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Cambodia Travels

In February 2007 we started a 1-month journey through Cambodia on our own. The intention was to spend time in many of the smaller towns or villages, and stay with local families. Our hope was that we'd gain some insight into the people and culture of Cambodia.

Kids Playing on Sandbar in River

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Travelling in Cambodia

Cambodia is one of my favorites. What struck me most was how friendly the people were. On many occasions we could have enjoyed spending far longer in the smaller villages, where people were always open-armed with curiosity and generosity.

As in many developing countries, there was a stark contrast between one's experience in the small villages versus those in the English-speaking tourist centers. We chose to spend as little time as possible in the popular tourist districts, as it was clear that it would be far harder to uncover an authentic feel and personality of the country.

Preparations

Besides the many hours of researching countless towns and villages throughout the country, the only other preparations we made were: 1) Book the first night's accommodation in Phnom Penh and 2) Learn Khmer.

That's it! The most interesting experiences occur when you simply arrive, talk to the locals and accept the experience as it unfolds. If you try to plan everything out in advance, you'll invariably skip over the most rewarding places and get frustrated when things don't go according to plan.

Learning Cambodian (Khmer)

With a desire to gain a genuine understanding of the people and way of life, it was clear that I would not be content sitting amongst a tour group and other tourists. Therefore I set aside 6 weeks of daily self-guided practice to learn Khmer (Cambodian) prior to our start.

Without a doubt, learning Khmer completely changed our travel experience in Cambodia. Wherever we went, we were welcomed warmly: invited into celebrations, offered extended stays within the villages and treated to many hours of interesting conversations into the night. If you can afford to spend the time learning a language, I strongly recommend doing so. Not only does it free you from having to find tour guides, it opens many doors that would not appear otherwise.

I spent many hours looking for suitable instructional materials on Khmer: language courses, dictionaries and software. Unfortunately, Khmer is not a very popular language and there are relatively few choices available. Nonetheless, I would strongly recommend the Colloquial Cambodian book and CD by David Smyth. As far as travel dictionaries go, I ordered a few online but eventually found that the Tuttle Practical Cambodian Dictionary was the most practical for beginners looking for a pocket-sized companion.

In this time I also invested a fair number of hours trying to learn to read the difficult Khmer script, but in the end I would say that this was far less worthwhile, given short time constraints.

Kampot Home

Suggestions for Travel to Cambodia

Besides the usual cautions and suggestions one finds in all guidebooks, here are a few extras worth considering:

  • Buses: Buy your tickets from the main station, not through booking offices, otherwise you'll spend far more than you need to.
  • Cash: As we headed up north to Rattanakiri, we nearly ran out of cash... With some incredible luck, I managed to find a Western Union and a kind friend back home who bailed me out! I would strongly urge that travellers keep in mind that ATMs exist only in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and one or two southern cities. There is nothing available north of Kompong Cham!
  • Exiting Buses: Make sure you have a definite plan of where you are heading (i.e. which guesthouse) and how far it is before you arrive at your destination. If you intend to read the Lonely Planet after stepping off the bus, good luck! You will invariably have to deal with a dozen touts dying for your business. Telling them that I already had a guesthouse (in Khmer) quickly defused the situations.
  • Foods: Always be mindful of the usual precautions regarding eating local foods. Cooked meats and peeled fruits can get you a long way, but it may worth packing a few meal replacement bars in your pack for times when you can't find safe options locally (food poisoning is not fun). If you are traveling in the warmer seasons, be sure to keep yourself well hydrated.
  • Mosquito Nets: In addition to taking an anti-malarial, we each packed a mosquito net. Some guesthouses may provide nets, but I often had the lucky ones with shoe-sized holes! When sleeping outside (in the jungle) in a hammock, you may have to rely on whatever wrapped netting is available, which could spell a difficult night's sleep! (biting ants, mosquitos, etc.)
  • Dust: In some rural areas, the dust can be quite overwhelming. Have a face mask with you anytime you're riding on a moto. Unfortunately, it also spells disaster for digital camera and video gear. Be especially careful with lens changes on dSLRs, and if you're shooting MiniDV video, bring along a MiniDV Head Cleaner (you won't find any there).

Travel Itinerary

Water Buffalo Boy

Over the course of our month-long trip, we stayed in the areas listed below. Accommodation was either in homestays with families or in guesthouses for about $5-$10 /day. Travel was always by local bus, moto or with 20 others in the back of a pickup truck!

  • Phnom Penh - Lively city with far too many 2-stroke motos. Upscale tourist hangouts are on Sisowath Quay (Riverfront) and Sihannouk Blvd. Home to the depressing S-21 Prison and Killing Fields.
  • Kompong Chhnang - Wonderfully friendly, small town on the river. Active floating village and stilted homes.
  • Pursat
  • Tapon Village (Near Battambang) - Small rural countryside villages.
  • Siem Reap - Tourist center, the main attraction being Angkor Wat.
  • Kompong Cham - Relatively quiet town.
  • ? Village (Near Kompong Cham)
  • Kratie - Some of the most beautiful villages along the Mekong River 30 mins from town.
  • Ban Lung - Dusty town, base for trips into the hilltribe villages, jungle, Kachon cemeteries and river life.
  • Kren Village (in Rattanakiri Province) - Minority Khmer Leu villages.
  • Jungle (in Rattanakiri Province) - Long hikes and many bugs at night...
  • Kampot - Incredible old dilapidated homes and a relaxed atmosphere.
  • Kos Tonsay - Small sandy beach island off the south coast near Kep.

In general, I found that the less the Lonely Planet said about a place, the more I liked it! Some of the most interesting villages were those that were described as "not offering much to the casual traveller". It is precisely these places that one could spend days wandering through village homes, talking to people and making friends -- free from the hassles of hawkers and tourism!

 


Reader's Comments:

Please leave your comments or suggestions below!
2011-05-28Karonech Chreng
 I'm so glad that i found you site. Love the pictures. Been away from home (Cambodia) for awhile. It's such a nice memory and glad to know that you like it.

The "orphanage album". Do all of them live in ASPECA?
 Thanks Karonech! I'm sure you can tell we loved Cambodia very much. The children in that album were indeed from ASPECA. I hope that we have an opportunity to return to Cambodia again someday.
2008-01-03Gary Weingarten
 You must be my twin!!! I read the reasons you listed for wanting to search out the more remote villages of Cambodia and it sounds like everything you wrote could have been written by me. I am going to Cambodia next week and plan on staying with a family in Tapon Village. I was curious as to how you got from one place to the next? Did you rent a car or have a guide? My name is Gary from New York City. Would love some advice before I leave. THANKS!!!
 Great to hear that you are interested in the more rural areas -- it is definitely the best way to get appreciation for how wonderful the people really are, especially once you are away from the tourist centers.

As for getting around, we did all of our travels by the cheapest local buses (they have a decent bus system). I would never rent a car there -- in fact, I don't believe it is legal for foreigners to rent vehicles there. In Kratie, I did rent a motorbike, but even with it being a relatively quiet area, there were far too many unexpected things on the road to make it relaxing :)

We did seek out local guides in a couple places, where it made sense -- particularly for the jungle treks and areas where we wanted to explore further abroad. Often, Sharon and I would simply look for a pair of drivers on motorbikes who we'd then hire, with us holding onto our big backpacks as we went. You'll have a great time!
2007-03-27Mike Lee
 Glad to see you two made it home safe!
  Actually, I would have to say Cambodia appeared to be a very safe country for travel. Even in the poorest of areas, we still felt very comfortable, once we talked to and got to know the people.

 


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