If you have been craving some knockoff gear (Northface! Nike!), ancient ruins (the biggest religious complex in the world!) and some serious reflection on humankind, head to Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia’s most compelling destinations. In case you slept through your world history classes here’s a refresher: in the 1960s, an awful and hateful man named Pol Pot (think Hitler, Stalin, Trump for reference), took over, and his Khmer Rouge regime led a bloody genocide. You would be a fool to come all the way to Cambodia and skip this terrifying, informative, and reflective part of their history. This means a visit to Phnom Pehn, the country’s not-so-glamorous capital, and for a taste of those impressive ancient ruins, a trip to Siem Reap and the surrounding temples of Angkor.
Know Before You Go
Be careful in all aspects of travel. Phnom Penh is notoriously crime-ridden, and thieves often rip people’s bags off of their backs—especially women’s purses—while zooming past on motorbikes. They will either break your bag (best case scenario), or drag you along until the bag comes off another way. Unsurprisingly, Cambodian hospitals are not known for their world-class medial services.
Cambodia is also notorious for food poisoning, so ask your doctor about bringing antibiotics like Ciproflaxin before you head out.
TL;DR: Wear a totally uncool but totally useful money belt, bring tummy medicine, and you’ll have a blast in Cambodia!
- You’re gonna cry (rather, you’re gonna sob), but learning about the Cambodian genocide history is an unparalleled experience
- Dishes like chicken amok and khmer curry make the inevitable food poisoning (almost) worth it
- Huge religious complex that makes St. Peter’s Basicilia look like child’s play
- Scams at the border
- Phnom Pehn is a must-see, but also feels creepy, a rare feeling in the touristed cities of SE Asia
- The Cambodian government has a monopoly on the airlines, meaning all flights are expensive and often inconvenient.
Unlike in neighboring Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia is slightly less touristed, and their infrastructure less developed; make sure to only take reputable bus lines like Giant Ibis or Mekong Express, or you might end up in the documentary version of Taken, Southeast Asian style…just kidding! But actually, there is some shady stuff that goes on, so don’t cheap out on an already cheap bus ticket.
Siem Reap – Here, you can enjoy both cheap alcohol/dance parties on Pub Street, followed by a sunrise trip to the ancient temples of Angkor, where you will question your decision to purchase said drinks just hours before. For a feast that will only cost you about $2-3 (and, more importantly, won’t give you a food-borne illness), head to Lilypop, on Taphul road.
When you head to Angkor, the huge temple complex and home to the famous Angkor Wat Temple, you can either rent a bike and cycle throughout the temples, or you can rent a tuk tuk and driver for the day to be driven around like the kings and queens that you’ve never felt like back home.
Tip: only cycle if you’re down to sweat and have stamina, as the temple complexes are medium distances that seem like super long distances in the heat. But if you’re committed to cycling, try an electric bike (i.e. a lowkey motorbike or souped up regular bike, depending on how you look at it).
Phnom Penh – This colonial city is haunting for both its homage to the bloody Cambodian genocide as well as its crumbling facades and gritty undertone. After you have purchased your tissues and mentally prepared, go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high-school-turned-prisoned that served as a place of imprisonment, torture and executions during Pol Pot’s rule. The audio guide will take you through S-21, as the prison was labelled, through the buildings and rooms, where you will physically stand in the same spots as the victims.
Next, head to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (11 miles from the city), usually referred to as The Killing Fields, one of the many mass graves from the genocide. If you haven’t already used up your tissues at S-21, this harrowing walk through the past will certainly induce your tears and humanity.