It’s just two hours away by air, but it’s hard to think of a country less like Singapore than Cambodia. Exchange your MRT or car for a tuk-tuk, swap your bak kut teh for an amok trey, and your tea for some incredibly strong French-influenced coffee. About the only thing that reminds the Singaporean visitor of home is the Cambodian heat.
While plenty of budget travellers visit Cambodia each year, you won’t need to rough it whilst exploring this fascinating land. The tourist industry continues to develop, attracting visitors of all wallet sizes, so you’ll find almost as many comfortable boutique hotels as you will budget guest houses. But whichever style of accommodation you choose, you’re likely to enjoy the friendliest service in Asia, possibly the world.
And the broad smiles are just the icing on the cake. Angkor Wat will probably form the centrepiece of your trip – and understandably so. Whether you like your temples extraordinarily well-preserved, or whether you prefer the Indiana Jones feel of broken-down lintels strangled by gnarled trees, you’ll find just the thing in this sprawling Hindu complex. Give yourself two or three days to really absorb the magic of these remarkable structures.
While most Cambodian history lessons focus on the glorious days of Angkor Wat, you cannot leave Cambodia without understanding the country’s more recent, darker past. Pol Pot’s legacy lives on in the population, whose number were decimated by a quarter in the second half of the 1970s – the result of the dictator’s agrarian socialism policies, which he instituted with chilling brutality. Visits to Pnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields both give vivid, haunting impressions of those fateful days.
With such a dark past, it’s amazing how upbeat and friendly Cambodians are. And one of the best places to meet them is in the many food stalls and eateries across the country, where you can sample some mouth-watering meals. Most dishes focus on fresh ingredients and fast cooking, and if you fancy a European slant to your food, you’ll find plenty of French influenced recipes too – thanks to their colonial presence in years gone by.
If you want to try something really unusual, head to Skuon (aka Spiderville), where the locals love nothing better than a crunchy fried spider. Cambodia is not the vegetarian’s best friend.
After all that history and those deep fried delicacies, you might be in the mood for some beach life. If so, Sihanoukville is the place to head, where a great beach and a buzzing nightlife will keep you busy.
While generally a country that presents few problems to travellers, the biggest worry in Cambodia is theft. This writer had his shorts stolen after leaving them unattended on Sihanoukville beach for five minutes while he took an early morning dip! Sadly, other travellers have experienced much bigger losses – thus Travel insurance is advisable.
So if you thought Thailand had a monopoly on smiles, a trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia is in order. And as a Singaporean, you don’t even need to fork out for a visa!