On the morning of Friday November 9th, I woke up early with my friends to catch a taxi to the Taoyuan Airport. After landing in Phnom Pehn, we got right to it, renting a tuk tuk and discussing our plans with its driver. I personally enjoy learning about the history of a place I am visiting, however dark. We weren’t planning to start with Choeung Ek, but I’m not disappointed that we did.
Visiting the killing fields may not seemingly be the most ideal first stop for a traveler, and trust me, it was heavy. Seeing the mass graves, now indents in the earth, the skulls of the fallen, stacked four stories high, and a tree where infants skulls were bashed against like rag dolls. There brain matter, there to be discovered after the fall of Khmer rouge. Yeah, that shit was heavy. It was something that needs to be seen though, to truly understand exactly what was suffered here, and how it was allowed to happen.
After departing and giving money to some children clearly apt at asking for it, and not a recommended thing to do. Though how couldn’t I after what I had just experienced, it would have been hard not to. Now Cambodia has its rough parts, but that’s not all of it. We had the opportunity to ride our tuk tuk to the Royal Palace, and to learn about Cambodia’s worship of both Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s King, and how their customs tie together.
We enjoyed some of Cambodia’s unique cuisine, at Titanic Restaurant, right on the river front. Then we were able to catch the fireworks, as Cambodia celebrated its Independence Day. These were beautiful experiences, and a much different Cambodia. A Cambodia trying hard to work past its history, and to establish itself in today’s world.
That evening we took a bus the six-hour trip north to Siem Reap. I will discuss busses, and my recommendations concerning those, but first I would like to talk about my proceeding days. Saturday was for touring the Wats and ruins, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. These are wondrous structures and too much to realistically tackle in one day. We did as much as we could in a day and a half and paid for it physically. I would recommend bringing some quality photography gear and allow yourself the time to explore each of these places. If you are feeling up to some history, tour guides are plentiful and will help you take some great pictures too. Also, please be respectful of the customs of these sacred places. I saw too many distressed staff and security, asking tourists to stop climbing where they shouldn’t, or to cover up with respect to the monks.
After exhausting ourselves scaling these historic places we decided to check out one of the floating villages of the rivers alongside the Tonle Sap. Right before the Tonle Sap River enters the Tonle Sap Lake, there is the village of Kampong Phluk. It’s one of Cambodia’s floating villages where the villagers live on floating homes. Tourism is a major industry for them, as they will take you on boat rides and tours of the mangrove forests in search of monkeys, birds and generally enchanting sights. If this is a venture you end up undertaking, be prepared to spend more than the initial ticket price. Tips are expected by your boat drivers and tour guides. They may be a little off putting about it, but I would try not being too bothered. Just plan for it to begin with. You will spend more than advertised.
After all of this, we caught another 6-hour bus back to Phnom Penh and had time for some last-minute photographs of some public monuments, as well as one last fantastic dinner. One thing I will complement is the food found in Cambodia. It is for the most part very healthy. There are plenty of fresh and raw veggies, that have not been boiled or fried beyond the point of goodness. Their food influences are vast, French, Indian, Chinese, and Thai, it is evident in the wide palate of flavors available.
Now I want to briefly discuss transportation in Cambodia. Tuk tuks are great and I would absolutely embrace the use of them. The drivers are fairly trustworthy, though I would take the suggestions on preferred drivers from friends if you had any who have been before. I have a great one out of Siem Reap if you’re interested. Busses though may be an entirely different story. That isn’t a statement meant to discourage the use of them, just be prepared. For one, a night bus does not mean a bus you will actually be able to sleep on. There will likely be someone, or many individuals making sleep nearly impossible for everyone else. They will also pack the bus till its bursting. Make good use of soundproof earphones, and possibly something that can cover your eyes. You may want to also set an alarm or something on your phone, so you are awake a full hour before you are supposed to arrive. The announcements are quiet. Finally, research your companies and book early. AC isn’t a guarantee and the quality of seating arrangements, as well as stops, can vary greatly.
Cambodia is a place some will write off because of its questionable situation and some less favorable tourist assessments, but here are my thoughts. The biggest annoyance I dealt with was being asked for money on occasion and aggressively asked to purchase certain items between my tuk tuk and the wherever I was headed. This would clearly bother some people, turning them off. Really though, these moments were brief and between much greater ones. When you took a quick look around, outside of the tourist hot spots, the elegant hotels, it made it hard to not feel for these people, to spend a little more. It’s even easier to respect a band of land mine victims, playing music with a donation bin out, because they have too much pride to simply sit there asking for money, relying on the sympathy their injuries would bring.
I earnestly enjoyed Cambodia. I know much more than I had previously known, and I saw firsthand what I read about or had seen in documentaries. Cambodia has its issues to work through, but there is much eagerness, genuineness, and propose being employed by its people. Other nations have risen from strife to greatness. I hope Cambodia can as well.
If you would like to check our more images from my travels, visit my Instagram page @TylerGolec and have a look around!
Tyler W. Golec