Welcome to Cambodia a country with history both inspiring and depressing, an enchanting land where Angor Wat and the horrors of Khmer Rouge come face to face. Despite having Angor Wat, the eighth wonder of the world, in its backyard Cambodia’s greater treasure is its people. The Khmers that have been to hell and back, thanks to an unbreakable spirit and optimism, have prevailed with their smiles almost untouched by the difficulties. As you have noticed from the dates, I came here twice, in 2005 for only a week and this year again, to finish my exploration in this unique country. Back in 2005 I visited the Ankor temples. Here you can bicycle for days around the temples and still haven’t seen them all. In the vast jungle and out of nowhere large stone temples rise to catch your eye, astonishing you with their beauty. The best way to see them is with a bicycle that you rent in Siam Reap. After a lot of pedaling you will surely be rewarded with what you have seen when you go back to your hotel to rest at night only to come back the next day and see some more. I could have stayed much longer than two days but I had to head back.
After entering the country this year, I was impressed by the development that has been going on these six years. Sihanoukville, from a stretch of white-sand beach, is becoming the soul of the tourist industry of the country. We decided to celebrate Christmas on one of the nearby islands, the island of Ko Rong. It’s a real beauty that will surely be overtaken in a couple of years by the mass tourism of Sihanoukville. For now though it’s a paradise with a small community of 300 locals and only three bungalow-type hotels. Here electricity is present only for four hours a day and everything comes from the mainland. Some foreigners have already set up their businesses here but thank God, the impact on the environment is very small. Nikos and Dimitris were with me, so the three of us explored the unspoiled beaches that crown the island and spent some time with the locals. The communication here, as in all of Southeast Asia, is very difficult because the locals speak very little English so everything takes time. After a few days on the island, we headed back to Sihanoukville to meet up with some Greek guys who recently had opened two small restaurants. Giorgos and Kostas, the two brothers from Athens, made us feel like home. Great guys both of them. If you ever come this way, go to their restaurants, the “Greek Soul Kitchen” and the “Argonauts”. In these two restaurants we met eight more Greeks that happened to pass by. We spent a few extra days there but the traveling never stops so we headed to Kampot and Kep, both close to the border with Vietnam in order to see some more of the local color, away from the tourists. They are both great getaways. Time goes by really fast if you keep yourself busy exploring temples, national parks and small villages all day long.
Cambodia has 14 million people. 98% of them are Khmer, making the country the most homogeneous in Southeast Asia. The first thing you notice is that the nation has no elder people as the three years of the Khmer Rouge regime and its leader Pol Pot have managed to almost wipe out all the old, intellectual and sick people that were worked to death. It’s still not known how many people did die during that time. Compare Cambodia today-a country with stability and peace-with the dark days into which it was plunged under the Khmer Rouge and the picture looks pretty good. But look at the country’s huge income disparities, the galloping inflation and all the corruption and it’s easy to be pessimistic. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to come back and see this beautiful country emerging again but it will definitely be my favorite in Southeast Asia.