Date visited: February/March 2012.
Cambodia’s a country which has generally had a bit of a ‘bad press’ over the years, and when I said I was going there, my work colleagues’ thought was ‘oooh, isn’t it dangerous?’. And in a way, I suppose it is – a couple of times when I was there I did indeed fear for my life. However, contrary to their expectations, they all involved motor scooters; either riding on the back of them, or trying to cross the road whilst entire flotillas of small scooters buzzed randomly by.
Relatively speaking, Cambodia’s not a large country, and getting between the main towns is actually quite easy – indeed there’s a whole industry of coach companies (catering mainly to tourists) plying the route between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Getting into the real Cambodian countryside however is a different issue – they are starting to lay proper roads in the hinterland (partly as a response to increasing appreciation of tourism, but originally to ‘bind’ the country together, in spirit as well as in concrete, after the Khmer Rouge used the hinterland near Anlong Veng as their ‘last stand’), but visiting some of the more remote ruins is still best done on two wheels, and ideally a decent cushion.
Obviously the Temples of Angkor are the biggest draw, and quite rightly so since they are hugely impressive and legion, each with a different ‘personality’. Angkor Wat is the biggest and most famous of them (it features on their flag, on the label of their national beer, and a million other places that suggests ‘You know what, we did this, we have nothing else to prove’. An independent England, on the same principle, ought to have a representation of Stonehenge or something maybe), and it’s possible to study it in enough detail to warrant a couple of hours alone, but many of the others around shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘secondary’ (including the fabulously bizarre ‘Bayon’, and the overgrown ‘Ta Promh’). But just a motorbike away are more distant sites, less visited, just as worthwhile, like ‘Banteay Srei’ and the walk up ‘Kbal Spean’.
But Cambodia’s more than just ancient temples. For such a small country it has a relatively disproportionate role in history – including being a sideshow in the Vietnam War, and the subsequent Khmer Rouge rule. Indeed, my reason for coming to Cambodia wasn’t Angkor (I even toyed with the idea of not visiting them), but rather the Killing Fields – the memorials to the 30% of the population who died under the Khmer Rouge rule. Very chilling, very necessary to see.
I didn’t get to see the coast though – the area around Kep is apparently really pretty. It’s the one part of Cambodia that I’d been interested to see but never made it to.
The currency in Cambodia is the Riel, and there only exist notes, no coins, the smallest note I came across was the relatively worthless 100 Riel note, but I believe even a 50 Riel note does/did exist. When I visited, the exchange rate was effectively fixed at 4,000 Riel to the US$. As an indication of costs, a standard small bottle of water (500ml) was 500 Riel- cheap but you need a lot of them to get through the day as it’s invariably pretty warm, but also the tap water’s not potable.
However, all the ATMs dispense US$, and many of the tourist sites price primarily in $. In addition, the negotiations I did for hiring motor scooter drivers for trips around Anlong Veng and Siem Reap were all done in the $, and they were even taken by hotels and street vendors, so for many tourists the Riel is fairly inconsequential. Also, close to the Thailand border, the Thai Baht is also accepted (there’s a lot of trade between the two countries, some of it definitely ‘under the radar’), so when I came to pay for the hotel in Anlong Veng, I did so in three different currencies.
Plastic is not widely accepted (most shops, restaurants, hotels etc take cash), although even Anlong Veng now has an ATM that accepts foreign cards, so obtaining money’s not the problem it once would have been. I never saw carrying around that much cash as being a problem; for the most part the only danger of losing your money is when you get “overcharged” for being a foreigner.
I did feel safe for the most part; crossing the roads aside. I’m certain there were some dodgy bits of Phnom Penh that I could have been in trouble in, but I do think being an obvious foreigner sometimes helps; certainly in Anlong Veng (where I was almost the only foreigner) the locals were friendly towards me and tried to help me out – despite the obvious language barriers. Indeed I wandered into one local community at Ta Mok’s house and spent about 15 minutes having my photo taken with pretty much everyone in the room.
Conversely, I also felt safe in Siem Reap, but apparently I shouldn’t have done – because it’s so touristy there are apparently some ‘issues’ with the local population. The only issue I encountered though was some random guy trying to sell me hard drugs, and he was quickly dismissed.
The relatively low cost of the country also meant I stayed in a couple of really nice hotels pretty cheaply. In both Anlong Veng and Siem Reap, my hotels were, by Cambodian standards, fairly luxurious (large double rooms, aircon, restaurant on site, etc), and only cost just over $10/night. I took the trip before I was truly comfortable with hostelling, so could certainly have done it even cheaper. Note that in Anlong Veng I didn’t really have much choice, whilst in Siem Reap I knew I’d have so much choice that I arrived having not booked anywhere and allowed myself to negotiate with the tuk-tuk drivers at the bus station. I did book ahead in Phnom Penh but that was because I had more time to think about the options, but again I don’t think it would have been a problem if I’d just turned up.
On the whole, comparing to Laos (the other SE Asian country I’ve spent time in), I think it’s a little friendlier, slightly more interesting, easier to get around, definitely more geared to tourists, but I don’t think it’s as scenic. What didn’t help the latter is that I went in March, the height of the dry season, but also when farmers and agricultural industries do a lot of burning of organic material – so even from the heights of Prasat Preah Vihear or Kbal Spean, the views weren’t as impressive as they should have been because the atmosphere was filled with too much dust haze. However I’m more likely to go back to Laos than Cambodia because there’s more there that I didn’t see.