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Visiting new places is like meeting new people. If you’ve heard of them, you’ve formulated an idea ahead of time. Sometimes the idea is close, and sometimes there are surprises. Like meeting celebrities, the reality is rarely like the airbrushed magazine cover.

I can’t say I was very well informed about Cambodia before my first trip. My only frame of reference was the movies, most set during the Vietnam War. Those movies show us a country of drugs, destruction and danger. The other, Tomb Raider, gave me visions of steamy jungles, surly treasure hunters and wild animals. Angelina Jolie came back from filming that movie with an adopted child, and brought back to the media a vision of an impoverished, war-torn country with a huge population of orphans and victims of past violence.

Those things combined made Cambodia seem a bit intimidating. And by a bit, I mean a lot. I’ve been to third world countries, I know the drill of malaria medicine and extreme caution with food. In this case, though, would it be safe? Would the delight of the exotic be overshadowed by unsanitary conditions? Would a Caucasian woman traveling alone be a spectacle, would I be harassed? I’m not as young as I used to be, but would I be kidnapped and sold on the black market?

Well, boy, do I feel stupid. I mentioned that this was a fairly spontaneous trip, I hadn’t had much time to read up on my destinations. Spontaneity is fun, but comes at a price- occasionally feeling like a fool.

I figured out my ignorance as soon as the plane landed. The airport looked very much like the one on the Big Island of Hawaii, but much nicer. Everything was beautifully designed and spotlessly clean. Customs were shockingly efficient. Oh, and there was a Dairy Queen inside.

Huh. No Angelina Jolie welcome and melancholy orphans. So much for expectations. A Blizzard does sound good.

Cambodia has two main ports of entry, the capital of Phnom Penh and the town of Siem Reap. I’d never heard of Siem Reap, but I was going to see the famous ruins of Angkor Wat and it is the closest airport. The city is laid out along a shallow river that cuts it in two. I learned later that one side is considered the side for rich foreign visitors and the other is for locals.

The foreign side of town is a wild mix. The elegant town square has a park with a temple, framed on one side with an expensive French-colonial hotel and a royal residence on the other. The whiff of a French past is pretty faint, but you can find it if you look for it.

The main drag hosts hotels going from threadbare flop houses to fancy resorts that would fit in quite nicely in Vegas. Brightly lit shopping malls compete for space with traditional markets. Tuk tuks and scooters whizz around like bumble bees, some scooters with an entire family of four riding along.

You want something to eat? There’s the buzzing Pub Street district, full of partying backpackers eating street food and drinking 50 cent beers. There are the local places in town, but you’ll also find all kinds of international options. If you’d like to hang out with the local youth, head to their favorite restaurant….KFC. That’s no joke.

Speaking of kids, they are everywhere. 50% of Cambodia’s population is under 18. The series of wars that took place from 1975 until 2001 wiped out generations. The war and genocide (which I’ll write about later) are something that kids don’t learn about in school and people that remember don’t talk about it. That means that half of the population doesn’t carry the weight of the memory of past horrors. I was expecting some level of melancholy, but I didn’t see much of that. I saw far more teen angst and cell phone obsession.

The local side of town is not as glitzy, but is pleasant. It’s a hive of activity. Outdoor markets pop up every evening selling used clothes and shoes. The most popular stalls sell the current trend, colorful pajama sets, which, for some reason, people enjoy wearing as street clothes. Um, ok.

This is Siem Reap. It’s not a typical Cambodian city. It’s a rich city. This is a city that is fueled by tourism. Angkor City, a place that attracted a million residents 700 years ago, now attracts millions more to see its’ ruins. Foreign investment, particularly Chinese investment, has turned the streets of a dusty village into a thriving resort. Chinese tourism here is unbelievable, which makes sense as China isn’t very far away. With a growing middle class that can travel for the first time, the volume is stunning and growing every day.

I did get a flavor for normal Cambodian life. Our tour bus took us out from the city to a few remote temple sites, passing villages and ramshackle huts. There is poverty, no doubt. There are people struggling, some with war injuries and some with circumstances. I was taken aback by how casually people in Thailand and Cambodia would refer to me (or any foreigner) as rich. I don’t think of myself that way, but you can’t really argue.

Our guide described the process of growing rice, which is intensely laborious. People in the countryside work very hard in basic conditions. In the farther reaches of the country there are problems with disease. Clean drinking water is a problem everywhere.

The country houses range from middle class compounds to deteriorating shacks. Most are built on stilts for practical reasons. The houses are up high to avoid problems with flooding in the rainy season, but the families also use the shady space under the house for picnic tables, a carport or just a shady spot to hang a hammock in the heat. The houses are mostly a single, multipurpose room with large shutters that can regulate the temperature. It’s a clever design.

While the village conditions were more like what I expected of Cambodia, the atmosphere was different. It’s beautiful there. It reminded me of the Big Island of Hawaii, which also has poor areas. The pace of life, the family gatherings, the swaying palm trees all reminded me of it. There is a peaceful, content feeling. Families tend to their animals in the swaying grass. The air smells good. I couldn’t catalog all of the scents, but the most common were humid and floral or wonderful food smells.

The people were a delight. Our guide was so funny and sweet, a gentle man. Locals were polite and friendly, always smiling. They use the same greeting as the Thais of the praying hands at the chest, a gesture that warms my heart. Every person I met seemed warm, even the shrewd market vendors who bargained with a delightful sense of playfulness.

Cambodia is not what I expected, not at all. It is much more. Beautiful, warm in both temperature and temperment. I’m looking forward to exploring it more. It may not be a rich country in terms of money, but there is a cultural wealth that is priceless.

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


  • Judy Brennan says:

    What a beautiful article, Sarah! Thanks for sharing your experience traveling to this third world country.

  • Amanda says:

    Great article! I’m also a Europe junkie, but Thailand and Cambodia are next on my list. Great insight. Cheers to branching out!

  • Andi Cody says:

    Sarah, my perception of Cambodia was exactly the same as your initial one. I think you did an excellent job of shattering that and now it’s definitely on my radar for future travel. It sounds as if you are thoroughly enjoying your adventure-as much as I am “traveling” along with you! Thank you for (all) these wonderful postings of your trip!

  • Gail McKelvie says:

    Sarah, thank you for sharing your trip! Cambodia had been on my list for years because of Angkor Wat. I was lucky enough to go there, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in 2009. Our main guide was a lovely Thai woman who took very good care of us. We picked up local guides in the other countries – all very friendly and eager to share their countries with us. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to go on my own – so a tour was best for me. The Angkor Wat complex is HUGE, and I probably could have spent a week exploring. (one of the disadvantages of taking a tour). The only downside was getting there. I live outside of Philadelphia, so it took 3 planes and 30 hours. But I can now say I’ve stepped foot in Japan, too. (does it count as a country visited if you only see the inside of the airport?)

  • Kathleene says:

    Hi Sarah. I am a tall pale American woman and have always thought I would be uncomfortable traveling to a country where I might stand out, so thank you for sharing your stories about traveling in this part of the world. Your narratives are making me think, just maybe, I can honor my lifelong desires to see this part of the world without so much trepidation. Just curious, you say you are traveling alone but do you have a guide? What difficulties have you had with any language barriers? Thanks!

    • says:

      I’ve been alone part of the time and part of the time with a colleague who runs tours in Thailand and Cambodia. Taking a tour is a great option, otherwise I have had luck with day trips or hiring local guides at the sights.

  • Barbara says:

    Although you hinted at a future topic, I guess you haven’t written about it yet…you must have visited the Khmer Rouge “museum” and the Killing Fields. No wonder the locals don’t want to remember….Thanks for the tour. A part of the world I didn’t think I wanted to visit but now hope I can!

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