To say I didn't have the greatest time in Cambodia would be an understatement, it was one of the worst countries I have ever travelled to and much of my time there was spent feeling unsafe and really vulnerable. Now I know there are a lot of people out there who will really disagree with this post, and I totally agree that many will have a different experience of Cambodia to mine, but I have to be realistic and honest about my experiences. Despite this, I want you all to know that I would definitely return there in future and that I haven't completely written off the country. I know that I had a particularly bad run of luck when I was there and everything seemed to go wrong, and I would always advise any traveller to go to a country and make their own mind up. So this post is not about putting you off Cambodia, it is merely about warning of all the horrible things that happened to me and what I would do differently next time to avoid these situations. Now you have to remember that by this point I had travelled throughout Thailand, Laos and Vietnam solo by this point and was pretty experienced and confident about handling things on my own. I was also extremely excited about going to Cambodia and had expected to like it more than any of the other countries I had been to. So how did it all go wrong?
I had read a lot about Cambodia, but I definitely wasn't prepared for the country. Despite travelling across Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, the level of poverty in Cambodia was far more shocking than any other country I have ever travelled to. Even knowing about the history, I hadn't fully realised how third world it would seem in comparison to other parts of Asia - I expected it to be on a par with Laos but was quite shocked to see the conditions in which many were living there. The level of poverty has a direct impact on the level of crime and it is clear that a lot of Cambodians do see tourists as a way of making money quickly by robbing them. Not all, but there are a large number who see us as a way of making their life easier - but not in the way we are used to in countries like Thailand where tourism is a real industry. The fact that the police are far more corrupt than the average man on the street means it is an even more dangerous place for a tourist because the police also see us as a way of making money and will often target us. I know countless people who have been robbed in Cambodia, and even worse, I know so many people who have been messed around by police who are often in on the robbery and are making money off it. Motorbikes are a big one for this, I've heard of several cases where bikes were stolen after tourists hired them, then police refused to help and the bikes mysteriously turned up back at the original owners'.Arriving in low season (May), just after Songkran meant the country was empty of tourists and this played a huge part in why my experience was less than I'd hoped. There's safety in numbers and numbers were seriously lacking anywhere I went - this also made it difficult to find travel buddies as most were travelling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh instead of the other way around. It meant that as a woman travelling alone, I was much more of a target and I certainly felt a lot more conspicuous when walking the streets. There were several times when I would walk a down the street and have to fend off the uncomfortable approaches of grubby tuk tuk drivers and strange, often drugged up, men who would try to follow me down the street. Some were aggressive with no provocation and others just didn't seem to understand the word no. Their way of trying to encourage you to use their services was to hassle you non-stop, and not in the friendly way of the Thai's or Vietnamese, it was intimidating. Areas like Sihounoukville and Phnom Penh were particularly bad, but in Siem Reap it was completely different and I actually felt safe for the first time in weeks. I think if I had started my time in Cambodia up in Siem Reap, I would have felt very differently, but starting at the other end really coloured my view of the country.
So what actually happened to me in Cambodia? Why am I making such a point of writing a post like this? Well it all started when I was robbed. I'd just arrived in Sihounoukville and the first person I met was my taxi driver who managed to steal $50 off me - trust me, I'm never careless with my bags and he managed to still get into them without me noticing until he had the money. I caught him at it and shouted at him, so he decided to get aggressive with me. Big mistake as I punched him to the ground and ran off - probably not the wisest move but it was instinct and it got me away from a bad situation fast. Luckily it was only $50 - it could have been a lot worse as my passport and iPad were with my money. So I arrived on a bad note, then a friend of mine was nearly raped in the back of a tuk tuk and had to jump out while it was moving to get away from some creep who jumped in the back as it drove down the road near Otres Beach. Then there was the awful bus crash I nearly died in after a lorry ran my minibus off the road and we crashed into a ditch - I would have gone through the windscreen if it weren't for the driver grabbing me as I was thrown forward. The crash was horrible and the lorry didn't even stop, but it was dealing with the police, ambulance and bus company after that was the worst part. The police had no idea what to do and were more concerned about me being British than the Cambodian girl with a broken hip. The ambulance staff were embarrassingly uneducated on how to treat the injured, it was scary how little they knew of basic first aid and hygiene - to the point I refused to go to hospital. The bus company knew nothing of the crash and told me I couldn't go any further than Phnom Penh without my ticket - which was in the ditch next to the crashed bus - until I really kicked up a fuss. These are just some of the worst examples, but it was enough to make me pretty miserable during my time in the country. Now it may not have been the best experience of my life, but I always try to take something good away from every experience and I learnt a lot from my time in Cambodia. So what are my top tips for travelling Cambodia?
- Think very seriously about travelling there solo as a woman - whatever the websites and guide books say, it is a very different experience to travelling solo as a woman in Thailand or Vietnam or even Laos. I personally would never travel there alone again, and the vast majority of people I know who have loved Cambodia have either traveled in groups or solo as a man.
- Plan ahead with your personal safety - don't travel if you will be arriving late at night because you will be a victim of tuk tuk drivers and those loitering in the streets. Think about learning some basic self-defence moves in case anything happens because I was really glad I felt able to defend myself when that taxi driver started at me.
- Realise when planning your movements that Cambodian tourist travel is pretty unreliable and slow compared to other parts of Asia. Also realise that whether you go for the most expensive and comfortable or the least, you are equally at risk of accidents. They drive like crazy out here and seem to have no real concept of death or injury - if I were to return I would probably skip the buses and just fly from one end to another.
- Remember that you are a woman. It's sad to say that this should even be an issue in today's world, but when visiting other countries it is important to remember that your gender does play a part in how you are viewed. I'm not saying it is right, but you are at greater risk of harm in some places because men will see you as easy pray for rape or robbery because you are less likely, in their minds, to be able to defend yourself.
- Play the numbers game. Do your research and plan your trip carefully. Realise that events like Songkran could affect the numbers elsewhere in Asia as everyone flocks to Thailand and Laos. I knew that there would be less people, but never expected Cambodia to be as empty as it was but I think it had a huge impact on my time there. If I returned it would be in the middle of high season.Now throughout all of this I want you to remember that although I had a bit of a rubbish time in Cambodia, it doesn't mean that you will. It is such an important country to visit in so many ways - the history is heartbreaking and horrifying but it is something we all need to know about. The people can be incredibly kind and welcoming - but sadly I only saw this in my final days there. Don't be put off by my experiences, just learn from them and don't let the same happen to you. There is so much to be gained from seeing this country, and you will be helping the people to rebuild their country by creating a tourist industry and giving them a future. I will have several other happier posts coming up on the parts of Cambodia I did like and the better memories I hold of the country.
Tell me about your experiences of Cambodia - did you love it or hate it? Why? What advice would you give to travellers passing through?