Cambodia is without doubt one of my favourite countries in the world.
The people simply cast you under a spell with their smiling faces, charm and outlook on life. It is amazing to see people who have been through so much and have so little, continually pick themselves up and carry on. It is a country steeped in history and culture; the temples of Ancient Angkor are a shining example of what this once great nation achieved in years gone by. The Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime unfortunately offers the other side of the coin in displaying the atrocities and horrors which have affected the country. These are my fist impressions of the amazing country.
Our journey began in Bangkok. We were to fly from the modern and vibrant capital city to the neighboring country’s capital city, Phnom Penh. As we flew over field after field it became evident that these two cities, though close in a geographical sense were absolute worlds apart.
We landed and after a quick hop, skip and jump found ourselves at passport controls. Landing in Bangkok is a generally smooth experience and all is very well organised. Now let’s just say Cambodia is a little different…
Imagine a line of five airport officials all sat behind a long desk. You gingerly pass your passport to the first person. You then wait as it is meticulously checked, stamped and signed by each member of the ‘visa panel’. Ten minutes pass, people who arrived last have breezed through and the lack of order is evident. Your name is called, you hand over $20 and voila! There is your shiny Cambodian visa. For me this was the first inclination that Cambodia was to be a trip filled with experiences like no other.
We picked up our rucksacks and headed out of the airport in to the great unknown in search of our driver. Driver? I hear you ask… I know this does not scream independent traveler however I had to solemnly swear to my dad that I would have an arranged form of transport when arriving in Cambodia. ‘Don’t you be jumping in any old car’ were his parting words.
The half hour journey into Phnom Penh was spent doing nothing but gawping at our surroundings in pure amazement. The first thing you feel is like you have traveled back in time slightly. Cars are old, motorbikes are falling to pieces, children are riding on bikes which might as well be a penny farthing (look it up!). We whizzed between traffic, traffic of mainly motorbikes – it seems that in Phnom Penh everyone has a motorbike, businessmen, school children, farmers carrying livestock, anyone you can possibly think of. To top it off, as with most places in Asia the challenge seems to be to get as much stuff and as many people on one bike as possible. If you manage to catch the eye of a group of children on their way home from school you are greeted with the biggest smiles you could imagine and a barrage of waving, you can’t help but feel welcome in what is such a strange country when it’s your first visit.
To me, Phnom Penh is a fantastic city, however there is a strange atmosphere, an eeriness that hangs in the air. I don’t know if I felt this because I had done my research on the countries recent history, but it unsettled me slightly. For me, travel is not just about niceties and luxury; sometimes it goes a long way towards broadening the mind and changing your outlook on life. Although this atmosphere was very sobering and thought provoking, for me it only added to the experience and made it more meaningful and special to be there.
We arrived at our lovely hotel – The 252, dropped off the bags and got out on the town. Outside our hotel was a Tuk Tuk driver ready and waiting to take us wherever our hearts/stomachs desired.
He recommended a restaurant to try some traditional Khmer cuisine and so off we went. As we pulled up at the restaurant we were immediately the attention of a group of children between the ages of 5 and 12, girls and boys trying to sell bracelets, post cards, books, DVD’s, anything. The children are desperate for money, not just to provide food for their families (if they even have one), but to afford to go to school.
They are desperate to learn but are set back by the poverty in the city. After buying a few things and chatting to the children (whose English were excellent) we tucked into a lovely meal of Khmer vegetable curry and fish amok.
As we left the restaurant, our Tuk Tuk man was waiting outside. We didn’t ask him to wait, but the market is flooded with drivers and he decided to wait to get some more business for the night. The man took us on a tour of Phnom Penh, calling in at various bars for drinks and seeing a few landmark sights. At the end of the night he dropped us off at the hotel where we had a very strange conversation. We didn’t arrange a price for a full night of bar hopping, so when I asked what was owed I was a bit apprehensive; however we weren’t prepared for him to say “you decide”. How do you pull a price out of thin air? Thailand prices would be quite expensive for a full night – is it similar? In the end Tom asked him to name a price. He was so nervous to eventually tell him wanted $7 for the full night. Whether this is the going rate or not was irrelevant to us. We decided to pay well over the quoted price. The drivers in Phnom Penh struggle for work and can go days without earning more than a few dollars so to help this man and his family (who he told us all about) was more than worth it.
After sinking a few beers we were ready for a well deserved rest.
The best bit about this trip, and the memory which stays with me from Cambodia was seeing children from the countryside and their life at first hand. These people have nothing of material worth, some of the children don’t even have clothes but I have never seen so many smiles and happy faces all at the same time. As you are heading towards a village, the children hear the sound of the quad bikes and line the streets waving, waiting for high 5’s and love posing for pictures and trying to chase you! What a fantastic experience this was, to meet people who have nothing but make the most of their lives and be so happy – it was a real wake up call to me to realize just how lucky we are and to put it simply, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Meeting the locals of the village communities surrounding Phnom Penh really summed this up for me.
The unspoiled beauty of Cambodia really is breathtaking, driving past endless rice fields, farm land, and people working in the hot sun is a beautiful sight and doing a quad biking trip lets you get out there and see it all. The trip was for the full day and involved travelling around 20km on a round trip through various villages, whilst stopping for lunch on a beautiful lake.
After finishing the quad bike tour we got dropped off at the “Killing Fields”. There is a slight misleading element to this site, because whilst this is one of many sites where mass executions took place and mass graves were built, it is only one of thousands which are scattered across the country. What is here which is important is information on what went on, and a memorial to those who lost their lives during this tragedy. For the full day it was glorious sunshine, then when we arrived at the Killing Fields the heavens opened, it was almost fitting that such a depressing scene could only be accompanied by dark clouds and rain. A visit here is not necessarily enjoyable, but it is something that I feel all visitors to Cambodia should experience if only to educate yourself on what is still a subject not often taught or talked about in the UK or overseas.
We jumped back in the Tuk Tuk and headed back to Phnom Penh city. After about 20 minutes of the 45 minute journey we pulled in at the side of the road – we had a puncture. We didn’t stop at your traditional garage or repair shop, more of a tin shack at the side of the road with someone who could fix things!
We sat and waited, looking out on the rain. The repair man tried repeatedly to fix the punctured inner tubing with some form of tape; however this was not going to work. The Tuk Tuk driver was desperate for this method to work (it turns out that a new inner tube was about a weeks’ salary). To sweeten the deal he handed round some beers and got one for himself, we all said cheers and sat back and relaxed. He finally had to admit defeat in that he was going to have to fork out. We were back on the road, but not without first paying for the beers he had given out! These were assumed to be a gift and a show of good will, however we had to pay, and he even got a free one for himself! In any other country this might cause you to question the man, but the sheer cheek and the friendly nature makes sure that you just laugh it off and smile.
We eventually made our way back to the hotel for a lovely relaxed meal and a few drinks before an early night followed. We had an early morning start making the 5 hour coach trip to Siem Reap.
To follow in part two