Cambodia: holiday in hell


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I have often been accused of my gushing praise for destinations, making some people believe I am working on behalf of the tourist board. This is not the case and I have never accepted payment to promote anywhere – I’ve just fallen in love with everywhere I’ve been. Except, that is, the hell-hole that is Cambodia.

Everyone seems to love Cambodia, but I hated every second of my week there. Back in 2006, I travelled solo on the South East Asia backpackers circuit for a while en-route to best man duties at a wedding in Koh Samui, Thailand.

Although I despised the place, I came home with some good photos and funny stories to share.

After three wonderful days in Bangkok, it was time to catch a ridiculously early flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.

The first inkling I had that I wasn’t going to like this place came in my taxi from the airport – the driver was intent on selling me a “small child” for $10. When I politely declined, saying I was just here to have a few beers and see some temples, he looked at me as if I was some kind of pervert.

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When we got to my hotel, fat American tourists were having breakfast with their Khmer schoolgirl purchases – clearly my taxi driver had done some business with this lot.

I had to get out, and took a stroll in the 45°C heat with my camera. The first picture I took was of the two guards (top pic) outside the Royal Palace with their Kalashnikovs. I love the way one looks chuffed to bits to be photographed, while the other wants to shoot me.

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As I kept walking, children who had been playing, washing and doing god knows what else in the Tonle Sap river, ran up to me begging for “dollar”.

One lad was pushing his brother (who had no legs) on a trolley. The country’s landmine legacy has led to amputees and orphans aplenty and extreme poverty, so I was happy to put my hand in my pocket.

After a few more minutes of hand-outs to beggars (I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn being followed by street-kids), I had to get out of the heat so popped into a bar for a cold Angkor beer.

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I love the sign (above) that greeted me at the entrance, and thought it fortunate that I’d left my hand-grenades back in the hotel. A friend from home had recommended a bar to me in town called Heart of Darkness, but this was actually closed at the time because a punter had shot a few people dead.

As I sat with my beer, a local asked me if I’d like to go to a shooting range with him where I could bazooka a cow for $10 or machine-gun a chicken for $1. Unsure if this was true, or a scam to rob and kill me, I politely declined and considered a visit to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum to cheer myself up.

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Instead I took a cyclo / pedi-cab tour around the centre, and wore my driver out. The inequalities of wealth were plain to see in this corrupt country, as cyclos and battered old motorbikes vied for road space with gangster’s Mercedes with blacked out windows.

I took a walk around Wat Phnom (below) where wild monkeys roam – don’t I look happy!

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I’ve only just recovered from the traumatic experience that was my holiday in Cambodia. To this day, if someone tells me they love Cambodia I think either:

a) they’re a paedophile; or
b) we’re probably not going to get on.

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Categories: South East AsiaTags: , , ,

39 comments

  1. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea either! Stick to Europe is my advice and there are even places there that I wouldn’t go! Ukraine for example!

  2. I never got to Phnom Penh so can’t comment but the short time I spent in Siem Reap was really good (so now you hate me!). Did you go anywhere other than Phnom Penh in your week there?

  3. I just find it sad when the relationship between locals and tourists is like that. How awful that the assumption is that as a westerner you want to shoot animals and molest small children. No wonder you didn’t like it! I’ve never had an experience quite that hellish, but I find that the weather has a massive impact on how much I enjoy a destination.

  4. Third world countries are tough. The heat, the filth, the dodgy first-world sex tourists, and local mafia. In a way it’s good to see it once to know such things really exist, but it can get depressing after a while.

  5. I love your opening comment about loving everywhere you have been because that is typically how I feel. I can find the good in any place; however, I would have the same reaction to your trip to Cambodia! There are certain circumstances that just ruin your experience and it sounds like unfortunately Cambodia ticked all the boxes!

  6. Eight years ago, Rich. Do you think things will have improved/sanitised in that time? I can’t say it’s ever been top of my go to’s. I’d go if I won a holiday there. 🙂
    How does this look work with your iPhone? It’s smart and the photos are a good size.

  7. Poor old Cambodia! Now I don’t want to fall out with you but afraid I really enjoyed my trip out there. I had just come from India though so I was probably pretty desensitised, India makes everywhere else look pretty tame. Having said that I do remember being really disturbed by the old men and young girls or boys, and I’ve heard that things have gotten worse not better in terms of hassle for tourists, so maybe best not to go back!

  8. I agree with you, that’s why I’m travelling only in Europe. I’d love to go to Cuba, Thailand, central Africa but I don’t want to be, even just for a second, considered and confused as one of the many ‘tourists’ (interested in sex of any kind)

  9. Sounds like a pretty shitty time, but at least it makes for a few nice anecdotes!

    P.S. Really like the new look of the site.

  10. It’s funny how people can have such a different opinion of the exact same place. I spent three weeks in Cambodia and, yes it time for you to hate me, loved every moment I was there. Of course Cambodia has a dark side but so does any major city. It also has a tragic and disturbing recent history but they are healing. There is poverty and chaos. There is also incredible beauty and warmth. It’s not a country for the soft traveler. If the comfort of Europe is what you are looking, for that is great. Cambodia is definitely not for everybody but it is a country like no other…kind of like the wild west.
    http://flattiresandslowboats.com/2014/01/09/our-world-is-not-all-chocolates-and-roses/

    • Thanks for the comment, and don’t worry – I won’t hold your love of the country against you! I guess I am quite a soft traveller and much prefer the 1st (or 2nd) world to the 3rd, but look back on my time in the wild west with fondness, even though I hated the place at the time.

      • I totally get that. I hated India for the first two weeks of my first time there. Then I loved it. Kind of got under my skin. Love Cambodia or hate it, it’s a country that makes you think…I think!

  11. Oh dear! What a nightmare you had. Such a shame when you spend money going somewhere and it turns out to be rubbish. I like the photo of the guards! I have never been there and not sure I want to now.

    • Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Not too bothered about the money – it was the cheapest flight I’ve ever booked actually ($7 single from Bangkok to PP on Air Asia – the bus back to Bangkok from the north of Cambodia cost me more!)

  12. Interesting perception you had of Cambodia. I just came back last month and went to bed one night telling myself that I hated Phnom Penh and just wanted to leave the country immediately. However, the next morning (and my last day) I went on a mini excursion to a VERY local morning market. It changed my whole view of the country – it was wonderful. I also found the locals to be very friendly towards me. I also really enjoyed learning about the country’s very recent dark history from which they are still healing. I would recommend Cambodia to any traveler. I think it offers A LOT in terms of culture, history, architecture, food, and beauty. I would never tell anyone not to visit a country at all based on my own experiences there. That is what travel is. People will have their own perceptions and outlooks and feelings that are to be found and developed themselves. 🙂

  13. Must have been difficult to cope with that. It doesn’t look as glamourous as the travelling guide about Cambodia 🙂 I’ve heard terrible stories about this country, theft in hotel rooms, rooms you’ve paid but you cannot get, drunk tuk tuk drivers, etc etc … 🙂

  14. Went to europe, never want go go back, found people to be rude and arrogant. I had more fun traveling around Asia, people were much friendlier and helpful and much more to see and do.

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