Stop and think of Cambodia and the first images that probably come to your mind are crumbling, dusty jungle temples fit for intrepid explorers and adventurers. Or perhaps your mind drifts to the white sand beaches of Cambodia’s south, or the imposing Mekong river that snakes its way through the country’s heartland?
While this imagery is certainly true of Cambodia, we also found a certain je nes sais quoi to this elusive Kingdom that charms travellers and tourists alike. This is in no small part down to the French-colonial influence from when Cambodia, or Cambodge, was part of French Indochina.
You’ll stumble upon rustic towns like Battambang and Kampot, complete with boulangeries and a town square that will make you think you’ve ventured into provincial France. Venturing outside of town, you’ll pass rice paddies and tumble-down villages – the life-blood of rural Cambodia.
Savour intoxicating Khmer coffee and buttery croissants for breakfast, then follow up with a delicious plate of $1 noodles for lunch – you’ll quickly see what all the fuss is about. Don’t miss delicious fish amok, kuy teav and lok lak, three fragrant Khmer dishes.
It would be remiss of us if we didn’t point out that Cambodia was far from the paradise we expected. Maybe our expectations were a little high, and perhaps other travellers might be left with a completely different impression, but frankly, we found Cambodia to be quite… well… challenging, for want of a better word.
The country’s tragic history under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime has left Cambodia in tatters. Corruption, thoughtless development, poverty and pollution maintain a vice-like grip on its long-suffering population. For people who are so warm and gentle, we found this fact heartbreaking.
The once beautiful coastal city of Sihanoukville was where we felt the most dejected. We’ll say no more – we could go on forever – but we’re warning you to avoid it like the plague.
That being said, what is life without a bit of adventure? Highlights for us included the dusty streets of Siem Reap, the sleepy town of Kampot and Mekong river dolphins in Kratie.
Our advice? Visit Cambodia and celebrate its triumphs, but learn and grow from its challenges.