Cambodia is a beautiful country, nestled between Vietnam, Thailand and Loas. The landscape is very diverse, and ranges from incredible tropical islands with beautiful white sandy beaches, to mountains, to bustling cities, to ancient temples.
Although Cambodia is a very popular country on the backpacking trail, it didn’t feel as well travelled as places like Vietnam and Thailand.
From 1975-1979 the country was under the power of the brutal Khmer Rouge. During the four years that the party was in charge, they massively reversed the country’s progress, making people from the city go and work in the countryside on farms. Up to two million people lost their lives under the regime – including whole families lost to starvation, disease, and execution. This devastation is still felt by the country and has left its mark. The capital, Phnom Penh is home to the former Tuol Sleng prison, and the Killing Feilds, where thousands of people were thrown into mass graves. The long-lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge meant that for a long time, Cambodia was not open to tourism, and had very little money, hence why many areas do not have the tourist infrastructure that can be found in other South East Asian countries. For many people, this is offputting and I have heard lots of people say they did not enjoy Cambodia as much as the other countries. For me, I think it may be my favourite. The people were so wonderful, the country so beautiful, and it has so much to offer.
The place I spent most of my time was Phnom Penh, the capital city. I was doing a volunteering project teaching at a charity school on the outskirts. The Cambodian government legally only requires students to be in school for half a day, 5 days a week. Due to this, many children never receive quality educations and the poverty cycle is hard to break. I know that teaching English is quite controversial as it seems like an attempt to globalise the world and more subtly reinforce imperialism, but for the Cambodian children, it enables them to go into better jobs and university. The school I taught at was set up by a Dutch charity. It provided the other half a day of schooling for the local children so we got two groups – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The extent of the poverty in the area that the school was in was shocking. Some of the children did not have clean drinking water, some had to go home and teach English to their younger siblings and were only kept out of work because the school sponsored them. The school sponsorship gave the families of 20 children either a rice allowance or some money.
In Phnom Penh a whole bunch of us volunteers were staying together across two guest houses next door to each other. It was fantastic to always be surrounded by such a great group of people and we all became friends really quickly. We had a project coordinator called Hong, who was absolutely fantastic and ended up becoming one of my best friends. We all hung out loads in the evenings and went to bars, or out for dinner. One of our favourite spots was a hotel called tea party that let us use the pool when we bought drinks or food, they had the most amazing lime juice so I had no complaints!
In Phnom Penh, the most popular way to get around is by tuk-tuk. To take us to and from our projects we had a regular driver called DH (I never found out what this stood for), but there were always a friendly group of drivers hanging around by our hostel. I remember one evening, it was one of their birthdays and they set up a speaker to play some music and got some food and some beers. They invited us over to come and sit in the tuk-tuks and celebrate with them. It was small gestures like this that made me fall in love with it, because people were so open and friendly and always ready to have fun. Phnom Penh had lots of really cool rooftop bars where we spent many evenings. There is also a river that runs through Phnom Penh called the Tonle Sap, one evening we went for a sunset cruise down the river, which was beautiful. Phnom Penh has some really cool markets and temples that we visited on the weekends.
I was really blown away by Cambodian food. It is not something that I had ever encountered, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The picture above is a fish Amok curry (but they also have chicken and other meat ones). It was so delicately spiced and perfectly fragrant that it’s hard not to love! Another favourite was beef lok-lak: a stir fry of thin beef strips. It would normally come with a little bowl of salt and pepper on the side which you squeeze a lime into to make a sauce. I also had a rice soup (I don’t know what the actual name for it is) with chicken and like a savoury pastry that you dip into it. You can easily find great noodles, rice and dumplings as well! As I mentioned before, the lime juice is also incredible and you can pretty much find it everywhere!
Keep your eyes peeled for some other posts on Cambodia!