Cambodia is a country of contrasts. The crumbling splendor of Angkor Wat contrasts intensely with the heart rendering poverty, which is compounded by the scars of the genocide, which still haven’t receded from the country’s collective memory. It’s possibly the most complicated of the standard stops on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. Cambodia lags behind its neighbors in development, but that hasn’t stopped it from attracting tourists in waves. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Cambodia has an ancient history that must be appreciated in person. Angkor Wat is without a doubt one of the most incredible ancient sights on the planet. It’s not just a temple or two—no, Angkor is an entire city of temples, over 200, spread over an area the size of Manhattan. The main temple is spectacular in its sheer size, but the enigmatic faces carved into the stones of Bayon and the croaching jungle reclaiming Ta Prohm are even more awe-inspiring. Get ready to climb steep steps of nameless temples, explore the twisting passageways inside, and spend your entire time there feeling a bit like Lara Croft.
Cambodia is a deeply spiritual place. In the streets of the capital, barefoot monks dressed in saffron robes chant for alms each morning. While exploring Angkor Wat, I stumbled upon a misty Buddhist shrine in one of the temples. A Buddhist nun provided me with some jasmine incense to place in front of the statue of the Buddha, and tied a red string for luck around my wrist. I’m not a very spiritual person, but at that moment, I felt more connected with the spiritual world than I ever had before.
You will (and should) see reminders of the genocide in Cambodia. The Cambodian genocide, which occurred under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, lead to the distruction of Cambodian society and the murder of at least 10% of the population. Unlike genocidal regimes elsewhere, the Khmer Rouge focused on class rather than ethnicity as a distinguishing factor. If you were an intellectual, spoke foreign languages, were educated, or even wore glasses, you were killed. City dwellers were uprooted and sent to work in the country and families split apart. Although it’s a difficult visit, I implore you to visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former prison, in Phnom Penh. A haunting tribute to those who died, it’s impossible to appreciate the beauty in Khmer history without appreciating the horrors of recent history as well. Everyone over the age of 40 in Cambodia is a survivor of the genocide. Everyone.
The poverty is heartbreaking and everywhere. Child beggars and touts, visible on street corners and at tourist sites, are heartbreaking to see. Try to resist giving to the children. By giving to them, you are just encouraging them to miss school and beg. Additionally, some are controlled by organized crime syndicates and therefore won’t benefit from what you do give them. Cambodia also has significant problems with human trafficking, and young children are sold into the sex trade, where they remain against their will. Seeing poverty at this level can be painful even for the most seasoned travelers. Thankfully, there are organizations that are looking to help Cambodians. I am a fan of the Somaly Mam Foundation (http://www.somaly.org/), an organization committed to rescuing and rehabilitating child prostitutes, so if you’re looking for ways to help, that’s a great place to start. And don’t be surprised if you have to pay a bribe to get your visa processed. Sometimes, that’s just what you have to do.
Cambodia is a country of both light and dark. I recommend you make it a part of your Southeast Asia trip, though if you don’t love it, that’s okay. You don’t have to love Cambodia to grow from the experience