Cambodia is a Southeast Asian country that had never really caught my attention. Though not as busy as Thailand or Vietnam, it is frequently visited by backpackers. From the second my wife, Sarah, and I hopped on that tuk-tuk—the main mode of transport—in the dusty capital of Phnom Penh, we knew this was going to be a trip for the books.
It’s amazing how different countries can be when they share a border. We expected Cambodia to be very similar to Thailand, and even though the climate and landscape are, these two countries couldn’t have been more different. Bangkok, Thailand is a massive city that is home to many multinational companies, huge skyscrapers, and a very modern infrastructure. Phnom Penh, Cambodia is edgy, flat, and intimidating. Phnom Penh is something I hadn’t encountered before. The country is very poor. Most full-time workers make between $60-$100USD per month. Right outside our hotel families were living in cardboard boxes, and tiny children were digging through trash cans with rats scurrying over their feet. Through the poverty, though, the Cambodian people were happy, genuine, and honest. I think that’s what made the trip so wonderful.
We spent our time in Phnom Penh touring the Royal Palace along the riverside, perfecting our haggling skills at the stuffy Russian Market, and learning about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s, which brought us to The Killing Fields, a genocide museum outside of Phnom Penh. This was very humbling for us. The Killing Fields gave us a whole new perspective on Cambodia. Every person we passed on the street, in one way or another, had been affected by the Khmer Rouge. The population before the Khmer Rouge took power was around 8 million. The Khmer Rouge were only in power for four years, and during that period, 2-3 million people were brutally murdered. One in four people were killed, only 35 years ago. Phnom Penh now has multiple museums dedicated to the Genocide, where Cambodians and foreigners alike to join together to learn and pay respect to the millions of people who lost their lives.
After Phnom Penh we made the seven hour, bumpy bus ride to the northern city of Siem Reap. Let’s just say that “bumpy,” was an understatement. The “road,” to Siem Reap was hardly a road.. The traffic in Cambodia is ridiculous.There are almost no road signs or traffic laws. Buses take charge because they are the biggest, and if you’re in the way, well, you don’t get in the way. We breathed a sigh of relief when we got off the bus in Siem Reap, home to the world famous, Angkor Wat. This was the reason we originally wanted to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and it was absolutely breathtaking. We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day and woke up at the crack of dawn to see one of the infamous sunrises over the temples.
The Angkor temples were built in the 11th century and were considered to be pioneering for the times in architecture and detail. It was simply magnificent. The sheer size and detail that went into these temples, and specifically Angkor Wat, was just mind-blowing. We spent the day climbing the steps of the temples and really trying to grasp the architecture of such amazing workmanship.
Our last few days were spent roaming the streets and enjoying the night markets of Siem Reap. Cambodia was about as cheap as it gets. We never went wrong with a 50 cent draught of the local Angkor brew, a one hour full body massage for $3, or a snake on a stick.
Cambodia: a must visit, blew us away.