For baby boomers, the name Cambodia is symbolic with the country’s dark (near-recent) past. The “killing fields” as the country became known for steered nearly all tourism from the war-torn country during the late 70’s and 80’s. In recent decades, the country has seen significant increases in the tourism industry. Just in 2004, Cambodia saw an increase by 50%! Since, with the exception of the economic bust in 2008-2009, the country still saw double digit percentage increases year over year and in 2014, over 4 million tourists will visit the south east Asian country. Today, the Khmer people speak freely of their bloody past and remember loved ones they lost in the genocide. Visitors can learn more about the genocide at the hands of the “Khmer Rouge” at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.
Our vacation landed us about 300 miles north of Pehnom Penh, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our goal: to visit the famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temple ruins and learn how the Khmer people live…oh, and splurge on Cambodian food!
We found the people of Cambodia to be over-the-top kind to us and very willing to practice their English skills. The young teenager who showed us around the Golden Temple hotel spoke very slowly, clearly, and appeared to be very nervous that he was going to mispronounce a word. We found it very endearing. In fact, the entire staff at the hotel earned superior ratings from us in the customer service department. Our hotel room included airport transfer (in a tuk tuk), a welcome drink, a free 1 hour massage for both my husband and I, breakfast, and a parting gift for a nightly rate of $79. We honestly didn’t know how they were making any money! We loved that this hotel was not on “hotel row” close to the airport and was located more in the downtown area where locals live and close to the market and restaurants.
One interesting thing we learned was that Cambodia’s functional and preferred currency is the USD. ATM machines even pay in USD. The local currency is not preferred and if a dollar bill is slightly torn, it will not be accepted. We found it was easier to take money out of the ATM to ensure its crispness and acceptance.
We opted to wake up very early to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We were so glad that we did! Not only were the views amazing, but we beat the mid-day crowds and heat. To respect the local culture, women are to have their legs and shoulders covered when visiting temples so I appreciated minimizing the direct sun in this very humid country. After a bit of reesearch, we landed on a private tour with Happy Angkor Wat and were very happy with our choice.
Our tour guide picked us up from the hotel and drove us around in an air conditioned SUV and provided us with cold water, wet towels, and comic relief. He even doubled as an iphone photographer extraordinaire. In addition to Angkor Wat, we also visited Banteay Kdei, the stunning jungle clad Ta Promh where Tomb Raider was filmed, and the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom.
For dinner, we chose to go with a recommendation made to us, Viroth. It was walking distance from our hotel and we felt safe doing so. The restaurant was open air with fans to provide ventilation. We felt quite comfortable. The menu was traditional Khmer food and delicious! While the restaurant was considered expensive compared to the others in the area, we paid a total of $40 for both my husband and I to each have a bottle of water, glass of wine, and three course meals. We were happy with the value.
A friend of mine recommended Asana for drinks. It’s in a little wooden house and they also also classes to learn how to make Khmer cocktails.
As with most places we travel, we left wanting more. My hope for the Khmer people is that they can continue to grow their tourism industry and preserve their history so that one day when we return we can see more of what this country has to offer.