Experience the true colours of Cambodia

Tonle Sap Lake has an interesting village on the water
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has many striking monuments
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has many striking monuments

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are beautiful places but not for the faint of heart 

By Cheryl Chia

My first time in Cambodia was far from uneventful.

It wasn’t a vacation. It was an adventure. I almost bought the tourist T-shirt that had “I survived Cambodia” emblazoned across the front.

My first stop was at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, before heading to the picturesque and historic town of Siem Reap.

Interesting Sights & Sounds

My first hotel was right smack in the middle of the riverfront, which is where all the cafes, restaurants, bars and a string of “Happy Herb” pizzerias reside.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can easily take a walk and explore the central area of the city easily. Or, hop into their tuk tuks, which is pretty much the only mode of transport.

Almost all the Cambodians there are quite well-versed in English, Mandarin, sometimes French and, of course, Khmer.

You’ll almost never see riel [Cambodian currency] in Cambodia as they mostly prefer to deal in US dollars. A tuk tuk ride, depending on the distance, should never cost you more than US$15, and that is for a full day trip to the Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields) and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), etc.

However, entrance fees to most attractions in Cambodia can cost you quite a pretty penny, so balance your finances well.

A Dark Yet Intriguing Character

The two attractions mentioned can be quite depressing but they are necessary to understand that part of history in Cambodia and how the brutal Khmer Rouge still affects their lives until today.

The Killing Fields are about 15km Southwest of Phnom Penh and was the site of a mass grave and concentration camp, where approximately 17,000 men, women and children were killed and dumped.

The latter, S21, was a high school prior to 1975. It may seem innocuous from the outside but the inside depicts the horrors of the systematic torture of “war criminals” in order to extract false confessions, before they were shipped off to the Killing Fields to be executed.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, never having faced justice. Trials are still ongoing for some of the other culprits who have been taken to court for crimes against humanity.

Apart from visits to Cambodia’s colourful history, the large temple of Wat Phnom is also a sight to behold with carved stone nagas and towering steps.

Tonle Sap Lake has an interesting village on the water
Tonle Sap Lake has an interesting village on the water

Postcard Perfect

I much preferred Siem Reap. There are less syndicated child beggars, prostitutes and dodgy bars.

The town seemed richer than Phnom Penh with a better layout due to the volume of tourists generated by the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat. Be sure to be dressed appropriately should you visit, with your shoulders and knees covered.

Angkor Wat means “Temple City” in Khmer, and it is truly massive. Its aesthetics are also impressive, and it is hard to describe in a few words.

There are several modes of transport that you can take to get around – hired car, tuk tuk, or, if you’re adventurous, bicycle.

But I would only recommend a bicycle trip if you are truly an experienced bike rider. Why? Well, this is where my trip got eventful.

I was more than nudged off the street by a tuk tuk who thought that I was going too slow. I ended up falling on some muddy rocks.

The roads are also quite uneven and can give you a sore bum from riding, by the end of the day.

City of Gods

Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple, which explains the many intricate carvings of traditional Hindu myths and legends on the walls. Sadly, much of its former glory has long been lost to war, colonisation and the ravages of time. Still, Angkor Wat remains a sight to behold.

Personally, I preferred the Bayon, a majestic temple with Buddha faces carved into the sides of the walls. If you like, you can even climb into the dark tunnels. There is usually someone in there as there are more shrines and altars within.

After Angkor Wat, you can head to see Tonle Sap Lake and its surroundings, or take a slow boat ride to catch the beautiful scenery and sunset. You can even pop by the touristy Pub Street for an ice-cold beer if you wish.

I would choose the boat ride to Tonle Sap Lake any day, with the fresh air and unobstructed horizon.