When I said to my mother I would be visiting Cambodia for a month she was amazed. Not that I would choose to visit that country in particular, but that in her lifetime one of her children would be able to visit and do so safely.
She was even more amazed when I messaged her a few days in and told her how in love with the country I was. After everything the country had been through in the 1970s, the absolute devastation the Khmer Rouge caused, it seemed very unlikely that Cambodia would be a place open to tourists in the foreseeable future or that it would be somewhere one of her children would be able to find joy.
I have to admit I knew very little about Pol Pots and his Khmer Rouge and the horror that they put the country through. It wasn’t until I visited Phnom Penh’s killing fields, saw the prisons and that terrible, terrible tree and heard the stories from the survivors that I realised how amazing the country is. The people are some of the friendliest, kindest and most honest I have ever encountered. Most have heartbreaking stories of loss to tell but for the most part they beam with optimism and hope.
That being said, our first encounter with a Cambodian was not a good one. Our angry taxi driver quite aggressively complaining that we had not arranged an airport transfer so it was now down to him to take us. In the end he left us slightly confused at the side of the road. (It’s not like we weren’t paying him!)
When we eventually got to our hostel we were needless to say somewhat bemused and wary of this new country. But the staff at the Topsky Hostel were nothing but smiling faces and cheerful attitudes. There was hope!
Walking into the town centre to get a beer that night our attitudes brightened at the site of the art markets, the quirky little bars and restaurants but mostly the friendliness of the locals. Proving that you should never trust in first impressions and suggesting that perhaps our driver was just having a bad day. The end of that night we headed home with a handful of new Cambodian friends, our bipolar cabbie well and truly forgotten.
The vibe in Siem Reap was exactly what we had been searching for in Bangkok, a less seedy Khao San Road with plenty to see and do. But the buzzy little town is just the icing on the ancient cake. For what makes this place famous is the absolute, incomparable beauty that is the temples and grounds of Angkor Wat.
There really is nothing like it, the landscapes breathtaking. My one piece if advise if you are travelling around South East Asia and planning on doing a lot of temple site seeing; leave Angkor Wat till last. I haven’t yet found anything that really compares to it and starting here does unfortunately ruin you for all future temples!
Another little gem found in the area of Siem Reap, the lake of Tonlé sap is an important commercial resource for the entire population of around three million, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia.
The lake is filled by water flowing from the Mekong half of the year and in dry season it drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh, shrinking down by over half its depth and surface area. It is this that has earned the lake the nickname “Cambodia’s beating heart.”
Or more specifically Lonely Beach. People always compare places to like this to ‘Thailand before all the tourists’. Well, same same, but different.
Most of the island is now quite commercial with a big party scene. But this tiny beach at the northernmost tip of the island with it’s limited electricity, bucket showers and beautiful but basic bungalows set within the forest is perhaps more beautiful than Thailand ‘back in the day’.
With about six other people on the beach apart from our party of five, it was the perfect escape. And the perfect place to celebrate the engagement of two best friends as we were doing. An idyllic, picturesque beach with star fish to be seen everywhere, beautiful corals to explore straight off the shore and with zero light pollution at night the darkness is so complete that the phosphorescence in the water will blow your mind.
Kampot & Kep