In the last 10 days, we’ve said our goodbyes to our friends in Taiwan, filled up our backpacks again and have been making our way through Cambodia.
We decided to come to Cambodia instead of flying straight home because, well, I have to admit it, I had a ton of malaria pills to use up. I’d originally planed to include Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Timor-Leste (all malaria endemic countries) in the epic journey, but ended up with a much needed extended stay in Taiwan instead. Given that Malarone isn’t cheap, I felt heartless letting it go to waste. So I insisted we add another country to our journey. Out of our options, Cambodia was the most appealing, and so here we are.
I knew a little about the country before researching it. Incredible ruins, recent genocide, little development, beaches. Then I read some. Good forests, good rivers, good islands, more ruins. Fantastic! I love nature! (Ed, on the other hand, is picky about his nature, but perhaps added exposure will get him more used to it?) I booked our plane tickets and started researching a place to say in our first stop, Phnom Penh.
Discovering the Rumours
Reading accommodation reviews, however, had somewhat over a sobering effect. It seems like every guesthouse or hotel had at least one review along the lines of: “our bags were snatched/we were robbed and this is how they handled it….”
One thing we noticed early on about South East Asia is that, despite widespread poverty, theft is pretty rare. We never heard any direct stories of thefts, only the occasional “friend of a friend of a friend with bad luck in Kuala Lumpur/Manilla/Bangkok”. In fact, we were stunned at our first bus station in Thailand to see locals plug their phones into a wall of the waiting area and leave it as they went to the bathroom. On occasion we saw ladies leave their purses on benches and walk away too. Over the next few months, we saw plenty of tourists leave their cameras on tables, wave big stacks of bills or walk around with their wallet/phone/passport hanging out of their back pocket. While we would never do or recommend doing such things, it seems that taking what doesn’t belong to you isn’t really part of the general mentality.
It was crushing to read that Cambodia sounded far riskier than anywhere else we’d been. The more I researched it, the scarier it seemed. Bag snatching reaches epidemic levels, everything’s a scam, local rich kids pick fights with everyone, drinks are drugged, the expat community is comprised solely of drunk, violent pedophiles, etc. We were starting to regret our decision!
We landed, terrified, in Phnom Penh and rushed into the first taxi we saw, not remembering the fixed price. We were too unsettled to worry about overcharging! I did looked it up after. Our driver actually didn’t overcharge us, and he did a great job.
Our guesthouse was in the central part of the city, but on a small side road. It was quiet and the shady common area had tropical design, comfortable seating and gorgeous plants. The building was secure and guests lounged about happily. Not a bad start.
The first few times we explored the city, we jumped at everything, constantly looking around for bag-snatchers on motorbikes. What we saw, however, were plenty of tourists walking with their phones out, their massive cameras and their flimsy, easy-to-grab purses. Never one to wish misfortunes on others, I was still reassured by the thought that if opportunists head our way, they’d be distracted by these giant targets.
And in the end, really, our fears proved to be greatly exaggerated. The city had beautiful architecture (I think Manilla has really made me appreciate other South East Asian cities), service was pretty good and people felt genuinely friendly.
10 days in, it feels like we’ve been hopping from relaxing place to relaxing place. I happily chilled for a few afternoons in the common area at our Phnom Penh guesthouse working on my TESOL papers, while Ed was recovering from a meal his stomach didn’t agree with. Even though we lazed around a lot, we still managed to see everything we wanted in the city. Then, without much effort, we found ourselves remote village of Chi Phat, enjoying the river, admiring farm animals, sleeping the afternoon heat away in hammocks and sipping delicious yet cheap cocktails. And now we’re in Sihanoukville, in our ultra comfortable hotel room, enjoying the fantastic service and tasty food. Shortly, we’ll be heading to our bungalow on a deserted Koh Rong beach.
In past countries, backpacking felt like an endless circle of get on the bus-get off the bus-find our guesthouse-go to the park-go to the museum-get back on the bus. Cambodia, on the other hand, has been more like smooth drifting from place to place.
I suppose a difference is that the country is relatively small and has relatively few cities (and, for the museum junkie that I am, relatively few museums!). By now, we’ve also had a lot of experiences (we’ve been to spas, we’ve visited rustic villages, we did the resort thing, we’ve learned about textiles, UXOs, tea, we’ve ridden in tuktuks, songthaews and overcrowded vans, we’ve seen temples, mosques and churches), so my urge to “SEE ALL THE THINGS” doesn’t overwhelm me like it used it.
While I am ready to get back to real life, I feel like this calm, relaxing backpacking journey is the perfect last hurrah before the hectic grind awaiting back home.