Phnom Penh, but still, a beer only cost around 30 pence sterling. Mick Jagger had eaten at a humble little restaurant down 'The Alley' called Khmer Kitchen, when he visited some years ago, so I sought to do the same and took the last table available. The atmosphere along Bar Street running parallel could not have been further from that of the serene temple I had visited that morning. I sat sipping a cocktail as an acoustic duo bashed out a few covers, then headed to a club called 'Angkor What?' for another. That place became my favourite, if only for the name.
Cambodia was a delight. Considering the people are still so obviously haunted by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and the country is still riddled with landmines, the Cambodian population genuinely couldn’t seem more pleased to see me and show me how proud they are of their country. Though Cambodia still remains relatively untouched, I would grab your piece of culture quickly, as it won’t stay like this forever.
By Louisa Collington
JMU Journalism travel articles
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia's primary tourist attraction; Youtube: Cambodia slideshow