Last February, we decided to visit Cambodia as part of our travel adventures, aside from a basic understanding of what has happened in there in the 80s, we didn’t know much about it or what to expect. We were lucky enough to have Vilmos Nevehaj, our good friend from Sauce Labs join us in this adventure and we had a blast!
Learning about the Khmer Rouge
A big part of Cambodia’s history is deeply disturbing and sad. There’s no way around it. Although our goal was to live in the present and explore the great things Cambodia has to offer today, we felt the obligation to pay respect to these beautiful people by learning about their history before enjoying of their country’s beauty. As the cultural and economic center of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a good place to do this.
During our time in Phnom Penh, we visited the Genocide Museum. The Museum runs on the grounds of what was originally a school, later transformed by Pol Pot’s terrible government into a prison to run much of the unlawful interrogations and killings of a major part of the Khmer population, including man, women, and children. The experience was emotionally taxing, but we’re proud we did it. Understanding what happened only a few decades ago, behind the view of most of the world helped us understand the situation of Cambodians today and hopefully prepares us to handle future instances of such cruelty and impunity.
To wrap up the experience around this topic, we went to see Phare, a circus-meets-art-meets-storytelling of incredible quality in Siem Reap. The show centers around the times of the Khmer Rouge and each show tells a story from survivors and refugees that have made it through these horrible events. The entrance fee for this was cheap and well worth it. If we could have changed anything, we would have loved to buy the most expensive ticket as having a center seat makes a big difference to appreciate everything the show has to offer.
Perhaps if there’s one thing that Cambodia is better known for than the Khmer Rouge, that would be Angkor Wat. This extensive area of incredible temples is beyond anything we have seen before. Having read a lot about how many people frequent the place and about tourist guides in the area being very well versed, we decided to hire a private guide and tuck-tuck for the day. We head to the temples at 9 am instead of the more typical 5 am to avoid the throngs of tourists that go there with the single purpose of capturing the much-desired picture of the sunrise reflection.
It’s hard to tell whether this was a right decision or not, but one thing we know for sure: this place is better enjoyed quietly and without people. Walking around beautifully preserved temples, from an age where the world was drastically different, observing stories of the past written in the walls is a bit of a spiritual experience, and I encourage
to do it in silence and with time. As you pass the morning and approach noon, the temperature goes up drastically. Be prepared to endure high 30s Celsius and intense sun. Having a guide tell you about your surroundings and keeping a schedule makes the experience a lot more manageable and engaging in such extreme conditions.
The city of Siem Reap, the main port to the temples was surprisingly hip and busy. With vegan restaurants and bakeries all over the place, as well as flashy bars and discos that run all night next to a night market, it was fun to visit and worth spending a few days exploring as well. You can enjoy of many exotic foods like scorpions on a stick and sing karaoke while drinking on one of the many motorcycle-turned-karaoke-bar parked in the busy area.
After a lot of culture and history, it was time for some relaxation. Through some serious online research, Vilmos discovered Koh Rong, a beach that is said to resemble the beauty of Thailand in the old days before tourism arrived. With places that are both raw and empty, we’d be surprised if you could find a similar place in Thailand today. For our stay, we chose a particularly quiet part of the island called Coconut Beach. This beach is only accessible through a 30-minute boat ride, or a one and a half hour hike (we heard you could also rent bikes, but the road is pretty rough). There are only three places to stay and eat there, with tents and bungalows being the most common choice. At no point in time, we saw more than 20 people in total at the beach, with most times closer to 4 or 5.
To change things up, we hiked to the central area of the island, had some great food and drinks and then took a boat back. This little adventure was fun, though we should have started earlier in the morning to avoid getting pounded by the mid-day sun and heat along the way. Overall, Koh Rong was a great addition to our visit. The beach was one of the best we’ve ever seen, and if you’re into quiet and a bit rawer destinations, we recommend it.
All in all, we loved our time in Cambodia. It was a great opportunity to learn about this culture so very far from our western world and get to enjoy their natural and historical beauty. Khmer people (or Cambodians) are extremely friendly, and we felt very safe during our stay. We surely recommend you visit Cambodia next time you’re in South East Asia.