This was the first reaction from friends and relatives, at the news of our trip to Cambodia.

Cambodia is a mysterious country, fascinating and still a little rough round the edges and mass tourism hasn’t quite invaded yet! With the exception of the gigantic Angkor Wat temple complex and cities like Sean Reap and Phnom Penh. Up until recently, Cambodia was an off-limits destination; due to the danger of land mines left over from the brutal dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge, this was one of the main reasons that kept away tourists and travellers away. Today the situation has improved greatly and now travelling in Cambodia is much safer.

Of course the most famous destination in the country is Angkor Wat: mass tourism is unfortunately ruining one of the country’s most spiritual and peaceful places!  5-star hotels with golf courses and spa’s, are everywhere in Seam Reap; air-conditioned mini-bus carrying tourists from one place to another, often people don’t set a foot on the ground they seem content at peering at the temples from the safety of the mini bus!

Fortunately the rest of the country sees only independent travelers, many of whom adventure in search of little-known places in which to find peace and spend a few days of total relaxation, exploring the natural beauty that this country has to offer. We count ourselves as part of  this category of travellers.

Our adventure starts from Koh Kong, a small town southwest of the country on the border with Thailand. We arrive in this remote and desolate place in Southeast Asia after spending nearly two months of travel in Thailand. Just across the border you quickly realise that Cambodia is very different to Thailand: poor infrastructure, unpaved roads, and begging children everywhere.

Why is this you might be wondering?

Cambodia is still trying to re-build itself  after the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge whose brutal regime has literally destroyed this nation and decimated the population. To fine out more about the dictatorship please go here

The following are the places visited during our trip:

From Koh Kong to Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville is a coastal town, with white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. You meet very few tourists, except for a few hippies who decided to move to this corner of the planet to open a bar or kiosk on the beach. Things are changing fast though with the construction of a commercial airport nearing completion and also a large resort with golf course and spa is almost ready to open its doors to foreign tourists.

The cost of living for a tourist / traveler is very low: a double room with TV and private bath starts at $ 7 per night, while you can eat fresh fish for a few dollars. Apart from the typical “beach life” there is not a lot to do around this area: 2-3 days are more than enough for Sihanoukville.

From Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh:

The capital is a confusion of scooters, cars, bicycles, carts, rickshaws, animals. Here, as in other areas of the country, everything is changing fast: in the tourist area there are many americans bars, with plasma televisions that broadcast sporting events 24 hours a day.

There are many cocktail bars with loud music (obviously in English), trendy restaurants and shops with designer clothes. Just a few blocks out of the tourist area you will find the true face of Phnom Penh though: in these area’s you’ll find cheap street restaurants where you can taste local specialties of noodle soups and rice dishes at bargain prices.

Unfortunately, child prostitution is a big problem in Cambodia you often see in the street or in bars,  western men with cambodian children at their side. It is a plague that the government is trying to curb, it’s a big problem without a simple solution.

The major tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are: the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum, Independence Monument, the Monument of friendship between Cambodia and Vietnam, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Wat Phnom. With a hired scooter ($ 5 a day) you can reach most of tourist attractions and the neighboring areas. Warning: the roads are a little lawless- the high way code and traffic signs are ignored, so you must be careful.

Genocide: the prison of Tuol Sleng, or S-21 and Killing Field

Cambodia’s dark history cannot be ignored the Khmer Rouge has left a country still feeling the effects. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge they transform a school into a centre of torture and executions it lies in the centre of Phnom Penn and is called Tuol Sleng, it has now been transformed into a museum so not to forget these atrocities that stole so many innocent people from Cambodian families. With just one visit you try to comprehend  how far the cruelty of a fellow human being can go.

Another monument to the atrocities is outside Phnom Penn called the Killing Fields  here you can actually see the mass graves and a monument made from the skulls of the victims. Although these sites are not fun or enjoyable  it’s good to visit these places as they form part of Cambodia’s history. We feel it’s an important part of the travel experience to understand what a country has gone through and how they trying to overcome their past problems.

Battambang

From Phnom Penh we get a bus to Battambang: we arrived at destination 3 hours behind schedule because our coach broke down the engine  overheated!

Battambang is sprawled along the river (or Stung Steung) Sangker and is rich in buildings from the French colonial period, the most notable of which is the Government House, built by the last Thai governor of Battambang. We rented a scooter and visit the surrounding countryside, rich in vegetation and small villages, as well as some temples on top of hills that offer a 360 degree view of the plains below. Children were playing everywhere intrigued by our appearance and clothing, always jumping at the chance to be photographed in the company of foreigners.

Read the second part of this article

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Where in the world is Cambodia?

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