In terms of tragedy, not many countries have the recent history that Cambodia does. Up to three million people (about 25% of the population) were killed in the Cambodian genocide carried out by the ruling Khmer Rouge party in the late 70's and their continued resistance into the 90's. There is hardly a family in the country that wasn't in some way affected by this mass genocide.
However, the Cambodia that I saw was a young, confident nation that had come out of the worst of its adversity and lived to tell the tale. It was a nation that paid tribute to its past but also looked confidently to its future.
There's not much to dislike about Cambodia, but here are the 5 things I absolutely loved.
5. The French influence
As a guy who's ancestor's lost their country to colonialism (and Punjab never got the same freedom it had prior to 1849), I fully understand all the evils that come along with a foreign power ruling a country and extracting its resources. However, the fact is these things did happen whether we like it or not. And even though the vast majority, and overall balance of colonial rule is undoubtedly negative, there are small things that make you understand that colonialism is a part of many countries histories so why not appreciate the little positives.
The architecture of Battambang, a city in Western Cambodia is one of the best examples of preserved French architecture in the country. In certain places, the white stone buildings give the feel of a small European city.
Modern Phnom Penh was enlarged during French rule and very few buildings pre-date the colonial period. The central market is a fantastic example of art deco architecture built during the French colonial period.
4. Siem Reap & Night Markets
Siem Reap was one of my favourite cities in the country. Sure it is an absolute tourist trap, but theres good reason for it.
The city has a laid back feel but comes to life at night with a vibrant nightlife and one of the most impressive night markets I have seen. Not particularly large, its the charm and atmosphere that I most enjoyed with traditional Khmer music playing on the streets and the smell of street food in the air. Of course, the bonus is that its just a stones throw away from the Angkor complexes.
3. Tonle Sap
Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia with a diverse bio system and was the foundation of the earliest Cambodian civilisation. Its importance is still seen in the number of people it still supports with many industries relying on its rich ecosystem and natural resources.
I had a great time taking a boat trip on the lake and seeing the famous 'floating villages'. Schools, homes and hospitals are all either built on stilts or actual boats converted into places of study. There are no taxi's or scooters and travel and commerce are conducted on river boats. After a while you begin to see the difference between the boats used for transportation and those used for commerce. The lake also supports a fishing industry and I got to see close up a couple of fisherman bringing their catch of catfish back home.
Going out into the lake, you really do begin to get a feel for how large it is as after 20/30 minutes you are completely surrounded by water, as far as the horizon. It's one of the most surreal experiences I have had, and would highly recommend it.
2. The Cambodian spirit
As a Sikh, the one thing I greatly admire is when people go through adversity and come out smiling. Sikhs have been close to being wiped out on a number of occasions, we even have a word for it, chardi kalla. In the early 1700's, we suffered two Ghallugara's (Holocausts) where the Mughals or Afghans killed over 50% of our entire population, and a third happened when the Indian Government launched a decade of warfare in the 1980's, so when I see other cultures go through similar ordeals, it carries with it a sense of cultural familiarity.
The Khmer Rouge killed three million Cambodians during their misrule, which was over a quarter of the country's population. Worse still, this all happened less than 50 years ago. Almost every family in Cambodia lost a loved one and almost an entire generation was lost to the bloodshed.
The country pays touching tributes to its tragic history through the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where you can see skulls stacked up in large piles, trees where babies had their heads smashed against and articles of clothing that were torn off the dead. It's very haunting and really brings home what happened here in our parents' lifetime. The Tuol Sleng genocide museum was a former notorious prison camp where prisoners were tortured to death. You can still see blood splattered walls and torture chambers as well as shackles where prisoners were chained.
However, despite all this adversity, the Cambodia of today is one of youth and energy. Everywhere I look there are young kids, laughing, smiling and most importantly acting like children. Sure there are still issues to be solved, a wealth gap to be closed, but the general feel of the country is very positive.
1. Angkor Wat
What else could it be? My whole trip was geared around a visit to the famous Angkor complexes and they did not disappoint.
Originally constructed as a Hindu temple, it was gradually transformed towards the end of the 12th century to a number of Buddhist shrines. The Angkor Complex is actually spread our over a number of miles but some of the main sights are relatively close together.
Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat is one of my favourite experiences (despite the 4am wake up). There are many different shrines to visit, and clambering over the rocks to get from one place to another is quite fun, although some of the staircases are very narrow. My favourite part was actually a short drive from the main Angkor Wat complex and is called Angkor Thom. Here the rock carvings were incredible and it was also a little quieter with less tourists around. You can read more about my trip to Angkor here.
The Bamboo train in Battambang was definitely one of my favourite experiences. You are basically on a one track railway, sitting on a small kart, going at a fair bit of speed. You can read more about it in my Battambang entry here. The Flight of the Gibbons was a more expensive activity where I zip lined through the Cambodian jungle. I had a fantastic time, made even better by the friendly people who ran the activity.
Is there anything on the list you didn't enjoy or anything that I have left out? Leave me a comment or Tweet me @travellingsingh
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.