Cambodia is an assault on the senses. Anywhere in the country beyond the cosseted, tourist rich environs of Siam Reap, the visitor finds facts which stagger them from every direction.
Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped almost a third more ordnance (2.8 million tonnes) on Cambodia, a country the size of Oklahoma, than the allies dropped in the whole of WW2 (2million tonnes) including the atomic bombs which struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cambodia is thought to be the most heavily bombed country in history.
The Khmer Rouge slaughtered in the region of quarter of the population, although historians are still arguing over the exact numbers. Lower estimates put the number just under a million, with the more extreme scholars suggesting that some three million people perished. The population of Cambodia, as of 1975, was in the region of 7.5 million people.
Even today, Cambodia is a country very much in transition. More than a third of Cambodian people survive on less than 50 cents a day, 24% of Cambodians will not live beyond the age of 40. More than 90%, some estimates are as high as 96%, of roads in the country are un-sealed dirt tracks. Cambodia, it is fair to say, is a hardcore travel destination. But the picture is changing.
The Cambodian economy is growing at over 6% per annum, largely as a result of a successful textile industry and a rapidly expanding tourist trade. Visitor numbers went through the one million mark in 2005 and look set to continue rising. Whilst it clearly has some way to go, the politically stable and accessible Cambodia we find today has far more to offer than the temples of Angkor Wat.
Phnom Penh, although a city still in recovery, is surely worth the effort of a visit. Of course, the genocide museum at Tuol Sleng and the killing fields of Choueng Ek will dominate most agendas, but there are unexpected treasures in Pnom Penh as well.
The colonial influence is obvious, Cambodia was a French colony until 1953 and there are some fine art-deco buildings around the city. True, the city itself has an unusual civic approach to maintenance and repair; rubbish is gathered in heaps and collected when they can get round to it.
Many Phnom Penh roads have returned to their ‘natural’ state and the traffic is wildly chaotic. The people are friendly though and the city has a positive, upbeat, atmosphere.
The discerning visitor will look beyond such trivia, and hopefully both ways before crossing the roads, to find some truly excellent restaurants along the riverfront. The FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) is a treasure, an excellent menu, good local beer and the best spot in town for people watching.
It’s said that the correspondents themselves, foreign journalists, fled so unceremoniously when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh that there was beer on the bar and cigars smouldering in the ashtrays of the FCC club. There were also several abandoned cameras; what price those rolls of film now?
The Russian Market, a battered example of colonial architecture, sits smugly at the heart of a traffic storm promising the brave a typically Asian retail therapy session; cheap clothes, dodgy watches and an authentically Khmer food experience.
Very few will want to get to Cambodia and miss the temples of Angkor Wat and, fortunately, the road between Phnom Penh and Siam Reap is a sealed example and in good shape. Buses are regular, comfortable, take around five hours and cost a bargain $10.
It is possible to take a ferry along the Mekong and across Tonle Sap Lake in some eight hours. This may seem a bit more rock’n’roll but the reality is that the boats are not air conditioned, often overcrowded and blistering hot if you choose to sit outside. They also cost a relatively expensive $25 for the ride.
Siam Reap could hardly be more different to Phnom Penh. It’s small, fairly quiet, funky and safe. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that Phnom Penh is dangerous, it can have an edgy feel in the darker parts of town after sundown. Siam Reap feels more like a holiday camp with a temple attached. Everyone is there for the same reason; Angkor.
There is accommodation to suit every budget in Siam Reap, from $5 hostels to the considerably more costly Le Meridien Angkor which tops out at $410 for a suite. There are plenty of comfortable, well situated hotels in the $25 range.
Transport around town, in both Pnom Penh and Siam Reap, can be had for $10-15 a day for a ‘moto-dop’ (a sort of motorbike and trailer) or tuk-tuk ; $25 for an air-con car. It’s simple to arrange yourself with a driver or hotel reception staff are generally very helpful and will organise it for you.
Angkor Wat itself is the biggest religious monument in the world. It is possibly the busiest as well, expect a crowd. Those with limited time will need to decide just which parts of the complex they want to see.
The main temple at Angkor is the obvious place to start, if only for the iconic picture of the temple across the lake. Be aware that if you save the main temple until later in the day in order to get better light for your pictures that they close the site down before dusk.
If you want moody, dramatically lit images of Angkor Wat they will have to be sunrise ones, not sunset. The sun does rise behind the temple, but if you make the effort to be there at 4am don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
Ta Phrom will also be on everyone’s list and is easily the most striking ruin. Ta Phrom is the complex which featured in the Tombraider film and has been left to be re-claimed by the jungle. A mile or so away, the Bayonne is probably the best example of bas relief carvings.
It’s often said that it’s not possible to see Angkor in a day. That is undoubtedly true, but some 1 million people a year seem to be giving it their best shot and the numbers are expected to breach 3 million by 2010.
No part of Angkor Wat is roped off. At the moment, there is nothing to stop people clambering over these exquisite, important, ancient ruins which have sat serenely in the jungle since they were abandoned half a millennium ago. The temples are suffering now and the time is rapidly approaching when they will, like so many heritage sites, have to be viewed from a distance.
There is no doubt that Cambodia remains an adventurous tourist destination. The infrastructure outside of the major cities is not restored. The ironic answer of ‘Bangkok’, to the question ‘where is the nearest hospital’ should not be too readily dismissed. It is accessible though, Cambodia, and those who make the effort to go there will not be disappointed.
This is a country which, having suffered almost three decades of brutal civil war, is slowly hauling itself back into normality and they need some help now, not in the form of aid but in tourist dollars spent in the bars, shops and hotels.
If all you have the time or inclination to do is spend a few days poking around Angkor taking pictures, and a few nights enjoying the jaunty, sanitised nightlife of Bar Street then you should go. It’s not Cambodia, Siam Reap is more like Cambodia’s theme park, but it’s worth the visit all the same. Even if only to see Angkor Wat up close and personal, before they put it behind ropes and in the glass cases of an air conditioned museum.