After a lot of research we decided to travel with only hand luggage and the benefits far outweigh the few cons there may be. We speed through airports and as we are constantly on the move packing has become second nature and takes no time at all. I did have a moment of jealously when I saw a lady chilling with her friend at a cafe wearing light blue skinny jeans, wedges and a floaty camisole top whilst I was into day two of the same t-shirt and shorts that I had already sweated a life time into the day before.
I was thankful for our minimal luggage when we landed at Phnom Penh airport. We’d found a decent priced tuk tuk and were then seriously spoken to about tucking our luggage underneath us and also holding onto it so no one could drive by the tuk tuk and take it.
Our first tourist visit in Phnom Penh was to the genocide museum. A horrific example of what humans are capable of. The converted school where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge inflicted these atrocities is just one of many locations around Cambodia that were used to withdraw false confessions justifying the murdering and dumping of innocent civilians at the nearby killing fields. The classrooms that had become torture chambers display images of how people were bound to the beds so they could be torture. Many rooms hold images of how these people were found once the Khmer Rouge had been over thrown in 1979. Their dead, lifeless bodies captured by people who wanted a reminder that this should never have happened and should never happen again. The floors were darkly stained and your imagination ran wild with sickening scenarios that had already been detailed along the journey through the museum.
So many people were ‘arrested’ and families split up during this time, all under the false accusations of treason. People still visit this museum in the hope of scanning the hundreds of photos held here hoping to trace a lost but not forgotten family member.
Phnom Penh still feels a little like a city under siege. The dirt, the poverty, the feeling of desperateness. But amongst that you meet some incredibly friendly people, who do their best to make you feel comfortable. The influence of French colonialism is still very much present in the architecture and some of the cuisine, baguettes are very popular.
Our next stop was Kampong Cham. Many of the roads in Cambodia have only just been sealed but there are still so many roads that are just mud and dust. We checked into our hotel and were confronted with our windowless room that was just off the main bar, it was certainly strange hearing footsteps very late at night and the scurrying of small feet that I assume belonged to something small and furry just outside our door.
We rented a moped, it was the best and cheapest way to see the sights. On our way to an incredible and bizarre temple on top of a hill we drove past countless wooden huts that were homes, each selling something different out the front and trying their best to catch your attention.
From Kampong Cham we went to Kratie (pronounced kracheh). The further away from the capital we went the more repetitive the dusty roads, the home made shops and the flat sparse land seemed to merge into one.
We also rented a moped in Kratie and on our ride stumbled upon a picnic area in Kampi. Wooden platforms had been raised above the water and held a plethora of colourful hammocks. Families were making their way onto them with cool boxes of food and crates of beer. People young and old were swimming in the Mekong, the place had a joyful holiday feel and was one of the few places around Cambodia that you noticed people enjoying themselves. We were even treated to a some local food from a family on the platform next to us.
From Kratie we then went to Banlung, situated in the north east of Cambodia. The bus journey was dire, cramped into a mini van with luggage, food, as many people as the driver could place on a spare surface, this also didn’t stop him pulling over on the way to squeeze more items or people in, oh and a moped strapped to the back of the van. We arrived 7 hours later hot, sweaty and swearing to never go through that again. We soon found out about the VIP air con buses, that don’t take food, mopeds and everyone gets a seat. Happiness descended.
The lady who informed us about the VIP buses was also a tour guide. She took us around some of the water falls and enlightened us on traditions of the ‘minorities’. We visited the plantations that held rubber trees, cashew trees and the famous pepper plant. Topped off by a swim in the 700,000 year old volcanic, spiritual lake, Yeak Laom. I was a little nervous about bearing all with my bikini, being a majority Buddhist country people generally dressed conservatively, I just spent more time in the water than sunning myself on the wooden deck.
The VIP minivan to Siem Reap was a lot more comfortable, although after driving for a while air con in most vehicles in Cambodia seems non existent as the tin can that you are flying along in heats up slowly under the scorching sun until you find yourself sitting very still and still sweating. I did have a giggle looking at all the westerners climbing aboard and dwarfing the seats on the bus that had obviously been built with petite Cambodians in mind.
Arriving in Siem Reap felt like finding an oasis in the Sahara. I can’t pinpoint what made it feel so comfortable, whether it was the hustle, the abundance of restaurants and coffee stands or just having a variety of life around but something clicked. So much so we immediately decided to extend our stay by three days totalling a 6 night stop over.
I slipped nicely into a daily routine of purchasing an iced coffee from the stand outside our hotel, it’s made with fresh coffee and sweetened condensed milk with loads of ice, heaven in a plastic cup and all for 70 pence.
We bought a 3 day pass to see the temples at The Angkor Archaeological site, cycling each day to the different sites. Whilst Angkor Wat is stunning, visually and in size, my favourites were Ta Prohm with its tree roots intertwined with the brick work of the temple and East Mebon which had stone elephants on each corner and some incredible brick work still in perfect condition.
We wanted to keep a positive image of Cambodia in our heads so decided to cut our trip short and head straight to Vietnam. Our original plan had been to sample the coastal life of Cambodia but experience of the country so far was telling us to move on.
We booked a coach to Phnom Penh for one night, then on to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). We were already so excited about Vietnam and visiting all the places that have been recommended from people who have fallen in love with the country.
Tourism in Cambodia is increasing but not so much that we didn’t get to see what day to day life was like for most people. The rawness of the land was a bit hard to handle at times, however I know this rawness is essentially a luxury experience for me. It is the first time I have been submerged into anything like it and I am not sure there are many places left that offer a chance to see a country just being itself, simply. My brother reminded me it’s a dying world that I sampled and he’s right. In no time Cambodia will have caught up with the tourism trade and there will be no escapes.