So you want to visit Cambodia? Don’t book your ticket just yet. You might love it or you’ll hate it, so let’s figure out if it’s a good fit

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’ve extended my stay in the east. I’m just having too much fun to leave. Right now, I’m travelling through Cambodia, having left on a bit of a whim after hearing good things about Siem Reap. It’s the gateway to all the big temples (Angkor Wat being the biggie) and probably the most popular city with tourists aside from the beach-side city that is Sihanoukville. (We made some biiiig mistakes regarding Sihanoukville. Expensive ones too! I’ll be detailing them in another post at a later stage so you can benefit from my expensive school fees.)

Getting to Siem Reap was pretty painless. I flew in solo on two planes from Chiang Mai via Bangkok. (I’ve forgotten what this cost but it was cheap. Like less than R1 000.) After paying $30 for my visa on arrival, I moved through the exit and bought a SIM card for $10 right outside the gate of the airport. I picked the most popular company, Smart, and got 6GB of data at 4GB speed that expires in a month.

I have no clue what this building is but it’s my favourite in Siem Reap. It’s a weird city where you’ll find the odd mansion next to several meters of slum.

Cambodia uses two currencies – their own riel as well as the US dollar. It’s common to see prices in dollars only. Or a menu with both the dollar and riel price. You can pay with either and if you get change it’ll often be a mix of both. I had some American dollars on me, having exchanged Thai baht for them in Chiang Mai, to pay for my visa and then drew some more from the ATM at the airport. As Siem Reap International is one of those airports with ‘official’ taxis, you don’t have to worry about getting into a cab with a looney tune. You just hop in and get dropped off right outside the door of your hotel for just $10.

This is my room in Visoth Villas, my second hotel. It looked very much like my first one.

The first hotel I stayed at was really nice, but literally right next door to a construction site. Every morning I’d get woken up at the crack of dawn to what sounded like freakin’ Transformers battling to the death outside my window. For the record, I’ve also had situations where pics look great online and the reality is very, very different.  Or the hotel’s blurb on Booking.com has said ‘it’s just five minutes away from x, y, z’ then you discover it’s actually fifteen and you end up having to take a taxi every time you want to get to a restaurant. For these reasons, unless I’ve been able to actually walk into the hotel I’m about to book at and check it out, I only book one to three nights in the east and strongly suggest you do the same. Don’t ever worry about not being able to find a decent place at the 11th hour. You will. In fact that’s often how you get great deals – thanks to last-minute price drops. So, ja. Two to three night’s max, okay?

Once I switched to another R200 a night hotel, Visoth Villas, I was a happy bunny once more. The staff were super friendly and very helpful. Also, the location is perfect – within walking distance of Pub Street which is kind of like the Bangla Road (Phuket’s main road) of Siem Reap.

This is the pool at Visoth Villas. We were allowed to swim late at night which was fabulous as you always come ‘home’ dripping in sweat, even after dark.

If you’re wanting to visit yourself and wondering where to stay, let Pub Street, which is right next to a big market, be your guide. You want your hotel to be within walking distance of this area because then you know you’re in the tourist zone and close to all other amenities. While Pub Street is tacky and seedy (albeit super fun when you’re super dronk) don’t let it be the place you eat every day. Go there once or twice, soak up the vibe, check it out, but know that the best restaurants (and prices) are to be found in the side streets around it.

You can’t take a photo of Pub Street (which is actually several street) at night as there’s too much neon.

I’ll get to ‘cool places’ to go in my very next post but I first want to bash out a few things I think you should know. Cambodia is very, VERY different to Thailand. Having spent a lot of time in the loveliness that is Chiang Mai prior to arrival, I experienced a complete culture shock that took some getting used to. Big cities like Bangkok aren’t exactly spotless but Cambodia is mostly dirty. Litter is everywhere. You’ll see a semi-nice looking house and just right next to it will be a super stinky landfill full of waste. You’ll eat at an upmarket restaurant and right next to the door will be three overflowing bags of trash being torn apart by a bunch of dogs that look like a cross between an Alsatian puppy and a hyena.

‘Give me The Rachel, please.’

Not everyone is friendly. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that Thai people are super-duper hospitable but they’ve got that rep because, in my experience, 95% of them are. In Cambodia not everyone is smiling and there are lots of reasons for that. The Khmer Rouge did a real fucking number on them and if you don’t know what that’s all about I suggest you google it, but only if you’re wearing waterproof mascara. I had no idea how bad it was, or how recently it happened and ended (Pol Pot was only deposed in 1979) so you’re essentially dealing with an incredibly damaged country that’s still healing and most definitely suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. At first, being here and seeing so many poor people as well as those who have jobs, be it hawking or driving a tuk tuk drivers, come across as so ‘desperate’ made me feel so terrible I wanted to hop back on a plane and return to Thailand.

Note this market kid’s swinging sibling in the background.

Sitting in a restaurant drinking a super cheap margarita ($1,50) or just being treated well because I’m a tourist holding the money this country craves made me feel like a gross, bloated Western whale. I’m only too aware that Cambodia’s affordable lekkerness, the stuff I’m only too happy to lap up, is a side effect of their horrible misfortune. But what is the alternative? Not come at all and deprive them of the tourist money they need? Interestingly, in Thailand, which is even more affordable for tourists, I don’t feel this way at all. In Thailand people aren’t desperate. 

So, like I said, when I first came here, I had all these horrible feelings. Now, however, they’re still there, but I’ve kind of swept them under the rug and just carry on. Sadly, being South African means that mental ‘flex’ comes easy. It’s what allows me to spritz on my Boucheron perfume (Quatre, if you were wondering) and mentally pick out the restaurant where I’ll later meet friends while my domestic worker tells me how they dragged her neighbour onto his lawn and chopped him up to bits. The world can be a shit hole.

More market madness.

Anyway, I know this is getting dark, but these are things you need to know. I’ve met the most divine people here. Really lovely people. But there are some who treat me rudely and I let it slide. In my book, surviving a genocide gets you a pass.

More things you should know? Cambodia is cheap, but it isn’t great value for money when compared with the other destinations around it. Yes, you can book into a great Siem Reap hotel for R200 a night, but it’s still in Cambodia, so what passes for ‘fancy’ is a little different’. It’s erratic too. Like I said, we paid R200 a night for fancy Visoth Villas and nearly the same amount for a complete shit hole in Kampot. (Again, that’s another post.) Also, $3,50 to $5 for a lunch in a restaurant is still better than what you’d fork out in Cape Town, but more expensive than what you’ll find if you visit Chiang Mai.

So! To wrap things up, I don’t want this post to scare you away from Cambodia. It’s a fascinating place. But you need to know what you’re stepping into. Don’t come here if it’s your first time in the east. You won’t have enough savvy and it’ll put you off this part of the world in a way that’s totally unfair because it’s very different to everything else. Don’t come here if you can’t handle a bit of rough. Don’t come come here if you have limited time or funds in which to travel. You’ll be taking a gamble that could result in two weeks of disappointment then you’re back at a desk for entire year before you get to explore once more. Don’t come here if here if you’re a girl on your own and intend to veer off the beaten track. (I mean you could, but, personally, I’m an experienced solo traveler on a pretty well-beaten path and I’m glad to be here with friends I’ve met along the way.)

Fish amok = more please!

BUT! If you don’t mind getting down and dirty and are craving a real experience – an adventure – as opposed to a ‘holiday’, then you’re going to get that in spades. And, if you’ve yet to travel through an incredibly downtrodden yet hopeful country, you certainly won’t leave untouched. Expect to be well and truly smacked in the face with a dirty dishcloth called perspective. (But I promise you’ll be all the better for it. Assuming you can take it.)

I hope to put up another post in the next two days on all the fun stuff we did (as well as all the awesome things we ate) in Siem Reap. Cambodia’s unofficial national dish is a very tasty curry called fish amok (typically cooked in a banana leaf) and it’s totally a new favourite thing.

Love, love

Leigh

P.S. Having written this I’m getting a lot of direct messages asking me if I’m enjoying it. Yes, I am. I like new. I like different. I want to take a bite out of everything, even if it’s just to know whether I’m into it or not. Would I come here again? Nope. It’s now a case of ‘been there, done that’. Knowing what I know, do I regret coming here? No. Not one little bit. But not so much because I ‘love’ it but because, as I said, I like new and different. But I also know that much of what I appreciate isn’t ‘the norm’ (I’d pick lemon meringue over chocolate-anything any old day and my favourite pizza topping is anchovy) so it’s important that you know that.

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Editor of South African beauty blog Lipgloss is my Life.

8 thoughts on “So you want to visit Cambodia? Don’t book your ticket just yet. You might love it or you’ll hate it, so let’s figure out if it’s a good fit

  1. I really enjoyed this post – thank you! Before we went to Italy we were seriously considering coming here instead but in all my research no one was quite this frank. I appreciate it.

    1. Pleasure! I googled a fair amount before coming here but nothing I read really ‘prepped’ me or served up the real deal so I’m basically writing what I wish I’d known myself before jumping on the plane. I don’t regret coming here. I’m having one hell of an experience which is great because I thrive on that. But if I wasn’t a curious sort… or if I was ‘naive’… or on a tight budget re time/money and expecting maximum holiday happiness for my input I’d be bleak.

  2. WOW, Leigh, this post was great! We were also toying with the idea at some stage and I am so glad I have read this now 🙂

    Your posts are literally giving me life ❤

    Sian xxxx

  3. I have recently been to Cambodia. I really enjoyed it and found it absolutely fascinating but completely agree with all that you said in your article.

  4. So interesting! I felt like my life changed after visiting Angkor Wat. The city made a huge amount of sense after experiencing it. On a bicycle through the jungles and vines! But we also splurged on a five star hotel and spa to wash off the jungle grim which really helped. Loved it lank. Fish amok gave us life! Enjoy x

  5. Great and informative post. Personally I liked Cambodia more than Thailand but we’re all different! I found Phnom Penh to be fascinating and Siem Riep to be too touristy (and that was 2006 so can’t imagine what it’s like now).

  6. Really enjoyed reading this post Lee. My experience was similar, but given that the country relies mostly on tourism and has no real natural resources, the few rude people did not deter me. I enjoyed Cambodia far more than I did Thailand.

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