INTRODUCTION AND CAVEATS
What follows is a rambling overview of three things that have left a strong impression on me while travelling in Cambodia. Our experience barely dips into what the country has to offer and my attempts to summarize what we’ve seen and done covers only a small portion of the adventures we’ve had. You’re getting a blurry view of a few dim stars in a tiny corner of a moonless night sky, but it’s the best I can do, the equivalent of the first human emerging from his cave into the first truly magnificent summer night, looking up at the star studded beauty and infinite velvet depth of the milky way and then returning to his cave to report his to those still inside with pointing and grunts. Stars, good! Stars bright! With those disclaimers, here’s my attempt to give our time in Cambodia the broad stroke treatment.
Before travelling to Cambodia my knowledge of the country was embarrassingly limited. I knew they suffered heavy casualties during (but not in) the Vietnam war, that they were the most land mined country in history and that there’d been a horrific genocide in the 70’s. None of these depressing bits of information (which are all true) give any indication whether Cambodia would be an interesting or even hospitable place to travel. We’ve now spent a month in the country and the substantial gaps in my knowledge have been (slightly) filled. I can cheerfully report back that Cambodia is a delightful country, with beautiful natural attractions, impressive food and friendly people.
SAFETY AND CAMBODIA
Cambodia has been a very safe place to travel. With the exception of the border crossing, we’ve encountered very few scams and never had a concern for personal safety. Mind you, we always practice basic safety precautions and try to avoid risky situations, but overall Cambodians seem completely honest and upfront about money. As a result a lot of the concerns that dominated my mindset when we first started have been assuaged and I have no problem relaxing and enjoying myself. We have enjoyed tremendous hospitality and honesty at the hands of Cambodia hosts with the exception of one experience:
CROSSING INTO NO-MAN’S LAND
Our first and only significant scam experience was at the Cambodian border crossing. We crossed the border via a bus from Bangkok, a process that involves getting off the bus, getting through the Thai border exit office, through the Cambodian visa office (where we paid our first bribes) and then through the Cambodian border. Once you are ‘stamped out’ of Thailand, you’re in no man’s land where you aren’t legally in either country. This grey area of immigration between two countries occurs on a post-apocalyptic strip of dirt road, half finished construction projects and a host of beggars and scam artists. Women with unconscious and naked children beg on either side of the dirt path leading out of the Thai office. They often drug the children to make them appear ill so they can use them to beg. Men without uniforms (or with partial uniforms) will try to beckon you over, tell you something is wrong with your paperwork, fill out new paperwork for you and try to charge you outrageous sums of money. Some will demand to see your passport and then extort you to get it back. These scams and dangers are all easily avoided by a few Google searches and common sense, but I saw more than one group of travellers follow a man into an alley simply because he’d waved them down. Several tried to stand in front of me, making hand gestures indicating they needed to see my paperwork. If I’d cooperated at best I’d be out twenty dollars and at worst I’d be stuck between countries without a passport, with the description of the scam artist as the hopelessly unspecific “Thai or Cambodian man with a hat and an old army uniform shirt”. Instead I politely said no and stepped around them. They give up right away because the next bus is arriving any minute, with the promise of unprepared tourists and easy money.
Once we ran the gauntlet of scam artists and con men inhabiting the broken concrete and dirt no man’s land, we were herded into the Cambodian visa office, which is a large decrepit building with a single teller style window. Seven or eight paunchy men in newer military uniforms milled around the counter, taking passports, visa paperwork, and most importantly, the 100 baht “fee” that was our first bribe. Once we made it out of the Visa office, it was across another dirt street post-apocalyptic border town stretch, this time populated with extremely aggressive child beggars. (quick aside, it’s never a good idea to give to child beggars. By paying them you are not feeding hungry children, you are continuing to enable a system that encourages children to drop out of school to beg. Additionally, child beggars are often working for larger, shady organisations that take advantage of them). Once we made it through that heart wrenching crucible, we stood in line, got our visas stamped and made it back on the bus and were ready to go. It was a shocking experience, but the unsafe portions were entirely avoidable by a half savvy traveler.
Since this border crossing, we’ve had no bad experiences and I’ve never felt concerned for our safety. This general feeling of safety is daily encouraged by the decency, compassion and honesty of the Cambodian people. If you negotiate a price for a tuk tuk ride or an item, that’s what you pay. I’ve had Cambodians chase me down in the street to give me the change when I’ve miscounted my riel (Cambodian currency is 4000 riel to 1 USD with notes from 100-20,000 riel which all look more or less the same) and overpaid. Shops leave their wares outside on the street and seem to trust in the common decency that they won’t be stolen. Everyone leaves their shoes outside restaurants and shops and they’re always where you left them. Bicycles on kick stands are parked in the street without being locked to anything and helmets hang from scooter handles or tuk tuks all day without any fear of them being lost. Deliveries of goods are left on doorsteps for the owners who’ve stepped out for a few minutes. For a society with almost zero police or military presence after crossing the border, there is a general order and trust that seems absolutely impossible and foreign to an Albuquerquean.
This sense of safety and trust has allowed us to really relax and enjoy the country. You don’t worry that the person approaching you in the street is trying to scam you. You don’t worry that the guy walking behind you is an opportunistic pick pocket and I’ve never worried that our tuk tuk ride is going to end somewhere we don’t want to go. In Bangkok we spent several hours with an ex-monk who attributed the decency of the people to their Buddhist beliefs, specifically the karmic idea that harm done to others will come back to them in a very real way. I don’t know enough to say one way or another with any authority, but it doesn’t seem to me that people are motivated to decency by fear of future punishment. Rather, they seem contented with what they have. They have a strong family structure and a sense of belonging in their world. They seem invested in their communities. They seem mindful and happier than most people I see everyday at home. This isn’t to say Cambodia doesn’t have problems; the entire host of third world problems afflict the country and we have a series of posts about our encounters on the poverty and suffering here. But in spite of all those problems the Cambodian people maintained a culture that brings out some of the best traits in humanity and I can’t help but think that if everyone at home could live like this for a little while, or at least see how these people live, we’d all be a little better off.
In addition to the delightful people, Cambodia sports some of the most impressive temples and ruins in the world. The largest and most important site is Angkor Wat, (it’s recognizable towers adorn the national flag and Angkor brand beer is to Cambodia what Coca Cola and Budweiser combined are to American culture) a giant temple complex outside Siem Reap. Watching the sun rise over giant, thousand year old temples, built with craggy sandstone by an ancient and largely unknown culture forces you to acknowledge that your worldview is small. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century, around the same time as the Third crusade and just before Genghis Khan was born. It’s stood in the jungle every day since, largely unchanged by time, an ozymandian monument to the vast swaths of history and culture that I’ve only recently been exposed to. As you watch the sky slowly lighten while you stand in the darkness below the looming quincunx of black and craggy towers you realize you’re small and your time is short. Angkor Wat has been standing for centuries before I was born and will continue to stand long after I’m gone.
But it isn’t just the age of Angkor Wat that leaves the impression of staring down a dark well of unknown depth. It’s the sheer alienness of it to western eyes. The bizarre geometry and knuckle-like spires look vaguely menacing in the early morning darkness. The bas relief devatas, stare inscrutably from the interior walls, minor deities from a vanished culture that I don’t understand. Long halls are guarded by numerous headless buddhas and naga, worn smooth and broken by time. Intricate detail work preserves the faces and machinations of eastern gods whose histories and names I’ve never encountered. Bas relief murals almost seventy meters long and containing tens of thousands of hand carved figures recount the the battles and kings otherwise completely unknown to history. These kings and battles occupy that grey unknown between mythology and a destruction so complete only their greatest monuments remain, alien and inscrutable without the rosetta stone of any other contemporaneous accounts.
Standing in the predawn mist you feel temporarily unmoored from the modern world. The curtain of time slips aside temporarily and for a brief moment you can see the ancient world of dark jungles, kings, bloody wars, now extinct societies, all under the silent watch of the ancient, looming spires of Angkor Wat. After my visit, I understand why Angkor Wat is on the Cambodian Flag, on t-shirts, paintings and beer cans. It hovers on the horizon of the Cambodian cultural consciousness and visitors can’t help but feel its weighty shadow.
In addition to Angkor Wat there are other iconic temple ruins in Cambodia. We visited several but three stand out in my mind: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and the Baphuon. Each temple is awe inspiring in it’s own right and if they were not in the figurative and literal shadow of Angkor Wat, they would each deserve their own historic and national fame. However, their cumulative impact only strengthens the sense that you are wandering in an ancient and unknown world.
Angkor Thom is a magnificent pile of blackened sandstone, partially reclaimed by the jungle. Time and aggressive undergrowth have toppled large portions of the temple, but the main wat still stands six or so stories tall. Giant stone faces, eight feet tall and built of sandstone slabs the size of suitcases stare out at the thousands of tourists who scurry across the ruins like ants.
Ta Prohm, located a few kilometers away, is completely overrun by the sweeping roots of banyan trees. The temple, swathed in mists, is the mind’s eye version of ruins as first seen by western explorers. Dark, abandoned and mostly reclaimed by the jungle. Ta Prohm was featured in the first Tomb Raider film (as was Angkor Wat) for this very reason. So, if you need an excuse to rewatch that 2001 piece of cinema gold, you now have one. Just know that we’ve stood where Lara Croft falls through the floor in the jungle temple and that the village around Angkor Wat was built entirely for the movie.
The Baphuon is several kilometers from Angkor Wat and is reached by a hundred yard walkway raised about eight feet from the jungle floor. A tall, multistoried block pyramid design has helped the temple stand and visitors are allowed to climb to the top via a series of incredibly steep stairs. The back side of the temple features a seventy meter reclining buddha built emerging like a relief carving from the black limestone bricks. Each of these temples alone would be worth the trip to Cambodia but taking them all in at once leaves you in a punchdrunk awe, standing in the shadows of forgotten ancients, trying vainly to get a sense of perspective and scale.
FOOD FOOD FOOD!
One practical concern of travelling, especially budget travelling is food and accommodations and when you make the trip to a new country you can’t help but worry that the food will be unappetizing, expensive and gastroenteritis inducing. I can happily report that this concern is unnecessary in Cambodia. Khmer cuisine is delicious and inexpensive and their western style foods are often better than they are at home. Traditional Khmer food is typical asian dishes, but with a european flair due to French colonialism. This means lots of fresh baguettes and savory dishes. Khmer curries, noodle and rice based dishes, fresh seafood and lok-lak (thin sliced beef pan seared and served with veggies and hot spices) are available at any restaurant. One afternoon we scootered to the small coastal town of Kep and worked our way through six kilos of fresh crab for eight people. We were able to see the crabs before they cooked them as they’d been caught that day and were in large buckets right at the edge of the market, overlooking the Chhak Kep Bay. Sofia ate whole fried fish on coconut rice for breakfast in Siem Reap and every curry dish was accompanied with fresh baguettes. I’ve become a soup aficionado, sampling the sumptuous and inexpensive soups available everywhere. In addition to traditional khmer food, almost every place offers western food and it is surprisingly good. We ate genuinely delicious mexican food in Sihanoukville and in Kampot. Their salsa was different but still spicy, their meat and beans were good and their chips were amazing. We’ve had great sushi and burgers. We ate six times at a wood fired pizzeria on the island of Koh Rong Samloem. In Kampot we had some of the best pork ribs and mash potatoes I’ve ever tasted. At first I felt I should try to stick to local foods, but when an expat who’s been living here for years recommends a pizza place, you’ve got to try it. You’re also going to eat in relative comfort because, unlike Thailand, Cambodia doesn’t have much in the way of streetfood. Instead there are countless small restaurants and every guesthouse has a full kitchen and, due to lack of any kind of alcohol regulation, a bar. So instead of eating at a food cart while sitting on a plastic chair literally in the road as trucks roar by (which I did and loved in Chinatown, Bangkok) you’re inside, usually with fans and tablecloths. Even though you’re in a resturant food is cheap, with meals starting around two dollars and getting up to eight or nine in fancier places. So, whether you want something from home or want to try something new and local, good food isn’t more than a short walk and a few dollars away.
In my mind Cambodia has gone from a stop on the way to bigger things to one of the highlights of travel so far. The amazing sights and experiences, the delicious and diverse food and Cambodian culture have opened up a world of experiences that I’m going to reflect on for a long time. I hope to take some of that home with us and let it inform how we choose to live our lives. That is the true value of travel and Cambodia has a lot of value to impart. So book a flight to Phnom Penh, buy a sleeper bus ticket to Sihanoukville, take a long tail boat to Koh Rong and back and ride a motorbike to the top of Bokor national forest. It’ll make you a better person and you’ll have a great time. The stars are good and they are bright and you’ve got to see them for yourself.