For my last trip in 2019, I decided to do a ‘first’; a first time in South East Asia. Being me I didn’t want my first impression of that side of the continent to be a ‘touristy’ country (not that it’s bad), I just wanted for my first time in SEA to take in the vibe, the people, the food, the history and the culture, for that I picked up Cambodia. I don’t remember when and why I made this decision, I only remember being on Excel calculating my budget.
When I told my friends I was planning to spend ten days across Cambodia, they gave me a look and then they were like “Isn’t it too much to spend in a country like Cambodia? There is not much to do apart from Angkor Watt”. Being me (again), I nodded and did what I wanted to do anyways, and I didn’t regret it because If I had more time I would’ve stayed for ten more days because I genuinely loved it, and there is so much more I wanted to explore in this country.
Getting to Cambodia is not difficult, there are no direct flights from most countries, but it’s easily accessible through Bangkok in general. There are many itineraries to explore Cambodia, depending on the type of traveler you are: island hopping and beaches, history and culture, countryside, or nightlife. I didn’t know which traveler I wanted to be in Cambodia, so my itinerary was: Two days in Phnom Penh (the capital), two days in the islands around Sihanoukville then finished with Siem Reap where I spent four days.
Phnom Penh: It is the capital of Cambodia and the “economical hub” of the country. I started my trip with Phnom Penh for a specific reason; I vaguely knew what had happened in this country (especially in Phnom Penh) in the late 70s, I knew it would be tough to learn about it and I didn’t want to go back home with it in mind.
My first surprise on my way from the airport were the French signs everywhere. I don’t read too much about countries before traveling because I want to have this first-hand experience, so I didn’t know that Cambodia was a French colony for 90 years (yes 9-0!), so it was quite unreal to read French in a country based on the other side of the planet from France. The French touch was also very clear in the architecture, the mix between Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and old French building is quite impressive.
The heaviest day of my trip emotionally was when I visited two of the most shocking and important places in Phnom Penh; The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. If you want my advice don’t visit both of them the same day, it will be a very heavy day, with horrifying stories. Long story short: in 1975 a communist leader called “Pol Pot” took over the country and created an army called “The Khmer Rouge”. He made everyone move from the cities to the countryside to work in lands and agriculture in extremely bad conditions, Intellectuals (teachers, doctors, professors, etc…) were arrested in masses and taken either to prison to be tortured and killed or directly to the killing fields to be executed. Total estimated of 2 Million Cambodians killed in 3 years and 8 months (between 75 and 79). I started by going to the Killing Fields (which are basically mass graves) where they dig up thousands and thousands of skeletons of Cambodians (adult men and women, children, babies) who went through the most horrifying deaths; hearing the stories made me sick to my stomach. Then after hearing about all of these stories I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old high school turned into a prison where all these Cambodians were imprisoned, tortured, before being killed. Again I’ll skip the stories, but the museum displays pictures of prisoners, Khmer Rouge soldiers but also testimonials from some of the massacre’s survivors.
It was a very difficult day to go through, honestly writing this post made me relive it and I already have a heavy weight on my chest just visualizing the images from this day. But I also think travel is not only about the happy stories and the happy places, travel is also going back through history –Dark as it may be-.
Don’t worry though, the rest of my trip was happier and lighter, Cambodian people are the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met (and I come from Morocco!), the beaches are magical and the culture is so rich. I will talk about all this. I’m just not going to do it today.
Cheers to the places we yet are to visit!