So I have to admit, if you had asked me which country was next on my hit list, I probably wouldn’t have said Cambodia.
You see, as an Australian I have the wonderful privilege of being located next to a huge number of countries which I’d describe as being very ‘Me’ in that they’re warm, diverse and easy to visit. But I also happen to work in an industry where my business is looking at all things international, so the choice of Cambodia was not my own.
Spiders and Dolphins
Of course as is true of all good expeditions it’s probably best that I start somewhere near the beginning, which is with Tarantulas. See, although I knew bits and pieces about Cambodia, I had next to no knowledge about Kratie, the province where I was to be staying. But with the help of Google I discovered:
- Cambodia (like everywhere else) is a land of contrast
- I would be staying somewhere near the Mekong River
- Fried tarantula is a local delicacy
So armed with this extensive knowledge, I proceeded to focus on the most important point: Would I be willing to eat a tarantula?
Of course I was soon to find out how little my research had prepared me for the reality of Phnom Penh. You see far from being full of spiders, it was actually inhabited almost entirely by people.
Perplexed by this I hit the books (and travel guides) again and here’s what I found out:
- Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia,
- It has a population of around 2 million, which is around 10 per cent of Cambodia’s total population
- As a consequence of its French colonial roots and wartime history, it is as an eclectic mix of French architecture and Buddhism
- I prefer starting my day with Phnom Penh noodle soup than Weet Bix
- There is a lot of dust
In fact, with all the dust and activity I couldn’t help but feel that I was located in the centre of a Cowboy Bebop esque cacophony of culture, dust and disorder.
Then there’s the pagodas, which is a term (technically) used to describe the ‘tiered’ style of architecture typical in East Asia, but colloquially used for the Buddhist temples scattering the countryside. And when I say scattering, I mean scattered like ducks on a pond.
You see, way before hipsters spent their time coming up with ‘Facebook’ for the ‘Facebook generation’ on Kickstarter, Cambodian communities were crowdsourcing with the best of them. In fact, many of the Pagodas in Cambodia are not financed by the church, but from Cambodian expatriates.
What this meant was that even when I had travelled to areas of Cambodia which were scarcely occupied (or occupiable given it was the dry season) a monumental pagoda wouldn’t be far off (pun intended).
Woah right? Well, woah is right.
Unfortunately, thanks to my unapologetically crappy Olympus camera there are other pictures, but few which capture the magnificence of these buildings. But fortunately for you, Google has succeeded where my camera failed by providing you with an abundance of stock photos to choose from. Add this to Wikipedia providing me with all the information I need to fake my travel story and you’ve got a winning combination.
A very impressive mural on the surrounding walls near the Silver Pagoda
So here’s the deal, probably the most well-known Pagoda is the ‘Silver Pagoda’, a name which couldn’t be more appropriate given its floor is made of five tonnes or five thousand solid-silver tiles. It is also the home of some of the countries most treasured artifacts including a life-sized gold Buddha and a building donated by Napoleon (which is now occupied by monkeys).
Monument honouring the late King Norodom Sihanouk.
But of course for me to claim this as the end of my day looking at curios, artefacts and monuments would be widely inaccurate because after having toured the palace I spent the best part of my first day in Phnom Penh randomly wandering around the city.
And this random wandering was how I found the monuments above and a myriad of other statues scattered nearby my hotel. You see, Cambodia has quite a history, being a colony of France from 1863 to 1958, having experienced around a decade of growth (squarely centered in the capital itself) and having barely emerged from a regime that wiped out or around 25% of Cambodia’s population.
So when it comes to effective strategies for tourism you’ll likely find getting lost a surprisingly successful strategy (provided you leave a trail of breadcrumbs).
The elusive museum rooster.
Of course as inspiring as visiting the National Museum, Royal Palace and Wat Phnom were, I did have to set aside a day to desperately try to understand how it was possible for something as brutal as the Cambodian genocide to occur.
Now although admittedly there aren’t many tourist destinations you want to leave with tears in your eyes, Cambodia’s most well-known memorial to the genocide, the Choeung Ek Killing Field is undeniably powerful and a site which is a macabre must for all visitors to Cambodia.
Given the seriousness of the destination I’d suggest the following:
- Think twice about taking your children – this is an extremely confronting experience which might not be appropriate for some kids. I certainly wouldn’t have had the maturity to provide it with the respect it deserves when I was a kid. But then I was a hoodlum.
- If you plan to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, be aware that it is also confronting, so you might want to rest in between so you can appreciate it. It is also not as well-funded, so I would suggest reading up on it before you arrive to get the most out of your visit.
- I’d try and set aside around 2 hours at the fields themselves – working your way through the audio tour and museum takes time, and is undeniably worthwhile.
- Don’t plan anything much for afterwards as you might need time to recover.
- If you fire an AK47, don’t do it on the day you visit the fields.
Finally, before you leave Cambodia I recommend you read ‘First they Killed My Father‘ by Loung Ung. If you do what I did and read this on the plane, bring enough tissues to have people around you think you’re going to craft your own pillow. You’ll need them.
Of course, I wasn’t being sent to Cambodia for the purposes of testing out firearms or taking photos of the roosters loitering around museums. I was there to work, which is where the province of Kratie comes in. So to give you an essential flavour of the area, Kratie (pronounced ‘Krashee’) is a province north-east of Phnom Penh:
Kratie is not actually red.
But beyond the fascinating story of Kratie’s position relative to Phnom Penh is the fact that the Kratie province is essentially the bread in a Mekong sandwich, providing an excellent source of water for irrigation or Huckleberry Finn style adventures. Now as a result of this, people are furiously using the Mekong in every way they can as it slithers its way through Cambodia.
What this means is that not only are villages scattered across its shores, but so are rice paddies and the (very) occasional Irrawaddy dolphin. Also when I say ‘shores’ I mean it, you see in Australia we have the tendency to call any trickle of water a river, even when it’s just a result of somebody accidentally leaving their hose on. But the Mekong River, unlike the leaky tap in your backyard, is of epic proportions.
The view of the Mekong across from my guesthouse.
The view of the pagoda on the other side of my guesthouse.
But of course the purpose of my trip was not just to make relative comparisons of flowing water (as undoubtedly useful as this is), but to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of a number of local development projects. So each of my days went something like this:
- Eat a breakfast of ‘Kuy teav‘
- Ride a motorbike through the jungle (or what’s left of the jungle more accurately)
- Talk to locals using broken Khmer, take GPS tags and photos
- Hear about past failures of the government to provide basic infrastructure
- Randomly bump into another Australian in the remotest of locations
Lather, rinse and repeat
Potentially the most attractive road I’ve ever seen.
And as simple as this daily routine might sound, it was actually nothing short of exhausting. Particularly given that travelling to and from a site took anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. In any case, at the end of the day the bamboo mat I slept on was nothing short of luxury. It was also another great opportunity to see first-hand both how participatory development projects can function on the ground and just how entrepreneurial NGOs can be.
But like all things, my time in Kratie was only temporary and with limited time to myself I did what any sane person in Cambodia would do and headed for the temples.
Of course whilst I will openly admit to being much less adventurous in Siem Reap than the rest of Cambodia, I can reveal to you at this point that I did in fact have what it took to eat a tarantula. Although it was more to the amusement of the expatrates than the locals, the closest thing I can compare it to is hairy cheese.
I also got to experience the wonders of being (slowly) eaten alive by fish. Now, although I had first tried a ‘fish massage’ when I was in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap brought something a little different to the table.
You see, the fish in Siem Reap probably as a result of subsisting on a diet of overweight westerners, are themselves ahhh… big. So instead of being lightly nibbled, you are mercilessly devoured. In fact when you put your feet in the tank they hand you a pointy stick for defence and a beer for anaesthetic.
Look, I am fully aware that joke has been used countless times before. But there is a reason some jokes rise to the ranks of ‘dad jokes‘ and others don’t.
Some are timelessly awesome.
In any case, like everyone else, I was in in Siem Reap to see temples in the butt-load (the standard measure of temple quantities).
Silly tree, get out of here!
Statues watching their back at Bayon Temple
Now, for anyone who has been to Siem Reap you’ll know that the streets are littered with tour guide operators offering standard temple packages, making it pretty easy to plan your trip once you arrive. Unfortunately this can make it rather difficult to determine the standard of your tour guide before booking.
Luckily for me I went with my gut and decided to avoid the first tour guide I spoke to, mainly as a result of them having an electrified booth. No really, I stood there watching as the poor guy manning the booth tried not to touch anything as his friend (while laughing heartily) ran to turn off the power at its source.
Needless to say, I didn’t go with this guy, but for those of you looking to do a tour I would highly recommend taking the luck out of it and researching and booking your tour ahead of time so you don’t miss out on snagging one of the legendary tour guide operators.
I said the motorcycle tour was manly right?
I would also suggest mixing up how you do your tours, as I have to say after the first day I was keen to go somewhere where I might have a bit more solitude. So here’s my second suggestion, consider taking a quad-bike or motorbike tour of the area outside of Siem Reap. I personally found this to be the most satisfying part of my time there as not only does it allow you to escape the crowds, but provides a great opportunity to get a more authentic view of some of the countryside.
Think of all the manly things I can keep in that basket.
Unfortunately, the motorbike tour was also the last thing I did before leaving, resulting in me being left with an undeniable sense of sadness on my last day. Despite this, I have to say Cambodia rates very highly on the my list of places I’ve visited.
So much so, I am intending on returning and unlike Indiana Jones, when I do it will be awesome.