Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
Three decades of war have made their mark on Cambodia, but the good news is that things are getting better all the time. For a start, it's now probably as safe as anywhere else in south-east Asia. Yes, I did read somewhere about a British couple being robbed at knifepoint, but that can happen anywhere (I met a Kiwi nurse who had been mugged in Manchester, for example), and you needn't worry anymore about being attacked or kidnapped by renegade soldiers and the like.
There are still landmines, but they've usually been cleared from the places tourists are likely to visit, so you should be safe. If in doubt, ask the locals…
The number of tourists visiting Cambodia is escalating, and there are facilities to cater for all of them, from £5-a-day backpackers to, say, mates of Angelina Jolie's who might prefer five-star hotels.
The main routes between major cities are being improved, so they are now recognisable as roads and, apparently, there are now a few bus services - previously, the only scheduled services were between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham. Otherwise, you can travel by tourist minibus, booked through a guesthouse. One of the main drawbacks of doing this is that you're sometimes 'sold' to a guesthouse in the town you're travelling to, so the drivers mess about and hang around so you get to your destination so late that you check into 'their' guesthouse without protest. Most locals travel by taxi or pickup: usually, two people share the front passenger seat and at least four cram themselves in the back seat, although it is possible to buy two seats and travel in more comfort. Cheapest of all is travelling in the open flat bed of a pickup and it is an experience in itself!
Internet access is improving, so it's now cheaper and faster than it was three or so years ago, and there are probably internet cafes all over the place.
There are two English language newspapers in Cambodia, the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, published every two weeks. If it's still published, "Leisure Cambodia" is a useful source of tourist-friendly information and it has (or it had in early 2003) a great guide to transport around the country. In early 2003, Canby Publications produced A5 size guides to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; they used to do one on Sihanoukville, but I'm not sure if they still do. You can pick them up at tourist-friendly places, and they're free of charge.
Gordon Sharpless's www.talesofasia.com is great for info on Cambodia, and there's also a website created by someone called Andy Brouwer; I can't remember the address, but it's worth running Andy's name through Google to get it.
Don't be horrified to meet someone who was in the Khmer Rouge. For a start, many of the people responsible for the genocide of the 1970s are now dead (after a comfortable old age, unfortunately), and in the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge were sometimes seen as patriots, because they were fighting against the Vietnamese occupiers. That's not to say, though, that there isn't deep hatred for the KR. In Phnom Penh, for example, I met a 20-year-old man working in a guest house, who was working and saving as hard as he could so he could train as a lawyer and bring to trial the KR people who killed half-a-dozen members of his immediate family. For many people, the deaths of so many relatives and the upheaval of the last 30 years or so are no big deal, if only because almost everyone over the age of 30 suffered the same things.
There is more to Cambodia, though, than genocide and war, the most well-known being the ancient complex of Angkor, in the west of the country near Siem Reap. The countryside is nice enough, if not as spectacular as Vietnam, but there's an endearing craziness about the place. Where else, for example, do you find pickups with about 19 passengers stuffed in the bed of the truck, clinging on for dear life to three coffin-sized crates of tobacco, half-a-dozen sacks of vegetables, a motorbike and a few chickens tied to the back, as the pickup weaves along crater-strewn roads. Oh, and it's so overloaded that something breaks as it bumps through a pothole, and the driver repairs it with a length of elastic then wends merrily back on his way? I think that people in Cambodia have been through so much that very little fazes them. And they are, for the most part, incredibly generous. Barter for goods by all means, but PLEASE don't cut prices to the bone: I heard of one backpacker who was really pleased that he had bought a pineapple for 500 riel (about US12 cents) less than local price. In a country where the average income is US$286 a year, that's not something to be proud of.
There are beggars, but they are mainly in places frequented by tourists, mainly Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Do you give to them or not? Good question. The Phnom Penh Post recently surveyed development workers in Phnom Penh and most of them said that one shouldn't give to beggars, particularly child beggars. There are many Khmers working really hard for a few cents a day, and how must they feel when they see a beggar who - admittedly has lost a leg but is still mobile - asking a tourist for "One dollar" (more than a day's wage, remember!) and getting it? Plus, what incentive is there for parents to work or educate their children if they know that they can have them begging on the streets (where they can be preyed on by paedophiles) or, in the case of orphans, spend the money on glue to sniff! Then the kid grows up and is no longer cute enough to get donations, and then what do they do?
Many people say that it's best to give beggars food rather than money, while there are NGOs (non-governmental organisations) working to make Cambodia a better place, and it might be best to give your cash to them instead.
The capital city. Most backpacker accommodation is up at Boeung Kak Lake, where you can pay US $2/$3 for a room with its own bathroom. There's cheap food there too. Accommodation elsewhere is a bit more expensive, but a bit more comfortable.
The best way of seeing the sights is probably to rent a motorbike and driver, for US$6-8 a day, as the drivers know what tourists want to see, and most speak some degree of English. Things are getting a bit more dangerous as more roads are surfaced and the traffic goes faster (crash helmet? What's one of those???) but it's still great fun. Watch out for drive-by thieves trying to snatch shoulder bags etc. The chances of this happening are about a million to one, because most Khmers are really honest (and too laid back to make the effort to nick stuff!) but it has been known to happen. The most dangerous time is probably in the early hours if you get a moto back to Boeung Kak from bars such as Heart of Darkness; get a moto driver you trust. Speaking about the Heart: yes, this is a Phnom Penh institution but apparently, in late 2003 and early 2004, it had become plagued by the sons of influential Cambodians who behave very badly, safe in the knowledge that they won't be held to account because of who their daddy is! There are other bars; don't be afraid to check them out.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the 'Killing Fields' of Choeung Ek are difficult for some people, but they should be seen, if only because they're memorials to the 1.7million or so Cambodians who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda in the same complex - so called because of the solid silver tiles on the floor - are worth seeing, and nearby the Royal Museum, a lovely terracotta-coloured building. For shopping, Psah Thmei (central market) sells all sorts, while Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) probably has the best selection of souvenirs. At the Wat Phnom end of Norodom Boulevard there's the National Centre for Disabled Persons (NCDP), with a shop that sells handicrafts; it's bit more expensive than, say, the markets, but the profits support projects for disabled people. The NCDP also offers, or did in early 2003, "Seeing Hands" massages by blind people.
Blind massage not your scene? How about firing an AK47, M-16 or Uzi… without getting the police on your back? Head for the shooting range just outside Phnom Penh, which I believe is still run by the army (of all things!). It's US$30 (I think) to fire an AK-47 and the like, and, I think, US$200 to let off a bazooka or something, but the tale that, for an extra US$100 you get a cow to fire it at, is, apparently, apocryphal! Virtually every moto driver in Phnom Penh knows where the shooting range is, but I can't remember how much they charge to take you there.
You can support organisations that support street children and the like, such as Mith Samlan "Friends" café on 19th Street near the museum and royal palace, which trains street children to get jobs in catering and hospitality. There are a couple of supermarkets selling Western favourites, but nowhere near as many as, say, Bangkok.
I'd say that if you're going to miss one beach place in south-east Asia, miss this. The beaches are OK, but not great, and the city centre isn't up to much either. "Weather Station Hill", aka Victory Beach Hill, is the backpacker enclave, and it's where you're most likely to find cheap accommodation and food, but it's not great. The local ex-pats are nice enough, though. And look out for Starfish café and bakery, which supports community projects.
A lovely place, but I can't explain why. Lots of French Colonial buildings, few sights within the town, but it has a lovely vibe. One of the nicest ways of spending part of an evening is sipping a tikalok (fruit shake) at one of the stalls which appear after dusk on the street that leads to the bridge over the river. I stayed at Ta Eng guesthouse (can't remember which street it's on), then, later, at a place in the town centre; I can't remember the name, but if you're desperate, there are a couple of places around the roundabout where you can stay until you find somewhere better. There was a new place, north of the roundabout, near a petrol station (I think), which looked really good, but it was full while I was there.
Near Kampot is Bokor, a French hill station abandoned in the 1970s. It's a spooky place, dominated by a derelict casino on the edge of a cliff overlooking the national park that wraps around the mountain. If you're missing the cool, damp climate of northern England, this is the place to go. The road, as of January 2003, was shocking, absolutely shocking. It's possible to stay in a ranger hut at Bokor, for around US$5, although once you've checked out the ruined buildings and the nearby occupied wat, there isn't a right lot else to do at Bokor. I'm not sure how you fix up accommodation at the ranger station, but some of the guesthouses in Kampot might know.
A little beach resort. Again there's not much there, but it's nice enough to chill out for a day trip from Kampot, or to wind down for a couple of days. There is more accommodation than you might expect; just follow the signs.
Still (April 2004), apparently, a killer to get to, and I'm not sure it's really worth the effort. Apart from a couple of (pretty unimpressive, or so I've been told) waterfalls, there's not really much in Sen Monorom apart from expat development workers and refugees from Vietnam, although the locals are really welcoming. Pech Kiri guesthouse was highly recommended in Lonely Planet in the early 2000s, but I think there's at least one other guesthouse. The restaurant at Pech Kiri is (or was in March 2002) good, and a good place to meet interesting people working for NGOs.
Ban Lung/ Ratanakiri:
Remote, but attracting more visitors now because, since about late 2002, it's been possible to cross between Cambodia and Laos near here. The border is north of the town of Stung Treng, and travellers are making the diversion from Stung Treng to Ban Lung. The city is a bit banged up, all dirt roads, no street lights, very small - and try buying reading material (not English language stuff, but anything at all to read) here - but there's some lovely stuff round about, including lovely waterfalls, and a gorgeous circular lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano. If you go, PLEASE leave it as unspoiled as you found it, with water so clear you can see the bottom, even if it's 30 or so feet deep. The Mountain View guesthouse can organise elephant rides to the waterfalls, (around US$25), and most motorbike rivers know the tourist places to take you to. It's possible to do a 'jungle trek' and to visit tiny hilltribe villages from Ban Lung.
The airstrip should be working again, so it's possible to fly here, although I'm not sure how reliable the flights are. One of the better guesthouses, I think it's called Yaklom Lodge, has a website that has some great information on surrounding attractions. We stayed at a brand new guesthouse (can't remember the name, though, sorry!) in the town centre. US$4 got us a room with bathroom, TV and maybe even a fridge.
Where you're likely to stop if you're en route to or from Laos or Ratanakiri. And that's it. One of the biggest guesthouses in town in the Sekong Hotel, which, in mid-2002, had rooms, with bathrooms, for just US$1. Too bad they also came with rats. We knew the rooms were horrible as soon as we arrived, but we were too knackered to care, even when we realised the hotel had much nicer gaffs for around US$4 or something. If we had moved, I wouldn't have laid awake all night whimpering as the rats ran and squealed over the false ceiling. Thankfully, I had my then-boyfriend to protect me, otherwise I would still be in a straight-jacket. Even so, morning couldn't come fast enough!
If you don't see Mekong dolphins (they don't have snouts) in Laos, you can see them here. It's best to rent a boat and believe the boatman when he tells you: "That dark shadow in the water is a dolphin!" We stayed in an unnamed, brand-new guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong, which was very comfortable, but the friendliest place was Star Guesthouse near the market. Mau (?) who worked there spoke excellent English, (with a Scouse accent!) and was great fun.
A couple of notable wats/temples and nice people, but really only worth a visit if you have time to kill or you're heading north to Ratanakiri. We stayed at the massive, massive, but practically empty, Mekong Hotel, paying US$10 for a big room with bathroom, fridge and (I think) TV.
There's not a right lot in the town, but nearby are the seventh-century ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, older than the more-famous ruins at Angkor, less popular with visitors and, for the most part, more atmospheric. The top moto driver in Kompong Thom seems to be Mr Sakhon; don't bother looking for him, as he'll probably find you! I think we paid US$8 each for a day exploring Sambor Prei Kuk, the hilltop wat of Phnom Suntonk and a lake where we could swim. We paid US$3 for a room with bathroom and TV, which I think was in a guesthouse across the road from the river, but I can't remember the name.
THE big destination in Cambodia, because it's the city closest to the millennium-old ruins of Angkor. Some people class Angkor with the pyramids and Machu Picchu, but say it hasn't had as much attention because it has been inaccessible because of three decades of war.
As you can imagine, there are loads of places to stay, from, say, US$2 dorms to US$2,000 suites in five-star hotels, and restaurants aplenty. Oh, and loads of beggars, mainly around the tourist-magnet of the Old Market (Psah Chas). Last I heard, the motorbike drivers who'll take you round Angkor have to be registered with some tourist office, which is supposed to guarantee their competence and honesty. As far as I know, it's still US $20 for a one-day pass to Angkor, and US$40 for three days (no two-day options). My favourite place to stay was the Ivy Annexe, run by a really cool, very well-travelled Englishman called Steve; it's the sister to the Ivy, which is close to Psah Chas, and the Ivy 2, which is also run by an Englishman called Steve. I paid US$6 for a room with cold water bathroom at the Ivy annexe.
Big (for Cambodia!) ex-pat community, because it's where most NGOs have their western bases. Most of the tourist sights, such as Kampong Poy - a reservoir built by the Khmer Rouge and which cost the lives of around 10,000 people - and Phnom Sampeau, a hill-top wat that was once a Khmer Rouge prison, are outside the city centre and you can take a motorbike tour of them. Most of the guides seem to hang out at the Chhaya Hotel, near the market. I think I paid US$4 for a room with bathroom and TV at the Chhaya.
Off the beaten Cambodian track:
On the south-western border with Thailand. Famous for gems and ex-KR bosses. Might not be so off the beaten track now, because the border might have been opened to foreigners.
A ruined temple in an extraordinary mountain-top setting, right on the border with Thailand. Thailand keeps claiming it for itself, but the Khmers aren't for giving it up. In early 2003, a new road was opened, making it possible to drive to Preah Vihear from Phnom Penh in about 12 hours, although I don't know how well the road has survived the past year. It's also possible to get there by road from Siem Reap, via Anlong Veng, but in January 2003, this road was a complete killer, unless you were in a well-sprung 4WD! We went from Preah Vihear to Koh Ker, another ancient complex, and another pain to get to, but there are plans to built a golf course and resort near there. This would be good news for the locals, who would have a chance to earn reasonable money instead of trying to grow enough rice to eat, but bad for tourists in search of isolated atmosphere! www.talesofasia.com has info on organised tours by dirt bike or 4WD, if you're not brave (or foolhardy) enough to fix it up by yourself.
One of the great white hopes for tourism in Cambodia, apparently. Why? Because it's where the hard core of the Khmer Rouge lived during the late 1980s. It's right on the border with Thailand, so the leaders could escape from Cambodia quickly if the Cambodian government soldiers got too close. The current government is trying to develop Anlong Veng as a tourist venue, and has signposted such 'sights' as the home of Ta Mok, who was the Khmer Rouge 'number three'. We went there en route to Preah Vihear, but the locals weren't very helpful about pointing out the sights; many of them are ex-KR, so maybe they don't want tourists gawping at their ex-leaders' former homes.
Where the road from Thailand forks; north to Siem Reap, south to Battambang. Not as exciting as it location would lead you to believe, but it's where you'll stop for lunch if you use a Khao San Road cattle truck to Siem Reap. On the road that runs north along the border with Thailand, there's the ruined temple complex of Banteay Chhmar ('Cat Temple'); it's nice enough, but it's a pain to get to if you don't have your own transport.