For me, choosing my favorite country in Southeast Asia is like choosing my favorite travel quote; they each have a profound beauty that I find inspiring. The time we spent in Cambodia left us wanting to come back before we even left.
This country hit the trifecta of what I would describe as a perfect vacation destination: history, culture, and beaches. Over sixteen days we explored the ruins of the ancient Angkor Empire, hit the pristine Gulf of Thailand beaches and learned about the tragic genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Below are the highlights of each stop along the way.
Sihanoukville (4 days)
Hostels and bars line the streets of this small party town on the Gulf of Thailand. As we walked to our hotel after a long day of overland travel from Vietnam we did a double take when we saw signs promoting 50 cent beer happy hours. Around the corner from our accommodation was an even sweeter deal, Utopia Hostel had a nightly 25 cent beer happy hour! There was no shortage of quality restaurants lining the streets displaying the fresh catch of the day. We visited Mexican, Greek and Italian restaurants that were all delicious and a welcome break from the rice and noodle rotation.
We were staying within walking distance to Ochheuteal Beach which is lined with bars and restaurants and more papasan furniture than a Pier One warehouse. We visited around lunchtime on a sunny day and it was shockingly empty, both on the beach and in the restaurants. Perhaps the backpack crowd was paying the price for too many cheap beers the night before. They could also have chosen to visit Otres Beach, which our hotel had recommended as the better choice. We opted to spend our time poolside admiring some colorful Bougainville bushes back at our hotel.
Ferries leave Sihanoukville daily for the pristine and secluded islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. White sand, turquoise waters, and beachfront bungalows attract many backpackers to cut the cord to spend a day or two in paradise. We booked a one day island hopping tour aboard the Happy Boat. I kept my gaze on some peeling paint on the wall as one passenger after another lost their breakfast to the rolling sea. It was all forgotten when we arrived at the beach lined with tree houses and bathed in the calm blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
Phnom Phen (3 days)
We made our way to Cambodia’s capital city to learn more about the tragic genocide lasting almost four years between 1975-1979. We toured Toul Sleng Genocide Museum formerly a high school turned clandestine prison better known as S-21. An excellent audio tour detailed the horrors that Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge inflicted on prisoners and the general population including relocating mass populations out of cities and murder of over 1.7 million Cambodians.
The following day we visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as The Killing Fields. Sadly, it is just one of several mass grave sites found throughout the county. We heard first-hand accounts from surviving family members in another excellent Narrowcasters audio tour of the grounds. The tour ended in a memorial structure filled to the roof with skulls of victims.
The audio tour ended with this sentiment, which resonated as I thought about the current crisis in Syria:
This was hardly the first case of genocide. We never thought it could happen
here. But it did. And the thing is, it can happen anywhere. It did in Nazi
Germany. And in Russia, under Stalin. And in China. In Rwanda. In the US,
with its Native Americans. And in Argentina, and in Chile. Tragically, it will
probably happen again. So for your sake, remember us and remember our past as you
look to your future.
For me, the most disheartening part of the visit was to learn about the aftermath of this tragic period. Vietnam overthrew the Khmer in 1979 and established a new government but world powers continued to recognize the Khmer as the governing leaders for years. The Khmer Rouge even held a seat at the United Nations and received financial aid. Brother Number One, Pol Pot, lived to be 82 and was never brought to justice. I was shocked and dismayed read in the local papers that Cambodian’s are still recounting the atrocities that they and their families endured at tribunals taking place thirty years later.
In stark contrast to the genocide centers, we visited the opulent Royal Place. The palace is a residence of the Cambodian King, His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni. I couldn’t help myself from snapping pictures of the unique flowers on the well-manicured royal grounds.
Exquisite gates and gilded doors marked the entrance to Buddha filled buildings, the most remarkable being the Silver Pagoda. The floor contains over 5,000 silver tiles that were easily disguised under a protective rug. Topping this, is a life-sized solid gold Buddha covered with over 2,000 diamonds, the largest is a whopping 25 karats. The Silver Pagoda was also home to a variety of other grand Buddha’s, royal jewels and high-value relics. Outside, I caught my first glimpse of our next destination, the magnificent kingdom of Angkor Wat, shown as a small scale replica.
Siem Reap (9 days)
We made our way to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, the largest sacred temple in the world and the centerpiece of the Cambodian flag. Once the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor was the largest city in the world until the Industrial Revolution. The construction of this massive temple was completed in one King’s lifetime and is an engineering marvel that is fascinating to learn about.
Our three-day temple tour started with sunrise over Angkor Wat, one of the most magical experiences on our trip thus far. We arrived in the dark and clumsily made our way down the ancient stone walkway to a field and patiently waited for dawn to break. The veil of darkness lifted to reveal the ancient wonder. A warm glow illuminated the outline of the glorious temple which reflected a mirror image in a small pond where we were standing. As the crowd started making their way inside and we caught a glimpse of the sun slowly rising over the right side of the temple. Standing on the hallowed grounds of this ancient wonder the peacefulness of morning, the anticipation of what was inside, and the wonder of the past, melded into one unforgettable moment.
We purchased the three-day admission pass that was enough time to visit most of the temples in the Angkor Archeological Park. The first day we visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complex where we saw the many faces of Bayon temple and explored the temples and terraces of the Royal Palace. By noon we had to call it quits as we were exhausted from the 4 am wake up and high heat.
The second day we did the Grand Circuit which is in close vicinity to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and was a ring road with another seven or eight impressive temples scattered throughout. After seeing two of the most magnificent temple ruins on day one I was pleased that day two temples were just as splendid. The highlight was seeing the massive tree growths that were reclaiming Ta Phrom, film location of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
With a heat index of 107 on day two, we took two days off before venturing further afield, about an hour by tuk-tuk to Banteay Srei. This temple is a pinkish color, unlike any of the other temples we had seen, and has ornate carvings. On the way back, we stopped in at two of the temples we had missed in previous days and spent the rest of the day cooling off in the pool.
While in Siem Reap we stayed at the newly opened Dream Mango Villas. Fantastic food, hospitable staff and a spotless and spacious room put this on the short list of our top accommodations on the trip. We loved it so much we extended our stay twice and left with this being our most favorite accommodation in the world to date.
The Swiss owner, Harry, set a fun and friendly atmosphere where we befriended visitors from Germany, Canada, United States, Philippines, and England. In the neighborhood were three of Siem Reap’s top restaurants and it was within walking distance to the heart of Siem Reap, Pub Street. There was little need to venture out as the food at the hotel was exceptional and the pool was perfection.
Our last night in Cambodia we visited the Cambodian circus, Phare. We purchased $1 popcorn and took our seats on the bleachers at a sold out show. A handful of teenage performers used simple props like broomsticks and rugs to tell a story of power and survival titled Influence. The crowd was rooting for them as they balanced, climbed and juggled around the ring in a high energy show. I was impressed by the talent and entertained the whole show. My favorite part was at the end when a dripping wet performer jumped onto the lap of an unsuspecting older gentleman in the audience and held on as the crowd erupted.
In a country as impoverished as Cambodia, it feels good to spend tourism dollars in a socially conscious way. The ticket proceeds from the show help provide a free education and gainful employment to kids from desperate social and economic circumstances. The nonprofit school helps students end the cycle of poverty by providing basic education, social support, and art training. The ten circus performers and four musicians get paid for each show and the gift shop features work of students and local artists who get 100% of the proceeds from the sale of their work. We left with matching palm seed bracelets, a souvenir of an unforgettable trip to Cambodia.
We took so many great photos during our stay in Cambodia. Check out some of them here in our video below: