Kingdom of Wonder: Cambodia

Cambodia: The Phnom Penh Skyline

The Phnom Penh Skyline

Sandwiched between its cooler cousins Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is often overlooked as a travel destination. Undeveloped, raw, and with a turbulent history, cosseted travelers are likely to give it a miss, but those of a more intrepid nature will be offered rich reward. And as one of the cheapest destinations in Asia, not to mention return flights from Guangzhou for as little as 2,000 RMB (coming in at just 2 hours and 45 minutes), it is a good bet for any PRD residents who face a break, be it short or long.

Landing in the capital, Phnom Penh, screws with your head. Scorching heat blasts down as dozens of tuk-tuk drivers scramble around, desperate for a fair. They charge whatever they can, but eight US dollars should cover it–the Cambodian currency is the Riel (about 4,000 to the USD), but you are best to take US dollars, which are accepted everywhere. Thirty minutes in and you hit the city center The capital is a curious one. Go back four decades, before the, now infamous, Khmer Rouge took power and the city was known as the Pearl of Asia, one of the most glamorous cities in the region, offering all things to all men. However the Communist Khmer Rouge government (1975-79) largely destroyed the nation, committing genocide on its people, mercilessly killing up to 20 percent of the population. Cambodia was left with the deepest of scars, and has been in recovery ever since.

You’ll see all types: pudgy red-faced expats snoozing into dollar beers, street kids hustling to earn a dollar where they can, or perhaps some of the city’s bar girls, smothered in bright red lipstick as they head out to work the night shift.

But it has been a hell of a recovery. Today the Kingdom of Wonder offers a little bit of everything: from beaches and temples, to nightclubs and fine dining; and in Angkor Wat, just outside Siem Reap, a cluster of architectural monuments that vies for place as one of the most stunning tourist destinations in the world.

The capital
Phnom Penh days come in many guises: one might start by breakfasting on a chilled coconut, with a steaming bowl of noodle soup, followed by a visit to Wat Phnom, one of the city’s finest temples—inhabited by a troop of monkeys that gaze down on you as you gaze down on giant Buddhas—followed by the laziest of lunches, for those of you that don’t fancy weird local delicacies such as fried tarantula or red ant rice, the city offers some of the best value western cuisine in Asia—anything from Shepherd’s Pie through to Foie Gras. The evening is perhaps best spent people watching, on the riverside in the north of the city—you’ll see all types: pudgy red-faced expats, snoozing into their dollar beers, street kids hustling to earn a dollar, or perhaps some of the city’s bar girls, smothered in bright red lipstick as they head out to work the night shift.

Cambodia: Buddhist Monks Resting by the Phnom Penh Riverside

Buddhist Monks Resting by the Phnom Penh Riverside

A tragic history
For the more serious minded, a tour of the city’s tragic recent history is essential. It is by no means a fun day, but it will give you an insight into the horrors that man is capable of when he is at his worst. S21, which now serves as a genocide museum, was a former school in the heart of Phnom Penh that was used as a makeshift prison to hold and torture thousands and thousands of people deemed disloyal to the Khmer Rouge, many for committing meaningless crimes such as having an education or even for simply wearing glasses. If that isn’t horrific enough, go to the Killing Fields afterwards. These small fields are where the prisoners were sent when they were no longer of use. Innocent men, women, children were brutally killed and thrown into mass graves. A day spent at S21 followed by the Killing Fields is not for the faint hearted but is cause for deep contemplation.

For many the jewel in Cambodia’s crown is not Phnom Penh but Siem Reap, a city some 300 kilometers to the north. It is certainly more touristy, and for one good reason: Angkor Wat, the set of 12th century temples that form the largest collection of religious buildings in the world. But be sure to give them at least two days, a day barely gives you time to scratch the surface.

If you want to skip the culture and just beach out instead, Cambodia’s got you covered. Sihanoukville, a small beach city 270 Kilometers south-west of the capital that once had a reputation for reputation for junkies, alcoholics and deathpats, it is much changed today. Those that can’t quite handle the scuzz of the city would do well to check out Otres Beach. A fifteen minute tuk-tuk ride from the town center it offers one of the cleanest, most chilled-out beaches in the nation, and has none of the overcrowding associated with, say, some of the neighboring Thai islands.