It’s quite a dramatic change from very developed, urban Saigon, which left me an impression of Vietnam as linked to China in both development and culture, to very much less developed, very rural Cambodia. What I mostly felt was: I’ve been secretly moved to India.
Cambodia had a strong Indian influence in its past, which helped create the long-lived Khmer empire spanning most of South-East Asia and its god-king. The Hindu religion left its mark in temples and architecture, even if it’s not practised nowadays. We got cheated less, but begged way way more, another thing that reminded me of India, especially the Very Persistent Beggar which I have not seen in other South-East Asian countries before. Another notable change is the very flatness of the country and the red dirt that composes the ground – it just looked very different.
What you cannot ignore in Cambodia are two things – it’s amazing past as a ruling empire of the subcontinent and it’s horrible past of terror during the Red Khmer rule. That contrast is strongest in Phnom Phen, the capital, where you can visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the morning, essentially an old school crudely converted into a prison and torture centre, and then visit ancient temples in the afternoon. On top of that you have a river bar district full of white people and a large red light section. I found the city less interesting in that regard but I would definitely recommend a visit to Tuol Sleng.
After Phnom Phen didn’t really spark our interest, we went to a hidden gem: Kampot. Once a famous city know all over Europe – during the 19th century it was synonymous with pepper – it is now a sleepy river town where you can relax, enjoy the scenery and the friendly people. We also did a very long bike tour to a holy cave – only to be picked up by a 10 year old kid your guide and dragged to another cave. And that was quite a challenge, because it was completely undeveloped, which meant a lot of climbing up and sometimes down and crawling through very small holes. On problem is that Cambodians are very tiny, not just the children, maybe because of the relatively recent famines under the Red Khmer. One hole proofed way to small for me, so we had to turn around and look for another way. All an all an exhausting but amazing experience but I think Amy might disagree here. 😉