I’m a little wary about describing how I felt about Cambodia. It was my second country on my SE Asia trip last year after Vietnam, and despite being neighbors, it felt and looked much different. As we crossed the border and passed a row of roadside casinos located on what was just a rundown border town, I could sense that Cambodia was more rural, much less well-off and vibrant than its Eastern neighbor, which isn’t exactly an economic powerhouse itself. I’d had certain presumptions based on sparse knowledge of its poverty and terrible past, and unfortunately those thoughts were all proven true.
I was obviously going to Angkor Wat, the magnificent ruins of a great temple complex that had lain undiscovered in the jungle for centuries. However I would spend one full day in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital that lay besides the Mekong and had in the past been known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was considered one of the most attractive cities of French Indochina. It doesn’t get many tourists as Angkor Wat, which is near the town of Siem Reap, and for those who do come, its biggest “draw” is an execution site where the Khmer Rouge regime murdered thousands of civilians, the infamous Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge killed over a million Cambodians, basically a genocide against their own people, as part of their Marxist-inspired revolutionary reign during the 70s and 80s. This terrible period still seems to loom over the country’s people, perhaps a big reason why there is an air of despair and resignation. Poverty is also a factor, with the country being one of the least developed nations in the world as well as hungriest. You can easily experience this when little children run up to you and start begging. There’re also disabled people in wheelchairs who sometimes sell stuff, unfortunate victims of landmines or war.
I traveled to Cambodia by the overland route from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, taking a Mekong Express bus. It was a comfortable ride that took about 6 hours and included a border crossing, a river crossing across the Mekong, and a lunch stop.
The trip was led by a lovely hostess, possibly the most beautiful Cambodian I’d see during the whole time, who spoke in both English and Khmer, and an assistant. I had booked my ticket on the company’s website and was able to choose my seat beforehand. We got free water and pastries after boarding, and were also treated to a Bollywood movie which I will never forget- a silly romantic comedy about 3 Indians in a love triangle in London – followed by some Cambodian music videos after the movie. The staff even tagged your luggage before you got on board and checked your tag when you take your luggage at the end, which is reassuring. All in all, it was very professional and efficient, a pleasant surprise and laudable given the company is Cambodian-run. I’d take the Mekong Express again from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.
I definitely recommend Mekong Express to anybody who wants to travel to Cambodia overland without much hassle.
The river crossing occurred after we were in Cambodia. We got out of the bus, got onto the ferry with the bus and other vehicles drove onboard behind us, and enjoyed the languid “cruise” across the calm brown waters of the Mekong river. When we disembarked on the other side, we had a bit of a wait, and I talked to several members of a Western tour group who were also on the bus. Their tour guide, a local, had bought fried crickets and was sharing them out, though I declined. A few local kids came over and I thought they were going to beg, but they never did, instead they approached us, both shy and curious. The river “town” we were in was rather small and simple, with tinroofed stalls and one and two-story buildings. From the start, I thought the surroundings were much different from Vietnam, despite it being literally next door.
We pulled into Orussey Market in Phnom Penh, where I got a tuktuk to my hotel.
Waiting our turn to get on.