Roundup Cambodia: A country in transition

Royal Palace Phnom PenhMy original plan was to enter Cambodia from Laos and then cross the whole country before going to Vietnam. But when you travel long-term, things and itineraries tend to change every once in a while and here it all happened very quickly. Due to a rather spontaneous decision to leave Cambodia early in order to meet up with my Belgian friends Dolf and Chris in the Philippines, I ended up returning to Cambodia five months after my initial visit. But this circumstance actually made for a very interesting experience as I had left the country during absolute high season, with the country being arid, dusty and hot and returned to what felt like a different country. At the end of wet season, I found a country of lush scenery, green fields and a pleasantly mild climate. As different as these two stays were, as different were the adventures I experienced.

Eating Ant Soup in the deep Cambodian Jungle
One of them, and also one of the most memorable and authentic of my entire trip, was my jungle trek with local guide Phallet. Phallet belonged to the Bunong, an ethnic minority who are native to the area and even nowadays live off the jungle for the most part. Since I couldn’t find any other people to join me for three days in the wilderness, it was just me and Phallet and that made for a perfect experience. He not only tracked down a group of elephants but also showed me how to find medicinal plants, how to catch fish and frogs and how to prepare food with the things the jungle offers.  The highlight was a soup with red ants which he cooked with fish and wild vegetables. And I can say that it didn’t taste as bad as some of you might think.

Trekking Mondulkiri-Wild Elephant

A big fella in the jungle of Mondulkiri

Red Ants in the Jungle of Mondulkiri

An ants nest picked from the tree and bagged

Ants Soup in the Jungle of Mondulkiri

Fresh Ant Soup cooking…. delicious!

Basically having a guide all for myself enabled me to really learn more about the area, the Bunong people and their way of living. As we arrived in Pallet’s modest home, he revealed that he can’t afford a better house like some other members of his community or a motorbike. As a matter of fact, he sometimes can’t even afford to buy rice for him and his little family. In these situations the jungle becomes his main source of food, providing them with everything they need. But then he said, and that was the thing that impressed most, he didn’t care about any of that as long as he has good friends and family around and everyone is in good health. For him, that is what mattered and what is most important. Coming from Europe, where people live in total abundance and are often still unhappy, this was a real eye opener and got me thinking.

Catching Fish Mondulkiri

My guide Phallet catching fish

Phallet with some fresh "Junge Vegetables"

Phallet with some fresh “Junge Vegetables”

Phnom Penh – a city and its people on the rise
I don’t know exactly why, but the charm and atmosphere of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh quickly got a hold of me and it became my favorite big city in all of South East Asia. Anarchic traffic, tens of thousands of motorbikes whizzing through streets and lanes, exotic scents at the many markets, the unbearable humidity around midday and everything accompanied by the constant sounds of life, commerce and survival. In contrast to that you have the breezy riverfront with the Royal Temple, a few impressive leftover colonial landmarks like the Foreign Correspondents Club and a bustling bar and restaurant scene. Phnom Penh is a city on the rise. Once being a true colonial gem and the pearl of Asia, its shine was destroyed during the commotion of war, revolution and the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge. But despite being faced with a dramatic history like this, the people seem to have moved past it and now really want to make it up. Right from the start I felt that Phnom Penh is dynamic, full of energy and oh so vibrant. The Cambodian people appear to sense that their country and especially their capital are on the way up and they want to seize that moment. It seemed like they have cast off the shadows of the past and are now ready to move on.  No place other than Phnom Penh can currently convey this atmosphere better.

Phnom Penh, Foreign Correspondents Club at Night

The famous Foreign Correspondents Club at the Phnom Penh Riverfront

No to beaches, yay to culture
I deliberately decided against visiting the southern seaside of Cambodia. Places like Kampot, Kep and especially the party capital of Sihanoukville didn’t interest me too much since I had seen a lot of hard to beat beach getaways already (the Philippines being at the lonely top). Maybe a mistake but I just didn’t expect it to be that extraordinary or really authentic. I think Kep, with its old colonial architecture, might have been an exception but one also has to face the fact that you can’t see everything of a country.

A positive surprise was my stay in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of Angkor. Despite many warnings of the place being overrun by tourists these days, it was mind blowing and well worth the three day pass. The fact that I was there during low season probably helped a little bit. The temples with their different types of architecture and some of them being retaken by Mother Nature, the intricate carvings and the whole atmosphere of the park just make it a very special place. Even with lots of tourists around you.

Angkor, Bayon Temple

Faces of Bayon | Credit: Flickr Jonasginter

Overall, for me traveling Cambodia was a very pleasant affair. Not only did it offer a lot of memorable and diverse experiences but its people were also exceptionally friendly. In comparison to Laos, from where I had entered Cambodia, this circumstance really became apparent. I personally found the people a lot friendlier and welcoming which, considering their dark past and what they have been through, is just an amazing thing. It’s a great country to travel and I am sure it still has a lot of hidden gems waiting to be explored.
Where I have been:
1 day Kratie
1 days Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri Province
3 days Jungle Mondulkiri
1 day Sen Monorom
1 day Kratie
6 days Phnom Penh

2 days Phnom Penh
4 days Siem Reap
2 days Battambang

Transportation used:
Taxi, Bus, Mini Vans (a lot),  Moto Taxi, Tuk Tuk, Bicycle, Bamboo Train, Motorbike, Boat

The energetic atmosphere, the friendly people, Having beers at the riverfront in Phnom Penh

Packed mini vans, Bad roads

Types of accommodation:
Hotel, Guesthouse, The Jungle

Jungle Trek with my local guide in Mondulkiri, Motorbike tour along the Mekong Discovery Trail

Bad hangover after a big night out in Phnom Penh

Photos shot and kept on file:

Chilling in Thailand for a few days and then back home

Below I put a selection of my favorite Cambodia pictures. I hope you enjoyed my reports and the accompanying photographs. Feel free to message me or share your thoughts about your experiences traveling Cambodia or traveling in general. Thanks all for stopping by and the positive feedback. That really keeps me motivated.

Categories: Cambodia, Roundups | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Roundup Cambodia: A country in transition

  1. I’m a little sad that you didn’t cover Battambang but you’re photos are as beautiful as always… even the one of ant soup

    • Hi Susan, yes I was thinking about whether or not to cover it for quite some time. It is a nice place and I had a great time there. There is more to do than just the bamboo train (I did a motorbike day tour there) but then again, I did not have any pictures because of the camera theft. So I figured it would not be too interesting for most of the readers here. I enjoyed my time there …. it’s rather quiet, low key and the surroundings are very nice …..

      • I understand the logic behind you’re decision. I loved Battambang. I had the coolest guide on the motorbike tour I did but I admit that I enjoyed the bamboo railroad a lot. The city was a nice change of pace from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

    • Hi Susan, you are right, after Siem Reap Battambang was really nice for a change. Quiet, lazy and laid back. Maybe that’s also why I loved it there. Eating food at the market, walking along the river and the bamboo train. I did it in the evening with the sun setting – so nice. Such a nice experience. And the people at the end of the tracks were very friendly. The kids there were so cool. Yeah, good times in Cambodia …. How did you like Phnom Penh after all? A lot of people don’t like it a lot but I really did ….

      • Omg I loved the people at the end of the Bamboo railroad. The kids made me all kinds of adorable things out of grass and everyone kept offering us food and free beer. So nice! I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of Phnom Penh after watching an expat hit on a 12 year old girl who had been trying to sell me books, but I had a nice few days there despite than incident. I’ve come to realize though, that the people you’re with make a place stand out in your memory, so maybe you were lucky enough to have good friends around. That’s the reason I loved Siem Reap so much.

      • Yeah, you are right, the people you are with can make the difference. So important. Sometimes however, it can be the place itself. I don’t know, but I somehow had a connection to Phnom Penh since I was basically on my own for the whole time of my stay there. But I guess, if both factors come together, you will sure have a great time….

  2. owengthegreat

    I want to go also in Cambodia. Is it expensive going there?

    • Not too much, it is cheaper to travel there than in the Philippines. It also depends on what you are after and what you wanna do. Philipp

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