Thoughts on Cambodia
When I started this blog post I was going to write all about Cambodia and the places we visited in one post but when I started I realised the post would be huge! So instead, this initial post on Cambodia is going to cover my random observations and I’ll do three follow up posts on Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Kep.
I probably shouldn’t admit this but I knew almost nothing about Cambodia before Jake and I landed in Siem Reap. We choose Cambodia to be part of our trail because it was cheap, is home to Angkor Wat and you could fly to it from Thailand inexpensively. Maybe this complete ignorance to what Cambodia has to offer is why I enjoyed it so much. It’s a beautiful country full of really friendly people.
I would argue Scotland is a really friendly country but we’ve got competition in the Cambodians! Neighbouring Thailand calls itself “The Land of Smiles” but I found Cambodia to be much more suited to this title.
Wherever we were in Cambodia the locals always had a smile for us. I often caught people looking at me and when I made eye contact they’d give me a big smile. We were asked on several occasions to pose for photographs with locals, especially in Kep where I think westerners are a rare treat! Locals seemed genuinely happy that we were visiting their country! This positive attitude is even more remarkable when you consider the atrocities that took place in Cambodia over the last 40 years.
Something else that stood out for me was the number of amputees we saw. The various wars have resulted in land mines being a real problem for local people especially those living in rural areas. I noticed more amputees here than I’ve ever actually encountered in person. Many beg on the street while others sell their wares with signs telling their story. The number of amputees is a stark reminder of the Khmer Rouge regime and it’s lasting impact on Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge
I’ll keep this brief because Jake is going to write a detailed post on the Khmer Rouge and our visit to S21 and The Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the communist party in Cambodia in the 1970s. The party came to power in 1975 and in four years they killed over 2 million Cambodian people. Some of these people died from execution while others died from the horrible living conditions the Khmer Rouge imposed on the whole country. Nearly a quarter of the population were killed during this time and everyone suffered at the hands of this horrible party.
With so many people affected so recently, it’s likely that most of the Cambodian people we met were either directly affected by the regime or have family members who were. In 1975 my dad was 16, it wasn’t uncommon for boys younger than that to be recruited by the Khmer Rouge or sent to work in the fields and subsequently die of famine.
The results of the regime can still be seen in Cambodia. For me it was most evident in the under developed infrastructure – Cambodia doesn’t have a rail network and most of the roads are dust tracks. On the other hand the people of Cambodia do not outwardly display the impact of the regime, although they must be affected, their smiling faces do well to hide their suffering.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the Khmer Rouge and the plight of the Cambodian people I’d recommend watching “The Missing Picture”. It’s a fantastic film.
Something else that really stood out for me was the currency. The currency is American dollars and Cambodian riel. The confused currency comes from the Khmer Rouge abolishing money during their reign and a large injection of financial aid from the Americans in the 1990s.
The two currencies work in tandem. You can pay in dollars and receive your change in a mix of riel and dollars. This makes getting used to paying and checking your change a little tricky, well it did for me. We found that most touristy areas used the dollar while the riel is used in more rural provinces.
There are no coins in Cambodia. Instead riel is used which can result in you carrying bout lots of notes. A 100 riel note is worth just under 2p and you get around 4000 riel to the dollar.
Jake accumulated lots of riel and was left having to spend it at the airport. I don’t think the cashier was very pleased when he paid for a $4.00 chocolate bar with 16,000 riel.
We loved Cambodia and would recommend you add it to your own trail. I would go as far as recommending it over Thailand but that’s probably a controversial opinion. I feel like the world could learn a lot by visiting Cambodia and even more tourists could help the recovering economy.
Take care, Lisa