Lawless, surreal and quite unique, spend too long there and you might never recover.
Cambodia is an odd country. Virtually no other society in recorded history can boast to have destroyed itself as thoroughly as Cambodia did during the 1970’s. Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps over one million of the country’s best and brightest people were murdered or worked to death in the great Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. The scars of this slaughter continue to affect Cambodia even thirty years later, though the country is now finally recovering. It is uncertain where the future lies, but Cambodia is experiencing change and development as fast as any nation in the world.
Entering Cambodia from anywhere else in the world is sort of like diving into the deep end of a very murky pool. There is no preparation for the utter absurdity and madness of the place, and many travelers find themselves quickly falling off the rails into a strange sort of madness. “Immoral” and often psychotic behavior is still shockingly acceptable in Cambodia, and though some progress has been made in finding and punishing the most heinous criminals, such as child rapists and murderers, it’s still pretty much a free-for-all of sin and self-destruction, for those inclined to indulge.
Cambodia is as intoxicating as it is psychedelic. It is a place where every sensation is unique. A pungent, fishy odor permeates most public spaces (especially local public transport) and trash litters nearly every corner of the country. Nothing is cleaned or scrubbed; even the outer walls of the Royal Palace were in need of a paint job at the hour of writing. Traditional Khmer music is one of the oddest imaginable, a weird, inharmonic mixture of chords that is as beautiful as it is difficult to listen to. The weather almost everywhere in the country is sweltering, leaving many travelers spent, strung out, exhausted, and immobile.
It seems that most travelers have a love-hate relationship with Cambodia. Those that come looking for debauchery and madness are likely to find everything they asked for and more. From the beaches of Sihanoukville to the Lakeside of Phnom Penh to the ruins of Angkor Wat, drugs and sex are for sale almost everywhere in Cambodia and cheap.
Human life itself is cheap in a country with so many available bodies and so few resources. Corruption is so widespread that law and order breaks down to an individual level, and the man with the biggest muscles (or the biggest gun) wins. That being said, Cambodia is relatively safe as compared to some other countries, and violent crime is rare.
Khmer culture is totally foreign to an outsider, and is incredibly difficult to understand. At times, it can seem that everyone around you is a complete idiot. And indeed, when the minibus blows a tire twenty minutes out of town and it takes four hours to get moving again because the driver forgot to bring the right wrench, you might just want to slap someone around. This is unwise. In Cambodia, losing your cool is one of the worst things you can do. Maybe this is one reason why when tensions do get too high the society explodes and massacres itself…
Existing in Cambodia is often challenging, and at times nearly impossible. It is not a “chilled-out” place, as the guidebooks would have you believe, at least not in the main tourist areas. Foreigners are constantly harassed, cheated, and solicited for any number of goods and services, from books to blowjobs. It’s unlikely that anywhere on the planet offers so much decadence with so little effort. Vice is literally available anywhere, any time, especially in Phnom Penh.
Though these qualities can be either highly attractive or extremely appalling, depending on a traveller’s disposition, there is one quality of travelling in Cambodia that is quite refreshing compared to the rest of Southeast Asia: it’s unique. There is nowhere else in the world quite like Cambodia, and being there gives you the sense that literally anything is possible. After a while, absurd notions like regulating drugs and prostitution, paying attention to traffic signals (they are virtually non-existent in Cambodia, but those that do exist are more of a guide than a command), needing real qualifications to do something (like open a doctor’s office or teaching in a university) or thinking at all about the possibility of a future beyond that very day disappear.
Many of the expats in Phnom Penh, when asked why they would pick such a rancid place to spend their life, will answer quite honestly that they cannot live anywhere else. Others will only travel through, and this is probably a wise proposition. Adopting the Khmer way of life, or the balang-in-Cambodia way of life, may be the most dangerous and suicidal thing that someone can do. All of this being said, Cambodia is a very interesting place to be. It’s difficult to be bored in a place with so much going on. Regardless of who you are, visiting is bound to leave a strong impression.
Cambodia is also a country with a long stretch of coastline and some decent beaches, though nothing compared to other countries in the region. In general, Cambodia is a very flat, deforested country, but there are some sizable stretches of forested hills in the west and northeast that allow for some hiking (with a guide). Walking anywhere off the beaten track is an invitation to get your genitals blown off by a landmine. The temples of Angkor are also quite impressive, though there are a lot of tourists in the high season.