10 Reasons to Fall in LOVE with Cambodia

When I first started out on my trip to Cambodia, I had planned to see Angkor Wat and then head back to my home in Bangkok. Instead, I ended up falling completely and hopelessly in love with Cambodia! My planned couple of days turned into weeks, which then turned into a whole month, and I was still sad to go. It remains my absolute favorite country I’ve visited thus far, and I can’t wait for a chance to return! I’ve decided to compile my ultimate top 10 reasons to fall in love with Cambodia… so what are you waiting for?!

 

1. All Things Angkor

Angkor Wat Cambodia

There’s no getting around the fact that Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s ultimate national symbol. It’s a historical masterpiece, dauntingly massive, creating that unmistakable skyline against the rising or setting sun. While it’s totally a must-see, and even more amazing in person, the mystique and allure are slightly overtaken by the sheer masses of tourists hanging on in throngs around you. Not to worry!

Few people realize, until arriving, just how massive the Angkor complex really is. There are countless temples crumbling in that jungle, meaning if you play your cards right you actually can stumble around doing your best Indiana Jones impression with a temple all to yourself. Look outside the box (or ask your handy-dandy tuk-tuk guide) to find the kind of place you imagined. But I have a feeling that it won’t be long until even those lesser known spots become as big as Vatican City! All the more reason to get there while the going is good…!

The stop-off point for the temple-hoppers, Siem Reap, is a little spot also worth spending some time exploring. Not to be underestimated, Siem Reap has a burgeoning tourist district with great little bars and restaurants, locals who actually like engaging with tourists, and one of the prettiest little night markets you’ll find.

 

2. Tumultuous History

Skull at Killing Fields Cambodia

While the Angkor complex provides a brief view into the historical glory-days of Khmer royalty, sights like Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Prison offer a somber reminder of Cambodia’s more recent history. Truly, you can’t really understand or appreciate the modern Cambodia without stepping into the bloody past of the Khmer Rouge rule. Don’t forget, everyone over 40–40!–lived through these atrocities.

Even though these dark tourist spots are filled with death, they really just go to show you how much life abounds in this country. Suddenly you realize that all these faces surrounding you are the faces of survival, defiance, and hope. It’s a massive and saddening reality check, but one that I think we all could use.

 

3. Incredible Food

Kep Crabs Cambodia

You see those crabs there? The ones she’s pulling out of that basket, which she just pulled out of the sea? Yeah, I’m about to eat that. It really doesn’t get better than that! Cambodia has pinned down this whole fresh seafood thing to a level I’ve never experienced before. You can take a seat at the edge of a little shack, hanging on stilts over the lapping ocean waves, and watch as your dinner moves from water, to grill, to table. Combined with the legendary Kampot pepper sauces, it’s perfection.

But that’s not the only thing that rules about the food in Cambodia. After spending some time in Southeast Asia, you learn that Western food costs about an arm and a leg, and after an endless string of rice dishes, sometimes all you crave is a massive plate of ribs or a fat, juicy burger. In Cambodia, Western food is actually affordable, and it’s done well. Two meals that specifically stand out:  ribs as big as my head in Kampot, and a Mexican restaurant in Sihanoukville ran by Americans, OMG nachos.

 

4. Khmer People

Children Bayon Temple Cambodia

By far, my favorite thing about Cambodia is the people. While the country has yet to recover from the scars left behind by the Pol Pot regime, the people have moved on. Everything just felt somehow more genuine and kind than my experience with people elsewhere. It wasn’t uncommon for a young Khmer boy or girl to come sit at my table when I was alone, practicing their English and really wanting to know about me and why I had come to Cambodia.

Their smiles are infectious. Plain and simple. Although poverty and the debilitating effects of landmines leaves life for many incredibly fragile, the Khmer people press on with humility and gentleness. It’s refreshing.

 

5. Pristine Beaches

Koh Rong Cambodia

Powdery soft, white sand. Bright green, swaying palms. Warm, turquoise waters. These are the kinds of beaches that dreams are made of. Even better, you never have to share with too many tourists, as the beaches in Cambodia are notoriously sparse. In the best beaches, you’ll also rarely encounter a hawker, which is a feat compared to the once-glorious, now hawker-filled beaches in Thailand.

That being said, you better check these out soon–Koh Rong (pictured above), Koh Tonsay, Otres Beach… as tourists start to get fed up with overcrowding next door in Thailand, the news is bound to get out. Go enjoy an Angkor Beer with your toes in the warm sand, now!

 

6. Sleepy Towns

Kampot Cambodia

Talk about getting away from it all! Lazy little towns like Kampot and Kep will make you forget all your worries, and very likely the time. We couldn’t seem to leave this haven, with the laid-back attitude and gorgeous sights. Something about these kind of Cambodian spots take away that touristy feel and replace it with pure contentedness. Many mornings, I would walk down the street to my local breakfast spot sipping my special Khmer tea, and just think how easy it could be to just forget the rest of the world. I now understand why people want to run off and retire in a place like this!

 

7. Lush Jungles

Bokor Mountain Cambodia

This is the real thing. Cambodia offers miles and miles of intense jungle fauna, still filled to the brim with wild animals. Driving through on motorbikes, we could hear the hoots of birds and the hiss of the jungle whizzing past our ears. Lots more adventure awaits for those up for more than motorbike rides, though. Imagine real treks into the dense forests, spotting wild elephants, encountering hidden waterfalls, and discovering lost temples and forgotten cities! It’s all on offer in Cambodia.

 

8. Crazy Nightlife

Snake Whiskey Cambodia

No trip to Cambodia is complete without at least one crazy night out on the town, whether it’s sweating your weight off dancing at “Angkor What?! Bar” in Siem Reap, hitting up the amazing 2 for 1 happy hour deals at random roadside holes, or slurping down snake whiskey while jamming to live bands! Oh, and let’s certainly not forget losing your s#@% in Sihanoukville!

In case you’re wondering, yes, I drank some of that snake whiskey above. A massive pull of it, in fact. And yes, there’s also a scorpion in there. And yes, I discovered to my own disappointment (after bragging about my amaze-balls bravery) that all those little creatures in there were actually plastic.

 

9. Superstar Status

Cambodian Children

Okay, so going to Cambodia won’t really make you a superstar. But driving through villages on a motorbike will invariably draw out the local children, running as fast as they can alongside with their giant smiles, waving and yelling, “Hello! I love you!” There’s just about nothing in the world to make you feel as special as you do at that moment. In Cambodia, even the most boring bloke can feel suddenly interesting and special. Combined with the ability to really live it up in fancy bars and expensive-looking beaches, it’s the place to go if you want to feel like a superstar for a short time. Put on your giant sunglasses, get your massage and nails did, and hit the town, baby. You’re not in Kansas, anymore!

 

10. Ridiculous Value

Ferry to Koh Rong Cambodia

And that all brings us to the last on the list, the budget! Cambodia is still so cheap that all of these things are possible to experience without breaking the bank. You can get by on as little as $10 a day, and for $25 a day you can really play it up quite well. I mean, the cheapest I paid for accommodation was $1 a night. ONE DOLLAR! So quit complaining about travel being for rich people, start putting aside a few dollars a week savings, and get to Cambodia before everyone else finds out and prices go up! I mean it! Go! Now!

I promise, you’ll fall as deeply in love with Cambodia as I did!

(If you’re lucky, you might also meet the love of your life… 😉 )

 

Koh Tonsay: An Island Paradise

Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island as it is called, is just a short ferry ride away from Kep, the heavenly seafood haven on Cambodia’s Southeastern coast. This island is relatively untouched, with the most developed beach containing only a smattering of thatched-roof huts, pecking chickens, and lazy dogs. The sand is soft and white, the waves shallow and warm, and the beach faces West, providing excellent views of gorgeous sunsets.

koh tonsay beach

My friend Ben and I took a small wooden boat out to the island with only a few other travelers (one of which was an Israeli girl I had met a year earlier in Koh Samet, what a small world!). The sky was threatening us with hazy clouds, but thankfully these mostly subsided before we reached our destination.

ferry-to-koh-tonsay

After nearly soaking our luggage into the sea, we easily checked into one of the rustic bungalows right on the beach for about $7 split between two of us. The bungalow had a large double bed, mosquito net, and about half a Western toilet. I mean, the bowl was Western, but there wasn’t a flush, or seat, or anything fancy like that. Of course, I’ve gotten used to the Asian variety of toilets long ago! 🙂

koh-tonsay-bungalow

The first thing I did was slip into my bikini, grab a book, and head towards the waves. The water was ridiculously warm, almost like bath-water–and I like it that way! After relaxing for a bit, we rented a kayak, purchased a few cans of beer, and headed off to explore the coast of the small island. I didn’t take my camera, and that was probably a good decision! At one point, after maneuvering around a jutting edge of rocky coast line, we stopped to rock in the waves, popped open a couple brews, and PLOP! …I got excited, tried to lean over and point to something in the water, and flipped us over! So much for those newly opened beers… It was hilarious, but I was laughing so hard I could hardly get back in the kayak! It is unfortunate though, because we saw quite a bit of coral, absolutely untouched white beaches, and a whole pack of starfish. That was probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen–we had pulled up to a sandbar in the ocean, and realized that the surface beneath us was absolutely covered with these black and red-spotted giant starfish. It was incredible!

It took us around an hour or two to paddle around the whole island, so we were pretty tired by the time we made it back to our beach. But we were just in time to watch an amazing sunset from hammocks in one of the elevated bamboo platforms.

koh-tonsay-sunset

koh-tonsay-sunset-from-hammock

Apparently, many people head to Koh Tonsay just for the day, so as the sun set, most of the people on the beach began to board boats heading back to the mainland. This is about the time that it truly began to feel like a deserted island, and the tune of Gilligan’s island started to play in the back of my mind. We gobbled up some delicious and cheap seafood, and started to meet some of the other few who had also came to stay the night.  Then, all of a sudden, the electricity started to switch off. We kept moving down from one end of the beach to the other, but like a strong wave, the power outage followed us along. Koh Tonsay, mind you, is a little paradise–but what has kept it so beautiful is its lack of development. Accordingly, the generators are only kept on until about 10 or 11 pm. It wasn’t long before us night owls were all crammed under one little roof, enjoying each others company to the tune of a guitar with nothing but a dinky flashlight and the sparkling stars as our light.

boat-and-sunset-koh-tonsay

I slipped into a heavy stupor, exhausted from the day, and soon enough snuck away to much needed sleep. In the morning, I awoke to the sound of birds and roosters crowing, with the gentle rustle of the salty waves rhythmically rolling in the background. I traipsed down for a little breakfast before we would head back to Kep to catch our bus to Sihanoukville that afternoon. But not before catching a final few snapshots.

tubes-on-koh-tonsay

bye-koh-tonsay

koh-tonsay-beach

All said and done, Koh Tonsay is a beautiful place to get a bit of relaxation during Cambodian travels, but I wouldn’t plan to stay longer than a night or two. Because it is undeveloped, you will quickly run out of things to do. That being said, I think it would be a nice place to hide away and forget about the world with a loved one–the quiet and deserted feeling of the island would make for a perfect romantic getaway.

P.S. One thing I have to note, I never did figure out why Koh Tonsay is called Rabbit Island. One person told me it was because it was shaped like a rabbit, but after studying a map I’d have to say you’d need a few swigs of cheap Cambodian whiskey to come to that conclusion! And I didn’t see any rabbits hopping around, either… the mystery remains…!

Choeung Ek: The Killing Fields

I would say that Phnom Penh is a pretty city, and as we drove away in our tuk-tuk, I reveled in the long, stretching green parks between the lanes of the road. But after about 10 minutes, I began to feel the grit of dust accumulating on my skin and in my hair. Much of the ride was spent with all of us trying desperately to cover our faces and block the dust from our eyes and mouth. The closer we got to our destination, the quieter we became. It was palpable–I don’t know why, or what it was. Our driver did not tell us we were nearly there, but we could feel it.

When I stepped into the gates of the fields, the rising stupa stole my attention. It was beautiful, in a sad sort of way. We were given maps and audio guides to listen as we stepped around the multiple stops of the grounds. The land is relatively small in size, striking primarily because of the sheer number of bodies buried there, many of which were transferred from the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. I was reticent at first to take pictures, but I felt that they would provide my family and friends a window into this place that few consider. That being said, I took very few.

Stupa at the entrance to Choeung Ek, KIlling Fields
Stupa at the entrance to Choeung Ek, KIlling Fields

Inside the stupa are stacks of skulls, femurs, and other large portions of bone that have been retrieved from the grounds. Because the skulls are at eye-level, you can often distinctly see the blows to the head that the Khmer Rouge dealt to the victims.

One of the first things I noticed as I began to walk through was this knotted tree. I felt as if the tree itself had absorbed the pain and horrors of this place.

Tree at Killing Fields
Tree at Killing Fields

Not far from the tree, I came upon the first marked mass grave. During rainy season, when rains plummet the grounds, bits of bone and teeth still rise to the surface. Even though I arrived during dry season, I could still observe small bits sticking out of the dirt here and there. You may notice the stacked bracelets on the fence–these are left by visitors as tokens in memorial of the victims.

Mass grave at Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Mass grave at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Further on, there was a large pond which marked the back perimeter of the Fields. The audio guide had quite a few optional stories, so as I walked along the pond I began to listen. These were testimonies of captives, heartbreaking and startling. Remember, the Pol Pot regime was not long ago, and many of these people are still bearing the scars of their experiences. Finally, I walked to a little shelter that jutted out over the pond as I listened to a particularly long and touching story of a young boy, spared by another prisoner who sacrificed his own life that he may be freed. That young boy ended up in America and now works for the UN for Cambodia.

Pond at the back of Choeung Ek
Pond at the back of Choeung Ek

There are also little boxes along the path displaying bits of clothing and other personal goods that have risen out of the ground. It is not unusual to see little children’s belongings along with the other shreds–absolutely chilling.

part of a skull on top of a box containing bits of clothing from victims at Choeung Ek
part of a skull on top of a box containing bits of clothing from victims at Choeung Ek

The site that struck me the most was a tree–aptly named the Killing Tree. As I neared, I noticed loads of bracelets hanging from the bark, but as the sign became clearer, I stopped in my footsteps and began to cry. When Choeung Ek had been discovered, the tree had been found covered with bits of brain and skulls. The Khmer Rouge had used this tree to slay infants before dumping them into the nearby pit, as their mothers were forced to watch. This story is so horrific, and at the same time difficult to imagine.

DSC_0613
The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek

As we left the Killing Fields, we were all extremely solemn and quiet. Finally, almost all at once, we burst into discussion, expressing the thoughts that had weighed heavy on each of us as we had walked in solitude. Some of the boys had read the book, First They Killed My Father, and so provided some extra information I didn’t know. One of the main characters was an actual captive there, and records her story. I have not yet got my hands on this book, but would like to read it and highly recommend doing so before visiting Choeung Ek.  (Edit:  I have since read it, and wow! It’s an amazing book, I really wish I had read it while in Cambodia. You can pick it up at plenty of tourist areas, and you should!)

Somewhere between discussion, I turned to my right as we barreled down the road, and saw a family of about 8 crammed into a tuk-tuk. They were laughing and smiling, with a little toddler dancing and staring at us curiously. I leaned over and waved, and that made them laugh even harder. They were so happy, so innocent.

family-filled tuk tuk in Phnom Penh
family-filled tuk tuk in Phnom Penh

This is exactly why you should visit Choeung Ek, even though it is a difficult site to take in and process. The people of Cambodia are incredible–so kind, giving, and always smiling. Seeing first-hand the remnants of the horrors these people endured not so long ago left me in utter amazement at what strength and kindness with which the people have pressed onward. Like a phoenix out of the ashes, the Cambodian people have risen.

Getting There:

  • Most hostels/hotels in Phnom Penh will have a tour available. We paid $12 ($3 each) for the tuk-tuk to take us to the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. The drive is quite long, so the price is really acceptable. You will also need to pay the entrance fees, but these are minimal.

Travel Theme: Relaxing

Southeast Asia is notorious for sleepy persons snoozing in any crook or cranny they can find. There seem to be extra points for finding a way to sleep on the job! I don’t blame them. With the high afternoon heat, taking a load off and throwing your feet up in the air sounds like a pretty good idea.

That’s exactly what this tuk-tuk driver was thinking in Kampot.

sleeping-on-the-job-in-kep

In Kep, Kampot’s sister city by the sea, the seafood markets are bustling with crab-catchers and cleaners, cooks and stall attendants, from the first spark of daylight. One woman, in the middle of it all, decides to find a dark corner to doze away for an hour or two.

sleeping-in-tuk-tuk-kampot-cambodia

Some people say SE Asians are lazy. But I disagree. They know how to work really hard, and do. But you can’t fault someone for knowing how to really relax, too. 🙂

You can also read about how I got protected by a gang of dogs in Kampot here.

This blog is a part of Ailsa’s Travel Theme series.

Travel Theme: Through

Through the eyes of children, places take on a peculiar light–whether fantastical, frightening, or anything in between. Sometimes, when I’m exploring a place, I am caught off guard by the whimsy of children, reminding me to look deeper.

At Bayon Temple in Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia, two children peek through a window as they play hide-and-seek. The ancient stone walls, with endless doorways and seemingly secret paths, become a marvelous playground. Tourists provide the odd obstacle as they shimmy through bright courtyards only to disappear again in dark corners.

through-camden-market

Across the globe in London, a child passes through a dark passage to a bright world of technicolor cloth. Like Alice about to embark down the rabbit hole into her own personal Wonderland, she steps gingerly into the sari-domed shop.

through-bayon-temple-cambodia

This post is a part of the Travel Theme of the Week.

Dog Days in Kampot

Kampot is a sleepy little town which rests on the riverside in South Cambodia. I went to Kampot to taste the infamous black pepper, enjoy stunning views from the top of Bokor Mountain, and eat cheap, succulent crab at seaside markets in nearby Kep. I didn’t know, however, that I would fall in love with the vacant dirt streets, impossible rib joints, and endless smiling faces. Nor did I know that these dog days in Kampot would in fact become, literally, dog days…

kampot city

Some cheeky expat has created a Kampot Survival Guide—a free little pamphlet that you can pick up just about anywhere to learn just about anything. Looking for a restaurant for the night? Check. Need advice on the must-see sights? Check. Need to know where to get internal body massages, how to stay away from Kep, or what to do if you spot a Hippie? Check, check and check!  The little book will have you in absolute stitches while still providing useful information.

Not long after arriving, we were enjoying a beer and lunch while one of the guys was perusing the Guide. He began laughing and pointed out this section:

Dogs. Now these can be a problem. Most Khmer families have dogs (actually all dogs in Cambodia have the same name, dog, pronounced “ch kai”) and at night they put them on the streets to protect their property. Problem is that the later it gets the more the dogs protect, they form packs, gangs and send coded messages across town coordinating their attacks. When staggering home late, walk in the middle of the road with a confident pace, if you are hounded turn round sharply and cock your arm ready to throw imaginary stones at them, it works. If you do actually get bitten take it seriously and get rabies shots, preferably in the Pasteur Institute Phnom Penh.

I should back up…

The night we arrived was St. Patrick’s Day, and the first thing we did after dropping off our bags was join in a huge celebration down the street. All of us sort of stumbled back in at different times in the night, so it wasn’t until the morning that we realized one of our mates hadn’t made it home. We woke up to him sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, and shaking in disbelief.

Once the bar had closed, he followed some people he met back to a house party. After a little while, tired as can be, he went to make his way back to our guesthouse. All of the people warned him not to walk alone at night because of the dogs. He thought, ha, yeah, ok, the dogs are so scary. Sure. He took off for bed. Shortly thereafter, already realizing he was a bit lost, something unusual started to happen. “It was unreal, they were barking code at each other, I don’t know! It was crazy!” One by one, the dogs surrounded him like a gang, snarling and baring their teeth, ready to pounce! What did he do? “Took off running back to my mate’s, man!”

I know this story well, because he was so shook up and upset that he couldn’t stop talking about it. I’m not sure we really believed him at first, I mean, scary dogs signaling each other all across the town? I had this cartoon-ish image of the dogs sending messages in 101 Dalmations running through my head…

Then there was this passage the next day in the Kampot Guide. Could it be?

boats in kampot

Later that night, after a few beers, walking home quite late in the dark, we all started getting a bit nervous. Were the dogs going to come after us? At least we were together. Next thing you know, this dog appears. He kind of  just looks at us, then struts up in front like our leader or something. Then another one joins. And another one. Pretty soon, we’ve got like five or six dogs leading us down these pot-holed streets back to our guesthouse. They kept howling this certain howl at all of the dogs in the neighborhood. Some would respond by joining, others with growls. But this pack—they were our protectors!! Any time a dog would come at us aggressively, they would bunch up between it and us like, “back up, buddy! These guys are cool!”

I’m not kidding, they walked us to our guesthouse gate, waited until we made it inside, then took off back to their ‘stations.’

Why did they pick us? Why did they defend us? I have no idea. But I’ve never experienced anything quite like that!

You see? Those really were the dog days of Kampot…