In many ways, Cambodia is the wild west of Southeast Asia. No longer overrun by gunslingers, it still bears the hallmarks of a frontier nation, a new society, albeit with ancient roots, emerging from the utter destruction inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Rules are made to be broken, politicians are all on the take, and the country is overrun by NGO workers seeking to bring order and predictability. This said, we LOVE Cambodia. Despite the inherent craziness, the people are fabulous–warm, happy, and humble–the landscape rich, and the history mindboggling. Here are the top 6 things we learned this time around:
1. Cambodia is a bargain for kids. Despite what your Vietnamese tour guide might tell you (and charge you), children’s visas are FREE as is their admission to the Angkor complexes. Score one for the family travelers!
2. Westerners lack creativity when it comes to motorized transport. The Cambodians have long been known for their ability to fit livestock, the entire contents of their homes, and nuclear families on motorbikes, but now it seems they’ve applied this riding innovation to cars and trucks as well. About an hour south of Phnom Penh we saw Cambodia’s vehicle of choice, the used Toyota Camry imported from Japan, carrying 15. Passengers sat 3 deep in back seats and even drivers carried a passenger or two on their laps. Can you imagine traveling an American highway with a couple kids on your lap?Trucks plied the dirt roads stacked high with cargo while a few dozen passengers enjoyed the fresh air and unique views afforded from the roof.
3. This is where all the Koreans have gone. It’s funny how different countries define their “it” vacation spots. Americans go to Western Europe or Cabo, Australians go to Bali, the Russians go to Turkey, and Koreans go to Cambodia. Korea is pumping a lot of money into the country–training tour guides, building infrastructure, and developing hotels–but some locals fear the splendid ruins of Angkor will soon resemble Disneyland, replete with water parks and cotton candy carts.
4. The human spirit is indomitable. The radiant smiles on the Cambodians’ faces make it easy to forget their troubled history. More than 1/3 of the population was killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, yet those who survived the genocide radiate hope and joy today. It’s hard to fathom what they endured and even harder to believe they’ve not only carried on but thrived in the aftermath.
5. $12 can make all the difference. Next time you pick up a few Value Meals from McDonald’s or order a pizza from Domino’s, pause for a moment and think about Cambodia. The $12 you spend on a single meal could put a Cambodian child through school for a whole year. Don’t feel guilty and by all means be sure to enjoy your high-fat feast, just make sure when you get home you make an online donation to the Ponheary Ly Foundation. And tell them we sent you.
6. Corrupt governments make for interesting travel opportunities. It is commonly acknowledged in Cambodia that the reason there is no paved road from Siem Reap to the Thai border at Poipet is that Bangkok Airways doesn’t want ground transport to become a comfortable alternative to their daily flights. Most believe the company provides incentives for the Cambodian government to keep the road rough. Those in a hurry or accustomed to comfort fork over a few hundred dollars to make the quick flight, while those with more time and less money pay $10-15 for a bus to the border and a connecting bus from there to Bangkok. The 3-4 hour drive to Poipet is a bumpy, dusty adventure not to be missed. Be sure to send the Cambodian powers that be a thank you note when you get to Bangkok.