By Jack Woodhouse on 17 April 2017
Bordered by Thailand to the north-west, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south-west, Cambodia is fast becoming one of south-east Asia’s most fashionable destinations. It hasn’t always been so accessible, however.
Cambodia has had a pretty tough time of it over the last half-millennium or so. After the great city of Angkor fell in 1431, the once mighty Khmer Empire was plundered by neighbouring countries, colonised by the French in the 19th century, and systematically bombed by the trigger-happy US during the war in Vietnam.
A short-lived independence took place in 1953, before Cambodia sunk into the horrors of civil war in 1970, when the brutal Khmer Rouge took control of the country headed by the murderous Pol Pot, paving the way for the genocide of millions of Cambodians. Vietnam eventually intervened in 1979, leading to an era of guerrilla warfare until around 1994.
For decades the country was off limits, but since UN-sponsored elections in 1993, Cambodia has slowly picked itself up, dusted off the past, and steady development has ensued. Much of the population lives below the poverty line and corruption is deep-seated, but with some of history’s most impressive temples, swathes of untouched jungle, and miles of empty, coconut palm-lined beaches, Cambodia is an idyllic reminder of what brought so many intrepid travellers to southeast Asia over the last few 50 years or so.
Today, Cambodia is a notable stop on the backpacker route through south-east Asia. Cheap hostels and guesthouses are everywhere, and there’s plenty more luxurious digs at great value. This has seen increasing numbers of visitors drawn to this enigmatic country.
Although the Cambodian currency is the Riel, most places prefer to deal in US dollars due to the weakness of the local currency. ATMs usually dispense both riel and dollars, but save your riel for smaller purchases at markets and the like.
Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most famous and revered historical site. Dripping with vines and surrounded by verdant jungle, the temple-complex of Angkor Wat looks like a setting for one of Indiana Jones’ perilous adventures; you may even recognise the nearby Ta Prohm temple from one of the Tomb Raider films. Visit the site at sunrise if you want to experience the true majesty of the largest religious monument in the world.
Due to the popularity of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has exploded into a vibrant, backpacker-friendly city, with many modern cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs serving cheap beers and both local and western cuisine.
Phnom Penh is a scintillating melting pot of cultures and worlds. Buzzing markets, grand temples, and a thriving nightlife keep the tourists happy, while away from the crowds, the city is a chaotic example of a bustling capital. Expect beauty and filth side-by-side, delicious and affordable street food, and some of the region’s most charming accommodations. Watch out for monsoon season, however, which can keep you holed up in your room as the streets of Phnom Penh are prone to flooding during this time of the year.
Sihanoukville is gaining recognition as the up-and-coming beach destination of south-east Asia. Not the prettiest town, nor the cleanest, its laid-back vibe and calm beaches flanked by simple bars and eateries are sure to see Sihanoukville become more popular with travellers seeking an alternative to Thailand’s exuberant beach destinations. There’s also a smattering of small, underdeveloped islands nearby, perfect for a true escape from reality.
If solitude is your thing, then set sail off the southern coast and make one of Cambodia’s stunning islands your new home. Koh Rong offers 43 kilometres of pristine beachfront teeming with corals, marine life and fluorescent plankton.There’s also Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Ta Kiev, and Koh Totang, which are suited to the more low-maintenance traveller due to their lack of infrastructure and development.
Despite a bloody recent history, a generating reeling from civil war, and a far-from-perfect modern-day government, Cambodia is a phoenix rising from the ashes. And it’s progressing with haste. Its economy is the fastest growing in the region, there’s an increase in local and international investment, and its immeasurable natural beauty and unmatched historic attractions will keep the tourist dollars rolling in.
This also means that now is the perfect time to visit a country only recently opened to the new world. Get there before it becomes overrun by fluorescent-faced gap year travellers like its well-trodden neighbours. You won’t be disappointed