Cambodia: The Good, The Bad, and the BeautifulOctober 26, 2020 | By Nafeesah Allen
The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fascinating country in Southeast Asia that boasts beautiful mountains, plains, and coastlines. Surrounded by Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, Cambodia’s tropical climate welcomed 6.6 million tourists in 2019. Currently, there are a few expensive requirements to get into the country, but here’s why you should consider a trip to the home of the Khmer Empire in the future.
According to Skyscanner, March is the best month to score cheap flights to the capital of Phnom Penh. There are no direct flights from the U.S. or Europe, so people usually do a trip to Cambodia as part of a larger Southeast Asia itinerary including countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. From neighboring countries, you can get direct flights to Phnom Penh and other tourist cities like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, which both have international airports. To get around domestically, there are affordable trains, buses, minibuses, rental cars, and Southeast Asia’s version of Uber, Grab. Their intercity bus system is pretty easy to navigate with a variety of operators. We recommend Mekong Express or Bayon VIP, but note that traffic in some areas can easily add 2 hours to a trip.
Because the country was occupied by the French, Vietnamese, and the Japanese at different points in time, influences from these different cultures are easy to spot and explore in Cambodia. Partly due to these occupations and partly due to other reasons beyond our comprehension, Cambodia has quite a troubled past that includes a horrific civil war. This history is well documented in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a memorial site that “preserves evidence of a tragic period in Cambodian history with the aim of encouraging visitors to be messengers of peace.” Despite all that the Cambodian people have been through, they’ve managed to hold onto the great parts of their history and culture. Much of this is on display at the National Museum of Cambodia in the capital Phnom Penh with displays of historical, cultural, and archaeological context, that aren’t to be missed.
Most visitors come specifically to visit Angkor Wat, the capital of the Khmer Empire. Its 400 acres sits in the northern part of the country. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, it was restored in the 1960s and was, thankfully, one of the few religious sites that weren’t destroyed in the civil war. People also come to take in the architecture. Though it has a strict dress code and odd opening hours, a visit to Phnom Penh is incomplete without a visit to the Royal Palace, which has been home to the monarchy since the 1860s. Beyond the tourist attractions, there are many nature reserves, geographic adventures, and untouched ecosystems to explore. Becoming one with nature is easy after a trek in the Cardamom Mountains or a swim in the Yeak Leom crater lake.
The islands off Cambodia’s southeastern coast aren’t as touristy as Thailand’s, but they are equally as idyllic and beautiful. The private islands of Song Saa are accessible by speedboat from Sihanoukville. A stay at a sustainable resort will cost you just a cool $3,000/night. Those funds support local workers and provide fair, living wages that uplift residents. Another island, Koh Tang draws those who love water sports, diving, and swimming. It is the largest of its regional islets, but it has no permanent residents. Now, the island has a handful of diving sites where pristine coral reefs can be observed. Last, flashpackers, backpackers, and hostel goers truly enjoy Koh Rong & Koh Rong Sanloem, which are known for beach parties and cheap accommodation. Both islands are a short ferry ride from Sihanoukville and are perfect sanctuaries to disconnect.