Controversial Cambodia

Only a couple of decades ago Cambodia used to be a one wild place, but in recent years it seems to attract more and more travelers. As it can still be a bit of a mess, Cambodia won’t be completely packed with Western all-inclusive luxury pursuing tourists like the neighbouring Thailand – just yet. Most of the backpackers you’ll run into, are typically in their early 20’s and doing their first long trip abroad in Southeast Asia. That was also the case for me, as these insights and photos are based on my memories and memos from a trip taking place in the beginning of 2018.

Anyway, location and an easy access from the tourism hub Bangkok to a completely different kind of a country is why especially young Westerners keep coming in. People are usually around for such reasons as the mindblowing Angkor Wat temple complex, the authentic and chaotic lifestyle, floating villages, cheap cost of living and the cruel yet important history about the Cambodian genocide.

cambodia boat trip sunrise
cambodia floating villages
Floating village on a whole day lasting boat trip down the river.
buddhist monks angkor wat
Buddhist monks gathering in temple area.
stairs down to killing cave battambang cambodia

Ehh.. Genocide, you say? Despite such a major catastrophic event happening as recently as in the late 1970’s, it hasn’t been widely spoken of, and at least I learned about it on the way. In (very) short, it was pushed by Khmer Rouge and it’s leader Pol Pot’s dream of a communist Utopia where everyone represents the working class. An ethnic cleansing was done on the highly educated, minorities, political prisoners and such resulting in 1,5 – 2 million deaths, which was roughly a quarter of the population. You can start educating yourself about all the crimes against the humanity in Phnom Penh’s centre of torture; the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields, which are now turned into museums.

There sure is a lot more to the case that I don’t claim to remember or even understand. My point isn’t that anybody should spend all their time in the country mourning the past. It’s more about knowing the basics to have some perspective on what the older generations have experienced and what an impact it has had on the nation.

cambodia killing fields bracelets mass grave
Bracelets left by visitors on a mass grave.
killing tree killing fields
killing fields memorial
Tiny part of the dug up skulls at Killing Fields Memorial.
killing cave battambang
killing cave painting battambang
Statues and a painting found near Killing Cave entrance close to Battambang.

Everything isn’t really all about murders, torture and misery. There has certainly been a lot of improvement compared to how I imagine things being some decades ago. These days the Chinese are also pushing a lot of money in the country. It has impacts of boths kinds but at least the infrastructure keeps improving.

Despite the still poor living conditions, I can honestly claim that I’ve never seen happier and livelier kids than those who often ran after me laughing, waving and sometimes even high fiving me. A visit to a circus school ran by charity money in Battambang was therefore quite a wholesome experience. In the school area they also had a kindergarten, an elementary school and a campus area, all specifying in different sorts of art.

circus school battambang
art school painting dragon battambang
art school battambang
graffiti art school battambang
Paintings and views from the circus and arts school.

Without a doubt, the most visited area in whole Cambodia is the city of Siem Reap due to the earlier mentioned temple complex in it’s neighbouring jungle. Angkor Wat (meaning “Temple City”) was built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century and still stands as the world’s largest religious monument by land area. These temples were later mostly forgotten from Western history writing for centuries until rediscovered by a French explorer around their colonial period. Quite interesting for a place that is considered one of the wonders of the world.

tuktuk cambodia siem reap angkor wat
On a tuktuk ride at the temple area.
angkor wat tomb raider temple pillars cambodia
tomb raider temple siem reap
Checking out the Ta Prohm Temple with my friend Jarkko.
Also known as the “Tomb Raider Temple” for inspiring temples reclaimed by jungle.
temple angkor wat
One of the many.
angkor wat temple statue siem reap cambodia
Please get out of my picture.
people and human face statue in sieam reap angkor wat temple
tourist masses in angkor wat cambodia
Okay then.
detailed carvings in angkor wat temple siem reap cambodia
Some of the stunning details in the main temple.

Even if that’s not what Cambodia is widely known for, you can find some stunning paradise islands and clear blue waters in the Southern parts. Some time by the seaside is therefore highly recommended if you happen to be around. We spent a few days in the island of Koh Rong Samloem, which is known for being a more chill destination with no working mobile connections or anything more than a few bungalows around. Our time there was although far from relaxing, as we went to a recommended party hostel in an otherwise isolated part of the island.

Returning to the city of Sihanoukville in mainland wasn’t any easier for us either. We decided to go out and testify a Jungle Party – an event of which I had heard being sometimes organized in different parts of Southeast Asia. Some wacko had seriously dragged and built a stage and several amusement park rides around a distant and uninhabited part of the jungle. Seeing those rides and hearing the zombie techno blasting in the jungle was a one weird experience. I didn’t see too many others drinking beer, since most of the people apparently went for the pills that were included in the entrance fee, from what I understood. It was a fun night even for us, anyway.

koh rong samloem mad monkey beach
koh rong samloem mad monkey harbour
Beach and the little harbour at Koh Rong Samloem island.
koh rong samloem mad monkey hostel common area restaurant
The common area or the restaurant building at sight.
koh rong samloem hidden hammock
koh rong samloem mad monkey hostel bungalow
The hostel bungalows, shared usually by ten people or so.
One of the very few photos from the Jungle Party.

It kinda starts to feel like Cambodia is one place to visit if you want to have stories to tell. I can assure you that everyone gets scammed already at the border when crossing by land. According to some backpacker legend, they even have fake border control points resulting in some tourists ending up paying twice for their visa. Do your studies if you plan to cross by land.

Another word of advice is that while everything is extremely cheap, you can think twice before entering the most suspiciously cheap massage places. I don’t think it was included in the advertised five dollar(?) massage, whatever it was that those two ladyboys intended to do with me, when appearing from thin air and jumping on my legs. At that moment, we had a very memorable discussion on which direction the service should go. A common language would have made things slightly more comfortable, though. But yes, you can normally get foot massages starting from as low as 2-3 USD and full body massages for a few additional dollars.

Now a couple of years later, I can only laugh at all the experiences I had on the trip. Even at those hangover psychoses during terrifying night bus rides where I was basically just waiting for the bus to crash. And where Cambodian food itself is quite tasty, you can choose to eat snakes, rats, different insects or even tarantula instead of the your regular stuff. Highly fashionable in these Corona times. Maybe flush it all down with a bottle of notorious snake wine. “Bon App├ętit”, as the former colonialist would say.

dirty riverside in cambodia
forgotten train tracks in cambodian slums
Seen on a day of driving around the city out bounds.
phnom penh night market food area
A nice food court of a night market in Phnom Penh.
baby monkeys cambodia asia
Baby monkeys. Because everyone loves baby monkeys.

I think we’re starting to run out of steam in here, so let’s just pack this up. Looking back to my time in Cambodia really made me realize how much fun I actually had on that trip. Especially when concentrating on the great times with Jarkko after my otherwise educating genocide themed week of touring.

Another realization I had, is that where one type of backpackers only have the country as their playground, even the most inconsiderate Captain Douchebaginsson McPotatoville helps out local communities by consuming his or her part of goods and services. Personally, I probably managed to be a bit of everything on my trip.

Ps. If you wish to see more info or donate a sum of your choice to the earlier mentioned charity run school, you can find them at:


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