I am conflicted about Cambodia, and it truly is a strange place. It has beauty but also a deep ugliness, it has good food and friendly people, yet they are hard to come by. After having studied the Khmer people, their trials and tribulations, it is truly magnificent that they are still living positively day to day and trying to make every moment better than the last. Cambodia was the first time that I have seen children working and begging, the first place that I saw poverty so real that it was hard to understand what those peoples lives are truly like. It was also the first place that I saw how tourism changes people, and not necessarily for the best. I have hope that Cambodia will continue to move towards the future, but is circumstance simply to much to overcome for this fractured nation.
Simply put, I love this place and I hate this place. Never have I been to a city that I couldn’t wait to leave. Siem Reap was this place for me. After a long bus ride and one of the strangest border crossings known to man, Mahmoud and I arrived in Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat. It has been my dream since I had heard of it, to journey to the Angkor Wat, to watch the sunrise on the ancient city and to walk in the footsteps of the Khmer Empire.
The Angkor Wat is stunning, miraculous and something if you have the means to get out to that part of the world that everyone should see. It is truly hard to explain that place. There is something mystical about it that you can just feel. You can see it in the trees, they are a different animal than the ones you see at home. Time has twisted them among the old stones ruins just as a vine wraps around buildings, yet their connection with the buildings seems older and more visceral.
Siem Reap pushes the idea of tourism to its breaking point. The city has a clear divide between travelers and locals, something that has become impenetrable. Walking around the city, you can feel something is off. It’s clean, gentrified, lit up. It just doesn’t feel right. This is not the Southeast Asia I experienced in Thailand.
It felt almost like being on a cruise ship. There are the staff, the chefs, the attractions, all of which you have paid for. The crew merely getting a small amount of that money yet putting in all the effort to keep it running. Mexican restaurants, Western food stands and a gimmicky pub street overshadow what remnants of Cambodia are actually still present in this place. I hate walking around feeling like a “walking wallet” and Siem Reap was one of the first places I have been to that defined this stereotype. The locals want you there but they also hate that you are. You as a tourist, become the means of their survival and they have curb parts of what makes them unique simply to cater to drunk backpackers or group tourists
- Angkor Wat
- Pub Street
Best Bites and Sips
- Anti Griddle Ice Cream
- Rice Porridge
- Frosted Glass Cambodia Beers
Sihanoukville is a town tucked away in the southwest corner of Cambodia facing the beautiful Thai coastline. While maintaining its place in Cambodia as a huge tourist attraction because of its proximity to some of the most pristine waters in the world, it still seems to hold some of its local flair. While there is a major tourist street with hostels, backpackers and the like, you can walk just across an intersection and find yourself in the developing country where you have stationed yourself.
It was laidback and chiller, losing the forced intensity that was embedded in the Siem Reap culture. The most enjoyable time I had in Sihanoukville was walking over to a food street and indulging in home cooked Khmer food made the right way. Everything that happened on that street however was conflicting.
The cafes themselves were dotted with locals and tourists yet you were confronted with the dire living situations and poverty that Khmer people have to live with everyday. Yes the food is delightfully served up for a bit over market value but it’s one of the times in life that I didn’t feel bad about paying a bit more. No bullshit, you are eating in someone’s house. The kitchen becomes more than a place for people to meet and to cook for your family, but a facet of sustenance, the most important means of survival.
The meal is served in an environment you just can’t get anywhere else. A grandpa smoking a pipe in the corner, children tucked away in a hammock crying, a 10 year old taking your order. It’s hard to make this stuff up. It’s a challenge being confronted with intense poverty just over a bowl of noodle soup but that’s the reality about poverty. Nobody gets to choose when it happens and why, it simply does.
- Coastline at Night
Best Bites and Sips
- Chicken Amok
- Red Curry
- Banh Mi Style Sandwich
- Soursop Smoothies
Just a short and 10$ ferry ride away from Sihanoukville sits a small island chain seated gloriously in the gulf of Thailand. Koh Rong, the largest island in the chain is slowly becoming a tourist magnate, for those experienced travelers that want to skip the party filled islands of the Thai south. I can say wholeheartedly, that Koh Rong is the most beautiful tropical place I have ever been. The water was seven shades of blue, the sand a crisp white that shined off the coast. Picturesque becomes an understatement when you look around and take in the island.
The Koh Rong traveler normally stays in Koh Touch Village on the east side of the island. The beach is dotted with bungalows, chilled out hostel hangouts and party beaches that stretch nearly 5 kms. It was truly one of the best places to chill out, catch some sun and enjoy a cold beer.
The following day Mahmoud and I took a water taxi over to Long Beach, an isolated stretch of the island with nothing more than a few bungalows, a small local village and acres of open, untouched landscape at our fingertips. Glorious, possibly heaven on earth for people that really enjoy the beach. It may have been one of my favorite days of our trip. Silent, tranquil and scenic.
Conversely, on our water taxi back, the crazy guy that we initially bought the round trip ticket from filled up a boat captained by a 15 year old with over 50 people to go see the fluorescent plankton and catch a ride back to the other side of the island. The ocean was rocking, the sun was setting, lightning was cracking in the distance as we rode out to plankton filled waters. The fear of a capsizing boat painted white on everyone’s faces as our teenage captain sent the loud oil engined rig out into the deep Cambodian waters. The trip went off without a hitch, the prayers of everybody on board must have carried our rig back to safety.
- Long Beach
- Florescent Plankton
- Chicken Amok
- Fried Rice with Egg
I have conflicting feeling about Phnom Penh and heres why. It’s one of the dirtiest and least friendly places I have been in Asia. You can kind of feel the pain that went on here and see the people trying to reconcile with their ridiculous and terrible past. The most notable things to do in Phnom Penh are go to the killing fields and to S-21 a secret Khmer military prison where scores and scores of people were executed under the dictatorial Khmer Rouge regime. Those days are long gone but I don’t think Phnom Penh has ever really recovered. While there is a lot of negative vibes on the surface, the Mekong River which cuts through the city is strikingly beautiful and there are pockets of unique and excellent Asian architecture, wats and monuments; its truly hard not to like.
I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t ever go back, but I’m certainly in no rush. I really hope Phnom Penh is able to return to the glory of its past and to overcome the terrible circumstances that the last 50 years have created.
Oh, Mahmoud got food poisoning here, but bounced back like a champ. No fried rice is safe!
Mekong River Front
Barbecue Street Stand food