Sandwiched between several countries in the middle of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a very different reputation than its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors. We heard many different rumors about Cambodia from other backpackers:
“You can shoot cows and even human prisoners with rocket launchers!”
“If you want to get high, you can find anything imaginable there for the right price”
“It’s poor and dirty and not worth it”
“Its years behind the progress of its neighbors”
“The food is a less spicy and less tasty version of Thai food”
While these rumors were a bit intimidating, we are not ones to be swayed by the opinions of others and we were still excited to see the beautiful temples and Khmer culture in action. We boarded a bus that would take us from Bangkok to Siem Reap, a journey that would take 8 hours as the roads are relatively small and crowded with motorbikes.
Side note: if we never see another motorbike again, it would be too soon.
Siem Reap is a town 100% built and funded by tourism due to its lucky proximity to the Angkor ruins. Within about 5 seconds after getting off our bus, we were bombarded by tuktuk drivers vying for our service. This profession is especially important in Siem Reap; the temples are a fair ways out of town, and you either have to buy a tuktuk driver, rent a motorbike, or pedal your way out to the ruins.
We were assigned a young man by the English name of Chad to drive us to our hostel. Immediately, I liked him. Taylor was more guarded at first (probably rightly so), but when Chad made his pitch to drive us to the temples for 3 days and take us to the floating villages for free, I was sold.
In our short drive to the hostel, Chad shared that he was 25 and lived many kilometers outside of town with his grandma and younger sister. We never quite did have the nerve to ask about his parents. He drove the tuktuk to support them all while his sister finished university, and then she would also find a job. As he dropped us off at our hostel, he said “See you tomorrow! Remember, I’m Chad; bad boy, good heart!” We laughed as he drove off and couldn’t believe our good luck in finding such an awesome driver for the next 4 days.
The next day, Chad picked us up and we headed to the Tonle Sap, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The water even changes the direction of its flow every year due to the heavy rainy season. Many people literally live on the water, evading taxes by building their homes on plastic barrels.
We rented out our own private boat, picked up beer and snacks, and drove along the river until it opened up onto the lake. It is an enormous expanse of water, and the setting sun lit up the waves with beautiful reds and purples.
We stopped at Chad’s favorite snack shack and ate spicy fish and beef jerky right next to a giant crocodile tank.
It was interesting to hear their perspective on Cambodian politics; although they have “elections”, the prime minister has been in power for almost 40 years and corruption is rampant from the top down. According to Chad, the younger people want change, but the older generations are perfectly fine with the relative peace and stability this prime minister represents and would rather not risk any ounce of upheaval.
It’s a perspective that is understandable in many respects. A massive genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot occurred only 40 years ago, wiping out 25% of the Cambodian population and essentially erasing an entire generation. This horror is rarely discussed in the US, despite our heavy involvement, and is something that has shocked Tay and I with its brutality.
After enjoying our meal, we got back into the boat and drove back to the dock in the dark, watching the houses with their gently swaying hammocks and generator-powered lights whizzing by. It was truly a magical evening, a moment of being completely connected and enveloped by a new culture and enjoying the company.
The next day, we began our 3 day tour of the temples surrounding Siem Reap. It was awe-inspiring to see the intricate details hidden in every inch of these massive structures. Many were in differing stages of decay, some with trees taking over the open spaces in the walls, while others had been meticulously restored almost to full glory by archaeologists. It was truly impressive to see structures from the 10th and 11th centuries still standing today.
Although getting up at 4am to see Angkor Wat in all its glory at sunrise was fantastic, many of the temples were extremely crowded with people, especially once a large tour bus would arrive and empty its contents all at once. The amount of times we had to go around selfie takers and avoid impromptu photo shoots was mildly frustrating. I made my fair share of snide comments, don’t worry.
After our whirlwind tour of almost all of the temples around Siem Reap, we booked tickets to see Phare, a circus performed by young at-risk and impoverished youth. It had fantastic reviews and it was something different, so we were excited.
It did not disappoint! The live music was excellent, the acrobatics and gymnastics were impressive, and there was even a gay storyline which we were surprised by. Overall, an awesome way to spend an evening out!
Our last day in Siem Reap, Chad invited us out to his cousin’s village to see the countryside, enjoy some traditional food, and have lots of beer. Driving out on the highway to the village in a tiny tuktuk was a little nerve wracking, but seeing the crowded buildings give way to endless rice paddies and a giant expanse of flat land was worth the risk. We even stopped at a roadside stand to get kralan, a Cambodian snack of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with beans stuffed in a bamboo rod and charred over a fire. The hot rice scalded our fingers but it was so delicious we powered through!
We also picked up a couple fresh chickens for dinner on our way. One of the talons touched my foot and I screamed; Chad couldn’t stop laughing.
We arrived in the village and were quickly the main attraction, soon being joined in the tuktuk by 5 of Chad’s cousins who couldn’t wait to see the Westerners. We were quickly welcomed into their living room, which was the space under their house, complete with hammocks and tables. We sang karaoke, chased the little boys around the yard, drank copious amounts of beer, and ate the freshly cooked chicken and vegetables.
It was such an authentic cultural experience that was so special to both of us; Chad kept saying how happy he was that we had come with him to the village, and we tried to express that we were equally happy to get a glimpse into true everyday Cambodian life. What an experience.
This kid was very wary of the Westerners in his house
After getting drunk under the table by the Cambodian women, Chad drove us back to the hostel and we tearfully said goodbye. He was such a kind, humble, genuine man and we truly wish him the best.
The next morning, hungover and reeling, it was time to take another long bus ride south to the capitol, Phnom Penh, where we had reserved five nights to explore the city and it’s history.
This was a mistake. If you have to go to PP, even 1 or 2 days is enough. It’s miserably hot, polluted and a constant traffic jam in the streets. We tried to walk, but cars just park on the sidewalk, so we’d have to go in the road to get around them. I also got a stomach bug (or Hep A) a couple days in which rendered me useless for most of our time there. Big shout out to Taylor for taking great care of me ☺️
The genocide museum and Killing Fields were horrific and a must-see if you go. The museum is the old security prison, essentially preserved as it was found when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Blood splatters are still on the walls and ceilings, cells are all still intact, and the endless rooms of mugshots of prisoners are absolutely chilling. The Killing Fields, with their long stretches of mass graves, also bring you too close for comfort, with decaying clothes still poking up from the soil and a giant tower of skulls encased in glass in the center.
After these sobering experiences, however, there is not much else to do unless you like questionable Cambodian street drugs and partying. We toured the Royal Palace just to stretch our legs and get out of the hostel, but we mostly just found ourselves biding our time until our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
We don’t know if our time in Phnom Penh was less enjoyable just because Siem Reap was so incredible for us, but this is one of the only places on our entire trip we said we could’ve done without. Needless to say, we were thrilled to finally land in Hanoi, where a slight drizzle and cooler temperatures greeted us.
Overall, Cambodia for us was a land of extremes in many different respects. Of course there is the extreme poverty contrasted with the signs of the obvious wealth of government officials, or the dense urban streets compared to the sprawling countryside. But boiled down, it was the striking difference between making a genuine local connection and floundering in a giant city that seemed too busy and too massive to break into.
On to the next!