Cambodia is a Kingdom, at least in name. I saw only bits and pieces of this truly wonderful place, but what I was able to absorb was…incredible. Cambodia’s beauty and majesty are even more impressive when we consider it’s painful past, a past that lingers on the borders of perception, waiting for tourists to turn away from ancient temples and cheap massages. I think that it is important to honestly confront Cambodia’s troubled past before we discuss its pleasant present.
Not even 40 years ago, the Khmer Rouge cut Cambodia’s population in half in the space of four long years. Millions were killed, and some of the camps created to institutionalize this mass murder have been preserved as strangely peaceful memorials. On our last day in Cambodia we journeyed to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. At the Killing FIelds you are guided by the voices of Cambodians, some survivors, directly and in translation. These guides walk you around the painfully compact space, telling you how a segment of the population systematically and brutally killed their fellows. Decimation is not an appropriate word; decimation is the removal of approximately ten percent of a chosen population. This holocaust, the perpetrators of which have still not all faced justice, devastated a country and a people that are still recovering.
Ok, serious feels out of the way, we should talk about why Cambodia is the place I would most recommend to my fellow travelers. First: the beer. Seriously, if you get the chance to try Angkor or Cambodia brand beer, do it. I’m not much of a wordsmith, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, a flavor is worth at least fifteen-hundred.
Second: the food! Entering Cambodia I didn’t expect much out of the food. I figured there would be some derivative SE Asian/Asian style food–rice, noodles, you get the picture. I was wrong. Beef seems to be pretty common in Cambodia (it’s not as common in China), and every Khmer style dish I ate was cooked just right and usually smothered in a tasty sauce that was something between a barbecue and sweet and sour. It was unexpected, delicious, and cheap as can be.
Which brings me to my third point: prices. Cambodia operates on a bizarre dual-currency system, where US dollars are used alongside the local riel. The average meal for two, with a couple beers, sat between 10 and 20 dollars. This was expanded to travel; we took a boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap that was actually pretty pricey ($35 US each, yikes!) but caught a bus back for the low low price of $7. We rented bikes to trek around Angkor Wat for $1.50 a day, hotels for between $20 and $30, and rides around town on tuk tuks for similarly low rates. Had I been in the mood for a massage and the inevitable sexual proposition, I could have received an hour for under $10. The prices for goods are low, and you can haggle them lower if you’re determined.
Of course, low prices don’t mean much if the people you give your money to are a bunch of huge jerks. Fortunately, in Cambodia, they aren’t. Especially in Siem Reap, just about everyone was all smiles, with each other and with tourists. Even the people working at the stalls were happy, laughing while we drove prices down from not much to very little. In the circumstances where you spend maybe more than you should, you don’t feel bad because the people are so warm and welcoming. English can be a little tricky here and there, but nearly everyone we talked to could speak enough to get us around or sell us some unnecessary (but enjoyable) junk. I felt comfortable there, despite being obviously foreign, in a way that I just don’t feel very often.
We spent five nights in Cambodia, three in Siem Reap and two in Phnom Penh. We enjoyed Siem Reap a little more; it felt like a small town with all the attractions of a small city. Lots of food within walking distances, a couple markets that were open late, and (of course) Angkor Wat only a twenty to thirty minute bike ride away. Phnom Penh is a larger city, and that’s reflected in our experience there–busier, dirtier, and a little bit more serious. Still, both places are wonderful destinations, and there’s nowhere in SE Asia that I’d recommend more for an authentic experience. Go, look, eat, drink, and don’t come back empty-handed.