When over New Year I was asked which country is my least favourite out of the 30 something I’ve visited, I had flashbacks of the one country that for a variety of reasons left a dark cloud of memories that to this day make me shudder: Cambodia.
A country I couldn’t wait to visit, but very quickly couldn’t wait to leave.
Now you must bear in mind that my trip here took place ten years ago in 2008. It is probably a very different place now. I hear it is more like Thailand used to be and more backpacker friendly. Well when I went it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t even remember staying in hostels, I don’t think the hostel scene had really taken off there then.
The main impression I had in my short time in Cambodia was very negative and depressing, and it was the only place I’ve ever been that felt truly sinister. The sort of place where things you could read about on the dark web (if you were that way inclined) actually happen. A place where evil isn’t too far away. I know that sounds dramatic but I’ll explain why I felt this strongly.
I do want to make it clear that I hadn’t stepped off a plane from Australia, USA or the UK when I arrived in Cambodia- I’d been travelling around India, Thailand and Vietnam prior to crossing the border by bus from Vietnam to Cambodia, and therefore wasn’t a clueless tourist. Regardless, I was not prepared for what I encountered in Cambodia.
One experience that really shook me and that I will never forget was a bus ride we took. While I was travelling I wrote a travel blog which I’ve since privatised for various reasons, but I’m going to paste that exact entry from April 2008 below, it explains why I still have such negative memories of Cambodia…
My original blog entry:
So we get a bus from Vietnam setting off at 8am to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. As soon as we crossed the border over to Cambodia I was shocked. It is very, very different to Thailand and Vietnam. It felt as if we had been transported back in time and we were back in India. There was litter everywhere, filthy children playing by the roadside wearing little to no clothes, children no older than 12 selling trays of pineapples, mangoes and even fried insects!!!
Vans and trucks passed us filled with pigs or chickens who had no room to move. Passing markets there were disgusting stenches of fish and rotting vegetables. Phonm Penh wasn’t much better with street kids roaming around selling bits and bobs, and tuk tuk drivers harrassing us as soon as we stepped off the bus.
Anyway we checked into a half decent hotel and chilled out before heading out for some food. We found a nice, clean looking restaurant and sat down at a table outside and ordered….after about ten minutes I saw a large rat trundle happily by Nick’s chair. I later saw two more rats, and heard screams and a cry of ‘RAT’ from the other side of the restaurant. So eating my vegetable curry (after seeing hundreds of dead chickens hanging from bikes and vans in the roasting heat I am turning veggie in this country) I was a little disgusted and couldn’t enjoy my food for fear of a rat running up my leg.
The next day, we arranged for a tuk tuk driver to take us to a few sights. The sights however are all pretty depressing and centre on Cambodia’s not so distant past. Basically in the 1970’s a guy called Pol Pot formed an extremist party. When he got in power they essentially did a Hitler and the Cambodians were ordered to leave the cities and had to work on farms where they received little food for hard work. Many died of starvation, of disease. Many others were murdered in the Cambodian genocide. Overall about 2 million people died- around 25% of Cambodia’s entire population. Over 20,000 mass graves have been discovered.
We first visited a prison, called prison S21, which was a secret place of interrogation and torture for suspects. They were often kept for days weeks or months shackled to beds where if they even spoke to each other they would be beaten. They had to ask permission to do anything even to move position or they would be beaten. People who had any type of education were killed as they proved a threat to the government- teachers, doctors, lawyers etc. Even if they wore glasses as that was a sign of intelligence. All schools, hospitals etc were closed down. It really is strange that it happened only thirty years ago.
Only twelve people who went in the prison survived (out of thousands). The rest were sent to the killing fields which was our next stop. We got a guide here and he gave us some more info and showed us round. The killing fields was a large field where the prisoners would be taken, killed by various methods (never shot as that wasted bullets), and buried in shallow graves. However, when it rains, the soil erodes and bones and clothes stick up from the ground. They have thousands of skulls presented in a memorial building and many more remain buried. It was all rather depressing, and it is scary to think that many of the soldiers who killed will still be alive today. Maybe I’ve interacted with some of them…
Lots of landmines were planted at that time, and some still remain today, that is why it is very dangerous to go off roads and paths. There are many, many Cambodians with missing limbs and we have even seen a man without any arms or legs- just a head on a torso. That really upset me. I’m guessing as a child he crawled onto a landmine. These people are forced to beg for a living as they can’t get jobs. It’s extremely sad. Despite the amount of disabled, I have noticed it isn’t easy for disabled people to get around- buildings have steps not ramps. Even our hotel which is of decent quality didn’t have a lift. There are also many street children. Its so upsetting to see them.
As we only had one day in Phnom Penh, Nick also wanted to do some shooting. Yet another tourist attraction with a dark twist in this country are their shooting ranges, popular with Western tourists who come to shoot a variety of guns including AK47’s, various machine guns-M16’s, M60’s, and even throw hand grenades. Things that wouldn’t be possible for example in the UK.
If you have enough money, and the (twisted) desire, you can even shoot animals. Chickens and even cows…How sick is that?! Tourists actually come to pay to kill animals. Obviously Nick has no interest in this and just want to shoot at a target. Personally I have no interest in shooting at anything and stood to the side slightly unnerved at this spectacle.
I also heard from an older American that if the price is right even street children. I felt sick. Horrified. I don’t know what to make of that. There is no evidence for this – it wasn’t on the poster on their wall. Anywhere else I would argue that it couldn’t be true, surely not, but here in this strange country, I’ve witnessed a certain lack of humanity, a cold and hard quality to the people. A place where human life means very little. It is a place with corrupt law, where bribery can get you out of trouble. It is a country with a reputation for harbouring paedophiles and where child trafficking and prostitution are rife. So here I honestly think if you have the money anything goes. There are plenty of street children roaming around after all…
In a place of such extreme poverty I have also witnessed fancy, shiny four by fours cruising around the cities. Who could afford such a vehicle? We met a backpacker who said they were on a bus and because their driver pulled some dodgy maneuver, a man in the car opened his window and pointed a gun at the bus driver before driving onwards. It is not a place I feel safe.
So we came back to Phonm Penh, and booked our bus to head to Siem Reap. While we were waiting, an Aussie guy around forty approached us rather stressed out. Basically his driver who had seemed nice had stolen his bag with his wallet and money in. He didn’t have a penny on him so we gave him ten dollars so he could get a ride back to the hotel and some food. We’ve heard many stories of bag snatching and camera thieving in Phonm Penh.
Now…in much of Asia everybody drives like total maniacs- there are no rules, it is literally each man for himself and everybody takes horrendous risks. People don’t seem to know about blind spots, about where not to overtake etc. Nobody wears seatbelts and most cars and buses we have been in don’t appear to even have seatbelts. The roads are often bumpy and narrow with potholes. It is a recipe for disaster and it was only a matter of time before we see a dreadful accident, and today was our day.
We are driving along and suddenly slow down. As Nick and I are sitting at the front we see a lorry has overturned and lots of sacks of something (oh that’s another thing, every van/lorry/car/motorbike has stuff piled high on their roofs and its often only secured with a straggly rope) have spilled onto the road. I whip out my camera and get a pic.
I then see that people are trying to help the driver and passengers who are trapped in the lorry. We drive slowly around the lorry and I see some police chatting away. (NOT looking concerned or actually doing anything.)
Nick suddenly pulls me away from the window and says “don’t look, promise me you won’t look”. I can see by his eyes he is horrified by what he has seen and I don’t take things like that well (once you see something you can’t ever ‘unsee’ it) so I turned away and look at the people inside of the bus instead of the scene everybody else is looking at.
Our driver then gets out a camera and starts snapping away with a grin which was rather disturbing. Another man looks really shocked and comes up to take photos (why they all want photos I don’t know), and a teenage Cambodian is looking out of the window open mouthed. Nick is muttering things like “oh my god” and the whole bus are standing up for a better view (why they want a better view is not something I understand.) We slowly pass the scene and the Cambodian guy who was taking pics starts to look back at his pics and I see him shudder and shake his head. However, afterwards everybody seemed pretty blasé, the driver and some others were chatting and laughing so I assumed it couldn’t have been too bad.
A few minutes later we pull into a toilet stop. I ask Nick if anybody had died. He seems in shock and says that was the most awful, disgusting sight he has ever seen. Basically a mini van or something had crashed into the back of the lorry which we saw overturned, and was a crumpled mess. He saw dead bodies. One was a young child lying face down on the floor, a pool of blood surrounding his head. The whole front of the mini van had been crushed and pieces of metal lay strewn on the roadside. Nick says he saw a head which had been decapitated laying on the bonnet.
I felt sick hearing about it. But he said the worst sight was a man whose body was tangled up with the bonnet, and was all twisted and mangled and covered in blood. It really shook us up and we were terrified for the rest of the journey. He was also shocked and angry at the reactions of the locals on our bus- some had laughed about it and didn’t seem bothered at all.
When we got back on the bus for the remainder of our journey, as you can imagine we weren’t too excited to continue. But our driver didn’t seem to take any warning from the sight and instead drove just as quickly and as dangerously, at points texting on his bloody mobile barely looking at the road ahead.
The roads were so narrow for lorries, coaches, trucks, vans etc. It was literally a road like a normal street road in England, where on one side people drove one way, on the other side people drove the opposite way. But here you have lorries, buses and cars all vying for top position. With all the overtaking there must be accidents all the time. I don’t understand SE Asia. The people often have fancier phones and cameras than I do, but they haven’t got safe drinking water, decent healthcare or safe roads. Since arriving in Cambodia two days ago we have experienced around ten powercuts.
But at least we arrived safe and sound in Siem Reap. I am looking forward to leaving Cambodia. The temples at Angkor Wat which we are visiting tomorrow should be amazing, but after that I will be glad to escape.
End of blog entry.
In summary my time in Cambodia just seemed so negative. Even the tourist sights and activities (other than Ankor Wat) were centred around death, violence and suffering. It was a true third world country, but unlike India where the people seemed loving, spiritual and happy, in Cambodia they seemed miserable and cruel, and the corruption left gaping holes for tourism of an unsavoury and criminal nature..
I certainly don’t have any desire to return.
Other articles proving that traffic crashes are still an issue:
Cambodia’s dark side:
I am not just saying this to be dramatic, but I could genuinely feel the evil in the atmosphere in this country. It resonated everywhere.
Greed, lawlessness, corruption and extreme poverty all combine to create prime conditions for (comparatively rich) Westerners being able to get away with things they would not be able to in their own countries of residence. Whether that is paedophilia, whether it is murder, shooting cows and chickens for fun, whether it is sex with younger women, whether it is drugs…. and they barely even hide it…in Cambodia it seems nobody cares. Nobody is there to protect the vulnerable.
Plus there’s a high crime rate through locals who are involved in crime from bag snatching to drug dealing to kidnapping children and women for people trafficking. No I’m not saying everybody is a criminal, I’m simply saying be aware that it is a country with a lot of visible and non visible crime, and some of it is petty but some of it is a lot more dangerous, e.g human trafficking.
Now today I know that there are charities to help, I know things have undoubtedly changed since ten years ago but I am just speaking from my personal experience and feelings of the country.
I have spoken to people who have both volunteered and holidayed in Cambodia since and absolutely loved it. They said it bears no resemblance to the place I saw. So this is solely through my eyes, and maybe in another month I would have had a totally different experience. Maybe I was just unlucky. But there is or was a dark side to Cambodia not so far under the surface. I must note we travelled totally independently – no tours were booked and we used local transport. So if you booked a tour then you likely wouldn’t have been exposed to the side we had.
There is almost an expectation over the last few years that through blogging about travel you should make sure all photos are instagram perfect and that you depict everything as ‘amazing’. But that isn’t the reality of life. In some of these places there’s real suffering- maybe sitting on the beach you won’t see it. And I hope you don’t. But it’s there and if encountered we shouldn’t ignore it.
That’s not to say I advocate fear mongering or labelling a whole society and population as monsters or criminals. Of course, like in any place the vast majority of citizens are peaceful and law abiding and victims to the criminals more than anyone else. The women and children who are used for human trafficking come from the vulnerable population. Those who don’t have power.
Evidence of Cambodia’s dark side:
Charities and causes to support:
Learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime:
First they killed my Father:
Have you been to Cambodia lately? Do you recognise the picture I paint or did you have a totally different experience?
What places have you been that left a bad taste in your mouth and why?
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Hi, I live and work in Dubai. I enjoy getting out and about and seeing what Dubai has to offer, travelling in my holidays and spare time – prepare for blog posts about this, and cooking vegetarian recipes. I am passionate about travel and animals.