Cambodian Highlights

Cambodia was awesome.The history, the coast and the price. I stayed here for just over three weeks and could easily have spent longer. I also learnt a lot about its interesting past.

Here are my highlights.

The History

Learning the history of Cambodia has been interesting and heartbreaking. From the mighty Khmer empire to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. I saw a window into areas of history I knew nothing about. I wrote about Angkor and the Khmer empire here.

The killing fields and S21 of the Khmer Rouge are a must while staying in Phnom Penh. While not a pleasant experience both can be done in a day and the victims deserve their story to be heard.

Basically, the Khmer Rouge was a communist party that took power under leader Pol Pot. Over the course of 4 years, they drove people out of the cities to work the fields instead. In the process killing around 3 million Cambodians. Over 1/3 of the population. This genocide is at a similar scale to Hitler and yet I knew almost nothing about it.

I guess in schools if it’s not about the West there is very little chance it will be covered.

I also find it interesting America’s indirect role. While fighting the Vietnamese war they bombed both Cambodia and Laos driving thousands of people into the cities. Helping to create the conditions that lead to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. I also was shocked to find the Khmer Rouge stayed in power until the 1990’s and the leader Pol Pot died under house arrest. Prosecutions of other members are still ongoing.

A story of courage that I want to share about Kerry Hamill a New Zealander held captive at S21, a torture block for the party. Whilst under interrogation about the CIA (the Khmer Rouge was constantly paranoid about a CIA subversion plot) he gave names from his past such as Colonel Sanders. He even slipped in his mother’s name. You can read about it here.

Going through S21 you will hear many similar stories of courage, resistance and sadness. There is only a handful of known survivors of this brutal prison. Shocking!

What is hard to remember is that a lot of Cambodians today lived through the Khmer Rouge. It’s so recent. They will carry the scars of that time with them forever.

The killing fields memorial stupa

Kingdom Brewery Tour

Although Phnom Penh is a big dirty city that has more than its fair share of sleaze we did discover a gem of an activity here. One of the highlights of my trip.

Kingdom Brewery Tour. A craft beer brewery that offers a tour for $15. Oh, and it’s unlimited drinks until they close. We were there 1.30 till close at 6 pm and we certainly got our money’s worth. It was a quality day out and I would recommend it to any beer lover. We got to drink a beer fresh off the bottling station, and I added a decent sticker to my laptop.

We did not, unfortunately, make it farther than our beds afterwards though.

Three pissed brits

The Coast

Otres beach near Sihanoukville and the island of Koh Rong gave me a small taste of what the south of Cambodia has to offer.

At Otres beach there was a relaxed but lively vibe. Cool bars playing a variety of different music from Psy trance to reggae. The main party place was called Otres corner.

I’m not sure what made the bars at Otres better than the usual tacky strip feel most places go for. Perhaps the hippy vibes or the tunes or maybe that it just hasn’t been spoilt yet by mainstream tourism that undoubtedly brings a mainstream strip with it.

Yep, it was that kind of place

It is low season at the moment so it was a bit deserted and we didn’t see the sunshine once. But the beach was still nice, our hostel Boho was chilling. I had a great time.

Our hip hostel

Then we headed to Koh Rong, a largely undeveloped island the size of Hong Kong. We stayed at a place called Sons of Beaches on a recommendation. This was a different experience from any I’ve ever had. It’s remote. On its own beach an hour walk from the main village and offers a back to basics lifestyle and a welcome break to reality as it states on Hostelworld.

No WiFi. Power only on 5–5. Lots of hammocks. Lots of doing nothing. It was different, good different. Just a shame about the weather, I imagine it’s amazing with some sunshine. It did give me a nice chunk of reading time though.

Hammock chilling

On top of that, the sea by Sons of Beaches is full of bioluminescent plankton. Making for a magical midnight swim.

We also walked to the village at Koh Touch. A party town. It still retains an undeveloped feel, with almost all bungalows made from wood stretching up into the hills. I’m sure they provide wonderful views.

The areas in the south that I visited were the least touched by tourism I’ve seen. Places in the earliest stages of the tourism life cycle. Sons of Beaches was certainly the most remote place I’ve been.

I want to come back and soon before it all changes. This is probably the coolest area I’ve seen while travelling so far and I barely scratched the surface. There are many more islands in Cambodia to explore.

Cambodia’s flaws

While minor it has a few flaws that I can think of:

  • All ATM’s charge. Around 5 dollars a transaction as well. This is its biggest and most frustrating flaw. It forces you to withdraw large sums of money at once. Giving you another asset to worry about.
  • Tuk-tuk drivers are everywhere and they are relentless. While a good mode of transport, the constant call of Tuk Tuk gets tiresome very fast.
  • The heat and humidity, while not Cambodia’s fault and it is the wet season. This was a drastic change from the relatively comfortable climes I experienced in Indonesia. It was a sweaty shock to the system.

Quick Shout Outs

There are a couple of minor highlights that are worth a mention.

  • The Hangover HQ in Sihanoukville is a must visit for anyone looking to mong for the night. It’s a private cinema room that’s super comfy and you can choose whatever movie you like. We watched Dr Stranglove on a recommendation from the owner. It was class.
  • Banh Mi Bros in Phnom Penh serves up delicious Banh Mi. Ironically from Vietnam where I am headed next. I think I ate 5 of them in total. When you go at the right time (12–2 for a lunch deal, 4–6 for happy hour) a sandwich is around 2 dollars.
  • Angkor Hub in Siem Reap was a coworking space I visited for the day. It had a great community feel to it and was very reasonably priced. I wish I had spent more time there.
Tasty Banh Mi

Review

During my time in Cambodia, I feel I have been unable to get a good sense of real Cambodia in the present. I stuck to the main tourist areas and probably drank too much beer. But, I do feel as though I got a good sense of its past. I learned a lot.

I would have liked to go to the Kratie Provence, down to Kampot. And a few other places. But that will have to wait for another time. For now, I am headed to Vietnam. The highlight of the trip for every traveller I’ve met who has been there.

Snipadvisors top tip

Finally a bit of advice for anyone planning their next trip.

Get yourself to the south of Cambodia in the dry season. ASAP. While it still retains its untouched feel. Otres beach, Koh Rong, Koh Rong Saleom and more. There is something for everyone. But if you like a party be sure to check out Kerfuffle. A wild jungle rave held every Wednesday. I’ve heard good things.

This place will not stay as it is for long. I am sure investors are already eyeing it up.