We started our tour of Cambodia in its capital, Phnom Penh. Having heard mixed reviews about the city itself, we had fairly tempered expectations going in and, in the end, our overall impression of the city was probably mixed. Phnom Penh seemed to have clusters of areas with clean, tree-lined boulevards and then clusters of areas with dirty, dusty roads. The difference between the wealthier and poorer neighbourhoods was very apparent here. Moreover, while the city had a few architectural gems, Phnom Penh likely wouldn’t win too many beauty contests.
Nevertheless, we would still consider Phnom Penh an essential stop in order to visit the former Khmer Rouge Prison (S-21) and the Killing Fields – to begin to understand Cambodia today, it’s essential to understand the ongoing effect that the Khmer Rouge reign of terror has had on the country. Led by Pol Pot (an extreme Maoist), Khmer Rouge forces overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975. To realize Pol Pot’s radical restructuring of society into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative, city-dwellers across the country were forced to leave their homes and march into the countryside. Within days, every urban area in the country became a ghost town. All of Cambodia essentially became a massive slave-labour camp where death by starvation and disease was rampant. Thousands of suspected dissenters were also imprisoned, tortured and executed. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during its three and a half year rule.
Security Prison 21 (S-21) in Phnom Penh, now a museum, is where over 17,000 detainees were held, interrogated and tortured during the Khmer Rouge reign. From the prison, almost all of the detainees were transferred 14km away to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where they were executed. To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned most of its victims to death. Sadly, S-21 and the Choeung Ek killing fields are but two of many other prisons and killing sites across the country.
As tourist sites, both S-21 and the Killing Fields are incredibly difficult to visit – the level of violence is simply incomprehensible. At S-21, the old cells and torture instruments remain on display. At the Killing Fields an excellent audio-guide leads you through a number of mass graves and a memorial containing 8,000 skulls of the victims.
After three nights in Phnom Penh, we headed to Kep, a small city on the south coast. A former retreat for the French colonialists, Kep is making a comeback with several beautiful hillside resorts. While the beach in Kep was not spectacular, the pool at our resort was and this made for some relaxing late afternoons. Apart from taking it easy, we did a short walk around the Kep National Park and rented a scooter to visit Kampot, a nearby riverside town. Kep also has some excellent seafood eateries perched over the ocean (the Crab Market) – we tried a restaurant named Kimly and were treated to an incredible prawn curry and peppered crab.
From Kep we headed west to Sihanoukville (Cambodia’s seaside playground) for a one night layover. Since we got into town at a decent hour we took a tuk-tuk to Independence Beach, one of Sihanoukville’s tamer beaches. In the end, we spent a very relaxing afternoon at a seaside restaurant and then on a sun lounger.
The following morning, we boarded a boat to Koh Rong Saloem, one of several beautiful islands just off the coast of Sihanoukville. On Koh Rong Saloem, we stayed at the Lazy Beach Resort, a collection of 19 somewhat-rustic bungalows on a private stretch of white sand in a private bay. Look up paradise in the dictionary and there should be a picture of this place. Although there were a few walks that we could have done on the island, the most activity that we ended up doing was a little bit of snorkelling and badminton. Our hammocks were just to hard to leave unoccupied for any substantial stretch of time.
Lazy Beach hit all the right notes with us. It wasn’t 5-star luxury, but it was quiet and secluded. The food was absolutely delicious, with various Cambodian and Western options. And the staff (many of which were from England and Australia as well as Cambodia) were really friendly. It was obvious that it had been a while since a group of guests were up for a couple drinks with the staff, because a couple drinks quickly turned into more than a few drinks. While a bit of a party on the first night, our second night was much more subdued – a bonfire on the beach. Finally (and perhaps best of all) one of the Australian workers had spent five years living in Golden, BC (of all places) and had accumulated some caesar mix, which made for a very nice afternoon. Our only regret about Lazy Beach was only spending three nights. That said, if we hadn’t had our bookings for onward travel we may have never left.
So after getting horizontal on Koh Rong Saloem, we had to transit through Phnom Penh for a night in order to make it to Battambang the following day. We spent two nights in Battambang, which is Cambodia’s second biggest city. Although Battambang has a population over 200,000, it’s so tranquil that it feels much smaller. On our first evening in Battambang, we went to a circus put on by a non-profit organization that provides artistic training for youth. The performance was actually really good and a whole lot of fun.
During our one full day in Battambang, we explored the town centre in the early afternoon and then rented a scooter to explore some sights in the surrounding countryside, which included the ruins of an Angkor temple and a Buddhist temple. Before heading back to town, we stopped at the mouth of a cave at dusk to witness about 4 million bats fly away for the night – a pretty neat, if not stinky, experience.
From Battambang we headed to Siem Reap in order to visit Cambodia’s main tourist draw: the Temples of Angkor (Angkor Wat). With dozens of temples to visit, we were kept very busy during our three days in Siem Reap – so much so that our temple touring warrants a separate (future) post!
Sadly, Siem Reap was our last stop in Cambodia – from there we flew to Luang Prabang in Laos. The decision to fly rather than take the bus was a no-brainer given the amount of ground we hoped to cover in a fairly short period of time. It’s worth mentioning that the buses in Cambodia were painfully slow, averaging only about 40km per hour which turned a 200km trip into a full day affair.
Although our visit to Cambodia was relatively short, we’re thankful that we had the opportunity to explore many of its beautiful landscapes and to learn a little about its past. And with its creamy fish amoks and chicken curries, the food in Cambodia was so delicious. Our fondest memory of Cambodia though will certainly be its people. We bet you would be hard pressed to find a more kind, polite and gentle society anywhere else on earth – pretty impressive given that the wounds from its recent history are still healing.