Not so long ago while having dinner I was told that nowadays going to Cambodia is a waste of time… Conversation subject was „places that are still authentic” in SE Asia, which I guess meant places, where influence of tourism is non existent or barely visible and local population still lives in their bamboo huts in poverty, unaware of the size of the world.
If out of „lack of time” you decide to take one of the mainstream guidebooks and lay down your trip schedule along with what’s worth and what’s a „must see” pointed out there, I agree. Just stay home and watch documentary about the place. But this is true for everything in life, if you won’t put minimum of effort into it, results will never be satisfying (guidebook is not an effort, it’s making it easy for yourself).
Because it’s politically incorrect, I’ll start by showing why such statement actually has some valid bases.
Angkor Wat – What no one knows even thought it should be obvious to everyone
Simply put, Angkor Wat is a nightmare! At some point we tried to estimate how many people must be visiting the temple everyday and we agreed on few hundred thousands (probably wrong, but gives you an idea of what we saw there…). To get in, we simply floated in the river of people. Thing is, no picture in the guidebook or in google image search did show us that. Angkor there is majestic, beautiful and peaceful, giving an impression of ghosts of the past following everyone who visits these remote ruins. That’s all b***t! Relatively peaceful spots are difficult to find and most of your visiting is just standing in a queue of people. If my greatest interest was architecture of that period, I’d consider the situation simply a price to pay for the possibility of getting close and personal with the object that fascinates me so much, as I think of leeches, mosquitoes and thorns in jungle. But I’m not historian.
What got me thinking though is the fact that simply anyone who calls himself a photographer will put maximum effort in deceiving those who will be looking at his photographs, in exactly the same way that guidebooks and google images do. We did that to! But just out of personal need for honesty here’s some pictures to give you an idea how it really is like.
So half of the minimum effort I mentioned in the opening is ability to just skip what’s simply not worth of your limited time on location, even though general opinion is dragging you there. To do that, you need to know yourself and understand what it is that makes your heart „skip the bit”. Then you can take a deep breath and say f***k it. If you get it right, you won’t regret it, but believe me, you need to dig deep…
To sweeten things up a bit I can tell you that the biggest tourist attraction of Cambodia isn’t only Angkor Wat. This whole temple complex is simply huge and if you only wish to, you can get lost there pretty easily. Even though I’d skip most famous temple, maybe snapping few shots from the distance while passing by, I still believe it’s worth investing in 3 day ticket. It’s worth simply to be able to penetrate farthest corners of this jungle covered ruin group, either on foot or by bicycle. Because the way you remember things isn’t dependent on what you saw, but rather on how you felt at the time. I grew up watching „Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom” at least once a month and it’s that feeling of uncovering something that hasn’t been seen before that makes me enjoy visiting historical objects. It doesn’t have to be real, it’s enough to get off the bitten track and turn my back to those few who got this far, to get my imagination going and „get in the zone”. If one day I’m lucky enough to really find this one last undiscovered temple or palace within the heart of jungle, I’ll drop dead of happiness and there will be no article at all…
Siem Reap is OK. If not the fact that to get to Cambodia you need to shell out few hundred bucks at minimum and spend dozen or so hours in a plane, I’d consider it worth checking. Thing is that except that it’s perfect starting point to go to Angkor, there is basically nothing there. As a results atmosphere of this small town is created by tourists and backpackers themselves. If you’ve been around vagabonds of different sort you know that those few places around the world they made their capitals are special and great to be in, but Siem Reap is not Koh Samui or Khaosan road. So to wrap it up I suggest you find cheap guesthouse in Siem Reap, book for three days and spend those days fully on a quest to find your own undiscovered temple among the jungle.
Phnom Penh – So is it actually worth it or not…?
So I kicked Angkor a bit, now it’s time for capital. As most of people visiting Cambodia we landed in Phnom Penh and were forced to sped almost 3 days there (partly after getting in and partly before flying of). Guidebook encouragingly informed us that Phnom Penh is definitely worth visiting and at least „river walk” is a must. I would agree… If you’ve never walk along the beach or a big river. There are some nice restaurants and the river looks nice in the evening. Simply put it’s exactly the same as any other „river or a beach walk” anywhere in the world except for the fact that local people dress and look different than in your hometown. There is nothing wrong about that, but again, my time is limited and I consider it high price to pay for the value…
I must honestly admit that we haven’t spent enough time there to propose alternative to the guidebook but there is one place I consider real gem of Phnom Penh ;-). Almost at the corner of Pasteur street and 278, hidden in the chaos of banners, tool shops and coffee houses resides tiny restaurant called Dosa Corner. They serve South Indian food and it’s as South Indian and as delicious as it can get. I’ve been building my experience in that regard for almost 6 months so I know what I’m talking about. So to keep things fun and light – short advice for you – take a tuk-tuk ride to Top Banana, book your bed there and go find Dosa Corner. After that just run as fast and as far from Phnom Penh as possible 😛
There is one quick tip that came to my mind just now – Tuk-tuk from the airport will cost you 8$ even though guidebook talks about 7$. This small difference comes from the fact, that there is only one tuk-tuk company allowed to wait for customers at the airport and they charge slightly more knowing that right after arrival, you’re an easy target. So just go past them and walk to the street (it’s maybe 200m). There’ll be bunch o other tuk-tuks waiting. Of course this 7$ price will still depend on your „bartering” skills, but it’s not about paying 1$ less but about honest competition if you ask me 😛
Personal note – because it’s actually worth it.
So without further ado. I loved Cambodia. I loved it since first tuk-tuk ride from the airport (I payed 8$ as no one told me before… :P) Country is poor, dirty and chaotic, which in my opinion is its greatest positive. People in places like this tend to live closer to our human nature and hard living conditions cause people to be more open and friendly. Human have evolved to it’s social nature because living in herds simply makes things easier. I make the same observation in any place we go, the poorer people are, the more time they have for each other.
And Cambodian people are just wonderful. They’re so polite that at times it made me uncomfortable. I don’t even know if someone ever thanked me for taking picture before.
But to see such Cambodia you need to tell yourself “f***k it” and go to the country. To the place where is no reason to go other than to see real Cambodia. To the place where people seeing your pale face won’t think „ATM” but rather „… here’se a guest from far away place, I wonder what he’s doing here and where’s he from…”
Obviously we’ve barely touched Cambodia on the surface but at the very end we did hit the jackpot. Place is called Banteay Chhmar and it’s a tiny village few steps of Thailand border. There’s no hotel, nor restaurant and if you get there you’ll sleep in local house that you can book through Community Based Tourism organization (or CBT as everybody calls them).
Conditions we found there were a bit rough and food a bit basic but people were smiling and relaxed, almost everyone tried to say at least hello, we stayed in a wooden house, huge hornet visited us in the morning and Tokay geckos were „barking” around.
And if you’re not into villagers, geckos and even biggest insects, there is 12th century temple for you. It’s not so much reconstructed like those in Angkor, but if like me you always envy Indiana Jones, it’ll be just perfect. It’s covered by jungle and all sorts of smaller bushes in big part. Stones are laying around covered with moss and it is empty. No people, no single one! There is maybe one or two tourists reaching Banteay Chhmar everyday and even those few usually come and go by car in the middle of the day, so at sunrise you have all this mystical place for yourself. Agnieszka went in and was gone instantly. She looked like a puppy that was finally released to the garden after too long home arrest. There was no contact with her for two hours and her eyes were glowing for few days later.
I have my own reasons to like the place. I’ve been touched with a specific curse: I’ve seen Russell Viper in Hampi (India) and I dream about photographing it in the nature ever since. I was hoping to get another chance here but that’s another story.