Cambodia is a very stigmatised nation, mention its name to anyone and you think of a Vietnam-war like scenario with starving children or the closed country ruled by the despot Pol Pot and his murderous Khymer Rouge.
Today though, Cambodia is trying to forget its painful past and rebuild a nation that was almost totally destroyed by the effects of US bombing raids in the seventies and the subsequent genocide and rape of the cities by the Khymer Rouge.
Still mainly a land of jungle surrounding the mighty Mekong River, Cambodia is now high on the lists of must see destinations when a vote is organised by the likes of Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide. It’s like Thailand might have been in the seventies and a backpacker’s heaven. Few specific sights of interest exist but those that do, more than make up for the dearth of sights elsewhere.
The prime tourist attraction of the country is Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple complex on earth. It was also the largest pre-industrial city in the world and the home of the capitals of several empires from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Sadly, the ruins are very much at risk from looting, a declining water table destabilising the structures and the burden of uncontrolled tourism. Whilst UNESCO is fighting these battles on all sides, they are battles that aren’t being won. It’s worth getting a guide for your visit. They aren’t expensive and you’ll learn much more than your guide book will tell you. Allow at least a couple of days for your visit for which the best time of year to avoid humidity and heat is from November to February although typically, this is the busiest time.
If you’re looking for beautiful beaches but with some infrastructure to help you get there, stay there and pass the time, you have only Sihanoukville to choose from. It has an interesting and, as with the rest of Cambodia, tragic history, starting in 1950 as the site for a deep sea port and alongside the fine beach, a posh hotel called the Independence. Hosting the rich and famous before the war started, Sihanoukville was almost completely destroyed by the Khymer Rouge and the US Air Force after an American container ship was attacked there. After the war, getting to Sihanoukville was very dangerous because of poor roads which were the haunt of bandits. Today, it has better facilities but the beauty is now spoiled by massive construction projects and the beach is a dangerous place at night because of gangs and drug addicts.
Kampot is another great place to visit. With the city set back from the river, the shoreline is the playground of tourists where you can walk, eat, drink or just enjoy the view. The city is also a good base if you want to visit the Bokor National Park.
Finally, spend some time in the capital, Phnom Penh. There’s not too much of interest there as much of its history was destroyed in the 70s and 80s whilst post-strife reconstruction has defaced the city with high rise concrete. You should still try to get to see the National Museum for a potted history of the country, warts and all, although much of it is still sanitised. After the museum, head for the Royal Palace grounds which contain the Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. There are many other temples of varying attractiveness in the city and whilst you may be tempted to take the riverside walk between them, beware of groups of youths at night for muggings are common.
Cambodian food isn’t known for its quality and taste and relies heavily on the staple foods of the country; rice and pork. Cambodians like sour tastes and many of the dishes involve sweet and sour or hot and sour flavours. Still the food is hearty and cheap – you can ask for little more in such a poor country.
Getting into Cambodia is becoming easier with the developing holiday trade and direct flights into Phnom Penh can be taken from Paris. Sometimes it can be worth taking a flight into Thailand and travelling across the border or flying direct to Bangkok and transferring from there.
Be aware that you’ll need a visa to get into Cambodia. They can be purchased in advance or upon arrival although you will have to queue and are often subject to extra ‘charges’ if your documents aren’t quite right. You’ll need passport photos for your visa which should cost between £20 and £30 depending on how much of the process you do yourself.
Travelling around Cambodia is getting easier. With World Bank money, the road system is being improved and the airports which had been closed for decades are slowly reopening. Distances are such in Cambodia that air travel is a cheap and time saving way of getting around whilst Helistar Cambodia offer routes across the country by helicopter linking all the major cities.
Trains haven’t operated since 2009 but again the government are working hard to repair the dangerous state of the rail system. It’s unlikely they’ll reopen for several more years but when they do they’ll offer a different choice. On a rather hilarious note, you can catch the private ‘bamboo train’ or noris. They are roughly built but considered safe and are fun to use. They run from Battambang to Phnom Penh and around Battambang.
Taxis are popular and cheap means of transport but are considered as dangerous with numerous fatal accidents involving them each year, particularly in the city. Motorcycle taxis are a great way to get around if you’re travelling singly and can be a breakneck way of navigating the cities.
Buses should be avoided if you look at the number of bus crashes on main roads each month. Drivers are often untrained or drunk and hundreds of passengers die each year.
Between cities, roads are generally poor with many of them no more than dirt tracks more suited to a trail bike than a car. Again, the government are working hard to open new roads and repair old ones and it’s difficult to know which routes have usable roads.
Cambodia is one of the last countries to be ‘rediscovered’ in Asia. It won’t be too long before it’s as commercialised as Thailand so see it whilst you can. Be prepared to have to rough it on times and you will rarely encounter five star accommodation and service. That said, you’ll have an adventure you’ll never forget so grab that guide book, organise your plane ticket and hire car and set off into the great lesser known!