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Posted by Tim on May 10, 2006
Five Tips for Enjoying Cambodia

So, yes, we did indeed return for a second pass at our beloved Cambodia. That we were so enamored with this beleagured nation begs a simple question... Why?

Why is it that we fell so madly in love with a country that many backpackers don't especially like? A number of our friends felt that Cambodia was a must-visit for the temples of Angkor and for Phnom Penh's Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, but didn't much care for it otherwise.

Every traveler has their own, personal experience, and so likewise every traveler has their own favorite and least favorite places. It sometimes seems to us like we're the only people in the world who hate Montevideo, Uruguay. Likewise, we sometimes encounter other backpackers who absolutely loathe places that we've just adored, like Buenos Aires or Athens. Everyone's experience of a place is unique.

That said, though, we have noticed a few of the things that helped us to become so fond of Cambodia. These are things that we more or less blundered into, that we're hoping might help the next person along to enjoy it as much as we did.

Tip #1 – First Impressions

There are two main places in Cambodia where you can cross in overland from Thailand: Poipet and Cham Yeam. Of the two, we highly recommend the latter. Cham Yeam is only minutes from Krong Ko Kong, a marvelous little provincial town full of smiling people on bicycles. Poipet is a soulless cesspool dedicated to fleecing the hordes of backpackers that sweep in every day from Bangkok. Crossing at Cham Yeam, you'll avoid 90% of the scams and headaches you'd encounter in Poipet.

Granted, crossing overland into Cambodia is guaranteed to be a bit of a hassle whichever route you take, and you're generally guaranteed to have to bribe the border guards a little to get your visa. But knowing that ahead of time can make it a lot less infuriating: we took a certain amount of pride in haggling them down from the usual 200 baht surcharge to only half that. Smile, be polite, and be prepared to fork over a little extra. Or, better yet, get your visa ahead of time in Bangkok and avoid that hassle altogether.

On our second trip to Cambodia, we flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, and it was a breeze. No bribery necessary at all, and the taxis into town have this nice little taxi stand with posted rates and everything. If you're at all sqeamish about dealing with the border nonsense, then just fly in instead. Piece of cake that way.

If you'd rather go overland, do your homework. Tales of Asia is a fantastic website that describes in meticulous detail every facet of crossing the border into Cambodia. This is the Holy Bible of the Cambodia border crossing.

The most important thing to remember is: if you have a bad experience at the border, don't let it sour you on Cambodia as a country. This is a wondrous place, worth every bit of hassle you may have gone through to get in. And just so you know, the trip back into Thailand will generally be completely hassle-free.

(The second-most important thing is, for the love of God, don't buy a ticket to Siem Reap from Khao San Road. It is pretty much guaranteed to be a scam that will leave you feeling fleeced and angry. You've been warned.)

Tip #2 – The Beaten Path

Most people who visit Cambodia see only Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (where Angkor is). The third most common stop is the beach town of Sihanoukville, and after that the numbers dwindle considerably.

If you can, see a bit more of the country. Sleepy, provincial Cambodia is what we really fell in love with. Because Angkor is such a popular tourist destination, Siem Reap is much less friendly and open than the rest of the country. People are more likely to ask you for money than to have a nice long chat with you so they can practice their English. It's not the same experience at all.

If you can, check out any of the smaller, quieter towns. We'd especially recommend Kratie and Kampot, but any of them will probably do. Find yourself a nice little hotel room so you can throw down your bags, and then go take a nice long walk in a random direction. Especially once you're outside of the town center, you'll start to notice the calls of "hello" coming from every direction. Each house you pass will contain people (usually children) calling "hello!" to you, and when you respond in kind you'll be met with a hail of giggles. Parents will prod their children to greet you, and you'll have a million little conversations that go like this...

CHILD: Hello!
YOU: Hello!
CHILD: How are you?
YOU: I'm fine. How are you?
CHILD: (panics and runs away)

One of our favorite memories from our entire trip was the time that the two of us and Klaus were walking around Kampot and happened to be in front of a primary school just as it was letting out. Suddenly we were surrounded by shy, gigging children, all of them desperately anxious to greet us and ask us how we were and what our names were. It was the essence of what we loved about Cambodia. And you only really get it if you go beyond Siem Reap.

Tip #3 – Be Not Afraid

A lot of people are concerned with their safety in Cambodia. This generally means three things: hospitals, land mines, and crime.

The hospitals, I shall not lie, are awful. Don't go to them. If you get sick or injured in Cambodia, go to Bangkok (or better yet, Singapore) so you can get better.

As for landmines, too, there is real reason to be wary. More people are injured by landmines every year in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world. So if you're in a place where there is a known landmine problem (and if you're not sure, you should just assume you are), don't stray from well-trodden paths. As long as you don't randomly wander into the bushes, you'll be just fine.

Crime is the place where most people have the wrong impression. Cambodia is an extremely safe country. Ten years ago, the threat of being kidnapped and killed by Khmer Rouge rebels was a very real one, but no longer. Regular old streetcrime is far less common than in the United States (or even Thailand, for that matter). I've wandered around the darkened streets of Phnom Penh after midnight, and didn't feel the slightest bit unsafe.

And, given that guys are generally not good judges of whether female travelers would feel safe somewhere, it should be noted that Jessica feels the same way: Cambodia is a very safe country, even if you're a girl traveling alone. That might not have been the case even just a few years ago, but it's how it is now.

You still need to use common sense, of course. Just don't visit Cambodia thinking it's any more dangerous than any of its neighbors.

Tip #4 – Skip the Lake District

Back when we were in Buenos Aires, a lovely Irish couple we met gave us a lot of tips for when we got to Southeast Asia. For Phnom Penh, they recommended we stay in the backpacker ghetto, clustered around Boeung Kak Lake, in the north of town. And they told us to get a room with wooden floors rather than tile ones... so we wouldn't be able to hear the rats running around our room when we were trying to sleep.

As much as we appreciated their advice, we have a different tip: stay the hell away from the lake district in Phnom Penh. It's awful. It is just the most horrible, nasty, crappy little armpit of a backpacker ghetto we've ever encountered.

True, you can get a hideous little room there for only $3 a night, but over at the Spring Guesthouse you can get a lovely room (with the best cable TV in the world) for only $5. The nearby (and brand-spanking-new) Townview Hotel is even plusher, has the friendliest staff we've ever encountered, and rooms there are only a few dollars more. And those are just two examples: there are about a hundred other options available, virtually all of them much closer to every tourist attraction in town than the far-off lake district.

Yes, we know, the lake has very nice sunsets. It also has cockroaches the size of rats, and rats the size of poodles. Do what we did: stay somewhere else, and then visit it. Trust us, you'll be very happy you did.

Tip #5 – Let Your Guard Down

We'd been traveling for around a year when we got to Cambodia. Before that, we were both city-dwellers. Both of these things tend to train you to jump to the same conclusion: if some random stranger comes up and starts talking to you, he's up to no good. He's either a tout, a panhandler, or a theif. One way or another, he's after your money.

Not here. Here, the odds are good that he's just hungry to practice his English with someone. We would have marvelous (and sometimes marvelously long) conversations with people all the time in Cambodia, and absolutely never did they lead to us being asked for money. Given how much you can come to feel like a "walking ATM" in Southeast Asia, that took a little getting used to.

Cambodia, believe it or not, is a place where you can let your guard down a little. Not at the border, of course (see tip #1). And not in Siem Reap, which has been a bit spoiled by the influx of zillions of tourists (see tip #2).

But other than that, you'd be amazed at what wonderful people these are. There's a magical innocence they have, one which defies the horrific recent history that they've endured. They radiate a gregarious friendliness, a warmth and a kindness that you just have to experience to believe.

Now, of course, all generalizations are inherently false and incomplete. (Including the one that says "all generalizations are inherently false and incomplete.") There are bad people everywhere in the world. You should always be careful, never let your guard down too much.

But maybe just a little: it really can be tremendously refreshing.

There's an insidious cynicism that's difficult to avoid when you're backpacking. You constantly have to keep your eye on the baggage compartment of the bus to make sure that nothing of yours wanders off. At restaurants, you give the check a thorough once-over, and you keep finding "mistakes" in the bill. You're always arguing with the taxi driver who tells you that the hotel you want has burned down and that you should give his brother-in-law's place a look instead. Whenever someone bumps into you in a crowd, you automatically check that your pocket hasn't been picked.

And little by little, if you're not careful, your opinion of your fellow man starts to suffer a little.

Given all that, it's nice to find a place where the stranger who starts talking to you for no reason doesn't want you to invest in his gem business. He just wants to chat for a while. So go ahead, talk to him.

Tim the hedgehog
May 10, 2006 at 4:25am
We have, incidentally, fallen a bit behind on the website again. This is compounded by the fact that our current adventure (which we'll be writing about soon enough, we promise) has led us far into the wilderness…

This is actually the first time in eight days we've been able to get online. And, as things turn out, it'll be the last time for another twenty or so.

But hang in there, friends. We'll be back. And we have a big old backlog of stories at this point. Just you wait. :)

Carriedaway
May 10, 2006 at 4:49am
Letting your guard down…it can be so hard, but I'm exremely glad you two can do so and enjoying yourselves and Cambodia so much. I'm looking forward to hearing about the adventures that follow.
KerryGirl
May 10, 2006 at 7:45am
Number Three! I'm catching up, but seeing as Tim's post doesn't count I'm actually number two and Carriedaway is number one. Yee-haw! :)
Philsie
May 10, 2006 at 5:09pm
Timmy I need like two days to read this update WTF
Shana
May 10, 2006 at 10:47pm
hmmm… very interesting. great advice here, too.
Janet
May 12, 2006 at 8:57pm
Kind of seems like you were describing portions of the New York I so love, but without the cars.
Rats like poodles?
I'll show you some real Joisey rats.
amy, the angry one
May 20, 2006 at 6:43am
i am interested in seeing how this plays out.

there are now so many places on my list of places i want to travel to… i am not even going to know where to start…

Loofa
May 25, 2006 at 12:22am
Ok, there has never been a better example of what is best in American culture that you two, I just hope that the rest of us Americans can live up to your example! Trust me this is not a rant but I feel that, as an American, we do not praise those of us who truly try to live 'the American possibility', and truly try to grow. I know how much your posts have done for me personally, so I can begin to fathom what experiencing them has been, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us, and thank you to every one who has been apart of the dialog, all of you have let me see different views of pretty much everything. This is the best website I have ever seen, participated, or just skimmed! Thank you to all of you! Except philsie, you I just say.. 'I got more number ones than you! :)' (Not really, I appreciate you too philsie!)
otherjess
May 31, 2006 at 6:53pm
i miss you guys. i miss your entries. i hope you're having a spectacular time whereever you are.
Jessica the hedgehog
June 2, 2006 at 9:08am
Hey everyone! Have no fear, we're still here. :) We're still involved in the adventure that Tim referenced in his comment above. It looks like we'll be spending another 12 or so days out in the middle of nowhere without internet access (but with some rather large animals who we've grown quite attached to). :)

We definitely have some great stories to share from this latest adventure…probably some of our best stories yet!

Much love to all of you who are reading (or, waiting to read as the case may be). :)

Klaus
June 3, 2006 at 6:18am
This will be very bad… they are forgetting about civilization, and living with large animals. :D
otherjess
June 3, 2006 at 7:21am
are you involved in a herd of ted kennedys?
Sunnie
June 4, 2006 at 2:14am
Just wanted to say hi… miss you guys! Hope the wilderness is fabulous!
June 4, 2006 at 10:54am
Please come back from playing Tarzan and Jane soon. We miss you 2 like crazy and sens lots of love from all of us!
Janet
June 7, 2006 at 9:00pm
I CANNOT STAND THE ANTICIPATION!
daddy
June 9, 2006 at 9:00am
we know you have abandon china for your large four legged friends love always woof meow chirp and binkies from all, have fun
amy and ray
June 9, 2006 at 9:57pm
WE GOT ENGAGED!
Janet
June 10, 2006 at 5:28am
Well, congratulations! Sure would be nice if some other peole would emulate their large friends and "never forget" to contact us. They wold be happy for you too I'm sure. :)

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