As a student of social science through most of my education in India, I have studied about the history and polity of the United States, United Kingdom, China, a few SAARC countries, and even a handful of Latin American and African countries, but never much about the countries of South-East Asia (beyond the Vietnam war, and crisis in Burma/Myanmar).
Thanks to this lack of exposure (and back then I wasn’t so used to ‘googling’ anything and everything under the sun!), I’ve been intrigued and eager to learn more about the history, landscape, people, and culture of these countries for as long as I can remember. I knew of the clear seas and white beaches, Buddhist influence, and the delicious coconut-milk based curries, but little more. It was high time I found out!
After checking flight rates every now and then for months, and postponing the plan every time, I finally decided that I’d visit Cambodia this January!
I booked my tickets a couple of months in advance (being the crazy planner that I am), and shortlisted a bunch of Airbnb options to choose from. The e-Visa process was pretty seamless (just make sure you apply for it on the official site!) and given that USD is the second official currency there, I didn’t have much of an issue with currency exchange either. Before I knew it, I was all set for my first trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia!
So my rough itinerary was that I’d land in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, head over to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong after a couple of days, and then proceed to Siem Reap to visit the famous Angkor Wat, before heading back to India. It was going to be a 9-day trip, including travel.
While on one hand, I wanted to make sure I saw as much as I could in the given days, I also wanted to ensure my trip wasn’t rushed and mega-touristy. I enjoy slow travel, giving one enough time and mind space to soak in the environment and culture around, and wanted at least some of that to happen on this trip.
To be honest, apart from the famous Angkor Wat temple complex- a favourite amongst travel photographers- I didn’t have much idea about what else these places held (pardon my ignorance). I could’ve easily researched about the place before setting foot, but I was quite occupied at work in the preceding weeks of my trip, and there was a certain charm to the idea of discovering things in person!
I’m sharing the highlights of my journey as a tribute to this amazing place, and so that fellow travel enthusiasts consider this (still relatively unconventional) destination over the usual suspects, with the hope that people from around the world have the privilege to learn more about Cambodian history, culture, and people!
Day 1-3: Exploring Phnom Penh: Night Market, Skulls & Boxing
I landed in Phnom Penh in the afternoon, and head straight to my Airbnb- a centrally located hostel called Base Villa. The manager organized a Tuk Tuk to pick me up from the airport, and almost as soon as I set foot at the hostel, I was quite happy about the choice I’d made!
I had booked a private room, which was pretty basic, yet neat. The hostel had its own bar and restaurant that served some amazing (and super cheap) drinks and food (my favourite cocktail was the Watermelon Mai Tai and the local Khmer dishes they served). They also had a small pool that was great to sit around in the evenings (once it got a bit cooler).
After the long flight, I decided to take it easy, and simply explore the neighbourhood and visit the local Night Market the first evening.
The Night Market reminded me of the Farmer’s Markets I was accustomed to while living in the UK. It was very lively, with people of all ages- behind stalls, shopping, and eating the local street food. I didn’t care too much about shopping, so apart from picking up a lovely palm-sized cane basket as a souvenir, I head over to the food stalls. There were all kinds of animals getting grilled- and I decided to play safe by sticking to the pork barbeque- which was delicious! I also got some chocolate coconut ice-cream that came over chunks of soft coconut layers and topped with nuts. To say it was divine would be an understatement. What better way to call it a night?
The hostel staff were super helpful throughout my stay and helped organize a Tuk Tuk to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum the next morning.
The Killing Fields was approx. 18 km outside the city center and I didn’t really know what to expect. I got the ticket and English audio guide upon reaching, and head over to the structure I saw in front of me. With each step I took through the three-hour visit, I was more and more moved- by the history that I learned (the Khmer Rouge, the genocide, personal stories), but also by how beautifully the site and tour were curated. (India itself being a country with such rich history, I wished we had more sites like these to remember and celebrate our history, our ancestors, and their journeys).
After walking through mass graves of yesteryears, listening to some heart-wrenching stories, and looking past skeletal remains, came the main stupa, which contained skulls of the victims of the genocide. The skulls were neatly organized on shelves all the way till the top of the stupa, labeled according to the deceased person’s identity- age, nationality, gender. I had all kinds of emotions race through my mind- awe, sadness, overwhelmed, and extremely grateful that I could experience this and pay my tribute to all those who’d lost their lives, and whose families still survive.
I proceeded to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is a former high school used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge regime. I didn’t know much about Cambodian history or the Khmer Rouge until that morning, so all of this was extremely fascinating and enlightening for me. Few things are as heartbreaking as seeing classrooms turned prison cells, with blood stains and real-life photographs of some of the prisoners!
While some of the pictures and descriptions may appear gory, that was certainly not my intention. For me, learning about the Khmer Rouge and much of what happened during their regime was one of the highlights of my trip, and the experience has a certain raw beauty to it.
After spending some time at the Royal Palace, with its stunning architecture, I decided to watch a Cambodian boxing match at the local arena, upon the recommendation of the manager of my hostel. While I imagined it would be like a scene out of (perhaps the only) WWF match I’d seen as a kid, it didn’t quite turn out that way, but was an interesting experience nevertheless!
Day 3-5: Pristine Beaches & Gorgeous Sunsets at Koh Rong Island
Before I knew it, it was time to head to my next destination. Day 3 went in catching a bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, a smaller city in Cambodia, known to be the gateway of sorts to the numerous private islands and resorts along the coastline. A highlight was spotting a few planes amidst what seemed like a paddy field, only to realize later that it was the international airport! This was surely going to be an adventure 🙂
After reaching Sihanoukville and grabbing a quick bite an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal (run by a Pakistani immigrant, whose wife made the best keema paratha I’ve eaten till date), I got onto the speed ferry that would take me to Koh Rong Island, from where I’d have to take a smaller boat to Nature Beach Resort, where I had made a booking.
A lovely resort located on a private beach and surrounded by a few untouched remains of what would’ve been a forest, this place was like paradise, with clear sand, gentle waves, glorious sunsets, and only the sound of insects and birds for company. For two days, I basically just slept, ate, read, and sun-bathed. (If a stay-cation is what you’re looking for, you should definitely head there!)
Day 6-9: Tomb Raiding at Angkor Wat
It was now time to hit Siem Reap! Day 6 was basically spent packing the single backpack I had and heading back to Sihanoukville, to board a flight to Siem Reap later that evening. Luckily, I found a lovely cafe called Tranquility right on the beachfront next to the pier where the ferry dropped me off, and the rest of my afternoon was sorted.
On reaching Siem Reap, I head to another Airbnb I’d booked- this time a homestay with three private rooms called 3Suites. Greeted by the lovely host, he provided all the information one needed- right from the procedure to get the ticket to visit Angkor Wat, to arranging for tickets to the Cambodian Circus PHARE. Meanwhile, discovering Cambodia’s very own taxi app called PassApp came super handy, as this meant there was no need to try and explain the destination address or negotiate a price.
The next day, I visited Artisans Angkor where local people train in various handicrafts and sell the products to earn their livelihood. Again, the setup was beautifully curated, such that tourists could visit each department, see artisans practice their craft live, all while having a member of their team explain the story and model of the organization to each tourist who dropped by.
In the evening, I went for a show by the Cambodian Circus PHARE. My first circus, I was excited, and they sure didn’t let me down! They did some amazing acrobatics, and the best part is that it was entirely by Cambodian youth.
The following day was dedicated to exploring the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. I got the one day pass, and decided to focus on the 4-5 main sites, leaving the rest of the temples for another (hopefully longer) trip. I had to leave for the temples at 4 AM so as to buy the pass, and then head over to the main temple to catch the sunrise around 6.30 AM. I didn’t think many people would bother to venture out at that ungodly hour to catch a sunrise, but boy, was I surprised!
Not knowing where to head for the perfect spot to view the sunrise, yet without having too many people around, I ended up following the group of tourists in front of me who was walking in the opposite direction to majority of the crowd, and plonked myself on the stairs next to the water body at the rear entrance of the temple. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d waited for a sunrise like this- and watching the sky turn a shade lighter every few minutes felt amazing.
After sunrise, I decided to venture inside the temple, and couldn’t help be blown away by the beautiful monument and it’s reflection on the lotus pond in front of it, despite the hundreds of people around me!
As I proceeded inside the temple complex, I was even more fascinated. Even though I come from India (known for its intrinsic architecture, stone carvings, and rich history, amongst other things) I was amazed by the detailing and the skill that went into creating such works of art! I couldn’t help clicking away in every direction I looked.
I then proceeded to Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm, each one as fascinating as the other! These were part of the smaller circuit of the temple complex, catering to the people who didn’t have more than a day at hand. In order to truly do justice to this place, I knew had to come back again for a longer period of time! This was definitely not day-trip material.
The huge trees at Ta Prohm reminded me of the quote from The Revenant– “When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.” I couldn’t help but feel like these structures and spaces had so many age-old wisdom hidden within them, waiting to be unraveled and understood by the thousands of people who visited each day.
At night, I decided to explore the Night Art Market and Pub Street. I did some souvenir shopping, and grabbed a bite at one of the restaurants, before heading back to my homestay.
My last day at Siem Reap was spent visiting the Old Market/Pub Street area during the day. I had the best Eggs Benedict at the popular Cafe Central, after which I discovered a tiny hole-in-the-wall store called Colors of Cambodia which brought me immense joy because there were kids painting their hearts out! The store sold beautiful artwork, postcards, bookmarks and other crafts made by local children, and the proceeds go towards empowering local Khmer artists and children by providing them with a safe space to express themselves and develop their self-confidence through art!
Before I knew it, my trip neared its end, and it was time to head back home. As the Cambodian proverb goes, “Don’t reject the crooked road and don’t take the straight one, instead take the one traveled by the ancestors”. My first trip to Cambodia was a mix of the conventional and the unconventional. Being a country with such rich history and culture, evident through each of its prime tourist locations, as well as on the open streets, Cambodia is a delight for travellers of all ages- and I loved mixing the tourist-favourites with the locals’ recommendations through my week-long trip!
I feel like I’ve far from scratched the surface of this wonderful country, but never before have I come back from a trip feeling like I’ve learned so much! My tryst with this country is far from over, and I’m sure I’ll be going back there very soon, this time for a longer period of time. Until then, លាហើយ Cambodia!