Travel Blog: Happy New Year from Cambodia

Rabbit island. Image courtesy of Neil Starr.

Although I’m not actually in Cambodia, I thought I’d make my first blog post of 2015 about the Khmer country, where I was lucky enough to celebrate Christmas and see in the New Year. This was not my first time in Cambodia. I had previously visited the country for nine days as part of a six-month travelling trip  in 2008. Back then I visited the more touristy destinations of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, which wasn’t actually touristy in 2008 but is now, so I hear, and Siem Reap for the great Angkor Temples (truly a must for any traveller).

Angkor temple.

Back then, through my new-to-Asia 23 year-old eyes Cambodia was simply crazy. By far the dirtiest (lots of rubbish everywhere) place I had ever encountered where poverty was ubiquitous – a westerner symbolised pure money – and boat and bus travel was particularly hair raising. Cambodia prepared me well for the rest of South East Asia.

Cambodia had its charms, however; the people for the most part were friendly and giggly and the landscape raw and utterly enchanting.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures to show you as  in 2008 the internet in Cambodia was atrocious – now wifi is available everywhere for your smart phone – and I lost my camera shortly after leaving the country.

Six years later, Cambodia seems different to me.

Perhaps it’s the different route we took – from Phnom Penh to the riverside town of Kampot to the seaside town of Kep to the Koh Kong province – and the fact I’m now an experienced traveller. But I don’t think this is entirely the case.

Formerly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979, which cost approximately 2 million lives, Cambodia is now receiving a lot of investment interest from abroad, mostly from China. The beach town of Sihanoukville, for example, six years ago had only three or four bars on its main beach. Now I hear it’s lined one end to the other with beach bars, Koh Phangnan (Thailand’s full moon party destination) style, and has a somewhat seedy reputation.

Phnom Penh riverside

Phnom Penh is less dirty than I remember – holes in roads were being dug to dump rubbish then – and now the formerly boarded up riverfront is lined with international flags and offers a nice view. This time there was also much less begging (in fact we encountered none in three days) from adorably cute but poverty stricken children and mothers with babies. There were also more cars this time, as opposed to mottos or tuk tuks, on the road.

However, Cambodia is still a very poor country. It’s 143 in the 2013 International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database of countries from rich to poor. This is way behind neighbouring Thailand at 85.  But as was evident to me, economically Cambodia is improving. According to 2012 data from the World Bank, 17.5% of the Cambodian population lives below the national poverty line, compared to 45% of the population in 2007.

Still, many young Cambodians I spoke to complained of having to work two jobs to make enough money to support themselves and to send money to their families, with no help or pension from the government. Many from poor families cannot continue with education. (Unsurprisingly Cambodians think we have it extremely easy in the UK. “You get money if you don’t work???” “You are lucky the government pays for you when you retire”.  And, of course, in comparison we are very lucky).

Despite their hardships Cambodians are delightful and always friendly and smiley and happy to practise their English. It’s customary for strangers in the street to say hello and children to get excited by the presence of westerners.

So, basically, if you’re considering going, I say: do it! There’s something for everyone and this rapidly changing country is likely to only get more touristy very quickly.

S21 in Phnom Penh where hundreds of pictures of Khmer Rouge victims can be seen.

The Killing Fields and former school turned torture prison S21 in Phnom Penh (I visited these on my first trip but not my second) are heartbreakingly sad but an opportunity to understand Cambodia through its tragic history. There’s also several markets and further out you can shoot real guns, if  you so wish, and ride go karts. I’ve heard you can also shoot lame ducks, a cow or launch a bazooka or grenade if you pay enough money.

The Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap speak for themselves. I’m gutted time didn’t permit me to do these a second time.

Kampot river cruise.

Kampot offers river front views, along which you can take a boat equipped with a bar for an Apocalypse Now-esque boat ‘cruise’. There’s cheap massages and caving. Note the main cave trip on offer is very small, experienced cavers will be disappointed but novices will enjoy it. I think the trip is worth doing just for the bumpy ride through the village to get there. There’s also some ‘rapids’ – which aren’t very rapid at all but rather laid back and gentle, though perfect for picnicking and a paddle.

Rabbit island
Rabbit island. Image courtesy of Neil Starr.

In Kep you’ll find an abundance of ridiculously cheap crab ($7.50 for a generous meal for two), a beach (not the best you’ll of seen) but a half hour boat ride will take you to Rabbit Island, named so because it, apparently, resembles the shape of a rabbit, where the sea is divine and there’s nothing to do but chill in hammocks and swim. There’s also a local national park with several trails you can follow.

View of the river from a view point in Koh Kong national park.

Koh Kong, the least touristy of all the places mentioned in this blog, is close to the border of Thailand (near Trat, Koh Chang island and further along, Pattaya) therefore Thai money is often taken in shops. It’s much quieter at night here but there are still some nice places to eat and drink and the street food venues by the expansive river offer a nice place to chill with some beers. The main draw here is the long tail boat ride up the Cardamom Mountains where you can do trekking and waterfall swimming. I’ve done a lot of waterfall swimming in Asia and these were one of the best. The fall itself isn’t massive but the swimming is lovely. There’s also a trip to Koh Kong island, but be warned the 2.5 hours boat journey there is more like 3 hours and the same on the return, but once there its crystal clear waters and deserted beach. Someone did try to sell us the same trip but with an apparently faster boat but we’d already booked with another operator so I can’t tell you for certain if it is actually faster.

Crab 3
Grilled crab with a side of Kampot pepper in Kep.

Lastly, Cambodia is so bloody cheap! A Tuk Tuk ride averages at $2 or $1 per person. A beer costs anything from $1 to 50 cents. A decent red or green curry costs around $2-$3. A five hour bus journey costs $6, with aircon and most likely either loud Khmer music or a Michael Jackson DVD playing on the TV at the front of the bus. On one bus ride we were treated to Apocalypto – you know, that family friendly film directed by Mel Gibson.  And, most revelatory to me, they have WINE – loads of it! It’s all imported and for $3 a glass I certainly wasn’t complaining.

When I first went to Cambodia I felt it was slightly harder work than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam but I no longer feel this is completely the case. Yes you have to work slightly harder for the gorgeous beaches and you don’t have massive shopping malls (to me this is a good thing) but everything else is on par with Thailand and Vietnam but with less tourists (Sihanoukville and Siem Reap are exceptions), cheaper prices and with the most wonderful people.

Rubbish along Koh Kong river.

My tips for travelling in Cambodia:

  • If things don’t go smoothly…relax! You’re in South East Asia, things happen on another time scale there and there’s not much you can do about it, so just go with it.
  • Be prepared for the odd hole in the ground toilet – there are far fewer than six years ago but they still do exist. Carry tissue and hand sanitiser. Note: toilet roll mostly goes in a basket and not down the toilet.
  • Tip – I’m not sure what the official tipping culture in the country is, or if there is one even, but giving a dollar or two to a waiter or driver can make all the difference and costs you next to nothing. My friends and I tipped at 10% and usually gave a tuk tuck driver an extra dollar.
  • Remember to cover shoulders and upper thighs when visiting temples and holy sites.
  • Ditch the heels. There are barely any pavements let alone smoothly surfaced roads so heels aren’t the best option.

Recommended places to stay:

  • Asia Hotel, Phnom Penh, $25 for a double room – clean and with fresh flowers. The deluxe rooms are massive.
  • Bacoma, Kep, $25 for a double room – gorgeous surroundings, lovely huts, nice food.
  • Reaksmey Krong Kep Guesthouse, Kep, $25 for a double room – clean, very efficiently run and comfortable.
  • My cousin recommends Mea Culpa, Kampot,$25 for a double room. Big thanks to my cousin and her husband who organised most of this trip and through who I know about most of these hotels in the first place.
  • KT Hotel, Koh Kong – I never stayed here but did use the toilet and it looked very nice.

Coming soon…Cambodian food blog. Then I promise to stop talking about my holiday…