"Why would you go on holiday to Cambodia?"
Updated: Feb 15
My first trip leaving England on my own was to Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2020. I still remember the anticipation at Heathrow Airport like it was yesterday: the new cultures, the people, the food, the places etc... this was the biggest thing I'd ever done in my life.
When you tell people one of the first places you are seeing on your travels is Cambodia they seem taken aback, it's as if they are wondering why you would chose to holiday in such a poor country. But there's a big difference between travelling and going on holiday. When you travel you experience very different things to what you would at home, immerse yourself in entirely different cultures, meet people who live a lifestyle hardly comparable to your own... and that's what I wanted. I'd done family beach holidays as a child and as much as I loved them, I was ready to have my eyes opened and my horizons broadened.
My first stop in Cambodia was the capital Phnom Phen, most well know for the S21 Prison and Killing Fields used in the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970s by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge who aimed to turn Cambodia communist. Between these 2 sites we saw the torture chambers used, blood stained floors, photos of prisoners, victims clothes, and most poignantly the bones and skulls of victims. I was also privileged enough to meet two survivors of the genocide, a moment I will never forget and one in which I had no idea how to engage with the poor victims who had been through unimaginable hell. While this might not be most people's idea of a holiday, I am a firm believer that if you are going to visit a country so steeped in history, you should take some time to learn about it. It certainly wasn't the happiest day of the trip, but it is the day that will stick with me the longest.
The next destination of note in Cambodia was Koh Rong Island. This stunning island is very popular with tourists and offers great quirky accommodation, I stayed in some beach bungalows overlooking the sea! So yeah this was the 'luxury' part, the point where you actually felt like you were on holiday: sun, sea, bikinis, cocktails etc. We took a day trip over to another island Koh Rong Sanloem and once our tummies had settled from the incredibly choppy boat ride over, we enjoyed some down time on the island before watching the beautiful sunset. It was at this point we were made aware of just how bad the pandemic was becoming but tucked away on a little Cambodian island, all the hysteria seemed so far away, almost unreal, so we simply enjoyed the rest of the beautiful islands and the only thing we hoped for was that Angkor Wat was not going to close to tourists before we were due to get there a few days later! So for anyone who thinks you're crazy for going to Cambodia, they might just change their minds when they see Koh Rong!
The next major stop for us were the floating villages. I made a rookie error here and didn't research the time of year I was visiting... and it was dry season! So instead of floating around the floating villages, we drove through them on a bus! A local lady was kind enough to welcome us into her home and speak to us about life in the floating villages. It was clear even before we started speaking to her that life was very basic here, but it was noticeable at the same time how much happier the locals were in general compared to people back in the UK. They were very content with what they did have, not fussed at all about all the materialistic things us Western tourists had that must have seemed so out of reach for them. We did manage a short boat ride though what seemed like a big puddle of water, and on this journey we saw the delight in children's faces as they played with a simple ball and net: it was very warming to see. The locals waved with glee as we sailed past, it was clear the less glamorous parts of this beautiful country were forgotten about by lots of tourists. Our guide was very good as well. He was native Cambodian with very good English and explained to us that people in these parts of the world are not not educated on matters such as plastic pollution so we should not be judgmental when we see heaps of plastic rubbish around. It seemed as much as they could learn something from us, we could learn so much too from these wonderful people. In all honesty I wouldn't really say I enjoyed my trip to the floating villages- it was very hot, the water we were sailing in was incredibly dirty and I was generally very tired from all the activities we had done previously on the trip. That being said, I don't regret any of it and I'd recommend anyone else to go. We got an overnight bus in Cambodia that I will still say was by far the worst night of my life: the 'beds' looked worse than prison mattresses, the toilet was broken and we were woken up every couple of hours for a toilet break that was sometimes just a clearing at the side of the road but again, I would not change it for anything and I'd tell someone else to do it, because travel isn't about loving every second of it with everything running smoothly and going perfectly to plan. It's these experiences that aren't 5* luxury that are the ones that improve you as a person and allow you to develop yourself and your outlook on life.
Our final big stop was the main reason most people visit Cambodia... to see Angkor Wat! We woke up at the crazy hour of 4am (I had actually gone to bed at 4am some nights on this trip!) with the intention of seeing sunrise over this majestic temple complex. We first went to get our tickets printed with our faces on (warning to anyone intending to go in the future, the camera is fixed on the table and angled upwards so you will look like you have 10 more chins than you actually do!) then got back in the tuk tuks that took us to an area near the temple from which we walked over. Anticipation for this stunning sunrise was building and only increased as more and more of the temple came into view. We sat amongst many others eagerly awaiting this perfect photo opportunity we thought we were all about to witness. But as time went by the clouds failed to lift. It was clear no one wanted to be the first one to give up on seeing this spectacle, but as the minutes ticked by we gradually began walking around the temple, accepting that waking up at 4am had been unnecessary... hindsight really is a wonderful thing. Our photos were a true Instagram vs Reality comparison. Like Koh Rong Island, Angkor Wat is one of the more glamorous spots in Cambodia, with plenty of stunning photo opportunities to make your friends and family jealous with.
But in reality it's meeting a genocide survivor that I'll never forget. It's the awfully unflattering miserable selfies taken on the overnight bus that will make me laugh forever, and it's the positive attitude of the people in the floating villages that changed my perspective on life forever. So, never be afraid to visit a country not glamorous and obviously touristy, because you will have the best experiences of your life there.
Thank you Charlotte for sharing this story full of warmth and adventure !
Also a big thank you to our readers, this story is definitely on that will stick with us for a while.
If you'd like to see Charlotte's pictures and videos from Cambodia as well as from all over the world, her Instagram @travelswithcharlotte_ is linked here.
She is super open and nice, so if you'd like to ask her more about her travels, don't hesitate to contact her!