Cambodia has become a trendy, almost cliché, destination for gap yahs and travellers – but don’t let that put you off – as it’s as grateful for the tourist dollar as you can get and it is certainly an experience you will never forget.
Films like “The Killing Fields” and books including’ “First they killed my father” and “When Broken Glass Floats” have highlighted the plight of Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. I’d watched the film in communist China (where incidentally it is banned) and read enough to be moved into visiting this country that has lived through unspeakable horrors during my lifetime.
Cambodia is an incredibly interesting, uncomfortable and humbling country. It also offered my first taste of complete culture shock…
The usual things are different and, like anywhere, take a bit of getting used to – there’s the language with its flowery and ornate alphabet; the food – unique, flavoursome curries with delicacies borne out of extreme poverty such as grilled cockroaches, fried crickets and ants, snake bacon as well as the ‘medicinal’ tarantula rice wine (not for the weak of stomach)!
But there is a whole new level of culture shock in Cambodia found amongst the lack of roads (mainly dirt tracks), crumbled infrastructure, the seriously depleted public amenities (everything from basic electricity and water supplies to inadequate hospitals and school buildings).
And that’s even before the rainy season hits and washes away and entire year’s rice crop and turns the muddy streets into a waist high, brown rivers. Or, before one of the estimated 50,000 orphaned street children surrounds you – tugging at your arms (and your heart strings) to buy postcards, bracelets and other wares for “one dollar mister” so they can afford to go to school and avoid becoming sex workers or child slaves.
In contrast to this are the cash-bought Lexus’ that cruise the streets of Phnom Penn, where the disparity between rich and poor are a stark reminder of the country’s corruption.
And, if that isn’t mind blowing enough, there’s the average age of the population…21years old. Only 3% of the country is over 65. Every single generation of every family has been affected by Year Zero and the maiming and killing of completely innocent citizens –sometimes for something as normal as wearing glasses or coming from a city.
But from Siem Reap and the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat or the extreme tuk-tuk rides through dark and flooded back alleys, to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penn, nowhere else (yet) have I found more genuine, warm and hard working people, always smiling and would share with you anything they can, including their stories.
Gone are the days where you are greeted a your hostel with a welcome bag of weed but yes, there are psychedelic aging hippies and more than the ideal quota of Trustafarians which give it the great unwashed traveller stereotype, but it is an incredible, resilient place that should be given its dues on any travellers itinerary.