With the release of “First They killed My Father” directed by Angelina Jolie, Cambodia is once again in the limelight. We explore the country’s difficult past and look at what you should include on your dream trip to Cambodia.
Cambodia is slowly shedding its traumatic history and emerging as a prime tourist destination. Wrapped around the vast Tomle Sap lake and river, the country offers something for all ages: opulent temples, lush paddy fields, coconut trees, buzzing nightlife, stunning beaches and beautiful people.
A brief history of Cambodia
“First They Killed My Father” tells the story of one girl’s struggle during Pol Pot’s communist regime, known as the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, Pol Pot’s political party (the CPK) seized control of Cambodia and subjected its people to an horrific genocide, during which an estimated 2-3 million people were tortured and starved in prisons and work camps.
The idea of the Khmer Rouge was to create a rural, classless society. Known as “Project Zero”, Pol Pot and his party set about eradicating education, religion, money, private ownership and traditional Khmer culture. Overnight, schools, universities and churches were closed and professionals dwelling in the cities were forced to move into the country, where they were set to work in work camps. People were executed for breaking the laws of the regime, for being educated, literate, and even for wearing glasses.
Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and as a result, there are startling contrasts within the country; the vibrant, forward-moving vibe of the main cities juxtaposing the poverty of the slums and more rural villages.
Food and Drink in Cambodia
Once you arrive in Cambodia, it is possible to find cheap accommodation and even cheaper meals. The average drink will cost less than $2 and a meal for two will set you back around $10. The cuisine is a delicious fusion of Chinese and Thai, with lightly spiced dishes laced with fresh coconut.
The streets are lined with food stalls, selling everything from coconut and palm juice to fried grasshoppers (not for the faint-hearted, but a must-try if you have the stomach for it). It is wise to avoid salad and ice, and only drink bottled water.
You will be spoilt for choice with local delicacies such as beef lok-lak – a delicious, mildly spiced dish, and chicken amok, a delicate fusion of ginger, galangal, garlic and coconut milk. Frogs’ legs feature on most menus – a legacy of the communist regime, when food was scarce and people were dependent on insects and frogs for precious protein.
Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields and S-21 – Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
Whilst in Cambodia, you can gain an insight into the horrors of the 1970s with a trip to S21 and the Killing Fields, both sites of atrocities, which are now museums honouring the 2-3 million Khmer people killed under Pol Pot’s regime.
An estimated 20,000 people were buried in a mass grave at the Killing Fields, just outside of Phnom Penh. Those lives are commemorated in this strangely peaceful location, that helps people to come to grips with atrocities of the past.
In 1976, the Khmer rouge occupied Tuol Svay Pray High School just outside Phnom Penh, renaming it S-21, the regime’s primary interrogation centre. 14,000 Khmer men, women and children are documented to have been detained and tortured at S-21; only 7 survived.
Most detainees were photographed on entry to the facility and the surviving 6,000 images have been archived for visitors to see. Whilst distressing to view, the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields Museum are important in order to grasp Cambodia’s history and help its people to move forwards.
While Phnom Penh is testimony to a troubled past, it also has signs of a vibrant future, and as such there are plentiful opportunities when it comes to eating, drinking and shopping. The Russian and Central Markets are heaving masses of people and produce, from food to electronics, clothes and trinkets. Don’t be afraid to barter but spend freely – by buying from the markets, you will have a direct impact on the local economy.
While in Phnom Penh, take a trip to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), where correspondents from around the world reported on the goings-on and witnessed the end of Pol Pot’s reign. Here, overlooking the Tomle Sap River, you will be transported back to bygone eras as you browse the many news stories and photos adorning the walls and enjoy a delicious cocktail.
Siem Reap – Angkor Wat
From Phnom Penh, you can fly, drive, or sail towards Siem Reap, home to Angkor Archaeological Park, a 400-square-kilometre park containing breath-taking temples hidden deep in the Khmer forest.
The iconic temple of Angkor Wat is the central monument to Khmer culture and is undoubtedly one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world. Since its discovery in the mid-20th Century, the temples of Angkor have been used for numerous films, including Tomb Raider– the film that originally brought Jolie to the country in 2001.
In addition to the incredible peace and tranquillity of Angkor Wat, the ancient, overgrown remains of the other main temples make you feel as though you are in another world. You can book tickets for one day or more, depending on the length of your stay and thirst for temples.
Be sure to take a tuk-tuk to the outskirts of the temple compound where you can buy your tickets the day before. Negotiate a price for pick-up the next morning, rising early to watch the sun rise over the magnificent temple.
The tourist centre of Siem Reap is Pub Street, where you will find a maze of restaurants and markets. These markets are more commercial than the ones in Phnom Penh, selling curios, silk, clothes, spices and trinkets to take home. Don’t be afraid to take a few side alleys where you will find fantastic little restaurants serving delicious Khmer food for less than $5 a dish.
Whilst most visitors to Cambodia tend to gravitate towards Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or south to the beaches, there is a lot to be gained from going off the beaten track. With a rise in NGO support, it is possible to spend a few days of your trip to Cambodia visiting less touristy areas, which will help you to see the real face of this exquisite country.
As the country continues to become a more mainstream tourist destination, it is relatively easy to find cheap flights to Cambodia. Once you arrive you will discover a truly magical country, full of beauty, dignity and optimism.