I wish someone had told me how bad the roads were in Cambodia before I booked this trip! I’d have definitely chosen to fly instead!
We took a public bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, crossing the border with the bus. That in itself was a bit stressful and a show of how things like queuing (they don’t) differ from home! Luckily we made it pass the border without too much trouble (visa on arrival is $20 but some travel companies will charge you $25 and will fill out your paperwork and get it through for you). You can tell the difference between Vietnam and Cambodia by the road and the traffic- far less beeping going on in the Cambodian side!
We stayed two nights in Phnom Penh, the capital city. It was definitely not one of my favourite cities so far, it was all just a bit grimy to be honest. I felt like you really needed to have someone with you to show you where all the good bits were! Luckily we did! We had a ‘cyclo’ tour of the city- basically a chair with a bicycle on the back- which have us a very immersive experience with the city’s traffic. It was really rather scary at times. We had dinner at Friends restaurant- another one run by Friends International- and the food was amazing! Seriously tasty stuff. We also had drinks at the FCC (which stands for Foreign Correspondents Club I found out later) which was the host to the last interview from Pol Pot. You know, the guy who lead the Khmer Rouge to kill 3 million Cambodians in the name of communism in the 70s… Oh yeah, that’s the other thing about Cambodia- the country’s history, of which I knew only the very basics, is so awful and much of the time we spent in Phnom Penh was spent learning about it. Probably one of the reasons why we didn’t have such a jolly time there…
A half day tour took us to Tuol Sleng prison, per wise known as S21 and the location of thousands of deaths and atrocities. This high school turned prison is now open as a ‘genocide museum’, filled with pictures of its former inmates and their stories. I think of all the thousands of people who went in there only 7 survived. The prison also retains a lot of the beds, weapons and bloodstains from its former use. From the prison we had a 40 minute bus ride out of the city to one of the killing fields, the site of thousands of deaths and filled with mass graves. In some areas where they haven’t been cleared, you can see bones and teeth embedded in the ground. And the tree! The awful tree with a dark stain on the side marking when the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed babies by beating them against the tree. As I said, not a happy place but I’m glad we went. I don’t think you can truly understand this country and it’s people until you know what they’ve been through. Speaking to them, you’ll find that there’s not one person who didn’t have a relative killed in those fields.
From Phnom Penh we moved onto Siem Reap (after a crazy 8 hour bus trip on basically a dirt track in a bus with poor suspension…), a really vibrant fun city. You can tell it caters far more to the many tourists who come here to visit the amazing temples of Angkor. Lots of big hotels, restaurants, shops, pubs and clubs line the streets. The locals seem happier too but that’s probably because there’s so many tourists spending money out here!
Our guide aimed to maximise our time and chose the best must-see temples to go to including Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon and of course Angkor Wat. These places were amazing. Like serious awe-inspiring amazing. Ta Prohm, or the jungle/ Tomb Raider temple as it’s often known, was our first stop and what a start! Massive trees growing over this beautiful crumbling temple, intricate carvings overgrown with lichens. Bayon was my favourite of the temples. The big Buddha heads towering above in a temple in the centre of Angkor Thom, it’s amazing! It’s crazy to think that these were built so long ago! I don’t how they managed to accomplish such a thing!
Two days of temples and we were templed out! So to chill out we took a sunset ATV tour through the countryside. For $35 we were on the quad bikes for about 1 1/2 hours and had a private tour and a guide each (the guide’s had their own motorbikes). It was the first time I’d driven a quad bike so I was super excited. They took out through the back roads and around the rice paddies and we raced through some field to stop and watch the (non-existent) sunset. How this compares to other ATV tours I have no idea but I do know that we had a great time!
Whilst in Siem Reap we visited a charity called New Hope which was started by a Cambodian man who sold all his belongings to start a school teaching English to the local children. It’s greatly expanded since it’s humble start, recently opening up a large purpose built school and medical centre as well as a training restaurant on site. They also use their old buildings as shelter for the homeless and they do their best to get the children off the streets and into school. It’s crazy what a difference going out of Siem Reap by a few miles is in terms of the life these people have. They really do have nothing at all. They can barely afford food, a roof over their heads and if not for this charity, definitely not schooling for their children which is so important if they’re ever to break this cycle of poverty. It’s an eye opener, coming out to see these kind of villages. I’ve definitely been inspired by the people here and am looking to start sponsoring a child to go to school.
Whilst walking through the village, I got adopted by this girl:
We were able to have a look around the school there and sit in one of the classes. We chatted to some of the pupils and it’s great to see firstly, how good their English is and also, how ambitious they are. I really wish them all the best. We ate at their training restaurant as well- the food is pretty good so definitely stop by!
Our time in Cambodia flew by. There was so much to see and do- I could’ve probably spent a few more days just wandering around all the ruins of Angkor alone! It was a truly amazing experience and I’d definitely recommend it as a place to travel to!
Sadly this was the end of our tour. We made a last trip together to Bangkok where we had a final farewell dinner with our travel buddies before heading our separate ways. It’s always a sad time when you leave a group though more so this time because it signalled the end of the most amazing six months of my life spent travelling around the globe. To make up for how depressed we were feeling we booked a fancy hotel in Bangkok and spent three days shopping… Perhaps not the best use of our time but a bit of retail therapy always helps…