Despite being sandwiched between backpacker favourites Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia remains a country that almost everybody still wants to visit. I had always earmarked Cambodia as a place where I wanted to spend a long time, rather than just head in and out again, and the cheap price of accommodation, transport, and food meant that I could achieve my dream.
Cambodia is a country that considers tourism very important and is one of the main sources of income for the country. Khmer people are extremely friendly and will always help you out in times of need, plus they have great knowledge of their country and wherever you are based they will be able to advise you on what to see and what to eat!
Siem Reap is undoubtedly my favourite place in Cambodia, although this is not just because of the Temples of Angkor. The city is just about the right size; neither too big nor too small. There is enough to see (excluding the temples) in the daytime to pad out at least a week’s stay, and it has enough nightlife and good food to ever avoid being bored in the evenings.
Yet it is clearly the Angkorian temples that provide the main interest in Siem Reap. Many, many years ago I can remember seeing pictures of Angkor Wat and thinking to myself that one day I could be there for myself. In April 2014, I visited Cambodia for the first time, and have been back a few times since! Aside from Angkor Wat, I will never forget Bayon, which is the temple with the thousand faces carved into its stonework. Some of the more cultural attractions in Siem Reap include Kampong Phluk, which is a rural water village in which residents live in stilted huts over the Tonle Sap lake.
Phnom Penh is the Cambodian capital, although it is not necessarily the first entry point to the country. Far more people will head to Siem Reap to see the wonderful temples, and then either fly out of the country again or make the journey south to Phnom Penh (PP) by bus, which seems to be a backpacker’s right of passage!
Not many of us will choose to visit PP and ignore Siem Reap, and compared to its more famous northern cousin, PP lacks tourist attractions to keep you occupied for more than a few days. That said, if you’re interested in Khmer history, you must visit the old museums of Tuol Sleng and Cheong Ek, where thousands of normal people died at the hands of the torturous Khmer Rouge regime. I will never forget the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as I walked around these museums.
Kep is a sleepy town on the coastline south of Sihanoukville and Kampot, and a 4 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. Kep is most famous for its glorious beaches (such as on Rabbit Island, which I think is one of the top beaches in South East Asia) and for its delicious fresh crabs. I will never forget the local fishermen catching the crabs in their own homemade wooden baskets, then laying them out on the beaches ready to be taken into the kitchen! There is a lovely homely feel here in Kep, which once again highlights the friendly Khmer hospitality.
Battambang is another backpacker hideout in Cambodia, and this is situated a 2 hour drive away from downtown Siem Reap. As if to highlight the rural nature of the area, the journey to Battambang can actually be taken by boat, and this is a great way to enjoy the scenery. Battambang itself is perhaps the best place to experience “rural Cambodia”, warts and all, and it will not be uncommon to see many signs of poverty. On top of that, I will never forget seeing herds of cows running down the road – made me feel like I was in India again!
Despite my love of Cambodia, I must admit that I was never too keen on the food – even if the Angkor Beer was a fantastic tipple! That said, there were some dishes and snacks that I really enjoyed, and I will never forget some delicious pumpkin custard that I purchased on a banana leaf in Siem Reap. For the more adventurous among you, there are A-Ping – delicious Cambodian fried snacks in the shape of spiders…in fact, they ARE spiders! It is a real delicacy in Cambodia, but are you brave enough to eat one? I wasn’t!
Throughout my time in Cambodia, I made some great friends and had some memorable experiences. While some of those memories will be of the poverty of the country, I will make sure that I never forget he positive memories, and it is a country that I would love to re-visit again in 2016! After all, how can you turn down another visit to Angkor Wat?!