We have just finished a relatively short 10-day trip in Cambodia. It was a fascinating and interesting country, yet, at times, also a bit frustrating. While it shares some similarities with Thailand and Laos, it also has some distinct differences. Overall, we’re glad we decided to visit Cambodia. We thought we’d sum our trip up by talking about 4 things we loved about Cambodia, and 2 things we didn’t. Here goes.
4 Things We loved About Cambodia
(1) Learning About The Tragic History of the Khmer Rouge
This really hit home for us because of how recently the events occurred. As our loyal readers know, we have always been interested in WWII history. However, we’ve always felt a bit disconnected from it because the events occurred so long before we (or even our parents) were born.
In the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Communist Party that tried to enforce agricultural reform to bring about a pure agrarian communist society through violence and torture, they ruled the country with an iron fist until as recently as 1979. It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the death of roughly 2 million Cambodians during 1975-1979 (a staggering 25% of the country’s population at the time). And did you know that the Khmer Rouge held onto its UN seat until 1996 and didn’t fully surrender until 1999? Many of its leaders didn’t go to trial for crimes against humanity until only a few years ago.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
To learn more about this tragic history, we visited two main sites. The first was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S-21 as it was called Security Prison 21 during the Khmer Rouge regime. S-21, originally a high school, imprisoned approximately 17,000 people over a 4 year period, mostly academics, doctors, artists, and teachers (basically anyone with an education), as well as political opponents. Prisoners were beaten and tortured, sometimes up to 3 times a day, and forced to implicate friends and family. Out of all the prisoners ever kept at S-21, only 7 survived.
The Killing Fields
The other must-see site in Phnom Penh is the Killing Fields. Located a 45 minute drive by tuk-tuk out of the city centre, this is where the actual executions took place. Prisoners were brought here by truck, and often executed the same night and their bodies buried in mass graves.
Both sites were reasonably inexpensive (US$6/person) and included free audio guides in English. These were some of the best museums we’ve visited in awhile. Similar to visiting former concentration camps in Poland or Germany, we think it’s vital to remember, recognize and learn from these events, to hopefully prevent something similar from happening in the future.
(2) The Angkor Wat Archeological Park
This is why most people come to Cambodia – to see the Angkor Wat temple. The park itself, just outside the city of Siem Reap, covers over 400 square kilometers and includes countless temples and remains of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. The best known temples are Angkor Wat, the Bayon Temple in the Angkor Thom complex, and the Ta Prohm temple (best known as a filming site for Angelina Jolie’s movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).
We spent two days touring around the main temples, as well as a few lesser known ones, on a tuk-tuk until we were thoroughly “templed out”. As they say in Southeast Asia, “same same, but different”. They were impressive, and the sheer scale of the civilization is amazing. But the extreme heat and humidity and the hordes of tourists do detract from the experience a bit. In many ways, we preferred the Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand. And don’t get us started on the cost of visiting the temples (actually we’ll talk about that below).
(3) Getting Out of the Cities and Into the Countryside
Part of what we enjoyed about visiting the temples was getting out of the city and exploring the countryside. Phnom Penh was crazy and busy, and Siem Reap was better but still busy, so it was nice to see some of “real Cambodia” from the backseat of a tuk-tuk.
The highlight of our entire time in the country was probably visiting the village of Kompong Khleang on Tonle Sap Lake. This is one of the “floating villages”, so-called because all of the houses are built on stilts up to 30 feet tall. During the wet season, Tonle Sap Lake increases in water volume by 4-5x! Kompong Khleang, and many other villages, get completely flooded. The houses then look like they’re “floating” on the water’s surface, and the only way to get around is by boat.
Essentially all of the villagers depend on fishing in the lake for survival and a source of income. Combined with the relative remoteness of the village, most children have few opportunities for any formal education. We took our tour of the village and lake with Bridge of Life School, a charity that uses proceeds from the tours to build schools in these remote communities. The tour was really interesting and informative, in large part because our guide grew up in the village and his family still lives there.
(4) Some Things Were Really Cheap
Hey, we’re unemployed and homeless…we’re going to try to save money when we can! Cambodia provided us with plenty of opportunities for US$1 fresh fruit smoothies, inexpensive tuk-tuks for getting around, and plates of fried rice or noodles for as little as US$1.25. Then, after a long day exploring, we could get a massage for under US$5/hr.
One of the best deals was the hotels. Up until now, we’ve generally been staying in what would be considered 1-star or, at best, 2-star guesthouses. In both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, we were able to stay in fantastic hotels with big rooms, air conditioning, free breakfast and even a pool for less than US$40/night. Not a bad deal, if we do say so ourselves. Sure, we could have saved a bit of money and stayed somewhere even less expensive. But every once in awhile, you gotta treat yo’ self!
And Now For A Couple Things We Didn’t Like
Massive Price Inflation at Tourist Attractions
Yes, we did say some things were cheap. But that wasn’t always the case. Tourist attractions, in particular, are getting much more expensive. While the S-21 and Killing Fields museums are still affordable at US$6/person, they recently only cost US$3. We didn’t bother visiting the Royal Palace or the National Museum in Phnom Penh because the entry price for each had recently doubled from US$5 to US$10.
However, the worst, without a doubt, was the temples outside Siem Reap. To see any of the temples, you need to buy a pass. And don’t think about sneaking in, entrance to each and every temple is strictly guarded by ticket checkers. If only traffic cops in Cambodia were this diligent! Passes are available for 1, 3, or 5 days. We found out after we arrived in Siem Reap that the 1-day passes had increased in price on February 1, 2017 from US$20/person to US$37/person. 3-day passes increased from US$40/person to US$62/person. Ouch!
Since we were in town for several days, and no one would come here if it weren’t for the temples, we bought 3-day passes. When you add on top of that the cost for a tour or tuk-tuk (US$15 – US$25 per day) to actually see the temples, it really adds up. And what makes it even worse is that very little (if any) of the money seems to be going back to support the local communities or even to the upkeep of the temples themselves. Most of the temples are being maintained by foreign governments, as signs at each temple attest.
Several locals we met confirmed to us that the Cambodian government drastically under reports the number of annual temple visitors, hence misreporting the tourism revenue; most of the money appears to go directly in officials’ pockets. Well, what can you expect from a country that is ranked the 20th most corrupt out of 175 countries? This frustrated us given the significant number of Cambodians that still struggle with poverty, lack of education, and affordable healthcare (like those we saw in Kompong Khleang).
In fact, the higher prices likely hurt the local guides, drivers, and anyone else depending on tourism for their livelihood. We might have considered hiring a guide to show us around one or two of the biggest temples, if we hadn’t felt so ripped off just buying the passes. Siem Reap ended up being the most expensive place we’ve been in Southeast Asia, just because of the cost of seeing the sights. In contrast, viewing the beautiful ancient temples in Sukhothai, Thailand cost us C$4 for a day pass.
Playing Frogger in Phnom Penh
Thailand and Laos were easy to get around in comparison. Trying to cross a street in Phnom Penh (and Siem Reap to a lesser extent) felt like playing Frogger. There are few, if any, traffic lights or signs. Even where there are, no one follows them. It’s the wild wild west with no laws! The scooters are the worst. They run red lights and often drive on the wrong side of the road. The trick is just starting to cross the street, and hope/pray the scooters swerve around you. At least it proved to be good practice for Vietnam, which is supposed to be even worse.
Summing It All Up
We said it before, we’ll say it again. Cambodia was fascinating, interesting, and frustrating all at once. We weren’t sure how much we would enjoy the country before arriving, so overall we were pleasantly surprised. If we are in Southeast Asia again (and we know we will be), it would be interesting to see a bit more of the country like Kampot or the beaches of Sihanoukville. But if price inflation keeps going at it’s current pace, we’ll have to come back soon before we can no longer afford it. 😉
Cambodia has so many great things to see, many of which we didn’t get to on this trip. For a great post on the top sites of Cambodia check out this article on the 15 Best Places to Visit in Cambodia.