My latest realization has been that you can plan and plan, but it is the unexpected surprises that really make an experience memorable. This was the main takeaway from my latest holiday to Cambodia. With a 10 day break from work for the Chinese New Year holiday, I wanted to explore a new country and really make the days count. There was a lot I wanted to see and do, so I planned out my route ahead of time so that I knew where I was going and wouldn’t be struck with indecision when I arrived. However, as well planned as my trip may have been, it was the happy surprises and minor bumps along the way that have been etched into my mind forever.
With so many different landscapes in a relatively small country, it’s as if I got several trips in one. My trip to Cambodia took me from the busy city of Phnom Phen to the lush jungles in the East, then to the magnificent temples of Siem Reap, and finally the serene beaches of the islands in the South.
Arriving in the capital city of Phnom Phen was a shock to the senses. The oppressive heat, the intense traffic, and the bustling roadside stands can be a bit overwhelming after getting off an early morning flight. Luckily, I had a friendly tuk-tuk driver to meet me at the airport and take me to the guesthouse where I was staying for the night.
Cambodia is a country of immense beauty but has a dark, violet history lurking in its not so distant past. Just 40 years ago, the Khmer people lived through one of the worst genocides in the 20th century. The oppressive regime of the Khmer Rouge and its Marxist leader, Pol Pot ruled from 1975 – 1979. He had dreams of abolishing money, private property, and religion and forcing people to work on communal farms in the countryside. This came at a terrible cost to the Khmer people, as 1 out of 4 were killed in fields, prisons or died of starvation.
Two of the most notable locations from this time are in Phnom Phen; the Chueng Ek killing fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. They are both pretty near to the city center, so visiting both in a day is easy to do, logistically speaking. However, it is an emotional trip to take and not easy information to learn. With a small entrance fee at each, you are provided with an audio guide giving you in-depth information about the history of the regime, the atrocities that were committed, accounts of survivors and the incredible way that they’ve healed and recovered as a country.
The chaos of the city wasn’t quite what I was looking for during my trip, so I stayed just one night in Phnom Phen before heading East to the jungles of Mondulkiri, a province that borders Vietnam. Mondulkiri is a land of rolling hills, and one of the most sparsely populated provinces in the country. It is home to the indigenous Bunong people and their magnificent elephants.
Conservationists have taken a special interest in this area and its inhabitants, which are under threat from illegal logging operations and poaching. Mondulkiri Project is a registered NGO dedicated to protecting the forests and helping the local indigenous community. The founder, Mr. Tree, is passionate about his home and knowledgeable about how to bring about positive change. His organization leads jungle treks and elephant walks of which the fee goes directly to helping the people and animals of the local community.
I chose the 1-day elephant trek which was an unforgettable experience. We began in the morning at base camp where Mr. Tree himself told us all about the elephants, the local people, the jungle around us and how he started the organization. He then led us into the jungle, bananas in hand, to hang out with five of the elephants they have rescued from tourism and illegal logging operations. It was incredible to be so close to them and witness them feeling safe and happy. You really got to learn each individual personality. In the afternoon, we were met by a member of the local community who led us to the river where we would help give the elephants a bath. Splashing in the river with an elephant is one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced.
My trip to the jungle was quiet and relaxing, which was a great prelude to the much busier and tourist-heavy city of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is the capital of the province bearing the same name. It has grown immensely in the past 5 years as tourism has grown in the area. More than one million people come to Siem Reap each year to see its largest attraction, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious complexes ever built, the name itself means “temple city.” It was built between A.D 1113 and 1150 and encompasses an area of over 500 acres. To say this is impressive is an understatement.
The first day I visited the temples, I went to watch the sunrise over the main temple of Angkor Wat. Walking up to the temple grounds in the dark was both ominous and exhilarating. I sat and watched as the sky slowly began to brighten and the sun created beautiful shades of pink and purple. After witnessing a beautiful sunrise, I walked into the temple to begin my adventure. Being on my own and without a guide, I felt free to roam at my leisure and just take everything in. Sure, it was very busy with a lot of other tourists, but with an area that large, there are lots of small hidden areas where you can sit and reflect. I spent two days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, each interesting and magnificent in a different way. It is an incredible feat of engineering as well as a beautiful symbol of religious devotion.
The city of Siem Reap has grown due to the tourism that the temples attracts, therefore its very heavy on tourist traps such as a night markets selling cheap souvenirs and a pub street with loud music and overpriced drinks. However, venturing down some smaller streets led me to quiet pubs with friendly expats, local artisan shops, and tasty vegan food!
It was the impromptu bike rides through town that led me to my favorite discoveries of Siem Reap. My last day in town, I rode straight down the main road as far as my legs would take me. The city street turned into a dusty dirt road along which I saw a sign for a lotus farm. My curiosity made me stop and tour the farm where they grow and harvest lotus flowers for the fibers found in the stems. They weave the fibers into material and make high-end eco-friendly fashions. A little further down the road, I came upon the workshop where they process the stems and weave the fabric. Samatoa is a social textile enterprise that focuses on the values of fair trade and sustainable development to create income and empower women in the village.
My time in Siem Reap taught me to not be afraid to venture off the beaten path to find beauty and intrigue.
The last stop on my trip was a few days in the South to relax on the beach before heading home. After an overnight bus journey, short tuk-tuk ride and ferry boat, I had arrived on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. It is just a 20-minute ferry ride from the town of Sihanoukville and is a small, untouched piece of paradise. It is less developed than the beaches on the mainland and the larger island of Koh Rong. The quiet M’pai bay has a handful of hostels and restaurants and that’s it. It is quiet and laid back, yet there is still plenty to do, such as trek around the island or explore the clear waters.
At night, the absence of large hotels and restaurants means that there are no lights, so you can fully enjoy the night sky. The waters off the coast of Cambodia are home to bioluminescent plankton which glow when agitated. This is a spectacular sight and one made even better when done underwater. I was lucky enough to meet a new friend who took me night snorkeling to witness this beauty. With clear skies, I was able to see billions of stars overhead and then glittering water when I went below. It was nothing short of spectacular–one of those moments that just takes your breath away.
My time in Cambodia was so full of different sights, experiences, interesting people and life lessons. That is, after all, the beauty of traveling to new places. Join me next time as I reflect on my upcoming trip to Malaysia!
See more of Kathryn’s adventures: River Cruises, Thermal Baths & Hip Markets. Budapest Is Almost Too Good To Be Real
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Photos: Kathryn Farrugia