By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Why go to a backward country?” my friends reacted when they heard that my husband and I were going to Cambodia.
“Are you crazy going alone and not with a tour?” another asked.
Why people think Cambodia is not a safe country puzzles me. It could have to do with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which committed the notorious genocide, as later portrayed in the film “The Killing Fields.” But that was 40 years ago, 1975-79.
Cambodia was also made famous because movie star Angelina Jolie did a movie there, “Tomb Raider”, and even adopted a Cambodian son as a result. This spot is a must-see in Cambodia. (More about this in my second article.)
Prior to my tour, I didn’t know what to expect as I knew so little about Cambodia (except I have quite a few Cambodian friends). But it turned out to be a relaxing and adventurous journey compared to my overwhelming England trip last June.
“Cambodia has amazing history,” commented a few Seattle friends.
Cambodia is a country full of multicultural influence including Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, French, and Chinese. One of the things I didn’t know about Cambodia was that it was a French protectorate for more than 90 years since 1863.
If you talk to Cambodians, you will find out that many hated the French. But Hong Kong Chinese would likely tell you some of the good things the British did, included designing a social welfare system for seniors and affordable housing during its colonial days.
“The French did nothing good,” said our driver whom we hired to take us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. “They were just interested in money (getting taxes) and control.”
Ironically, Paris was under attack while we were in Phnom Penh. I felt bad that our hotel’s French tourists were glued to their cell phones to watch updates.
Cambodia is not exactly a friend of Vietnam or Thailand either if you study its past. Its conflicts with these countries began hundreds of years ago to the present. When the Viet Cong were fighting Americans, many of its soldiers were hiding inside Cambodia’s borders. It was hard for Cambodians to fathom why the Viet Cong left land mines there after they left.
Currently, Cambodia is a friend of China. China is building shopping malls and roads, and especially highways, in Cambodia. “We don’t share borders with China so we don’t have problems with each other,” said our Cambodian driver.
“Besides, King Norodom Sihanouk had strong ties with China. He died in China during a visit.”
Three weeks ago, I visited Hong Kong (HK) to deal with family problems. It was stressful. We needed a side trip to de-stress. Cambodia seemed to be the logical choice, as it only took two hours and five minutes to fly from HK to its capital.
I have traveled to Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, S. Korea, and Japan. Although I love to go to India, it is a bit far from HK. Our family’s dream is to visit as many new countries as much as we can.
Visiting my Cambodian friends’ homeland helps me understand their past and heritage. My desire was to see Angkor Wat and not the Killing Fields museum. In fact, I tried to talk myself out of going to the “killing fields.” But I changed my mind at the last minute.
What makes it beneficial for us Americans to go to Cambodia is its inexpensive standard of living. Everything is inexpensive. From food to hotels to souvenirs, it’s cheap.
For instance, our 5-star hotel was $128 a night in Siem Reap; our 4-star hotel Plantation in Phnom Penh was $100 a night (including breakfast and wi-fi, and 50 percent off for massages). Where can you get a $20 massage in the U.S., not even among Chinese massage spas?
If you give a $2 tip, the Cambodians are happy. But if you do that in the U.S., you get a dirty look from the server.
By the way, U.S. currency is more popular than Cambodian money. We never needed to exchange to Cambodian currency during our five-day stay.
And most people we met speak English. In fact, they are versatile in many languages. We met tour guides speaking fluent Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and even Polish in many parts of Siem Reap.
I give Cambodian food a thumbs up – a fusion between Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and French. It is not like Thai food, too spicy hot. Cambodian food is not hot at all. I need not worry about picking the wrong items.
It also has fried rice on the menu, similar to Chinese fried rice. When we went to its night market, I checked out the restaurants. The one with lots of individual Chinese tourists, I jumped in. We Chinese are picky eaters. If they patronize, my confidence spikes. We enjoyed all our meals in local restaurants.
Seattle is heaven compared to Cambodia’s traffic hell. There are no crosswalks, no sidewalks, no traffic lights, no public city buses, and no night lights. You get the picture.
The common transportation was to ride on a tut tut, a motorcycle converted to carriage seats behind the driver. Actually, it’s a quite comfortable and cheap form of transportation. For four hours on and off the ride for sightseeing, you only pay $25. Everywhere, there are hundreds soliciting you for rides so we never waited for one.
The temperature is hot in November, but bearable. Even though the weather is warm, you have to wear long sleeves and pants. Cambodian mosquitoes are famous. Luckily, we were prepared with mosquito-resistant cream. (end)
Part II to be continued Dec. 24
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.