I didn’t spend quite as much time in Cambodia as I’d expected. I enjoyed Siem Reap – after I’d wandered around Angkor Wat, I spent a day cycling around the town and its canals, taking in the view and enjoying the vibe. It gave me a bit of the same feeling that I’d had in Chiang Mai, that of a chilled town where it felt good to just stop and hang out. I forked out on hipster coffee at Sister Srey and drank cheap beer high on the skate ramp on the roof of X Bar, watching Pub Street come alive.
Siem Reap felt to me like one of those cities that’s evolved very quick to accommodate for tourism and sort of lost itself in the process. While the centre is busy, bright and loud, the outskirts are light-years away from that. When I went to buy a sim card, I met Savuth, a graphic designer who moved from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to get a foot into the tourism industry, opening his own travel agency next door to his relocated design business. He asked me dozens of questions on what travellers want and how to provide the best possible service for them. His keenness to do good and succeed in this industry was testament to the welcome I had in Cambodia: people are warm and happy to see visitors come discover their culture. But it felt like the industry is flying too close to the sun, and I wonder what the next years will bring.
Teaching in Siem Reap
My favourite memory from my few days there was the pair of hours I spent helping out with an English class in a local school. I’d randomly walked past the school and saw a sign asking for volunteers to come help out with English pronunciation daily, so I showed up. The kids were clearly used to it and were completely unfrazzled to see me sitting by myself on a bench in the playground, waiting for an adult to show up. The tiniest woman finally did, inviting me in to recite the words of the family. The kids and I read about the moon landing and fishermen, then I took them up to the world map to show them where I was from. I showed them France and England; while they couldn’t pinpoint Cambodia on a map. Always that perspective.
Not actually a giant, just very small Cambodians #stillnotasiansized
It didn’t feel like there was much else to do, though, and I got bored quick. So I set off for Phnom Penh, which left me with a lasting memory… but a rather negative one. A mess up with my night bus meant I arrived at 2am, and found every single hostel closed, and a dormant, even slightly ominous vibe. Perhaps fittingly, most (if not all) of that there is to do in Phnom Penh is war tourism. The two main destinations, the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum were both incredibly powerful and I would highly recommend making the trip to Phnom Penh just for those.
They do make for a tough day. Casually walking past mass graves and human skulls feels entirely out of place. A part of me felt I shouldn’t be there. But, at the same time, I think it’s crucial of us to know and remember that such things can happen, and have, and still do. It’s out duty to do our utmost to stop it, and to keep in our minds the thousands who passed away because of the madness of a few.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
I know for a fact people are better than this. As I walked around the centre of Phnom Penh on my second day there to get a glimpse of the palace, two different women stopped me to start a conversation. I was wary – I’m still ready for that terrible travelling scam. But both of them were simply very sweet Malaysian women visiting Phnom Penh who felt like talking, and opening up to them, sitting down with those strangers to talk about jobs, and life in London, reminded me that all that we need is a bit of kindness and trust.