6 misconceptions about travelling in Cambodia

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Travelling to Cambodia this holiday season? Dump your preconceived ideas along with your frustratingly full bottle of pre-opened water at the security gate. According to Sunrise intern Holly Warren, you’re going to need one passport, one backpack and a seriously open mind for this trip. 

Travelling to some foreign places can seem less like another country and more like a different world. Especially because visions of Cambodia that you see on glossy tourist brochures (or your mates Instagram feed) feed into some serious misconceptions about travelling in the country. These misconceptions can lead people to put Cambodia in a basket. The ‘just another south east Asian country’ basket, the ‘developing nation basket’ or even just the ‘too hard’ basket due to the patchwork history of terror, war, communism and corruption.

BUT, chuck Cambodia into a basket of any kind and you’re doing yourself a mis-service. If you have preconceived ideas of what Cambodia is ‘really like’ based on what others have told you before you’ve even gone there, chances are, you’re wrong. Your mum is wrong, your uncle is wrong, and your friend’s brother is totally wrong. I’m right. Because I’m always right. But also because I travelled there a few months ago (and because I asked around the well-travelled Sunrise office before writing this article…). But hey, I’m probably wrong too, because everyone has a different travel experience. So before you pack your bags and tell your friends you’re going to have “A totally (insert generic word here) holiday in Cambodia this Christmas”, read on and find out why there isn’t just ONE word that will define your next trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Misconceptions about travelling in Cambodia

Cambodia is full throttle with no off switch

WRONG! Yes, Phnom Penh traffic is CRAZY and Siem Reap nightlife is wild and the rattle of the backroads of Ratanakiri will drill down to your core, but Cambodia is also home to about a BILLION places where you can spend your holiday in ultimate zen mode. If not quite a billion, then definitely enough for you to find somewhere to chill after an adventure-packed week digging your heels into some serious culture.  If you want a recommendation from your resident expert (and yes, that’s me guys…) then I highly recommend heading south to Kampot and Kep and making the most of the delicious seafood and swinging hammocks that scatter the riverside. You can get stuck in the hustle and bustle of the well-worn track, but you can opt-out too – it’s up to you.

Cambodia is only worth visiting for Angkor Wat. WAT?!

“You’re better off flying in and out of Siem Reap and giving the rest of the country a miss”. If I read that on one more ‘travelling advice’ website I’m going to start dousing people in stinky fish prahok. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the temples of Angkor. Without any doubt it was one of the most breathtaking places I have ever visited (and I’ve been to over 4 countries, as well as Dubbo). Even in Siem Reap alone, your options are endless – or at least plentiful enough to create a pretty wholesome holiday with a bit of everything- temples included. This country is so much more than Angkor, even if that is their flag, their beer and their national symbol. Which leads into my next misconception…

relaxing in Cambodia

Life is tough for an intern in Cambodia…

Cambodia’s history is too dark for a holiday

You may have been told that Cambodia’s dark history is hard to to come face to face with. This time, I won’t argue with you. This particular rumour mill has rolled right into the truth. But instead of being a reason to stay away, Cambodian history NEEDS to be at the top of your to-do list. To truly understand Cambodia today, you have to take the time to understand it’s past. Visiting Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum is showing Cambodian history and it’s peoples the respect they deserve. It will open your mind and tear your heart to shreds. But then you’ll leave. You’ll go out into the streets, the fields and the crowded market places and bit by bit, these beautiful people will pick up the pieces of your heart and put it back together with their resilience, strength and never ending kindness. Go. See. Learn.

S-21 Genocide Museum

A monk contemplates the destruction wrought on his country. Photo supplied by Gail Gregory.

Phnom Penh is just another big, dirty city

Yes, Phnom Penh is huge – and growing bigger every day. And, yes, the dust from the streets will stream off your skin in the shower at night and the interminable beeping of cars, trucks and bikes will cause short term hearing loss. Yes, it’s crowded, it’s hot, it’s hasslers, hagglers and street-sellers galore. BUT! That’s not all there is to it – I promise! Phnom Penh is pretty much the Melbourne of South East Asia (you heard it here first). I don’t mean miserable skies and deconstructed coffee. What I AM referring to is the super cool bar and restaurant scene that’s booming in a city full to the brim of super cool millennials who aren’t afraid to break the mould. One minute you’ll be wandering down a regular tuk-tuk strewn street and the next second you’ll turn a corner and find yourself in a pocket of cool that wouldn’t be out of place in Fitzroy or even the new-skool hutongs of Beijing. Gin bar? Tapas? A hairdressers that turns into a nightclub? Tick, tick, tick! Don’t stay away, the big PP has it all!

Khmer food is the boring step-sister of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine

Guess what I’m gonna say? WRONG! Khmer BBQ leaves your chicken Pad Thai by the oxen- dotted WAYSIDE. Less spicy than Thai? Who cares! More coconut, so we’re all winners, right? Think the seafood in Vietnam can’t be beaten? Grab a mouthful of lobster down in Kep and come back and apologise, please. I’m making the call – Khmer food is experiencing a renaissance, 15th century style. All those traditional dishes that were put on the backburner when tourists first trudged in demanding cheap pizza and banana pancakes are back in force. Your lok lak’s (fried pepper beef), nom banh chock’s (khmer noodles) and even the oft-maligned prahok (fermented fish in banana leaf) are hitting the top of menu’s country wide. Throw in a few decades of French influence and some fine young Eurasian chefs making their way back to the motherland to open up five star digs and you’ve got the makings of one of the world’s up and coming cuisines. Not a fan of the rice/noodle diet? Don’t worry, we’ve bombarded the Khmer with our under-developed palates for a decade or so now and burger joints, fish ‘n chips and home delivery maccas can be found on every street corner.

Cambodian cuisine at its finest when travelling

The best meals in Cambodia for a travelling foodie come from street stalls like this one.

Poverty, beggars and pick- pockets, OH MY!

Mate, not a CHANCE.  Well, sure, a chance. But no more than in any other country you’ve been travelling in. Your pocket money ain’t nothing to the Khmer, who are world-renowned for their friendliness and welcoming attitude. They’ve even won friendliness awards* (*note, this may be made up). You are far more likely to be offered a free drink or directions than to lose your hard earned five bucks to a meany on the streets. Tell your mum that she has my word! And yes, kids beg on the streets. But giving in to those big eyes might not be the best way to keep them safe at night – check out what we’ve written about this in the past.

There’s another billion and one misconceptions about travelling in Cambodia, but instead of forcing my own experiences onto you, you should block out the noisy nagging of your extended family, boring friends and strangers in the supermarket and check it out for yourself. What a fun place! That’s what you’ll say to me when you get back. Trust me. The other thing you’ll say will be: HERE! Take all this extra cash that the pick- pockets LEFT IN MY POCKETS and use it to ensure all those gorgeous kids keep going to school. Those are the things we will want to hear, and the things you will say. Trust me. I’m always right.

Recently returned from a trip to Cambodia with a handful of Riel you can’t spend? Donate it now by mailing to PO Box, 2266, Clovelly, NSW, 2031

Want to make a donation after experiencing one of the most incredible countries in the world? Donate here.

Back in Australia and experiencing some cravings for some good ol’ Khmer food? Snap up some Sunrise Cambodia Amok Spice and bring Cambodia to your kitchen.

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