July 20, 2013

Cambodia: The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

Have you already read our Cambodia, Revisited post? No? Well, go read that first and watch the photo slideshow. Go ahead. We'll wait for you.

Welcome back! Now, it's time for our full wrap-up of all the best and worst parts of our time in Cambodia. We call this, 'The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!" But, as usual, when we review countries, we'll start with "The Bad," then move on to "The 'Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!'" and end with "The Good." (We're idealists, remember?)

The Bad

Lack of Options 
Cambodia is a popular stop on the backpacker trail but, though we hate to say it, it really doesn't stack up compared to neighboring SE Asian countries in terms of activities and sites to see. There just wasn't as much to actually do in Cambodia. Unfortunately, we were also in the middle of a bit of a travel slump when we were in Cambodia, so we didn't do as much exploring as we probably should have. So I know there's a lot more than what we saw. Still, we tried to mix in a variety of experiences: ancient temples in Angkor Wat, Killing Fields history in Phnom Penh, small-town village life in Kampot, and beach in Sihanoukville. With the exception of Angkor Wat, we wouldn't put any of the other places on our list of favorites. Don't misunderstand - we loved our time there and we're so glad we went. But, Tom had visited Cambodia before (on the same trip when he visited Burma over 10 years ago, read here), and we weren't left with the feeling that we need to see more, so I think we have hit our Cambodia quota for the near future. For now, I'm just thrilled to have this 15-year dream realized. 
Bored in Kampot

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. But Kampot just didn't float our boat. Experiences are completely subjective though (as we mentioned in this post), so you might have a great time if you visit. For us, there wasn't much to see or do and, unfortunately, we got stuck on the most boring tour ever in the history of the world where the highlight of the day was staring at decrepit buildings from the 1970s that held absolutely no historical significance.

Hippies in Sihanoukville
The beaches and locals in Sihanoukville are lovely, but the hippie expats have planted themselves in the middle of the village and taken over. One night, when we thought we were heading out to attend a local market, it was actually a hippie fest where the expats sold their overpriced pies and gyros. As the expat artists performed their songs (mostly poorly, I might add), they passed around a collection cup, which we assumed was for a local cause - schools for farmer's kids, clean water, training for amputees, etc…. It wasn't. The money was for "expat artists to continue to make their home in Cambodia." Basically, we were paying their rent. We were pretty annoyed. 

Amusement Park Rides in Phnom Penh
We've been on tiger safaris, we've scuba dived, we've eaten street food all over Asia, and we've been shaken down by corrupt desert police in India. But riding an amusement park ride in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is, by far, the most dangerous thing we've done on this trip. It was terrifying. And not in an exciting way. It was terrifying in an I-really-think-we-might-die-today kind of way. We wouldn't recommend it. 

The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

To say that this country and these people have been through tough times in recent history is putting it very lightly. There was, of course, the American/Vietnam War fought at Cambodia's borders, leaving the country littered with land mines and unexploded ordinances and, worse still, weakening the government enough to allow Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge take over the country. You probably know what happened after that. Nearly a third of the Cambodian population was wiped out through a genocide implemented by their own people. Their doctors, scholars, teachers, and educated were killed along with hundreds of thousands of other every day citizens. Their children were starved. Their young adults were left amputees. All were left with scars on their bodies and in their hearts. Their economy was wiped out and their healthcare system was decimated, leaving Cambodia with the label of one of the poorest nations in the world. And they're still struggling. Cambodia is a sad example of the true cost of war. The struggles don't end when an agreement is signed. Communities affected by war will feel the effects for decades.

With a survivor of Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. He was incredibly forgiving and proud of his country.

National Park Land
So, this is a touchy subject, but we've noticed a common occurrence throughout much of our travels. China is making moves. Big moves. They are occupying lands (which we discussed in this post about Tibet), they ignored the sanctions placed on Burma during the rule of the oppressive militant regime (and now own most of Burma's gemstone mines), they are encroaching on Vietnam from both the sea and from Laos, they are the largest single land owner in all of Africa, and they are snatching up national park land throughout Cambodia. This land should be protected but, instead, it's marked for development by China and, in some cases, is sure to be used as a pawn when they find something they need from the Cambodian government and people. Ugh. Can't everyone just be nice and stop picking on the (economic) little guys?

The Good

I guess the thing that struck us the most about Cambodia was just how far they've come in a short amount of time.   This little blog post can't even begin to convey the horrible things these people have been through, and I'm barely scratching the surface in terms of the long-term consequences to their economy and infrastructure due to the war and the genocide. But, WOW, have they come a long way. Throughout the country, we were impressed by the new construction, emerging technologies, developing businesses, and tourism infrastructure. One of the best things we noticed is that there are NGOs everywhere. In stark contrast to Burmese government who has refused help when they needed it (read here), the Cambodian government has accepted the help and infusion of aid from around the world. There are NGOs for victims of the Killing Fields, for land mine removal, for impoverished children, to clean up the streets, for education, etc… Because the government truly wanted what was best for its people (and didn't let ego take over), Cambodia is recovering and the future of its people is looking brighter. Now, before anyone sends me an email about all the awful things the government has done, let me say that I'm sure it's not perfect and I have no doubt they've made mistakes. I don't know enough to comment on those things. My point is that we were impressed by the state of Cambodia considering its difficult past.

Visiting Friends
We were lucky enough to hang out with my friend Billy and his wife and friends in Phnom Penh. Billy (originally from Cambodia) is a nearly life-long resident of my hometown, Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and his family is the reason my fascination with this country began. He happened to be visiting his wife and family in Phnom Penh while we were there, and we met up. Unfortunately, we rode the most terrifying amusement park ride ever (see above), so our time there was mostly spent screaming bloody murder. But we still enjoyed some cotton candy and feeling like locals for a few hours.

Khmer Culture
The people in Cambodia had the same charm we had gotten so used to in Southeast Asia and we were always treated with kindness and polite curiosity. In particular. we found the children in Cambodia to be particularly precocious and gregarious, not to mention industrious and resourceful. On multiple occasions, we bought tchochkes and multiple postcards we didn't need from resourceful children hustling their wares. We were bowled over by their charm and happily opened our wallets (after negotiating, obviously).

Tom, after buying TWENTY postcards from this girl. He's such a sucker for a gal with a cute smile!

Angkor Wat

Siem Reap's Angkor Wat region is truly incredible. Ask any world traveler one of the most amazing things they've seen, and Angkor Wat will almost certainly be on their list. It's on ours as well. Walking among these ancient temples and structures, you can almost imagine what life might have been like there when it was a thriving civilization, and the thought is truly overwhelming. It's one of those places where we were just struck with awe and reminded of our short amount of time on Earth and of how small we really are.

Chuck Norris Dim Sum
We see a lot of funny signs and menu items on our travels. We love it. But seeing Chuck Norris Dim Sum restaurant in Phnom Penh was a highlight. We consider it a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler.

So what did we do in Cambodia? We:

Make sure you check out our video round-up of some of our favorite photos! (Click here or watch below.)

As always, you can view all of our pics by clicking here. A few more of our favorite Cambodia pics are below.


As always, you can view all of our pics by clicking here. You can read all of our wrap up posts here:




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