Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
Beautiful things don't ask for attention
If I were to sum up my Cambodia Trip then this would be the description.
Angkor Wat enamored me for long but not enough to make me book my tickets. However, a low cost airline and a long weekend did the job. A flight to Cambodia was booked without any expectations. No expectations often lead to pleasant surprises. And Cambodia turned to be a mega one.
On 25th Aug 2016, I was in Cambodia but the trip didn’t start on a good note. After scooting through the frenzied traffic and torrential rains I somehow managed to reach the Airport on time. But my wait was in for a long wait tonight. Although Cebu Pacific enjoys a notorious image for flight delays but this time it wasn’t the culprit. A powerful cyclone was. One thing that Philippines has taught me what India couldn’t is PATIENCE. I patiently waited for my flight to take off. After a delay of 6 hours and a bumpy flight I finally landed in Siem Reap at 3:50 am instead of 9:50 pm. But as they say, all's well that ends well. I was happy to have reached my destination safely.
Cambodia wasn’t love at first sight. It was chaotic, hot and humid but a treasure trove where disappointment turned into amazement. An unforgettable trip worthy of many posts. So in my first post I am going to share the unique facts about Cambodia that left me awestruck. So hop on and relive the Cambodian Charm with me.
BEYOND ANGKOR WAT, THE UNIQUE FACTS ABOUT CAMBODIA
VISA AND AIRPORT TRANSFER IS A CAKEWALK IN CAMBODIA
One passport size photo, thirty dollars and five minutes is all it takes to get you a visa in Cambodia. No unnecessary paperwork. No long queues. No difficult questions. Getting a visa in Cambodia is a cakewalk.
As soon as you come out of the airport, there are prepaid taxis, tuk-tuks and mopeds waiting to take you to your destination. A tuk-tuk to the city centre costs 11$, a taxi 12$. I hired a taxi and unfortunately got stuck with it. The Lexus taxi was comfy but the driver was super clingy. He didn’t misbehave, he was just a narcissistic salesman. I did a mistake of asking him about the offbeat places around Siem Reap and he stationed himself at my hotel. I didn’t want to hire a taxi for my sightseeing because you don’t get to travel like a local but because he had waited for me for four hours (voluntarily. I didn’t ask him to) I felt compelled to hire him. Thankfully I hired him only for a day. One day trip that could have been done in 60-80 $, ended up over 150$. Getting bored with his self-obsessive talks was a bonus that I could have happily traded off.
Tip: Don’t reveal your travel plans to your driver. Instead seek your hotel/hostel’s help
ARRIVING WITHOUT PRIOR BOOKING WILL NOT LEAVE YOU STRANDED
Unlike its neighbours, Cambodia is still unexplored and uncrowded therefore it’s fairly easy to find accommodation in and around popular areas at attractive prices. Most of the properties are owned by foreigners and serviced by locals. The staff is ever smiling and at your service 24*7. And the best part is you don’t need to book your entire stay in advance. You can keep your plans flexible and decide your accommodation according to the mood of your wanderlust. I managed to get accommodations in offbeat places like Sen Monorom, Batambang and Kampot without any prior booking.
In Siem Reap, I had booked myself at Naga Angkor Hotel of Mad Monkey Hostels. A budget hotel, just five minutes away from the Pub Street. Steve, the owner of the property, was very helpful. In spite of being in a different continent he always responded to my queries. My room was small but clean with all the basic amenities. The staff was very courteous. Thanks to them, I ended up exploring a lot of offbeat places. I usually don’t eat at the hotel I stay in but the food and drinks served at the restaurant of Naga Hotel was wonderful.
Tip: Do carry your toilet paper and water. It’s not a common practice to provide the same.
FORGOT TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY? DON'T WORRY. DOLLAR WORKS EVERYWHERE.
It was the first time I didn’t exchange my currency for a local currency and I am glad I didn’t. Cambodia is a country where dollar is the de-facto local currency. You can relish your dinner or hire a tuk-tuk or go sightseeing or do souvenir shopping; everything can be paid in dollar. Locals are happier to accept dollar than Riel since it gives them better value than their local currency. One dollar is equal to 4000 Riels so it’s a win-win situation for travelers as well as the locals. The interesting fact is that even locals have to pay in dollars for big ticket items like a bike or a car.
Tip: Keep lots of small bills of 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s.
CAMBODIAN NAMES REFLECT THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS OF ITS PEOPLE
While Hinduism and Buddhism influence can be seen everywhere in Cambodia, there is one more thing that has India written all over it – the Cambodian Names. Just like in ancient India the caste system reflected our occupation, similarly in Cambodia the number of syllables in a person's name reflect the level of his/her parents' education and family's social status.
My guide told me if you have a name like Borun which has two syllables (o & u) then it means you are from a farmer family. If you have three syllables then one of your parent comes from a blue collar job like a doctor, engineer, teacher or a government servant. The King has seven syllables and the Prime Minister has the highest number of syllables – 14 (Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen; meaning "Lord Prime Minister, Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen). And if you are a Chinese-Khmer businessmen with a business empire and connections with Hun Sen or Royal Family, you can buy the title of “Okhna”, or Lord. Also, Cambodians traditionally have only a last name and a first name, with middle names common only among royalty and the elite.
BEYOND THE HEADLINE SIGHTS, LIE THE HEART OF CAMBODIA IN ITS COUNTRYSIDE
Cambodia has a lot more to offer than its headline sights - Angkor Wat. What won me over was the friendliness of the people, the yummy vegetarian Khmer cuisine, the sublime beauty of the countryside and its pristine tropical rain-forests. Places like Koh Kher, Sen Monorom, Koh Kong, Battambang, Ban Lung, which you wouldn’t find in guidebooks, are actually the places where the heart of Cambodia lies.
Being an offbeat traveler I keep my plans fluid and trust the advice of locals and fellow travelers. One such gem of an advice was given by the Austrian friends - Daniel and Julia - I met in Battambang. They introduced me to Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, which lies in North East of Cambodia near the border of Vietnam. It is a must visit place for nature and animal lovers. The Elephant Valley Project is an NGO working towards rehabilitating the captive elephants in Jungle, conserving their natural habitat and supporting the local people who work with these magnificent creatures. For 52$ you can watch the elephants for half a day and do voluntary work for the other half.
The elephant watching is very special. You walk around the jungle with a guide listening to the real life stories of the elephants - how they were treated before, how they acted when they came to the project, how they adapted to the other elephants. One such story was about an elephant who was treated very badly by her owner. She had a hard time adapting in the free environment of the project. She was afraid to do even simple things like eating or bathing without human orders. While other elephants would enjoy being themselves she would stand in a corner like a scared puppy.
Then one day an elephant, who had been there for a longer time, 'showed’ her what Freedom is and encouraged her to do anything she liked. He took some mud and put it on her. The timid girl was like 'hmmm okay. This is fun and looks like nobody is going to hurt me’ and she carefully put little mud on herself. She waited for some time and since no one hurt her she put way more mud onto herself and you could see how much fun she was having. It was a sight to behold where an Elephant was learning how to be an elephant again.
Tip: If there is one thing I would recommend you to do in Cambodia it would be to visit the Elephant Valley Project. And along with it you can do a side trip to the magnificent Bousra waterfall in Mondulkiri.
DAY TOURS AND CULTURAL SHOWS ARE IDEAL FOR TIME STARVED TRAVELERS
Most hotels and hostels have a tie-up with travel agencies and drivers, who can take you out on day tours. They are economical and saves you the hassle of doing everything on your own but I am not a big fan of pre-planned tours. I took a National Kulen Park day Tour for 35$, which was an OK deal. The best part of the tour was the interesting conversations I had with my guide and fellow travelers.
I met a group of four friends from Kolkata, all above 65 years of age. For the last 40 years they have a ritual of traveling together once a year. No wife. No kids. No distractions. Just four best friends. Isn’t it cool to travel with your best buddies?
Cambodia has a strong culture and history. When in Cambodia you should not miss an Apsara dance and Circus. Both are unique to Cambodia and through art form they show both the glorious as well as the horrific past of Cambodia.
Tip: Avoid back seats in the tour van. Carry water, sun shades and a hat. Book your tours at least a day in advance to avoid last minute cancellations.
CAMBODIAN PEOPLE'S PARTY AND BEER RULE THE CAMBODIANS
Julius Caesar said, “You can control people if you give them two things – something to eat and something to enjoy.” Guess that’s the philosophy of Hun Sen. From North to South to East to West to big cities to countryside there are only two things ubiquitous in Cambodia– the outdoors of People’s Party of Cambodia (PPC) and Beer. Beer is cheaper than water in Cambodia. Even in a tourist hub like a Pub street you can buy a beer for 50 cents.
In the words of my local guide, “I know Hun Sen is the most corrupt leader and he does nothing for the poor. We have no roads, no electricity, no schools, no hospitals, no good source of money but I still vote for him every five years because he had made beer cheap in Cambodia. We Cambodians don’t drink beer like you guys (having 2-3 pints) but we drink until we get completely drunk. Also, beer can make us win prizes like Villas, cars, bikes, iPhone etc. which we can only dream about.”
Tip: Try Angor beer or Draft Beer with local dishes like Khmer Curry or Amok
FOREIGNERS HAVE DONE MORE FOR THE LOCALS THAN THEIR LEADERS
Cambodia is a unique place where both the destruction as well as the construction is credited to foreigners. While countries like Vietnam, US, China and Russia have played a hand in the Cambodian Genocide and Civil war, it is also the foreigners who are relentlessly working for the welfare of the Cambodians. Tourism is the second largest industry after Agriculture. The conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm (the famous Tomb Raider Temple) is being handled by the Archaeological Survey of India. Education and health is mostly on the mercy of foreign aids and NGOs run by foreigners. China owns 10% land in Cambodia and most of the factories are owned by Chinese businessmen. Most schools are setup and run by countries like South Korea and Japan.
The most revered person in Cambodia is Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who founded the children's hospitals in Cambodia, where kids up to the age of 14 are treated free of cost.
Tip: Hiring a local guide is a small way to help locals. Not only do they get to earn money but they also get to learn a foreign language. English is not taught in any Government school. Foreigners are their only way to learn English or any other foreign language
CAMBODIA: THE LAND OF HAMMOCKS
Nobody loves a hammock as much as the Cambodians do. They love to lounge and nap in a hammock almost anywhere and everywhere. I saw hammocks slung between trees, on the side of a road, behind souvenir stands, in a tuk-tuk, on a boat, in the kitchen of a small restaurant, under a small Khmer hut among other places.
And Cambodians love to enjoy socializing and dining in hammocks too. No wonder many of Cambodia’s scenic natural resorts feature dozens of open-air, thatched roof ‘gazebos’ with hammocks full of locals dining, drinking, and dozing the day away. Away from the humdrum and noisy cities you see an array of hammock bars in the countryside. There is a hammock-resort near the Kratie dolphin pools overlooking the Mekong River. In Kep, locals dine on fresh crab at seaside hammock shacks, and at the base of Udong Mountain, just outside Phnom Penh, there must be 500 hammocks, nearly all of which are full on a busy holiday weekend.
Tip: Buying a hammock in Cambodia can save you lots of dollars
A NEW GOVERNMENT A NEW NAME
With new power comes a new name. Cambodia has been changing its name whenever a new government came into power over the past 63 years. Interestingly they started and ended with “The Kingdom of Cambodia”:
- The Kingdom of Cambodia: 1953-1970 (ruled by a monarchy)
- The Khmer Republic: 1970-1975 (ruled by President Lon Nol’s government)
- Democratic Kampuchea: 1975-1979 (under Pol Pot’s terrible Khmer Rouge regime)
- The People’s Republic of Kampuchea: 1979-1989 (under the rule of the Vietnamese sponsored government)
- The State of Cambodia: 1989-1993 (under the United Nations Transitional Assembly)
- The Kingdom of Cambodia: 1993-present (under the restored constitutional monarchy)
Tip: You’ll appreciate the Cambodian history and culture more if you do some pre-reading
These were just few unique things I discovered about Cambodia. Do keep a watch on more soul stirring stories from Travel See Write.