If you follow me on facebook you probably know by now that Cambodia was one of my LEAST favorite places to be. 10 days there was about 9 too many and I struggled to stay positive while we were there. It wasn’t all bad of course and we saw what we came to see, but we certainly wouldn’t make a return trip back here. But let’s try to keep things positive for a moment here and talk about the good.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
You’d be hard pressed to make your way to Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple during the Khmer Empire, it gradually transitioned into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. That’s right, the 12th century. What these people were able to construct with their hands far surpasses anything that we today can construct by machine or hand. It’s that awe-
elements of Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom (site where Tombraider was filmed), Bantaey Kdei, and some of the smaller temples (Terrace of the Elephants, Baphoun, Terrace of the Leper Kings and Sras Srang) Most return to Angkor Wat or Phnom Baekang for sunset. We wouldn’t know because by about 3pm we were all wat-ted out. Our tuk-tuk driver was completely un enthused about driving us from temple to temple (i’m sure he does this route daily) and through his broken English he could barely tell us what temple we were at, let alone provide any details. So, our best tip to you would be: BRING A GUIDE BOOK if you want to know what you’re looking at. You also don’t have to cram all of Angkor into one day, and you can buy a multi-day pass for $40, but honestly, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all. As the saying goes in Asia… ” Same Same, but different”.
The Killing fields make up a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. Why then, do I list this under the Good of Cambodia? Much like visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland or Dachau in Germany, it’s imperative to understand these events in history. I knew very little of the Cambodian Genocide before we visited Choeung Ek , a former orchard, now housing the mass graves of those killed by the Khmer Rouge, located just outside of Phnom Penh. Today Choeung Ek serves as a memorial site for the lives lost. Mass graves containing over 9,000 bodies were found here and it is not uncommon for fragments of bone and cloth to be seen along the pathways, especially during the rainy season. The audiotour is the most
comprehensive tour we have ever taken and it is heartbreaking, listening to survivor stories while walking on the grounds. “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” A quote taken from a survivor at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but fitting and poignant and Choeung Elk, and for that reason, it is a place to visit while you are in Cambodia. I’d also highly recommend a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Prison, which, once a high school served as the notorious S-21 security prison during the Khmer Rouge. Its here where many of the higher ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were imprisoned and tortured, before being taking to Choeung Ek to be executed. Over 17,000 prisioners were held here, yet only 12 managed to survive. The photos of the prisoners and their written stories are very graphic, but again, definitely worth a visit
Koh Rong Sanloem
There are quite a few islands off of Cambodia’s coast that are still unspoiled by mass tourism, and we visited one before it falls victim. We knew nothing about the islands, until we met a couple from Amsterdam while in Hanoi who told us what a great time they had on Koh Rong Sanloem, an island basically devoid of electricity, wi-fi is non existent and walking through the jungle to reach your beach bungalow is just the norm. So, on a wing and a prayer, we set off for Koh Rong Sanloem, to a brand new hostel, where a bungalow right on the beach will only set you back $15/night. Don’t expect luxury, just cozy digs, a fan, mosquito netting, and electricity in your room only from 5pm-6am. An incredible lounge area complete with hammocks (my favorite) bean bag chairs, music, food and drinks and we were set for 3 days. We watched a large storm blow in and soak the island for a day, read a few books in the comfort of our hammocks, chilled out in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand and unplugged for a few days. A little spot of paradise, which we needed after the rough start we had arriving in Cambodia. Which brings me to the bad.
This city is like the armpit of Cambodia. It’s dirty and dank. There was nothing friendly about being here. There was no redeeming factor in our 2 days spent in Phnom Penh. From our disgusting rooms in 2 separate hotels, to the tuk-tuk drivers trying to rip you off, to the price of everything being double that of Vietnam for 1/2 of the quality. It was just AWFUL. There’s no attractions to see here, aside from the Killing fields, some 17km outside the city. Cambodian riel is almost non-exsistent and everyone deals in the good ol American dollar. The people, at least the ones we came into contact with were lacking the friendly gene. I have nothing good to say about Phnom Penh and would avoid this city like the plague. And, as luck would have it, we were trying hard to get out of this crappy city, our bus complelty blew a tire and we were left stranded on the side of the road for an hour before a replacement bus came. It was actually a blessing because it gave me some reprieve from listening to the blokes behind me, which I’ll tell you more about under the UGLY side of Cambodia.
Cambodia is one of, if not THE MOST corrupt country in all of Asia Don’t take my word for it, just read the report from Transparency International. Hell, just walk out on the street and see for yourself. If you make it out of the airport without getting greased by the Customs officials, consider yourself lucky. ” Tip, Tip”, they say, as they rub their thumb and forefinger together. They typically tend to target Chinese tourists, but if you look like you’ve got a few extra bucks on you, you’ll be targeted too. Riding along in a tuk-tuk? Don’t be surprised if your driver gets pulled over and slips the cop a few singles so he can continue on his merry way. The cops in Cambodia PAY to become cops. Why? Because they can make a LOT of money extorting everyone around them. How deep does corruption run, you ask? Well, let’s get down to the UGLY
Sex Tourism and The exploitation of young children and women by Western Men
Nothing, and I mean nothing prepared me for the disgust and outward reprehensible sight of old Western men walking around with prepubescent boys and tween girls. A friend we made in Vietnam warned us of this, told us how blatant it is to see on the streets, and how you eventually become numb to it and you don’t even notice it. Well, I noticed it, and for 2 weeks straight I noticed it everywhere I went. I read articles about mothers selling their daughters virginity to high-ranking government officials, watched undercover documentaries about Swiss men who go to child brothels and pick out which one they want for the day. However, I hit my max when, on a 7 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I listened to 2 pigs from the UK discuss the prostitutes they had paid for the night before ($20/hr- in case you were wondering) what ethnicity each one was (one really likes Vietnamese girls, the other likes young Cambodian girls) and they proceeded to carry on…and on….and on about their nights with these women and what they were hoping to find once they got to Siem Reap. Did I mention these 2 blokes just met on the bus and less than five minutes in they were each sharing their sex stories. At one point, one of the guys listening intently on what the other one did with his prostitute called him a “naughty naughty boy’ and chuckled loudly. I almost lost my lunch. So, I stewed about it, I put in my headphones and tried to drown them out, but I worked myself up so much that I finally turned around and let them have it. No holds bar, I wailed on them, loud enough for the entire bus to hear me call them out on their repugnant actions. When one of the pigs tried to interrupt me (you DO NOT tell me to Shut the F up), I just carried on louder than before making sure that he and everyone else on the bus became brutally aware that SEX TOURISM is illegal and that both are disgraces against mankind. Mike dragged me off the bus once he thought I had given them enough of an earful but since they carried on for 7 hours, I could have kept going. Tit for tat. Sure it made me feel better, and maybe just maybe, these 2 pigs will think twice about exploiting these women, but these 2 are only a drop in the bucket. It’s a huge countrywide problem and no one seems to be doing a damn thing about it. When your government is as corrupt as it is in Cambodia, its damn near impossible to dig yourself out of that mess.
So, that, my friends, was Cambodia in a nutshell. We’ve seen some pretty vile things and experienced some pretty vile people while we’ve been travelling, but Cambodia really takes the cake. So, sorry but not sorry, you definitely won’t find me making a return trip here.