Of the South East Asian countries that I was due to visit earlier this year, Cambodia was the one I was most excited about. For it’s small size, Cambodia packs a punch. Spending a week here was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster – exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, coming face-to-skull with the country’s turbulent history of genocide at the Killing Fields, and finally heading to the coast at Sihanoukville for some island living. It was weird.
5. Pnomh Penh
I’ll be honest: Pnomh Penh didn’t exactly blow me away. I spent three nights here, the longest time I spent at any place on my travels. Though this was mainly due to onward plans and scheduling, it still felt too long. First the good: like many capital cities in Asia, Pnomh Penh has a Royal Palace which is definitely worth a look. Though impressive, we didn’t bother with the audio guide and so played a bit of “I guess this was maybe the king’s bedroom? Or something”, which is obviously every tired expat’s favourite game.
It also was boiling hot, so we didn’t linger. Second: the S21 Prison and The Killing Fields are vital for any tourists visiting Pnomh Penh, but I’ll get onto them a bit later as they deserve their own part. Third: the nightlife. This was one of my main bugbears with Pnomh Penh. There’s no bar street as there is with Siem Reap, and the bars we did encounter were more American style grungey dive bars. Maybe it’s just bad luck, but something about the city at night felt very seedy. By the last night we were perfectly content to have some beers in our hostel and go to bed.
4. Siem Reap
Siem Reap is kind of the opposite to Pnomh Penh. Unlike Pnomh Penh, it has a pub street, which is called such and very clearly signposted. As you’d expect though from the jumping off point to Angkor Wat (pretty much one of the main things to do in Cambodia), it is packed with tourists. Apart from the bars, there’s not much to see in the city itself and prices for food and things like taxis, can be expensive. Best advice is to get straight to the temples in the day and return home for extensive drinking in the evening whilst looking through your day’s photos.
The best advice I can offer for these places, especially if doing both in a day, is to mentally prepare. The S21 prison in Pnomh Penh saw the torture and execution of thousands of “political” prisoners by the brutal Khmer Rouge in the late seventies. In reality, most of these people had committed no crime at all; many times, even relatives of accused opponents of Pol Pot’s regime were incarcerated. This could range from great grandmothers to young children. The prison itself is a large concrete building filled with empty rooms housing information, posters and pictures of torture victims on it’s walls. When the regime finally fell, only 12 people were released from the prison alive.
The Killing Fields:
The moment you step off the bus, and walk through the entrance to The Killing Fields, you feel weird. What started off as a Chinese owned farm on the outskirts of Pnomh Penh, became the last place that thousands of people met a grisly end at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. The exact number of the people who died here is still not fully known. I’d recommend the audio guide, which can give you more perspective and context about Pol Pot’s regime and the Cambodian genocide in general. You’ll pass countless gravesites, a tree which was chosen specifically to kill infants, and finally, be confronted by a huge tower of skulls in the museum each one with a colour coded sticker to inform you exactly how they were killed. Again, this is not a sight for the faint of heart, but it’s one of the most important and necessary things to do in Cambodia.
2. Koh Rong
I never knew that Cambodia had beaches. I know that’s a completely vapid thing to say – it’s got a coastline after all, right? But what appealed to me about Cambodia was the history and archaeology, not boring beach stuff. Well, after visiting Koh Rong, I knew I’d been proven…incorrect.
Koh Rong can be reached by a ferry from Sihanoukville. When you first arrive, you’re met with a line of beach bars and guest houses. Dont let it fool you. I thought of Koh Rong as what some Thai islands must have been like 20 years ago; there are no roads on the island, the jungle is relatively untouched, and the lack of light pollution on the island makes the blue, phosphorescent plankton visible in the water almost every night. Koh Rong can be as active or relaxing as you want. There’s plenty of secluded and quiet spots, as well as all-night bars and parties on the beach . My highlight was the appropriately named High Point Adventure Park, where you can dodge monkeys, zipline and get an incredible view of the islands coast.
1. Angkor Wat
I mean, obviously. Angkor Wat was the reason I came to Cambodia, and it didn’t disappoint. Each temple looks like something out of a film, bricks crumbling away, vines and tree roots creeping around the buildings, butler following you around (lock him in the freezer).
Starting off at the eponymous temple (I’d really recommend hiring a guide for this – you shouldn’t pay more than about 8$ per person), which by the way is MASSIVE, we made an entire day of exploring the nearby complexes such as Angkor Thom and Bayon. The area is huge, and you’ll need at least a day to see all of it. By hiring a tuk tuk through your hostel, you can visit each temple with your trusty driver sitting outside waiting to take you to the next destination.
There’s not much more descriptions I can give for this place. The pictures say it all.