I have written this post a few times, erasing everything and starting all over again and yet I haven’t found the right words to express my mixed feeling about Cambodia.
I was already traveling for a week in Cambodia when I headed to Koh Rong. By that time I was already feeling very uncomfortable in this country, of which, surprisingly, I expected a lot. Of course, that was my biggest mistake in the first place. I know that expectations always ruin everything but yet I thought I was going to fall in love with Cambodia. People who have been there before didn’t help as well, but I guess they didn’t know how much Cambodia has changed, and not for good.
But let’s start from the beginning…
This was my first trip to SE Asia and I wasn’t originally planning to visit Cambodia. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my original plan was to go back to Europe, so I can attend a travel bloggers conference in Berlin at the beginning of March. With this as part of the plan, I wasn’t going to have enough time to go to Cambodia. Plans changed as usual and I decided to skip the conference and to stay in SE Asia a while longer. After I decided that, I had the option to choose between Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand. I added Cambodia and Vietnam to my itinerary right away.
I was excited to visit Cambodia and unfortunately, I had huge expectations about it. I have heard many great things about Cambodia and I wasn’t expecting anything but having a wonderful time and loving every second of my trip. Little did I knew that I wasn’t going to love Cambodia that much.. or at all.
I flew to Cambodia from Singapore and when I was in Singapore, I was told amazing things about the country again. I honestly couldn’t wait to arrive there and explore the country.
Arriving in Cambodia
I landed at the Phnom Phen airport and head straight to get a Visa on arrival, exchange money, and get a SIM Card. After that, I order an Uber and head straight to some hostel that I didn’t book in advance. However, everything was okay so far.
I spent the next three days in Phnom Phen. I didn’t like the city at all – it’s very polluted, there’s no way where you can simply walk because cars and motorbikes have parked wherever they want, and the majority of people when they see that you are a foreigner will try to scam you.
I also didn’t do any research in advance and wasn’t aware of Cambodia’s history or anything else. During my first day in Cambodia, I tried to do some research and that’s actually how I found out about the country tragedy past. I also found out about a book written by a girl that has survived, now a woman, and I wanted to find the book to read it and learn more about those times.
The book is called ”First they killed my father”. I found it from a random woman selling books on the street (in English) and a random man passing by recommended me to get ”Stay alive my son” as well. The second book is also the story of a man who had survived the genocide times in Cambodia. I bought both.
Back to Phnom Phen, I didn’t like the city and I was feeling very uncomfortable in it. That’s why I started planning where should I go next and I decided to head South to Sihanoukville and to the beaches.
If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, you’ll probably hear at some point about the famous Otres Beach, which is only a few km away from the town of Sihanoukville. When I arrived in the town, I jumped on a motorbike to get me to Otres Beach, which I thought I’ll like. Guess what, I didn’t.
First of all, Otres Beach is not that amazing as you might hear. In many parts, the beach is very unpleasant actually. On top of that, Otres Beach is a place where you are obviously going to be high all the time. I ended up in a place where there were no Cambodian people. The place was run by an English woman, everyone working/volunteering there was English and everyone staying there was English, too. I don’t have anything against English people, actually, it’s the opposite, I like them, but I went to Cambodia, not to the UK.
Anyway, that wasn’t such a big deal, but what I didn’t like the most is that the area is completely occupied by backpackers who see Cambodia only as a party place where they can find cheap alcohol and weed. The majority of people there were absolutely stoned all the time. I didn’t find a single person to communicate with.
By that time, I wasn’t feeling anything else but uncomfortable in Cambodia, and I didn’t like anything. The truth is that I started planning to leave Cambodia asap. After I spend two nights at Otres Beach, I head back to Sihanoukville, so I can go to Koh Rong for 2 days and then leave for Vietnam straight after. I also decided that I’m not visiting Angor Wat.
I got back in Sihanoukville and decided to kill the rest of the day on the beach. This was the most disgusting beach I’ve ever seen!! I went back to the hostel to sort my E-Visa for Vietnam. I didn’t manage to do this online, but that’s a different story.
On the next morning, I had breakfast and I got on the boat to Koh Rong. I was already so disappointed by Cambodia that I wasn’t expecting anything good from the island. The only thing that I liked doing was reading my books and learning about these hard times by people who have lived them.
After half an hour boat ride, I arrived in… paradise! Koh Rong is so beautiful and so nice!
Koh Rong is a real paradise! If it wasn’t Koh Rong, I was probably going to leave Cambodia earlier than I did and I was not going to have many good memories from my trip to Cambodia.
Once I arrived in Koh Rong everything changed. I really fell in love with this place and I had a fabulous time. It was probably the first week of my first trip to SE Asia when I almost didn’t do any work and I was having a real, proper vacation. On top of that, Koh Rong was very different than the other places I visited in Cambodia before that, and I was enjoying it so much. I was planning to spend only 2 nights there but then ended up extending my stay to a week, which was a week full of fun and relaxes.
I meet other awesome travelers that I had a great time with, I played with local Cambodian kids that were adorable and I was enjoying the white sand gorgeous beaches. I also swam with planktons. I have seen planktons before, but the ones that I saw in Koh Rong were the most amazing ones. That was on an island tour that I did in Koh Rong and it was also the best day I had in Cambodia.
For me, Koh Rong was the good part of Cambodia. Actually, it was the best! Furthermore, it is one of my favorite places that I visited in SE Asia.
But what’s my problem with Cambodia apart from Koh Rong?
In my opinion, most of the travelers only see Cambodia as a backpacker’s party destination when it’s a lot more than that. Cambodia has a very sad history that reflects on people’s lives until today. Cambodia still hasn’t recovered after those brutal times, but many visitors don’t even care or at least don’t realize that. And that’s why Cambodia is what it is today.
Rather than being drunk or high all the time, why don’t you go and support the ecotourism in Chi Pat instead? There are many other things to do in Cambodia apart from party 24/7.
A brief introduction to the recent history of Cambodia:
In Cambodia, the genocide was carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge gained control over Cambodia on April 17, 1975 – the day that changed everything in the country. The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to establish a classless state with a rural agrarian economy. During the Khmer Rouge rule, human life was disregarded and nearly two million people have been killed or died of starvation and different disease.
Although the Khmer Rouge existence was kept in secret until 1997, it is known that the party’s leader was Pol Pot, who has been touted as one of the world’s most infamous dictators.
In an attempt to transform Cambodia into rural, classless society, the Khmer Rouge shut down public schools, churches, mosques, shops, government buildings, etc. or turned them into prisons and re-education camps. Money were useless, there was no public or private transportation or private property. Public gatherings and discussions were banned during this period. The genocide ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia.
During this period people were working in the fields and kids were trained as soldiers. The food supplies were poor and people were lucky if they can get a cup of rice a day. That’s how and why the people in Cambodia started eating worms, frogs, or anything that they could find. That’s also something that remains until today, but many people don’t know why they started eating such things in the first place.
If it was not for these two books, I wasn’t going to learn so much about this time as well, but these books really made me think a lot and see Cambodia in a different way.
Known as S-21, the most important prison in Cambodia held almost 14 000 prisoners, only 12 of whom survived. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the detention and execution of these many prisoners.
This prison is located in the capital city, Phnom Phen and nowadays it’s open for visitors. I went to see it before I left Cambodia and that was after I already finished reading the books. To be honest, I don’t think that everyone would be okay seeing this place with his own eyes. In the S-21 prison, you can see photos of the prisoners, you can see some of the ”beds” that they were locked in, you can see the blood that had dried up so deeply on the floors that they weren’t able to clean, and you can also see some small ”cages” where some people have been kept in.
From a traveler’ point of view
Leaving my personal experience behind, I know that many people love Cambodia. I don’t hate Cambodia, I just didn’t like many things about it. However, I was curious if I am the only person feeling the same way about the country. It turned out that travelers who have been in Cambodia years before and have returned to the country recently didn’t love it as much as they did the first time they were there. People who have revisited Cambodia also say that many things have changed and not for good.
Cambodia might not be a safe destination to travel to
I didn’t have any concerns regarding my safety while I was in Cambodia and thankfully nothing bad ever happened to me, but some people are not that lucky. I meet a few travelers that have been robbed on the street, but that’s maybe the best bad thing that could happen to you.
I also heard stories of not just girls, but even guys being raped and the night buses are a no-no. Why? You can easily find this information on the Internet by yourself, but drivers who need to drive for many hours without any break take lots of drugs, and at some point, apparently, they just can not stay awake any longer, they fall asleep and bad incidents are happening. People are dying.
Please note that I am not trying to scare you or tell you not to visit Cambodia, but those things are happening for real and you need to know about that.
Other major problems are corruption and prostitution.
Thinking about this now, I don’t know how it occurred to me to walk 20-25 minutes from a club in Phnom Phen back to my hostel alone at 2 or 3 AM.
A few other things that I would like to mention:
Don’t buy or give to the kids
When you’re in Cambodia kids would approach you asking you to give them money or buy them something. Seeing the look on their faces might melt your heart, but if you give them or buy them something, you’ll only encourage them and their parents that begging is better than going to school and that would continue the cycle of poverty.
Kids are often being used by adults who make them do those things, but if you want to help, please do research and find legal organizations to donate to.
Massage with a happy ending or a bling massage?
Unfortunately, I found that too late, otherwise, I would have gone and done that.
There is a blind clinic in Cambodia, where you can receive a massage from blind people. These people are trained in the art of massage so that they can make their living. The initiative started with Seeing Hands and they have centers in Phnom Phen, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Kampot.
Will I go back to Cambodia one day?
Will I give Cambodia a second chance in the future? I probably will. However, I just hope that by that time it would get better and not worse.
Thanks for reading,
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