When you think of Cambodia you conjure up images of an underdeveloped nation desperately moving forward from previous atrocities and severe poverty. The heart and soul of the country was literally ripped apart by the Khmer Rouge when it forced the entire population of Phnom Penh and surrounding towns into the countryside as slaves to labour digging trenches and canals and field preparation. Resistance in any form came with execution. It’s a country with a turbulent and bloody past and was even a no-go zone back in the ’90’s due to Khmer Rouge guerrillas still causing trouble in many provinces.
Nowadays it’s a bit of a travel hotspot with direct flights to booming Siem Reap, gateway to the temples of Angkor. The capital, Phnom Penh, is a captivating city straddling the Tonlé Sap River where you find crumbling French-colonial buildings, temples and monasteries and traditional food and produce markets. The riverfront is a hive of activity with many bars and restaurants in renovated colonial buildings and a lovely place to sit and relax or walk along the green promenade.
Street food can be found just about anywhere you look and is one of the best ways to sample the true cuisine of this country. I remember one of the days we were in Phnom Penh my stomach was a little off-balance yet I couldn’t resist trying the freshly-grilled parcels of sticky rice and banana. Absolutely delicious.
The main Central Market (Psar Thumei) is a covered hall selling jewellery and watches and t-shirts but the most intersting part are the stalls surrounding the main building. These are a bit more makeshift and sell stuff to the locals from food to plastic colanders. You can even stock up on a few packets of fried bugs.
We splurged and stayed in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) overlooking the river. It’s a bit of an institution and has had many movie stars, diplomats and journalists grace its halls. They make a mean lemongrass martini as well.
As with any visit to Cambodia, you can’t see the country without seeing it’s most famous landmark – Angkor Wat, one of the most impressive temples I’ve ever seen. Other impressive temples in the vicinity are Ta Prohm, the Bayon and Preah Khan.
Siem Reap itself is a bustling cosmopolitan city with a great food scene. Getting there from Phnom Penh was an adventure itself, after our bus swerved and hit a horse and carriage. All of us on the bus were unaware, so the driver didn’t stop.
An hour or so down the road we had to stop in a village due to damage caused to the radiator so we teamed up with a couple of other travellers, and found a driver willing to take us the rest of the way and then his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. His friend came to the rescue and drove us the remainder of the distance.
The FCC Angkor was our choice of accommodation and perfect with its colonial bar and swimming pool. A wonderful retreat after a couple of days wandering around temples in high heat and humidity.
One of the other places we visited in Cambodia was the coastal town of Sihanoukville. The town itself is a little ordinary (except for the Central Market) and the nicest place to stay is by the waterfront. We stayed in a little guesthouse at the very quiet Occheuteal Beach. A lovely place to sit and sip a local beer, under a brollie with the sand between your toes while watching the golden sunset.
Many of the locals stroll the beach and offer you handicrafts and handmade jewellery and cooked jumbo prawns and rice paper rolls. If this doesn’t take your fancy there are always the several relaxed restaurants on the beach.
Just outside of town north of the port is a fascinating fishing village built over the water. The fishermen and their families live in makeshift stilted wooden houses over the water where all the cooking and cleaning and sleeping takes place. There is a local grocery shop and even pigs are kept in their own pens overwater.
The kids were the most inquisitive and we became instant superstars as they crowded around us and looked at our cameras and pictures of themselves. It was obvious tourists don’t often get down here.
Cambodia seems to have come a long way in the short time since the civil war that virtually ruined and took many peoples lives. Yes there is still poverty in much of the community with many people needing help and memories from older generations are still very raw and painful, yet there seems to be a collective smile across the country in the rebirth of a more modern Cambodia.