When I visited Cambodia a few years ago, it was never a country I had put high on my list of places to travel to. This also meant I knew very little about the country and perhaps, rather ignorantly, nothing about its history and tragic culture either. Whilst it was eye-opening, the trip never became one of my favourites, experiencing over-tourism and corruption, both rife through the country. Our trip began between Thailand and Vietnam, with just ten days to fit it in and see the best of the country.
(the photos of bad quality are due to camera no.1 breaking and camera no.2 being stolen)
The journey began in Siem Reap, the famous city in Cambodia that is home the Angor Wat temples. To us, it felt like Bangkok with no character, and we could see why many people said not to stay long. The juxtaposition of tall, beautifully clean buildings against smaller house shacks, piled with boxes of Dr pepper and miscellaneous ramen made for a sobering experience. It’s dusty and busy, and somehow hard to warm to. It doesn’t have the numerous food stalls on the street and bar some convenience stores and petrol stations, it really had nothing much going on. Speaking to other tourists you realise the extent of the corruption, as one young man told us that you could easily do a job for $40 a month, only to find someone else doing it for $200.
It was here that I received my first taste of how tourism has changed. I am all for everything travelling in the world, in fact, I encourage it as it opens anyone’s eyes to experiencing someone else’s culture and living. But at 4am, we attempted the famous sunrise of Angor Wat, along with other tourists. instead of it being a humbling experience, surrounded by fellow adventure-seekers, it was instead behind a legion of selfie sticks that remained up for the entire time, taking hundreds of selfies for the few hours so no one else behind them could get a clear view of the ancient ruins without numerous ugly poles in the way, tarnishing the experience somewhat.
Nonetheless, despite realising how social media has altered travelling, the sunrise was still ridiculously beautiful, and the surrounding temples are to be explored at a leisurely place. Different to the gold ornate versions in Thailand, Cambodia’s somewhat untouched temples due to less tourism, make you feel as if you are walking through history and what they once were. The details are not lost, just aged with crumbling stonework over time. The beige temples, contrasted with the lush greenery as we surrounded ourselves with other tourists, many heading to the famed area that was used for filming the Tomb Raider film. Siem Reap is the gateway for many travellers and, whilst worth it for the beautiful temples, is hard to experience without being swept up in tourism that perhaps wasn’t there just years previously.
The middle part of our trip was dedicated to visiting Sihanoukville and the islands near to it, with this stretch of beach where we were met with many beggars and street peddlers as we sat down. One young boy called Gin Gin we met was sweet enough to speak to us, wanting to practice his English with us for 45 minutes, and even putting bracelets on our wrist despite us telling him not to. It was only at the end that he asked us for money, yet one of the warnings we had repeatedly been told is to say no, due to it encouraging their parents to keep them out of school to earn money. So despite how heartbreaking it was to say no, we did, and it was something that stayed with me the most on our trip to the beaches with how sad he looked.
Despite the low moments of the trip so far, the highlight of the country was spent exploring the islands. Koh Ta Kiev, despite not staying there, gave travellers the chance to sleep overnight on the island where there is no internet, just a bar and rooms with hammocks where everyone drinks in the day and then sleeps when the last bit of light hits the island. We explored Naked Beach, stopping at Ten 103 Treehouse for beautiful Mediterranean tapas of cream cheese and balsamic vinegar, blue cheese, bruschetta, tuna and cucumber, olives and salami and cheese for $13. Ridiculously good and the people were so happy to chat about everything in the world as we relaxed with under the sun.
We then met an American man called Johann, the most resilient man we ever met who brewed his own organic absinthe, as well as building his own absinthe distillery which he even broke his back for two weeks doing. He ended up being stuck on the ground for weeks before anyone found him and helped him to create his home again. He sticks out the monsoon season, taking the brunt of the ocean rain that comes close to leveling his treehouse hut. And using 13 organic herbs (whilst most absinthe is inorganic and only used three herbs) that he pays more to import than themselves, he hand-pumps and distills the absinthe using rice wine making 40-80 bottles every 10 days. Chatting to him about his journey and his alcohol, as well as spending the evenings eating indistinguishable canapes of bread and meats in the wooden huts hidden in the jungle were exactly what we had pictured Cambodia to be when we first landed.
Koh Rong Samloem was next to be explored, walking along the beautiful Saracen Bay for most of the day. Watching the pink sunset with music from one of the few bars as we played with some of the adorable puppies, waiting for our BBQed fish to cook, on a comfy hanging chair was one of my favourite memories. For entertainment value, we walked in the squeaky sand that we were recommended to try, the sand of which is so squeaky due to just how unpolluted it is.
The final leg of our trip was to the capital city Phnom Penh, where many go to see the Killing Fields which were part of the Khmer Rouge genocide. As we drive to the killing fields, the stench of rubbish on the street got stronger, as did the dust in our eyes and lungs. Then we got even further out and changed from dirt roads to long, smooth paved Ines, with street lights and massive companies for Khmer beer etc.
Different cultures mourn their dead differently, but the memorials set up were unnervingly uncomfortable. Two of the most haunting were the tower of skulls and the killing trees. The former was created from the graves of the dead, with the tower of skulls encased in a glass building 17 stories high, and the latter was used to kill young infants and children by swinging them at the thick tree trunks. As you go round, it’s spoken of quite clinically, but when you see the decayed bones or huge holes that cover hundreds of people, I found it hard not to cry. Knowing that women raped and beaten, men’s throats slit by sugar cane leaves, babies swung against the Killing tree leaving fragments of skull and brain behind. It’s hard to hear but needed. What got me was how Pol Pot, the leader at the time who ordered the genocide, went to live onto 73 and how the western world didn’t punish him or the Khmer until many years later after they had lived out their lives. Whilst it isn’t prohibited, I never felt comfortable taking photos where just barbaric acts took place and felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable with the tourists snapping away with their cameras. It is so important to experience everything that has shaped the country into what it is today, after the genocide ended up killing over 1 million people living in the country at the time, with such brutality, so despite the experience and the way it left us after the trip, it needs to be seen to understand how much it left the country in tatters.
We briefly headed to Security Prison S-21 as well. What was a school, a place for education was used as a place instead for torture during the genocide, which had boards and boards of faces of those who had been killed. With only seven of the twenty thousand prisoners surviving, it has now been turned into a museum as part of the memorial.
Every day is a beautiful sunset in Asia. Even just sitting on the beach in Sihanoukville with a pancake and smoothie, watching the pink/coral sun go down between the clouds, you could see the silhouettes of women in bikinis and men with backpacks, with the tiny waves continuously crashing and the beach music in the distance but not quite loud enough for the evening yet.