The Kingdom of Cambodia is a place of hope. It has undergone major political crises including occupation by the French, Japanese and Vietnamese, all within the last 150 years. Despite the numerous hardships wrought by its colonizers, none were comparable to the atrocities and horrors inflicted on the nation by the Khmer Rouge, which, led by Pol Pot, ruled the country with an iron first and a loaded gun for nearly four years in the 1970s. During this dark period, millions of Cambodians were tortured and killed and hundreds of thousands of others fled, as the government forced the evacuation of cities to create endless slave labour in the fields. Today, this tropical country - still relatively undisturbed by mass tourism - is recovering and healing from the devastation. Without question, the biggest draw for visitors is Angkor Wat, the world's largest temple, which is depicted on the country's flag. Nearby Siem Reip, home to a bird refuge, craft stores, elephants, silk farming and classical dance performances, is a tourist town that entertains. But much like most of Cambodia, it lacks the infrastructure necessary to handle large crowds of people though its roads have improved. A boat ride down the Mekong will take you to the capital, Phnom Penh. With few attractions, the city lacks appeal, though it is home to one of the most important places to visit in the country. Today a museum marking the darkest point in the country's history, Tuol Sleng was a school-turned-torture-slash-concentration camp that was a terminal stop for nearly every 'guest'. With a lot of potential for economic growth, Cambodia’s kind-hearted people are motivated. A major part of the Cambodian experience is to understand the true strength of the human spirit. Rather than seeing their visit to Cambodia just an adventure, travellers leave Cambodia with a different way of looking at life. ~ Jason Trinidad Pucheu
As the stars fade and the colours of the sky slowly begin to change, the dark shadows of the immense temple walls gradually emerge. The anticipation builds among the hushed crowd as the temple’s towers and their reflection in the moat surrounding the vast complex become increasingly clear. And then, this visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking scene reveals itself in full glory, rendering viewers speechless; its a truly amazing moment. Seeing Angkor Wat was just one of many such 'pinch me' moments I had during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within, an award-winning Southeast Asia tour company. I actually stopped counting them after just a few days into my fascinating cultural odyssey; they came so fast and furious, one after another, all I could do was continue to pinch myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.
The tiny south Cambodia town of Kampot straddles a wide estuarine river about five kilometres inland from Gulf of Thailand. Two bridges join the sides: a relatively new bridge and an old French relic that only motos and cycles are allowed to travel over. The French have made their mark here in Kampot. A legacy of dilapidated old buildings close to the riverfront on the East Side adds some distant colonial character but hardly enough for a World Heritage listing. Our equally dilapidated bus dropped us by the old market, boarded up some time ago, having been replaced by the new market near the main road. A single tuk tuk driver tried his luck but we knew we didn’t have far to walk so as he muttered something about 50 cents, we were already striding down the riverfront boulevard our packs over our shoulders.
Our first choice guesthouse seemed expensive and too far from the main drag for what it was, so we headed back to the end of the promenade to Mea Culpa. It was a block from the river but had some magic rooms with two huge beds, AC, cable TV and an ensuite bathroom. At the front was a grove of mango trees that hid the thatched roofs of the restaurant and bar. For only $20 a night, we had hit pay dirt once more.