Name: Toby Hemmings
Place Travelled: Cambodia
What was your favourite city and why?
Siem Reap was absolutely fantastic as a city because it was so very different from the cities that followed. It didn’t bustle with urban sprawl unlike Phnom Penh. It’s the most spiritually important city in Cambodia as just outside of it are the Angkor temples. There’s a rule for the buildings in the city because of this that no buildings are allowed to be taller than Angkor Wat, meaning that the city has a kind of relaxed, rural feel to it. We did an action packed day there that went from seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise to riding quad bikes through rice paddies in the afternoon to hitting up the main party drag, Pub Street, that night.
Five items that were absolute must have on your trip to Cambodia?
– Good company – can’t stress that our group of fellow tourists were excellent foils. I’ve done trips alone and with others and having a close group of people to share beers and exploits with just makes the trip that extra bit of fun.
– Headphones – long bus rides with chatty groups, crazy traffic and dire hangovers can only be pushed through with the help of headphones to get you that often-needed bit of personal time.
– A good guide – We were on a guided tour that we were initially apprehensive about. But our guide, Jack, was a passionate local who knew all the best spots to go drinking, get photos and who was eager to show us the beauty of the landscape and the people of Cambodia. He definitely succeeded.
– A camera/a phone with a long battery life – Biggest regret was the lack of battery life my phone had, which meant I couldn’t be constantly taking photos of the amazing country.
– A positive attitude – There were some people in our travel group who couldn’t believe that some restaurants we visited didn’t have burgers on the menu, or that people didn’t speak English. Just enjoy the differences and stop whinging about nothing.
Did you find any sights or activities down the road less travelled?
It turned out that our tour guide had a couple of connections that others didn’t have. So when we visited Phnom Penh we were lucky enough to be taken out one night to a Khmer boxing match where Thailand’s finest were facing off against Cambodian boxers. We ended up with most of us sitting ringside in the Thailand corner, getting beers snuck in from outside. At the halftime show, a random Cambodian pop star came out and sung Beyonce at full belt and acknowledged us as the random swathe of foreigners in the front. It turned out to be this huge national event that we kind of stumbled into. Meanwhile the other tour group that was staying with us at the hotel ended up looking at temples all night. Go figure.
There was also a day in Sihanoukville were we went out onto a boat to go snorkelling in the bay. What we didn’t know was that afterwards we were heading to this little island beach that seemed practically deserted except for volleyball net and a little hut. As we tossed this ball around in the sunshine in the middle of nowhere, the boat captains/drivers/whatever the word is were making us this beautiful fresh lunch of chicken rolls on Vietnamese bread. It was this stunning secluded experience.
#TBT to the weirdest thing to happen to you in Cambodia?
While the above story would be pretty weird, I’d argue that the most surreal moment was dealing with the Cambodian police. One of our hotel rooms got broken into one day while we were at the beach in Sihanoukville and my mates had like US$200, really nice headphones and a phone stolen. It was around 5 at night so they grabbed our tour guide and headed straight to the nearest police station.
In Cambodia there are two apparent divisions of police: the regular ones and then the Tourist Police. The Tourist Police are apparently only to help out tourists who lose stuff. When my friends got into the Tourist Police station it was essentially deserted. They had to send someone out to get the Chief of Police from the pub equivalent. When he walked in, he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be dragged away from his beers. My friends began enquiring about how they could get some form of documentation to show their insurance companies. However, it soon became apparent that in Cambodia you had to provide some financial motivation to make the system work for you. So after being slipped $20, the Chief became far more agreeable and eventually gave them what they were after.
Later when we went through the document, we found that according to the English translation, it wasn’t the Chief of Police who signed the document. Instead, it was the Chef of Police. I guess that was the cherry on top of this sundae of absurd institutionalised corruption.
Mandatory student austerity question: What was the budget like?
As an incredibly poor university student, Cambodia worked really well for me. One Australian dollar currently buys just over 3040 Cambodian riels, which I assume was about the same when we were there. The major currency that works for tourists though is the US dollar. I remember going to get a massage (get your mind out of the gutter) and watching a man pay for his with a US$20 bill. The cashier who took it kept her cool until he left the store. As she showed it to the masseurs, you could see the awe on their faces. Cambodia is a really poor, slightly economically shattered country due to years of corrupt practices following the societal wipeout caused by the Khmer Rouge. While this sucks for everyday Cambodians, I have to admit it that it made the trip very possible for me to undertake. I mean beers were 50 US cents. How could you not take advantage of this offer?
#Foodbucketlist: Best eats?
Best eats was definitely this insane Tom Yum Prawn dish – a hot and spicy soup I got in Sihanoukville. The prawns were these huge juicy buggers that just were full of flavour and fit the beach side vibe perfectly.
What advice would you give to other people who are travelling to Cambodia?
The best memories come from decisions that if you overthought them you would probably say no. I decided to go to Cambodia with my mates on a total whim without thinking “Oh wait, I’m definitely too poor for this.” It was two spectacular weeks in a fascinating country with some great friends. We’re already planning a trip to Laos this July.
Also try and find a balance. Don’t just party all night and crash all day as a result. Find out about the culture, the history and all the unique stuff about the place you’re visiting. Don’t just find out that the bar up the road does $2 buckets that are 80% alcohol.
My travel mantra is…
Always look for an excuse to travel and try new things. If the opportunity arises, don’t hold back. Just go for it.