Cambodia


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The Kingdom of Cambodia is a nation in Southeast Asia and a modern successor to the Khmer Empire that flourished from the 9th to the 15th century. The history of the place is revealed magnificently in the temples of Angkok Wat, the largest religious monument complex in the world. However, cultural heritage is not limited on that. Vibrant cities, traditional villages and an exotic natural landscape alternating from the mountainous north with rich wildlife, the lush green rice fields to the tropical southern islands of turquoise waters. And of course, the Great Mekong River runs across the country, the life-giver of Indochina. The recent history of this idyllic part is tarnished by horrid genocide, soaked with the blood of three million souls, victims of mass executions and tortures under the totalitarian regime of Khmer Rouge, led by the notorious dictator Pol Pot. Since 1979, when this regime ended, justice has been attributed just recently, condemning some of the culprits for these crimes against humanity.


People

The Khmer, like their neighbors throughout Southeast Asia, have the smile engraved in their culture. They will treat you with kindness and understanding, in a manner that it’s hard to believe that some years ago, some part of the population has been murdering its fellow citizens.


Places

Phnom Penh
The country’s capital, built at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, despite the chaotic traffic of people and vehicles, exudes its own charm. As a rapidly growing city, it reflects the country’s growth rate.

Siem Reap
A city with a relaxed atmosphere, all sorts of hotels, restaurants and cafes, owes its growth to the nearby Angkor archaeological site. Another attraction that the visitor should not miss is the floating village of Phum Phang, which can be reached by combining a road trip and a motorized boat.

Angkor Wat

The largest temple complex in the world was built around the 12th century initially as a Hindu and later as a Buddhist worship site, now is the emblem of the country. The elaborate architecture of hundreds of countless megalithic buildings, reliefs, water perimeters, and the dense jungle that surrounds them -and in some cases reclaiming the area- with rooted trees embellishing the buildings, gives Angkor Wat the title of one of the most important monuments of cultural heritage in the world and for some claims a place in the new 7 wonders of the World list.

Sihanoukville
A coastal city with intense construction and tourist flow due to its long coastal zone, hotels, casinos, nightlife and proximity to beautiful islands. Despite its preference for tourists, the city -which is also the main port of the country- is not famous for its beauty. A colorful slum built on piles on the dirty waters of the harbor, hosts a fishermen community of more traditional lifestyle.

Koh Rong
Together with his twin brother, Koh Rong Samloem, these tropical paradises have not yet been eroded by hordes of tourists like in neighboring Thailand, with the exception of Koh Touch’s main harbor, where backpackers engage in frantic nightlife.



Traveling with hand luggage in the land of Khmer

If you want to travel frequently, nothing can stop you. Neither the limited time, nor the hassle. And when it comes to the lowest budget, you find solutions and destinations that meet that. So, since Cambodia was left empty on my travel map, I could not resist the price offer of low-cost airline named Scoot. In simple maths, I found a flight from Athens – Singapore – Kuala Lumpur at an affordable price, but just a hand luggage of 10kgs and no foodn and another flight by AirAsia to Phnom Penh with a limit of just 7 kg. The low weight limit is a significant stress, especially when my photographic equipment exceeds 3 kg. The combination of flights and waiting totals 22 hours of travel per direction…

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The stopover in Singapore was ideal for a quick visit to the spectacular sleeping metropolis. The surreal landscape is dominated by illuminated skyscrapers, the luxury hotel Marina Bay Sands in the shape of a ship in the sky – one of the most characteristic parts of the city – and the botanical garden that includes futuristic, purple, artificial, giant trees.

Landing at Phnom Penh Airport. Fortunately, the visa process does not take more than 15 minutes and costs $30. The US dollar is the country’s unofficial currency in every transaction. The low value Cambodian Riel is only used for less than one dollar. One of the advantages of traveling with hand luggage is that you do not waste time waiting on the luggage lane, so… I am already haggling over the price of a tuk-tuk so that we can visit the genocide monument. Traffic on the main streets of Phnom Penh is paranoid, even tuk-tuks remain idle for long time in the engine fumes, stifling heat and humidity. We arrived at exactly 5:30pm, just at on time the “killing fields” monument closes. Eventually it was already closed, but someone very willingly invited us to come in, collecting half the listed fee, of course without giving a ticket. In the surrounding area you see the pits where victims of the mass killings are buried in groups, some rags from the clothes they were wearing and a creepy mausoleum full of skulls. A small lake surrounded by tall trees full of songbirds, gives a special calm, a heavenly breath in a place that was the hell of thousands of souls.

To cover the 800 km road routes without additional waste of time and no domestic flights, there’s just one way to do. Bedded night buses are a common and budget way to get around Asia. Giant Ibis is one of the best agencies but don’t think about hotel comfort. The other means of transport will include many tuk-tuks for short distances as well as full day hire for negotiable price. Covering the long distances between the temples of Angkor Wat, tuk-tuks are absolutely necessary.

The tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us to take us to the city center, a beautiful riverside area with an evening flea market and a number of restaurants with delicious Khmer cuisine. After so many hours of travel, we won’t sleep in a bed but on the night bus to Siem Reap. Eyes can’t be kept open, but as is common in Asia the air conditioning temperature was severe cold. The weather forecast was unfortunately accurate and rain was falling heavily. Arriving early in the morning in Siem Reap the roads were flooded and rain was still pouring, but at the station a tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us offering the hotel ride for free. Ladear is a boutique hotel with pool, restaurant, massage & spa and comfortable rooms at Cambodian prices, much cheaper than a hostel in Europe. In addition to transportation and a rich breakfast, it offered a free drink, foot massage, and even a room to rest well in advance of check-in time. The rain, contrary to the forecasts, stopped and I agreed on an budget price with the tuk-tuk driver for the full two-day trips. So we start a journey in the Cambodian countryside full of typical images of Asia and at some point we meet a lake with blooming water lilies where many tourists stop. The children sell the flowers they cut from the lake, and we had the chance to offer them some pens and notepads. After a long journey we reach the river bank, full of colorful, wooden boats. Unfortunately the boats are monopolized by a single cooperative and the cost of transport to the floating village is unreasonably high, at $20. After an hour drive we reach the floating village and a floating cafeteria that tourists usually go to see a crocodile farm and fish farm. The landscape is beautiful but i don’t favour tourist places like this. After some insistence, our boatman took us to a floating school structure where we interacted with the kids.

Returning to Siem Reap we walk along the river that crosses the city crowned by bridges, we will rest in peaceful Buddhist temples, we will penetrate in the markets of local (Chinese) products. A wise tip is to get the Angkor Wat ticket from the day before. The ticket office is strangely located in a completely different area from the point of entry. There is a choice of one-day ($ 37), three-day or seven-day ticket. Despite the size of the archeological site, in my opinion one day is enough, since the monuments at some point begin to look the same. With the ticket on hand you have the right to view the sunset at the main temple, on the previous day of entrance.

The hotel bed seemed to me the most enjoyable ever. But sleep time is limited since the departure is at 5am, to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat but also to have enough time to cover the area. Among the temples some are very popular. There are two small lakes in front of the main temple and behind them hundreds of tourists are huddled to take the typical photo with the reflection of the “towers” of the temple in the water. Another popular temple is Ta Phrom, with the characteristic trees that have taken over the buildings with their roots. These temples are difficult to enjoy in peace due to the large number of tourists and especially from China. There are many, they are noisy, rude and do not respect the sanctity of the place. They generally behave like crazy for a selfie. The hot sun and tropical humidity make the tour tiring. But Angkor Wat rewards you, being one of the most important and enchanting world monuments to visit.

Night bus travel goes on. The journey is even longer, a total of 10 hours to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Here I have to find two different speedboat agency offices. The first one transfers to Koh Rong Island at Sok San Beach, but we have to return 2 days later with another company from the main port of Koh Touch, to catch the return flight from Sihanoukville Airport. The ship stops at the twin island of Koh Rong Samloem, an idyllic paradise with bright turquoise waters and white sand stretching for many kilometers. A little bit later we see a similar scene, arriving at our destination. Simple wooden huts and some palm trees are the backdrop of the postcard landscape. The waters are warm, and the sun reflects on the white sand, giving the skin a slight burn. But even paradise becomes boring for those who are not used to staying in the same place for a long time. The island does not have many things to do, so a trekking into the jungle looking for a small waterfall, offers a slight dose of adventure with slippery rocks that had to be climbed. Upon return to the beach, I find once again that these seas, with their amazing colors, are not always so ideal. Small jellyfish of various species -mainly painless- predominate in the water. From one point on you feel tiny stings, which is not very pleasant. A little further on the beach is a luxury resort. The restaurant has a gourmet cuisine and the prices are lower than a Greek tavern. The next day we find this part of the island almost empty of people.

April is the New Year’s celebration for the Khmer and even the restaurant staff departed for their places of origin. I needed a means of transportation to get to the main settlement of the island and after long search I met a few more westerners with the same destination, so that we could share the cost of a traditional fishing boat. The ride was slow and enjoyable, but arriving at the settlement of Koh Touch we meet a typical example of bad tourism. Dirt, rubbish and northern European backpackers disturbing the tranquility. However just a bit further, the environment changes again and our accommodation in treehouse bungalows is a pleasant surprise, with huts built on stilts in the jungle or even on trees. Another endless beach stretches along the way. We are at the end of the dry season but the weather at this time is unstable. The sunny day was followed by a cloudy dusk and a night of intense thunderstorms and heavy rain. I am concerned about the ship availability on the next day, so I couldn’t sleep. However, in the morning a bright sun appeared and a bit later the small speedboat appeared to take us back to Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is a dull city full of casinos but with a picturesque fishing village with shacks built on stilts over the dirty waters, where we will once again receive the joy of children and adults. The country of Khmer will surely exceed the expectations of every traveler…

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