Cambodia (Part 2): A nation of contrasts?

It’s the summer holidays and I’ve returned to South East Asia to continue my explorations. I’ve travelled along the coast of Vietnam and spent 5 days in Cambodia visiting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. This is the last of my blogs about this trip as I sit waiting for my airport transfer to start the long journey home.

Setting off from Phnom Penh, we drive northwards to Siem Reap. As we left the city there was yet more evidence that this country is pushing forward with construction and development with extensive gated communities being built. Rows and rows of large houses and condo blocks interspersed with coffee shops and western looking mini-marts line stretch as far back from the road as you can see – a stark contrast to the workers and rather thin looking cattle in the rice paddies between the developments.

The landscape gradually becomes more rural and there we pass large expanses of flooded rice paddies with fishermen on small boats checking their nets. The flooding here is because it is wet season but it too has been made worse by the dam burst in Laos. Driving through villages we pass large blue tarpaulins laid out by the road side covered in rice as they aim to dry the rice before storing and/or removing the husks and using. We also pass villages in which nearly every house we pass appears to have a wooden rice pounder at the road side being busily used to pound rice and put it into sacks.

Arriving in Siem Reap it is clear from the start that we’ve entered a prime tourist spot with large hotel and spa complexes. This, after all, is the home to Cambodia’s greatest tourist destination – Angkor Wat. After checking into the hotel, we headed straight back out to visit the floating village of Ching Kneas on the vast Tonle Sao Lake. And this really is tourist central! With gift shops, street vendors, toilets and a large car park, the boarding point for the boats is extremely well set up to cater for vast numbers – almost to the point of you wanting to walk away straight away. We boarded the boat and set off to visit the floating village. These people are said to be some of the poorest in Cambodia and it feels a bit like you’re being taken to a zoo to watch the animals as you join the stream of boats ‘visiting’ the village. Even here the contrast between the different floating houses is evident with some sporting solar panels, tv aerials and satellite dishes while others look like they would disintegrate with a heavy blast of wind. The floating primary schools sit next to the rice station advertising free rice to feed the poor. We go past a large floating restaurant and land at what looks to be one of three cafe and souvenir shop floating complexes with a raised viewing platform. Each one has tourists stood taking photographs and ours is also home to some crocodiles which are bred to satisfy the demand for crocodile products. What isn’t evident here is how any of this tourism is actually benefitting the local population, especially given the tourist numbers we’ve seen today and we are here in low season!

The next two days (Friday and Saturday) were spent enjoying the whole reason for coming to this part of Cambodia – visiting the temples and ancient cities that the rest of the world refers to as Angkor Wat but is actually a vast area of different temple and city complexes of which Angkor Wat is only one. Our guide took us round some of the highlights over the two days in order of construction, meaning we finished our visits with Angkor Wat itself and what a way to end! It is hard to describe the different sites we visited or to even know where to start. The level of detail that had gone into every aspect of the buildings is phenomenal from the many faces of Buddha to elaborate stone carvings telling stories of regattas, war and daily life. I suppose what surprises me the most, having been to Petra and Lalibela, was the distance between the buildings so it was a hop on hop off the bus kind of two days with drives of up to 40 minutes between visits – although within Angkor Thom we walked between sites and the sense of coming across buildings nestled within the trees was more what I had imagined it would be like. The two days were amazing but did leave me with one burning question – how did Lara Croft manage to run round these temples without appearing to break a sweat when I didn’t realise it was possible to sweat so much just walking round them?!?!

The last evening of the trip was spent the only way I know how with a visit to the hotel spa followed by dinner and a trip to Pub Street! And so it was soon Sunday morning and time to begin the journey home…

I have really enjoyed my travels through Vietnam and Cambodia and I hope it’s inspired you to visit these amazing countries and, I hope, given you a little more information and context to talk to your students about if you’re teaching about these countries. Thank you to those I’ve travelled with for making it such an enjoyable trip and a big shout out to our tour guide Long whose hard work made the trip what it was.

Note: with thanks to Explore and their Highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia tour (see for a wide range of different itineraries and tours throughout the region).

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