I was going to Cambodia with a perception of a poor country with no hope. A country beaten by genocide and US bombs during Vietnam war and the civil war afterwards. A country where shooting ended less than 20 years ago and there are still no-go zones, where a wrong step is a step on a minefield. A country of extreme heat, no roads and hardly any civilization. Oh how wrong I was…
As we entered from Thailand through Poi Pet border crossing it seemed my expectations will be met. Typical border mess. A dirt road, a casino in no-mans land and a lot of shady guys observing all the buses going both ways. A bazaar starting at the door of customs building or rather a barrack. Then a road with shops selling all kinds of stuff and trash everywhere. Indonesia immediately came to my mind. Yet shortly after I realized things are not exactly as they seem to be. On the road to Siem Reap I saw a beautiful country with beautiful, smiling people. Siem Reap – our first stop – to see the temples of Angkor turned out to be a nice, lazy town and it did not take us long to decide upon staying longer than planned. In the end we spent a week there, mixing sightseeing with chilling by the pool. And Agnkor… magnificent, enormous, the temples making you wonder how such things could have been build a millenium ago in such a place. It is not just the Angkor Wat temple, it is many cities of temples and you could spend weeks and not see all of them. Their scale and mastery and attention to detail, still visible after so many years – breathtaking. A land of red soil with dust in the air that brings this special, soft, yellowish light so beloved by photographers. It is like a golden hour but for hours, morning and at dawn.
Then Phnom Penh – ater 7 hours on a bus over quite a decent road we ended up in a bustling city, full of hostels, cafes and restaurants. With beautiful temples and the Royal Palace, somehow similar to the one in Bangkok but with less ego and glitter, making it a pleasure to visit. 4 days later and another 7 hours in a bus, again over a decent road (and almost empty in 2nd part of the journey) we are in Kratie – a tiny town sitting on eastern bank of Mekong. Yet again the place leaves us no choice but to extend out stay, sit on the terrace and watch the sun setting down above the river. Kratie is a sleepy place but a hot one. Mid-day heat is tough to bear and all life stops to burst again for a while in the afternoon.
Then Sen Monorom – 4 hours in a bus, empty, good quality roads and the land becomes less and less flat, giving space to small mountain ranges. And it gets cooler now, especially at night, so I pull up my longsleeve once. On the first day we do an 18km trek over the mountains and sleep in hammocks in the forest, in a small hut with just a roof and only two walls, the other two being openings to let the fresh air in and out. Amazing experience, especially to meet the sun rise above the valley on the next day. Then the elephants.
There is an NGO called Mondulkiri Project. One guy had a dream to help local indigenous people who have no school, no medical care and no work. He also had a dream to help save elephants which are almost extinct. So he is buying elephants from their owners to give them a good life with no carrying wood to Vietnam, no carrying tourists or other hard labor. Then he brings tourists to see the elephants, play with them, wash them in the river and feed bananas. And he employs these local people, gives them work, opportunity to learn english and work with tourists. He also buys them rice and pays their medical bills whenever needed. For us this was money well spent. For these people it often means everything – at least making a living for them and their families and probably much more than that. And what it means to never go to school? Well, in the evening we had a chat with our guide, who was in his twenties and at some point an Australian guy pulled up his phone, launched Night Sky2 to show something about the stars. Our guide spent the next 30 minutes just gazing and the screen and the stars and then we had to explain to him what the Solar System is and how it works with the Earth circling the Sun and the Moon circling the Earth… and that the drawing of a lady that appeared for a moment on the screen was the constellation of Virgo… and well “what is a constellation?”…
Yes, Cambodia is a poor country. It is often dirty to the level of Indonesia*. But it has all that the traveller needs. Decent, clean places to stay, fast Internet, people speaking English (unlike Indonesia, Thailand or Vietnam) decent roads and a transport network of buses, minivans, tuktuks and bikes that can take you anywhere you want. After seeing only small part of it, after looking peoples’ in the eyes I know there is hope. It will get better and it is for sure worth visiting. So come and see for yourself.
P.S. And there is no malaria in most places, hardly even mosquitos..
*Maja says it’s even dirtier