My first assumption about an 18 to 29s trip through Cambodia was that it would be filled with stereotypical student backpackers. Was I ready to travel with a group of millennials and Gen Z-ers? Or was I the problem for having preconceived notions? Shame on me! I’m just as much a part of this avocado-obsessed generation of non-stop technology users.
My second assumption was that there would be consistent late nights resulting in rushing for buses, hungover, in 30-degree heat. Casting all this aside, I decided that if I’d signed up for this trip, other like-minded travellers would have done so too!
So, a group of millennials sets off across Cambodia. An eight-hour bus journey awaits with no access to Wi-Fi. What happens next?
This isn’t a scornful joke, but the stereotype still assumes a lack of attention span or ability to switch off from technology, living life through a screen. Whilst I’d love to sit here and defend, at least, myself, the fast pace of Intrepid Travel’s Real Cambodia plays into the hand of this modern flaw with a jam-packed itinerary.
The trip comprised four main destinations like an assortment of mini-breaks, each providing an insight into a different aspect of Cambodia past and present.
1. Phnom Penh
Arriving here seemed calm by comparison to the mayhem we’d left behind in Ho Chi Minh City, yet the capital was uncharacteristically chaotic. Crowds poured out from every home to celebrate the annual Moon and Water Festival which meant fireworks by night and boat races from the river bank by day. Hundreds of local Cambodians boarded each boat with locals dressed in bright team colours blending together giving the illusion of a rainbow flooding the river.
A local experience completely by chance!
The festival contrasted our sombre visit to the Killing Fields and S21 which cast a contextual background for the rest of the trip travelling through modern Cambodia. Setting off from the city centre, we learnt of the scale of the massacre which blew me away. Having grown up in the UK and this being my first trip to Asia, my knowledge of Cambodian history was – admittedly – next to nothing. I had assumed a solitary Killing Field when, in truth, there were over three hundred. Despite my Jewish heritage, learning about the Holocaust and meeting with survivors, nothing could have mentally prepared me for the weight in my stomach that sat with me all day.
The thought of reaching for technology didn’t cross my mind nor did I take any photos, yet the horrors of the S21 prison blocks covered with barbed wire, the inhumanely minute cells and torture equipment left behind, are etched in my brain.
The Cambodian countryside sped by and before I knew it, we had arrived in Sihanoukville. We headed to a small guest house tucked away, in true Intrepid style, by Otres Beach. The magnitude of Chinese investment in the development of hotels and casinos was striking here. What now sit as mere skeletons of buildings, will soon be a fleshed out and thriving resort.
The beach was by no means empty but knowing that beaches in Thailand have been closing due to over tourism, it would seem a shame that the same thing should happen to this currently quaint resort.
We took a boat trip to a small island which evoked childhood travel memories of beach trips to the South of France. I was surprised that it took an island in the Gulf of Thailand to transport me to this memory.
As the sun set on our beach stay, ruby, amber and magenta cast themselves across the sky mimicking an artist’s impression of the very same scene. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen tucked away in this small pocket of Cambodia; there was a consensus among the group, who between us, had visited more than 50 countries, that this was the case.
I appreciated the opportunity, as a young traveller, to experience an eco-tourism project which is, and should be, a trend on the rise. It addresses environmental concerns and educates future generations of travellers while encouraging cultural exchange!
This homestay was brief but enlightening and I wished it had been longer for a greater impact on the community. However short, our contribution was especially moving as the community’s dam had recently burst, causing flooding and leaving rocky debris which destroyed the freshwater falls. Hiking up through this debris highlighted the importance of stays like this as without the income from tourism, repairing the damage of something so fundamental to the community could be a struggle.
We were welcomed with traditional dancing and a delicious feast of local dishes. I felt grateful to our local family for providing a roof over my head as the pitter-patter of rain danced on the roof like the footsteps of children playing. Our cockerel alarm clock – yes, I mean an actual cockerel – awoke us at the break of dawn but, void of screens for a good 24 hours, I felt well rested and was sad to be leaving so soon.
4. Siem Reap
Arriving in the late afternoon, and in true backpacker fashion, we headed to Pub Street. No-one dared to mention our 4:30am wake up for sunrise at Angkor Wat and the beer pong continued. Before you ask, no-one was late the next morning!
To say that sunrise at Angkor Wat did not disappoint is an understatement. If ever nature has stunned me and left me feeling insignificant, it was watching the temple’s shadows melt away into the daylight.
As a classicist, being granted access to walk through the sites – unlike many which leave you to admire the grandeur from afar so as not to cause damage – I was in my element, and my imagination began eagerly piecing together images of historic life. Nevertheless, after walking around Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon, we were ‘templed’ out.
Our last night in Cambodia was a highlight. We laughed and shared more jokes than I realised had accumulated throughout.
I was there for the destination but, in sharing it with a group, I recognised and accepted that a good travel companion doesn’t have to be your best friend for life. I made sure not to judge the travellers who were eager to share and experience such an underrated and beautiful country!