Ask anyone when they travel Cambodia and they’ll tell you: it’s basically South East Asia twenty years ago. While the southern islands of Thailand have been overrun by Bintang singlets and drunk Australians (thanks, Leonardo DiCaprio), Cambodia has been fortunate enough not to star in any big Hollywood blockbusters (Tomb Raider doesn’t count). Seriously, that’s a very good thing, That means tourism here is just beginning to take off, rather than consuming everything in its path like an outbreak map from the zombie apocalypse. That’s why when you visit places like Kampong Thom and Chambok, you can see smiling Khmer people actually going about their lives, not desperately trying to sell you fake Rolexes. It’s why Siem Reap’s café and bar scene feels fresh and welcoming, not oppressive and jammed with tourists. Cambodia is the best of South East Asia: friendly, cheap, relatively quiet. Perfect for a Cambo adventure challenge.
A lot of countries (probably all of them really) like to claim their locals are the friendliest on the planet. But Cambodia might have a genuine shot at the title. For anyone who’s done a Cambodia challenge, it’s the people that stick in the mind. It’s even more remarkable given the country’s tragic history, especially in the 70s under the Khmer Rouge regime. That 50 year-old guy serving you Bai sach chrouk in Phnom Penh? He survived the regime. So did the old lady who runs your hostel. And yet, despite the horrors of the past, Cambodians are always looking to the future, to tomorrow. Thanks to a constitutional monarchy (and a big scoop of new tourism dollars) that future is looking pretty good.
It had to be on here, right? It’s a World Wonder so famous and so spectacular that people fly halfway across the world just to see it. Watching the sun rise of Angkor Wat, the pinnacle of the ancient Khmer’s genius, is probably on the Bucket List of every serious traveller on the planet. And for good reason. It takes a good few days to see the whole park (the entry fee will set you back about USD$40). If you want to avoid the iPhone wielding crowds around the central temple structure, consider renting a bicycle (a good way to burn off the beers on Pub Street) and head out to explore smaller temples like What Thom and Ta Phrom. Think jungle-covered ruins straight out of Tomb Raider – legit, Ta Phrom was used in the film. This could be the Cambodia adventure your daydreams cooked up on the plane.
Like most of South East Asia, Cambodian food is spicy and cheap in equal measure. You can eat well for USD$10 a day, easy. Rice is the staple with every dish, but there are literally hundreds of Khmer varieties, from fragrant malis to sticky desert rice served with mangoes, durian and coconut milk. Yum. Because the Mekong cuts through the heart of Cambodia, freshwater fish play a big part in the cuisine. Try to sample a bit of everything from the street stalls in Siem Reap or Battambang, but save room for fish amok, Khmer curry with a crusty baguette and Kdam chaa fried crab with Kampot peppers and garlic chives. Oh, and did we mention the creepy crawlies? Spiders, grasshoppers, beetles etc. Good thing a Cambodia adventure works up an appetite, eh?
As decent people and global citizens, it’s our responsibility to at least be aware of history wherever we go. But in Cambodia even more so. When you land in Phnom Penh, take some time to check out the trendy cafes on Street 307 or 58, and of course the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda at night, but also set aside a full day to explore the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, about 10 miles south of the city. There’s no easy way to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide of the mid-late 70s, you kind of have to travel to Cambodia see it for yourself. Choeung Ek isn’t your typical ‘tourist day out’, but it’s an essential Cambodian experience. You’ll learn more during a day there than in any history book, and come away with a new appreciation for the country and it’s remarkable people.