If you’ve read our last few posts about Cambodia I’m sure what is evident is that with all the history, sadness, poverty, motorbikes and heat, overall the best word to describe this country is exhausting. Exhausting isn’t an overall bad thing as we found it extremely important and enlightening to see the beautiful temples of Angkor Wat and learn more about this country’s tortured history no matter the temperatures and the amount of honking horns. The point of our travels wasn’t ever about going on one big vacation, and while we have certainly found happiness in nearly every stop, we knew at some point we’d likely get overwhelmed. We had heard and read about this feeling of traveler’s exhaustion from our fellow travel friends and bloggers, but since we were traveling just six months compared to a year, maybe that feeling wouldn’t hit us hard. Perhaps it was the fact that we often have a new bed every 48 hours, the cramped mini buses to get from city to city, or a bit of FOMO for Summertime CHI, but we needed a mental break. Luckily Cambodia has the neighboring towns of Kep and Kampot that provided the laid back atmosphere we were in need of.
It’s a fact of traveling that you’re not going to love every city that you visit. I’m not sure whether it was the hectic streets, the blatant sex tourism, or our visit to the killing fields but Phnom Penh was not our favorite destination. But if I’d have to pick a country that has affected me the most, I’d choose Cambodia every time.
Before writing about our visit to the Choeung Ek killing fields and S21 outside of Phnom Penh I thought I’d give a quick history of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia; it was something I knew little about before planning our trip and I fear that many Americans, especially my generation, don’t know very much either. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians, around twenty-five percent of the Cambodian population. Imagine for a second that every one in four people you know would just disappear.
A lot of western travelers to Cambodia usually only end up seeing Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but with our extended time-frame we decided to add in a few more destinations off the beaten backpacker track. We’d heard great things about Battambang, Cambodia’s capital city about four hours southwest of Siem Reap. We arrived around mid-afternoon to a swarm of tuk tuk drivers and picked one that spoke English well, as we wanted to inquire about having him take us around the next day. We got really lucky as Peter was very friendly, a great driver and offered us a decent price for a tour that would hit up all the things on our wish list. After agreeing that he’d pick us up at 9:00am the next morning, we checked into our hotel and all it’s wood heavy interior, and discussed what we’d do that evening.
Cambodia is resilient, dusty, kind, hot, hustling, smelly, heart wrenching and happy that you are here. Before we arrived in Siem Reap, we had been warned about how we’d be approached often by people trying to sell us their services whether it be a tuk tuk ride, food at their restaurant, trinkets or souvenirs but we had no idea that it would literally be every 15 seconds. A person could be exhausted by this bombardment but we’ve both found that a smile and a “no thank you” can do wonders. We’ve also found that asking someone how their day has been or actually engaging them in conversation can make your experience completely different. It’s never easy to turn away a child selling a bracelet or an amputee begging for less than a dollar. We’ve opted instead for visiting NGO cafes where the proceeds go towards educating these children and helping the disabled community. Still, it’s hard to witness the Cambodian’s daily struggle for survival.