I crossed from Vietnam into Cambodia at the Ha Tien border – the southernmost crossing that the two countries share. I was fully expecting to have to shell out some exorbitant amount of money because I was a foreigner crossing on a motorcycle, but the border guards were super friendly and let me right through without even taking a single peek at the paperwork for the bike.
I had just finished motorbiking 2700 km through Vietnam, and I seriously needed a break from two wheels. I’d heard people rave about this beautiful little island off of the Cambodian coast called Koh Rong, complete with soft white sand beaches and clear aquamarine waters…you’ll never hear me say no to that combination. It turned out to be exactly the type of reward I needed after spending a solid month on Vietnam’s highways. I left my bike at a hostel in Otres Beach, Sihanoukeville, and I was off for Koh Rong. I ended up sticking around the island for a week. Here’s why:
Some local Khmer fishermen invited us on their boat for whiskey and fresh crab at 9 in the morning. What resulted was an absolute shitshow by mid-day and probably the highlight of my trip through Cambodia.
Once my time had expired in Koh Rong, I headed back to the mainland and sold my bike, without even so much as a moment of hesitation once the offer was on the table. As much as I loved my time on that bike, I was ready to part ways. Monsoon season was in full swing, and riding on the highway in torrential Asia downpour is pretty much a death wish. So for the first time in months I hopped on a bus, from Sihanoukville north to the country’s capital: Phnom Penh.
I ended up really enjoying this city, which surprised me since I’d heard quite a few people hate on it earlier in my travels. It’s certainly not filled with air-conditioned shopping malls, donut shops, and fried chicken stalls like Bangkok is; I found it to be a bit eye-opening and rough around the edges. This is where my visit to Cambodia became more sobering, and rightfully so. I took a visit to S-21, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge prison, which is now a museum, as well as the Killing Fields, one of the 150 mass grave sites that has been unearthed across the country.
I can’t even illustrate how harrowing visiting these two sites was. Some 20,000 Cambodian prisoners passed through S-21, and only 12 made it out alive. The prison grounds have such a heavy and somber vibe that you can almost stick your hand out and feel it. Our guide explained to us that his mother and her aunt were the only survivors in their family. This just reiterated to me how viciously the genocide took from every single person. Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was the rotten cherry on top after S-21. Skulls from the mass graves have been assembled into a stupa, loudly reminding you of the brutal things the human race is capable of.
From Phnom Penh, I made my way up to Siem Reap – the base for exploring the Angkor temple complex. I spent five days here, two of which I pedaled around on a bike. This place is heaven on earth if you’re a temple nerd. You could spend a week touring and still there’d be more to see. It’s crazy.
My experience in Cambodia was a bit heavier than anywhere else I’d been in Southeast Asia. Poverty is endemic throughout the country, and the genocide under the Khmer Rouge was always lingering at the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but see the impoverished conditions that so many lived in as a result of this relatively recent tragedy. The Khmer Rouge mercilessly wiped out 21% of the country’s population only 35 short years ago. I’m not too sure about any of you guys, but many other tourists that I spoke to in Cambodia shared the same feeling of embarrassment that I felt knowing barely anything of the Khmer Rouge or its atrocities. Perhaps this is a piece of history that isn’t encouraged in grade-school history teachers’ lesson plans because it sheds poor light on the US? We did have somewhat of a loose coalition with the Khmer Rouge after all. There’s no reasonable excuse for my lack of knowledge on this subject prior to arriving in Asia…and I’m not looking to pass the blame for my own ignorance. I guess that I just felt a little surprised and peeved that I didn’t hear a single thing about this during grade school. Perhaps plenty of kids did learn about Cambodia’s brutal history during their schooling and I’m one of the oddballs that didn’t. But talking with young tourists in Cambodia – North Americans and Europeans alike – I realized that I was not alone in feeling the way that I did.