Welcome back. Our time in Cambodia is coming to an end. All of our stuff is packed up and ready to go to Riga. We're both sad to be leaving, but excited for the next adventure.
Before we go, I want to give a brief review of my impressions of Cambodia.
Definitely anyone thinking about visiting Cambodia should do it. It's an amazing place. Really, though, what makes it worthwhile is the people. Rough Guide and Condé Nast both agree that Cambodia is the friendliest country in the world. On the whole, people are genuinely friendly and welcoming to tourists, travelers, and ex pats.
However, friendly people doesn't mean to completely let your guard down. While I wouldn't categorize Cambodia as dangerous, it is very much a country in development. That means a big gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots", which also means crime. Specifically, crimes of opportunity like pickpocketing, phone snatching, and tourist scams. Keep your wits about you and your possessions close and practice situational awareness and you should be OK. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you have a bad feeling about something, trust your instincts and remove yourself from the situation.
Here are some more tips and tricks I've learned over my three years.
- Practice patience! The western pace isn't observed outside of the cities (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville) and life is lived a bit slower. Be prepared for most things to take longer, especially travel time. Try to enjoy the slow down.
- Get out of the main cities. Phnom Penh is the capital and it's trying to be a big city. Siem Reap is the "second city" of Cambodia and most tourists will go there to visit Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temples. There's more to Cambodia than Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat and you should make an effort to experience it.
- Battambang is technically the second largest city in Cambodia, but you wouldn't realize it if you go. It gets a fraction of the tourists that Siem Reap does and it's more laid back and, dare I say, "authentic". It has an artsy vibe and still has some of the best French Colonial architecture and details left in Cambodia.
- In the east is Mondulkiri province. Go there for nature, forests, and elephants and gibbons. There are several responsible elephant sanctuaries where you can walk with the elephants and even bathe with them in the rivers. However, do not go with any that still offer riding. We took an elephant trekking trip with Mondulkiri Sanctuary and it was great. There are other good organizations, too, like Elephant Valley Project. We also took a very early gibbon spotting trek with Jahoo in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sactuary. That was amazing.
- North of Phnom Penh along the Mekong river is Kratie Province. This is also great for outdoor tourism. We stayed in Chhlong at Le Relais de Chhlong, a hotel in a converted colonial manor, and one of our favorite places in Cambodia. In this section of the river and up to the Laos border live Cambodia's remaining population of Mekong river dolphins, a highly endangered species. In Kratie you can take tours to spot them and we took a Dolphin and Bike tour with Cambodian Rural Development Tours (CRDT). We had a great time and actually spotted dolphins (they are becoming harder to spot). In Kratie the Mekong Discovery Trail starts.
- Kampot and Kep are on the southeast coast of Cambodia. Both offer slower-paced getaways. Kampot is a bit more touristy and situated on a river rather than on the coast. It has a great restaurant/food scene and good colonial architecture. Kep is less touristy and has some nice coastal bits like beaches and a ferry to nearby Rabbit Island (Koah Tonsay). We stayed at Sabay Beach Resort just outside of Kampot and did a day trip to La Plantation, Kep, and Rabbit Island.
- The Islands. Along the south coast, the most popular islands are Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. We visited both at different times. Koh Rong is the bigger island with a variety of lodging. Sanloem is smaller with few options. Both islands are accessible by ferries from Sihanoukville. There are several more islands you can visit, such as Koh Totung, Koh Sdach, and Koh Ta Kiev.
- Temples. In general, if a temple or Wat is open you can go in. Most wat complexes are not just religious building, but are also schools and neighborhood community centers. You'll probably see many people there, some selling drinks or food, people just hanging out. If the temple doors are open you may go in. Just follow a few simple rules
- remove your shoes
- don't interrupt anything that might be going on
- you can sit or kneel, but don't have the bottoms of your feet facing Buddha, it's considered disrespectful
- keep to the public spaces. Monks live in the wats, so don't wander into their private spaces.
- Remember, Monks are not tourist attractions. Ask before taking photos. Many will be happy to talk with you in limited English or other languages if you don't know Khmer. Many monks are only temporarily at the wat. It is common for boys and young men to spend six months or a year as a monk; it is also common for older men to be a monk for a while after a death of a close family member. Don't touch a monk with out permission and, if you are a woman, you shouldn't touch a monk at all. If you are invited to a ceremony, gifts/donations to the monks or wat are much appreciated and usually expected.
- Do some research. Cambodia and its people have a long and varied history and they are proud of some of it and traumatized by other parts of it. Certainly the Khmer and Angkor period is extremely important to the national identity of Cambodians. Go see Angkor Wat and many of the other temples. Also, you should visit some of the more recent history of the Khmer Rouge. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S21 Prison) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka Killing Fields) are stark reminders of a period of evil inhumanity in Cambodian history.
- Try some new foods. Cambodians love to eat and snack. There is always some tropical fruit in season. If you like bananas, try the small varieties. At least try the weird stuff once. Wander through the markets. Just don't drink the tap water.
- Enjoy the people and make some new friends. There are many ex patriots from various countries in Cambodia, so you can make friends not just with Cambodians.