We all strive for those precious moments in our life that inexplicably change us forever.
Cambodia quietly embraced my soul and stole my heart. I am forever changed because of this wonderful country and its people.
As a small country in South East Asia, Cambodia has endured years of war, culminating in mass genocide under the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. The regime ruled with a ferocious violence which saw the deaths of millions of men, women and children. Although its history is bleak, Cambodia is slowly growing and prospering under a new generation, and an influx of tourism.
Myself and three friends chose to do a relatively low budget tour through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand both for time convenience, and a bit more of a cultural experience.
Meet the Locals
If you ask anyone what left the deepest impression on them, they will say the Khmer people. Selfless, joyful and so incredibly welcoming, they are the epitome of appreciating even the smallest things in life. From the poorest of villagers, to the hardest of police officers, you will always be greeted with the brightest grin that will warm your heart and capture your soul. Yes, the famous Khmer smile is just as beautiful and infectious as you’ve been told, and leaves you feeling so incredibly welcome.
The absolute highlights of my trip were undoubtedly when I had the opportunity to get off the tourist track and meet the locals. Grab a guide and head out into the countryside to watch the sunset. I had my first ever lesson in quad biking on unsealed, treacherous and muddy roads, dodging people, bikes, cars, and the odd animal. I’ve never had so much fun! We drove through villages, greeted by the beautiful faces of the local children. They ran alongside, barefoot, and laughing, trying to teach me secret handshakes, and competing with who could race me.
We also visited the Angkor Children’s Hospital, to spend time with children suffering from malaria, and their families. I’ve never felt so humbled and touched to be allowed a glimpse into these wonderful people’s lives. They taught me to be grateful for the smallest things, and to always be generous and caring toward others, no matter what your own struggles may be.
Amok, image sourced from Cambodian Cuisines Wiki page
SAMPLE THE LOCAL CUISINES
Traditional Cambodian food is to die for. Get your hands on all the fish Amok, or amazing fried crab meat and rice, that you can. Restaurants are great, but nothing beats finding a small, family owned street stall and sitting down for a meal on the roadside. You’ll find a lot of these places only serve one dish, but that’s half the fun. Sit down, relax, and take the opportunity to learn some of the Khmer language, or help some of the local children practice their English over a lovely meal.
see the sights
Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison, image sourced from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Google+ page
Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison – Phnom Penh
During Pol Pots reign, this former high school was converted into bleak torture and interrogation centre where an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned. These rooms remain relatively untouched, still containing the metal bed frames victims were tied to, their blood still visible on the walls and floor. S-21 also contains a memorial museum with photos of the victims, as well as an in-depth history of the purpose of the prison during the genocide.
Mass graves at Cheoung Ek, image sourced from the Cheoung Ek Wiki page
Killing Fields – Choeung Ek
These are probably the most well known Killing Fields (there are thought to be upwards of 300 more throughout the country), and the majority of those imprisoned in S-21 eventually met their brutal, and violent end here. It is a deeply emotional place. There is nothing quite as confronting as stepping over bone fragments and clothing, often emerging from the ground after heavy rains. A Memorial Stupa, containing the bones of more than 8000 victims, arranged by age and gender was erected in the middle of the grounds. A place to honour the lives of many that were so horrendously cut short.
The day trip out of Angkor is a must, just be prepared with plenty of water, wear conservative, cool clothing. You are going to sweat! Yes, the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the worlds largest religious structure, is everything it is said to be. Get there well before dawn to secure your spot on the lake to watch the magic.
A guide through Angkor, though not an absolute necessity, will help you appreciate the history you are walking into. They also know how to take you from temple to temple off the beaten track, giving you a breather from all the other tourists. Your day can be tailored to suit any level of fitness, from general walking around, to climbing up steep flights of steps, and winding your way through the temples. If you can push past any fear of heights, the views from the top are unbeatable.
General Travel tips for Cambodia
- The US dollar is king here. Have lots of small notes on hand for markets and tipping.
- Only carry what is absolutely necessary for the day. Cambodia is a poor country, where crime can be rife, particularly after dark. Be vigilant, but never paranoid. Don’t flash expensive items or cash, and leave all valuables in the safe at the front desk of your accommodation.
- Dress conservatively at all times, but especially when visiting temples and other holy sites.
- If you are going to cross into Thailand, invest the extra money into a flight. Although the overland option is cheaper, we faced an 8 hour wait standing in the heat, while people fainted around us. How we ended up crossing is a story best left to for after a few drinks.
- Smile. A lot. At everyone. They will always return the sentiment.
This post was submitted by Amanda Pennacchia.
Have you been to Cambodia? Did it steal your heart? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!