Monday 23 October 2017

Phnom-enal Cambodia

World/US Holidays

Phnom Penh, the land-locked and bustling capital of Cambodia, might not be an ideal place for an Irishman to wait out the heat - but it is a fascinating and vibrant city
Phnom Penh, the land-locked and bustling capital of Cambodia, might not be an ideal place for an Irishman to wait out the heat - but it is a fascinating and vibrant city
Kampot’s main attraction is its relaxing riverside setting — though there is a sizable town set back from the river
Conor bids us ‘cheers’ from Kampot Riverside
Sambor Prei Kuk
Tuol Sleng Museum
Temples of Angkor

Conor Haugh

‘It’s hot”. This was the response my friend gave me when I asked her how her recent visit to Cambodia had been. We were sitting in a café in neighbouring Vietnam, and I was about to cross the border myself. “Very hot”, she reaffirmed.

She was not, as it turns out, wrong.

The next day, as I sat in a rattling bus, barrelling towards Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, through red, dusty, barren flatlands, I could confirm that it was, indeed, very hot.

In fairness, Cambodia was experiencing its longest drought in some 50 years, and with lakes and rivers drying up, animals collapsing from heat, and arid croplands thirsting for rain.

Kampot’s main attraction is its relaxing riverside setting — though there is a sizable town set back from the river
Kampot’s main attraction is its relaxing riverside setting — though there is a sizable town set back from the river

The country had more things to worry about than the comfort of a lone Irishman on his first visit.

Within hours of arriving in Phnom Penh I had decided that the land-locked, busy capital city was not an ideal place to wait out the heat.

The next day I hopped on a bus to southern, riverside Kampot.

The Kampong Bay River flowed wide and steadily, drought or no drought, and I found myself a $6 (€5.70)/night riverside bungalow.

I lazed away my mornings and afternoons by the water, and in the cooler evenings strolled into the town centre to choose dinner from the tables of tasty, point-and-pick Khmer curries offered by local restaurants.

Cambodia’s food is often unfairly overlooked next to the better-known and popular cuisines of its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours.

While rather milder than other fare in the region, Cambodian dishes are well-balanced and tasty.

Fish, amply supplied by a rich network of rivers, lakes, and coastline, feature heavily, as do plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs.

A national (and personal) favourite is fish amok — a thick coconut and fish curry, steam-cooked in a banana leaf.

The road-system of Cambodia means that nearly all cross-country journeys must pass through Phnom Penh, and, sure enough, I found myself back in the baking capital before too long.

I made the best of the heat, spending long stretches of the afternoon in the Blue Lime Hotel’s shaded pool, and sampling the city’s buzzing, neon-lit nightlife (and 50c-a-glass draft beer) in the evenings.

In order to learn more about Cambodia’s history I visited the infamous Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”.

Here, some 20,000 victims were executed and dumped in mass graves at the hands of the brutal revolutionaries, the Khmer Rouge, who took control of the country between 1975 and 1979.

I visited early one morning and plugged in the audio guide that was provided. If I had arrived accidentally I might not have guessed the significance of the place — after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, angry, impoverished locals looted and destroyed many of the buildings on the complex. The brutality described over my earphones seemed at odds with the peace of the shady, quiet former orchard.

Like many visitors to Cambodia, I felt compelled to contribute something to the still-recovering country.

Ample opportunities exist for people to do so, although some are more reputable and effective than others.

After some research I made contact with the Educating Centre for Community (ECC) school near Siem Reap, north-western Cambodia — a locally run organisation that gives free language lessons to locals of all ages.

They agreed to host me for two weeks, providing accommodation and three daily meals in exchange for a $5 per day donation and a few hours of daily English practice with students.

Cambodia’s renewed status as a popular tourist destination has led to development mainly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

To break up my journey as I travelled between the two, I stopped off in less-visited Kampong Cham.

At first I was unsure of my choice — the place seemed unnaturally quiet.

In the cooler evening the streets livened up slightly, but still, the lack of activity was unnerving after the bustle of the capital.

I was soon charmed, however, after renting a bicycle and spending a day exploring the leafy streets, rural villages, and heavily laden fruit trees of traffic-free river-island Koh Paen, accessible from Kampong Cham via a precarious bamboo bridge that is washed away each rainy season only to be built again several months later.

Having eventually arrived at Siem Reap bus station, and after negotiating with the throng of tuk-tuk drivers waiting there, I sped towards the ECC school grounds on the edge of town.

I rolled into the courtyard in the early afternoon and a warm, grinning local woman strolled out to welcome me.

She introduced herself as Savon. “But you must call me Mama”, she then insisted, explaining that volunteers were treated as part of the family.

I soon discovered how genuine that sentiment was — volunteers lived upstairs in the family house, shared meals, and borrowed the family’s bicycles and mopeds.

I was introduced to my new housemates — an array of twelve short and long-term volunteers from around the world and an assortment of Savon’s relatives.

As I had arrived on the weekend there were no classes. I decided to use the time to see the local sights.

Siem Reap is popular among tourists mainly as a base for exploring the extraordinary nearby temples of Angkor, raised by the Cambodian god-kings of old.

I arranged for a driver to pick me up at 4.30am to catch the sunrise over the main attraction, Angkor Wat.

He failed to show up, but, luckily, tuk-tuks are not hard to find at any hour near busy Siem Reap.

I flagged one down from the main road and was soon on my way.

Built as the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the heavenly home of the Hindu gods, Angkor Wat is suitably impressive.

The first approach is truly awe-inspiring. The 190 metre-wide moat surrounding the world’s largest religious building is crossed by a broad sandstone bridge, on the other side of which rise crumbling towers and mysterious brick ruins.

Lining the outer walls of the central temple, 800 metres of intricate bas-reliefs recreate epic battles between ancient deities.

A short drive away, in the centre of the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom, sits Bayon, a temple commissioned by the enigmatic king Jayavarman VII.

I climbed up to the third floor, where 216 smiling faces of Avolokiteshvara (the Buddhist embodiment of compassion), mounted upon 54 towers, seemed to give me my full attention as I wandered between them.

Next up was Ta Prohm, a temple being incrementally overwhelmed by nature.

Huge centuries-old trees, creeping vines, and clinging mosses continue the slow process of returning the towers, courtyards, and corridors to the jungle.

The scene is said to be close to what European explorers found centuries ago when they rediscovered the once-abandoned Angkor temples.

By this time the afternoon heat was becoming intense.

After a long, lazy roadside lunch my driver dropped me back to the school, stopping at a few more peripheral but interesting temples along the way.

A few days later the rains finally came, and with a vengeance. Torrents fell from the sky, murky rivulets and ponds formed in the sandy soil as thunder roared overhead — and I stood in my outdoor, tin-roofed classroom waiting for my first beginner students to arrive.

I had my lesson plan in hand, and advice from other teachers and the volunteer handbook in mind.

Only two boys, having just come from their Cambodian school, braved the storm, and, despite feeling prepared, I was relieved to have been given a soft start.

Over the next few weeks I was lucky enough to get to know those two students, and many others, very well. Their enthusiasm and company was a delight.

As the first generation whose parents did not live through Khmer Rouge rule, they could look more to the seemingly brighter future of their home than to its grim past.

One almost can’t help but trace the peaks and troughs of Cambodian history while visiting the country.

The inspired highs of the Khmer empire are reflected in the glories of Angkor.

The period of French colonisation has left beautiful architecture and a penchant for good bakeries.

Powerful and important reminders of the brutal Khmer Rouge rule remain in museums and mass-graves scattered across the land.

Development today, often rapid, is giving rise to an optimism among the long-suffering Khmer people. However, a stay there is not just about the past — it’s about exotic foods, kind and warm locals, and happening cities. 

These things plus chilled-out waterside towns combine to make Cambodia a country that keeps one firmly captivated by the present too.

Getting there

Conor bids us ‘cheers’ from Kampot Riverside

Conor bids us ‘cheers’ from Kampot Riverside  

A visa can be issued to Irish citizens holding a valid passport and two passport-sized photos at most ports of entry. The cost is $30 (€29)and the visa lasts one month, although it can be extended by one more month once you are in the country. Alternatively, a visa can easily be  arranged at any Cambodian Embassy, or online at

You should spend some time considering when to visit. Cambodia’s weather system is one of the simplest in South East Asia. The country experiences a distinct dry season between October and April and wet season between May and September. The hottest months are between March and June, with temperatures topping 35°C. The coolest months are between October and December, when temperatures hover around a perfectly manageable 25°C.

TAKE THREE:  Top attractions

Tuol Sleng Museum

SN skulls.jpg
Tuol Sleng Museum

A must for anyone compelled to learn more about Cambodia’s disturbing past. Before the advent of Khmer Rouge rule, this complex was a high school. When the revolutionaries overtook Phnom Penh they converted it into Security Prison 21, their biggest and busiest detention and torture centre. The prison employees were meticulous with their records, and today the museum houses displays of prisoner photographs.

Temples of Angkor

Temples of Angkor

Undoubtedly and deservedly the most popular tourist spot in Cambodia, the temples of Angkor are a testament to the genius, tenacity and abilities of the ancient Khmer empire. The staggering Angkor Wat, bizarre Bayon, and jungle-claimed Ta Prohm are among the most well known, but dozens more of equal intrigue are spread throughout the area. Utterly unique and utterly captivating.

Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk

Almost all visits to Cambodia involve plying the highway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The 6-7hr journey doesn’t have to be tackled in one go, however, and there are several smaller towns worth stopping at along the way. Kampong Thom is one, home to Cambodia’s most impressive set of pre-Angkorian temples, Sambor Prei Kuk. It is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

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