This is the part three of Assunta Ng’s three-part Cambodia series.
By Assunta Ng
Dispelling safety myths
“Is Cambodia safe?” Many readers asked me this after reading my first two blogs about my recent trip with my husband last November.
It is surprising that many have this misconception. While some may have concerns traveling to Cambodia, its tourism has actually increased 17 percent in 2013 and 7 percent last year. Just in Angkor, there are more than one million visitors every year.
Notably, the Killing Fields Museum, an institution that remembers Cambodia’s notorious genocide 40 years ago, is the number one tourist spot in the capital, Phnom Penh.
While our 5-day trip was full of fun and adventures, our tour guide warned us that pickpockets are huge in Cambodia. I noticed some tourists put their backpack in front of their body rather than carrying it behind.
Don’t expose your money is a good rule anywhere you visit. Don’t go into dark areas or walk around in the wee hours of the night by yourself. I always wear flat shoes when I travel — in case I need to run for my life.
Cambodia’s challenge is alleviating poverty. Crimes and poverty are usually linked together. (Its poverty rate is at 19 percent, only better than Burma’s 26 percent.)
I was wrong in assuming that human misery is only confined in Cambodia’s genocide museum.
One night, we walked back to our hotel after watching a dance show at the National Museum’s theater. Two homeless families were sleeping on both sides of the street just one block from the Royal Palace. There was a baby and kids with the parents, sleeping side-by-side on a torn rag.
On the other side were men chatting before bedtime. It was hard to watch.
Friends who visited Cambodia have all share stories about relentless beggars.
During our trip, several kids with innocent sad eyes swarmed over our tuk-tuk (a motorcycle with passenger seats in the back). The guide pointed to people sitting in chairs under a tree.
“Their parents train kids to beg.” Some adults hire kids to go out just to beg. Beggars, young and old, are experienced in their task.
“Give me money to go to school,” one 12-year-old girl said in English. Another begged me to buy the souvenirs from her. As soon as I said yes, another girl and boy suddenly appeared.
“Buy two from me and two from her,” the boy said in English. Rather than simply being skilled in negotiation, these kids have a street survival instinct, which grows out of desperate poverty.
Even the most ordinary Cambodians know how to exploit tourists for a buck.
Poverty inspires greed. We got lost inside an Angkor temple. A security guard helped us to get out of a maze.
“Do I get a tip?” he asked afterwards. We gave him $2 USD, and he was happy.
Another time, we asked the tuk-tuk driver to make stop at a hotel across from ours. “That will be $2,” he replied.
In general, though, I the people I met left good impressions.
Visiting a tragic and violent history
I remember I had chills when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2004, even though there were no real dead bodies or skeletons. The Killing Fields site is famous for its rawness, with thousands of real victims’ skulls and skeletons making up a tower.
The difference between Cambodia’s and Germany’s genocide, as many have said, was that Hitler targeted Jews while the Khmer Rouge killed its own people — more than two million victims.
I hate horror movies. You can understand why I have resisted visiting sites of genocide. What if I got nightmares from sensing unsettling souls dying in terror? It took courage for me to confront Cambodia’s past. Finally, we went, dragging our heels to step inside a haunted building.
Through the hotel, we hired Pat, a tour guide, a university graduate with a degree in tourism.
In her mid 20s, Pat spoke fluent English. The tuk-tuk ride took 40 minutes, kicking up a dust on the road. At one time, the road was so bumpy and narrow, our tuk-tuk stopped. The driver told us to get out and walk so his vehicle was light enough to turn onto another road.
When we reached the museum, (the Khmer Rouge had used a former cemetery for Cambodian Chinese to conduct killings), Pat sat us down and narrated the place’s history.
“Enough.” I stopped her after 20 minutes.
It was sickening to listen to tales of human destruction. I avoided looking at the skeletons up close.
“One more place I have to take you,” said Pat. It was the Tuol Sleng Prison, a former public school where victims were held before they were sent to the death camp.
“What were you two talking about?” I asked, inquiring about Pat and our driver.
“He wants $5 USD more,” Pat said. “I said no because it’s on the way.”
“Tell him OK,” I responded.
The prison was actually a torturing center. It’s currently a museum displaying photos of interrogation and tools of torture. We only saw less than half of the exhibits, enough to make me nauseous. Outside the prison building, 85-year-old Chum Mey, the last prison survivor out of 12,000 killed or trucked to the Killing Fields, was selling his autobiography.
The only reason he was not executed was because he was a mechanic — after torturing him for months, the regime found that they needed someone to fix their cars. He was one of seven survivors at the prison who were spared death because of special skills.
I was delighted to meet Mey and buy his book, which was translated into English. Just like my Cambodian friends, Sam Ung, owner of Phnom Penh Restaurant and our former writer Meng Kwong, who both survived and escaped to America, Mey symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit.
I was so relieved when we left Phnom Penh for Angkor. (end)
This is the part three of Assunta Ng’s three-part Cambodia series.
Tips to travel for visiting Cambodia
1. A visa is required, although this was not stated on its website.
It is easiest to apply for an e-visa. Have copies on hand though. At the airport, an official asked for one. Good thing my husband was prepared. If you don’t give them a copy, you might have to pay more.
2. See Angkor over Phnom Penh.
If I travel to Cambodia again, I will skip Phnom Penh and focus on Angkor, as there were much to see there. Besides Killing Fields, the Royal Palace, and the National Museum, there are few other attractions in the capital. But the logic is if you’re visiting Cambodia for the first time, you might as well see both. However, if you are lacking time or have to choose, I recommend Angkor.
3. Combine trips when traveling to Southeast Asia.
Cambodia shares borders with a few countries that are reachable by bus or a short flight. Combine your trips and also visit Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, or Myanmar.
4. Avoid duplicating destinations and routes.
I was so thankful we didn’t need to return to the capital for departure to Hong Kong. We arrived in Phnom Penh and left from Siem Reap. The drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is time-consuming and bumpy though, even on big buses.
5. Tour guides are always available, but quality of service may vary.
It’s easy to hire inexpensive tour guides in Cambodia, about $10 USD for 45 minutes or $30 USD for four hours. Not all of them are good though. The one recommended by the hotel was better than the one we hired at Angkor who deliberately took us shopping (many guides just wait outside the gates soliciting business.). Shopping’s a no-no for me. And not all guides know to give interesting information. We often enjoyed it much more when we went on our own.
6. Stay in hotels, not guest houses.
Guest houses can be as low as $12 USD a night. You pay for what you get though, like suffering mosquitoes bites. And you won’t get any service. I prefer English-speaking hotels with well-trained and helpful staff. For instance, our hotel helped us set up our cell phones for local calls and gave us vital information.
7. Just bring money from home.
U.S. currency is popular in Cambodia. No need to worry about the exchange rate.
8. Avoid summer trips.
Cambodia is hot year-round. It’s best to travel between November and January, if you’re sensitive to heat.
9. Stay away from bikes.
Because of the heat, riding bikes with a helmet can be miserable. Tuk-tuks are better. The tuk-tuk has protective curtains to guard against the heat. Sometimes it’s even breezy in the passenger seats.
10. Plan, plan, plan.
Visiting Cambodia is not like going to Paris. You have to plan ahead. Talk to people who have been there. Know what you like to do in order to get the best experience.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.