A month ago, if you had asked me about Cambodia I probably would’ve mumbled something vague about The Dead Kennedys and “maybe a war?”
And while two weeks in Cambodia does not an expert make, it certainly does offer a look into a fascinating, chaotic and inviting sliver of the planet where I never thought I’d find myself.
Here’s what I learned: Cambodia is a desperately third world country—we’re talking garbage everywhere, burning piles of trash, giant sweatshops, the whole deal. Its intellectual class (i.e. people that spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, etc.) were slaughtered by the brutal Khmer Rouge in the late ‘70s. Imagine if you took a country and cut down its entire supply of inventors, artists and intellectuals. The country is, just now, pulling itself out of the mess, but there’s still a long way to go. It doesn’t have the glitz or sex-appeal of other countries on the Southeast Asia circuit, but it’s a very worthwhile experience, full of plenty of CambodiYEAHs and some important CambodiNOPEs too.
1. Koh Rong Samleom
This place is a magical gem. We stumbled onto this island by accident by booking an Open-Water PADI Scuba certification course. Best. Accident. Ever. After a three-hour boat ride, what we found was a achingly delightful, tiny slice of beach hugged by Cambodian jungle. No ATMs. No wifi. No cell service. No electricity except for a few hours at night. And basically no one else. (It was a Hush dream.) In the mornings, you wake to the sounds of the jungle chattering to life with the sunrise, and at night you walk thirty feet to watch the sun set in the Bay of Thailand. If you’re cool with a few fist-sized spiders, geckos and the occasional snake—and even if you’re not—it’s paradise. Within minutes of arriving, we decided to extend our stay.
(Pro tip: There are two sides of the island: the much more built-up, commercial-y Saracen Bay to the east, and our quaint side to the west called Sunset Beach. Opt for the latter. And if you need wifi to post the occasional island #humblebrag, it’s just a 30-minute hike across the island through snake-infested jungle to get your digi-fix.)
2. Angkor Wat, etc.
More like Angkor WTF!?!!? This is the reason you (and everyone else) comes to Cambodia. Which makes sense. Even with the crowds, this mind-boggling complex of jumbled, vine-covered temples makes you feel like Indiana Jones. On the first day we opted for a guided tour to get context, on the second day we rented $1 bikes to leisurely explore at our own pace, and on the third day I left Liza in bed and just ran the whole thing at sunrise.
3. Phare, The Cambodian Circus
Imagine Cirque du Soleil, only in a small, 200-person tent that’s boiling at about 100 degrees. Also the stars of the show are insanely acrobatic at-risk youth. And all the money goes to support an arts school for several thousand other at-risk youth. Best hour in Cambodia.
4. Getting our Open-Water PADI Scuba certification
I didn’t think Liza could do it. Liza didn’t think Liza could do it. But we both did it. The diving itself wasn’t amazing, but there’s no better place for post-freak-out luxuriating than Koh Rong Samleom. Plus we learned from a chain-smoking Frenchman named Fabrice with more dives in Cambodia than anyone in the world. Bonus points: Scuba is great for a couple’s underwater, non-verbal communication skills. (If you go, book with The Dive Shop.)
5. The Khmer soup game
All our food in Cambodia was fantastic, but for me, the show-stoppers were the soups. The Khmers make some mean-ass wet stuff. (Who’s even heard of Banana Blossom soup??)
5b. Lemongrass EVERYTHING
Part two: lemongrass. It’s sliced up and thrown into soups; it’s infused into cold, pre-meal towels; it’s everywhere. And I need more of it in my life.
6. Seeing a monk take a picture of another monk with an iPad outside of Angkor Wat
This was like watching an Apple commercial unfold before my eyes. I didn't get a picture of it, but luckily, it's already half-represented in a stock photo:
7. Angkor Beer vs. Anchor Beer
I kept seeing handwritten signs and menus advertising “Angkor Beer” and/or “Anchor Beer,” both red and yellow colored. I assumed “Anchor” was just a cheeky misspelling for tourists or something. Nope. THESE ARE TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT BRANDS. Nice one, Scambodia.
8. Seeing Eurotrash travelers wandering through the jungle and/or passed out on the beach two full days after a Full Moon Party
We happened to be on Koh Rong Samleom during the full moon, which means we happened to be there when kids holding British and German passports show up to get stoned out of their gourds-holes in the middle of the jungle while new-age trance blares 'til sunrise. For the following two mornings—TWO mornings—during my morning runs, I saw glitter-coated kids, cigarettes dribbling from their lips, stumbling out of the jungle to pass out on the beach. It was oddly satisfying.
9. The utterly chaotic mess that is Cambodian traffic
Liza will inevitably write about how terrible and scary and panic-attack-inducing-y the streets were. I actually found it fascinating. It’s equal parts freeform demolition derby and delicate ballet where traffic lights and correct sides of the road don’t exist. We rented bikes in Siem Reap and got swept into the teeming river of motos, tuk tuks, bikes and cars for a few days. And at least one of us enjoyed it.
10. The wifi situation
Screw New Zealand and Australia. After pinching megabytes for weeks in the South Pacific, the wifi in Cambodia flowed like bowls of rice. Even road-side stops that didn’t have running water had free wifi.
11. Staying in an Airbnb run by a family of Ukranian refugees who took us to see an elaborate, half-finished apartment building by a Russian oligarch that had a plane on the terrace and a multi-million-dollar car collection on the first floor
12. The people
Everyone we met during our time was so wonderful. We had heard that parts of the country were a bit more Scambodia than Cambodia, but we had nothing by wonderful experiences here. And learning to speak a few words of Khmer and/or leaving a seemingly trivial tip really means the world to a lot of people here.
1. Trash and pollution
It is ubiquitous. It is ugly. And it’s a bit depressing at times. As with many third-world countries, it’s just not a priority in the grand scheme of things. But man, is it gnarly here. It was probably the biggest bummer for me. And it also makes running basically impossible.
2. The H.E.A.T.
There’s no way around it. It’s hot as hell. The mercury topped 100 degrees most days in Siem Reap. The only thing to do is become one with your sweat. Which can be hard when you look down and realize that you’re sweating into your Lemongrass soup.
3. Prostitution in Sihanoukville
Combine a half-finished, third-world resort town with a bunch of rich Russians and a crackdown on sexual trafficking in neighboring Thailand, and you’ve got yourself a lot of pudgy middle-aged white dudes walking around, hand-in-hand, with young Cambodian girls. It’s sad and definitely gives the place a skeezy vibe. Better to get out to the islands.
4. Massive factory/more than likely sweatshops
The dark side of our fast-fashion consumerism is on full display along the highways of Phnom Phen. It makes you stop and think.
For many, Cambodia is a country where it’s really easy to pop in to see Angkor Wat, buy some elephant-patterned pants, snap a photo of yourself in a sunrise yoga pose, and pop out. But that’d be missing the point. It’s as trying as it is easy and as mind-blowing as it is tragic. If you want to see what life is like on the exact other side of the planet, this is the place to do it.