Cambodia had been on my travel bucketlist ever since I read ‘First they killed my father’ last year. The conflicting stories I heard from other parents just made me more dedicated to see and experience it for myself. Some people (like me) love Cambodia, others hated it. I think it takes a bit of time to grow on you. And if you rush through and only visit Siem Reap, you won’t get to see the best side of Cambodia. The poor, dirty, still recovering from war, but so so beautiful side. The smiling, loving people who have had to endure so much. The stunning landscapes, from mountains to beaches. The magic that makes Cambodia so cool. After the relative comfort, prosperity and touristicness of Vietnam, Cambodia’s shitty roads, shitty buses and shitty hostels were a breath of fresh air. That rugged, down in the dirt kind of travel that I love. Sure, traveling in Cambodia isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, but it is so worth it. Here are a few things you should know before you go and see it for yourself:
1. You won’t see many old people
Unlike in other South East Asia countries, where you frequently see lovely, ancient looking people, you might notice a lack of elderly people around in Cambodia. The reason for this is actually really grim. From 1975 to 1979 the tyrannous Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot tortured, starved and executed 2 million Cambodians. Especially elderly and young kids didn’t survive the brutal conditions of forced farm work. I was shocked that I had never learned about this horrible genocide in school when I read the book ´First they killed my father´ last year, a memoir from a girl who survived the Khmer Rouge. I highly recommend reading this book or watching the movie. To learn more about this dark time in Cambodian history you can visit the SL21 prison where opponents of the Khmer Rouge and just innocent people were held and tortured and the killing fields where they were executed in Phnom Penh.
2. It is a poor but developing country
Even before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was a poor country with frequent famines. But the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge left it in complete shambles. It has taken a while, but Cambodia has recovered a lot since then. Foreign aid and increased tourism have supported the economy, but the biggest influx of money comes from Chinese investment. You’ll see construction sites everywhere, especially in tourism hotspots such as Sihanoukville.
Even with the development underway, there is still a stark contrast between Cambodia and neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. I noticed it as soon as I crossed the border with Vietnam, and not just because our bus broke down (welcome to Cambodia!). The quality of streets ranges from okay to downright disastrous with potholes and gravel patches appearing out of nowhere on the highway. Don’t be surprised to see many people living in ramshackle buildings and even slums. But the worst of it is the trash. It is literally everywhere; in the rivers, on the side of the streets, pilled up next to buildings. Truly heartbreaking.
I’m working on a post about sustainable tourism and travel, I’ll post a link here when it’s done. Until then: do what you can to minimize your waste and don’t add to the ruin of Cambodian nature!
Don’t expect much luxury or comfort anywhere in Cambodia, hostels are often shabby and buses range from okay to a fresh kind of hell. But hey, that’s the charm of travel right?
3. You’ll be very confused about money
In Vietnam, I got very tired of people trying to rip me off, sell me things and overcharge me. In Thailand many locals seemed annoyed with tourists (who can blame them). But in Cambodia and Laos, the atmosphere was very different. Both countries are poor and developing and tourism is an important, relatively new, source of income. Locals are still happy to host tourists and travelers and the people that travel to Cambodia tend to be the more serious backpackers, rather than family vacations or partying teenagers. Contrary to my expectations, Cambodia was actually more expensive than Vietnam (but still cheap). They quote you reasonable prices, so you don’t need to bargain much and a lot of people that approach you are happy to just have a chat even if you don’t intend to buy anything from them, especially in less touristic places like Battambang and Kampot. Expect to pay more for less in Cambodia than other South East Asian countries. It also feels more expensive because everything is quoted in USD. Cambodia, confusingly, uses a dual currency system. They accept and pay with USD as well as their own currency: Riel. The upside is that you don’t need to exchange money and the ATM’s give out USD, so if you’re American, you won’t have to pay conversion fees. However, it also means calculating two currencies at once. 1 USD is about 4000 Riel, so you’ll often pay with a combination of USD and Riel or pay in a combination of the two. And because USD is a foreign currency, all damaged bills have to be send back to the US to be taken out of circulation. Which means that they are devalued in Cambodia and businesses will accept nothing less than clean, crisp new bills.
4. Cambodians eat everything
I would describe Cambodian cuisine as a mix of Thai and Vietnamese. You’ll find South East Asian staples such as fried rice and noodles on every restaurant menu as well as Pad Thai, curry and western dishes. Typical Cambodian dishes include Amok (a curry dish) and sour soup, as well as more exotic dishes such as frog legs. In fact, Cambodians have no qualms eating frogs, bugs, rats and dog. But don’t worry, these ‘unusual’ meats are rarely served in restaurants. Cambodians also eat a lot of baguette, but they’re not as good as the ones in Vietnam. I preferred the crispy bread in Vietnam over the soft baguettes in Cambodia. Surprisingly, you can get a lot of quality Indian food in Cambodia, due to a significant number of Indian immigrants. You’ll also find Western dishes, but these are rarely the best thing on the menu.
For vegetarians it’s easiest to stick with fried rice and noodles, or pay a bit more for vegetarian versions of Cambodian dishes as veggie street food is hard to find.
5. There is so much more than just Angkor Wat
Sure, Angkor Wat is the most famous place in Cambodia and it is undeniably beautiful, but there is so much more to see. A lot of people blast through Cambodia in a few days, only stopping in Pnohm Penh and Siem Reap, but that is such a waste. Cambodia deserves your full time and attention and it is really worth stepping out of the tourist bubble to see the ‘real’ Cambodia. So take your time, use the full month of your tourist visa and check out my favourite places in Cambodia.
Are you planning a trip to Cambodia? Do you have any questions or anything to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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