Think Cambodia is all about war, poverty, genocide and danger? Wrong! Despite its recent troubled history, the Kingdom of Wonder is developing at an astonishing rate, leaving many first-timers pleasantly surprised by the many secrets it has to offer. Here, we debunk some of the most common myths.
Cambodia is not dangerous. It’s as simple as that. Violent crime against foreigners is rare, as is the use of weapons. Of course, crime does happen but if you keep your wits about you, as you would anywhere else in the world – for example, by avoiding dark streets late at night and not starting daft drunken disputes – then Cambodia is a safe place to visit. Petty crime tends to come in the form of bag snatching, which can be rife in the capital during high season, so it would wise to keep a tight hold of your belongings and leave valuables in the hotel safe.
It’s all about the Khmer Rouge
Cambodia is often overshadowed by memories of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Under the Pol Pot regime, an estimated two million people died after the cities were evacuated and people sent to the countryside to farm rice under inhumane conditions. There are stark reminders of this recent history to be found throughout the country, and while the period will never be forgotten, the country has proudly risen from the ashes to enter a new chapter. There’s much more to Cambodia than the Khmer Rouge.
It is littered with landmines
Cambodia is one of the most mined countries in the world, with decades of war leaving their scars in the form of an estimated four to six million landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance). However, mass efforts have been made in the last few decades to rid the country of the deadly devices, with millions already safely retrieved to date, by elite teams of professionally trained locals. While many explosives are yet to be recovered, the populated areas have been scoured and were deemed safe years ago. And a target has been set for the country to be mine-free by 2025.
Don’t visit in wet season
The word wet is misleading, and also off-putting for those wanting to escape the dreary climes of home for some sun. Yes, the rain can pour but you can forget the idea that it hammers down all day because it usually comes and goes like clockwork. The heavy black sky and strong gusts of wind give you plenty of warning – usually about 30 minutes to find shelter – with the torrential downpours usually lasting about an hour before the sun starts shining again. The almighty thunderstorms are an attraction in and of themselves, and wet season gives travellers the chance to see Cambodia in all its glory: green and in bloom. Throw into the cheaper prices into the mix, and wet season really is in fact the best season.
You’ll get food poisoning
An upset stomach can strike at any time, but a little common sense can help avoid the worst. Steer clear of drinking tap water, take a look at the street stall before you buy – the beauty is that the food is cooked in front of you, so you can usually observe the hygiene levels – and stick to those stalls that are packed full of locals, as they are generally going to be a good bet.
Giving to street kids is helping
Your trip to Cambodia will be punctuated by heart-breaking children pleading for money or food, or trying to flog books, scarves, trinkets – you name it. No matter how tempting it may be, how witty or cute they are – and they will always win that game they’re trying to get you to play – or how desperate they look, don’t give to or buy from them. Often the sellers are working for gangs so they won’t even see a cent of your cash, but more importantly, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty. For more information on the best ways to help, NGO Friends International runs a Child Safe campaign, with tips for tourists.
It’s not family-friendly
A common fear from families is that Cambodia isn’t safe for children, they will get sick or catch a deadly disease, or there will be nothing for them to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth because by nature Cambodians are family-orientated and it’s always family first. In fact, if you’ve got a youngster in tow, then trying to avoid the cooing and clucking over your little one will become more of an issue than any actual danger. And the urban centres of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are home to Western pharmacies that stock everything you could possibly need for your child.
It’s too undeveloped
Cambodia’s infrastructure has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, with decent roads connecting most of the country’s hubs, an increasing number of domestic and international flights being introduced and hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping malls and various other leisure venues mushrooming across the country. Electricity is also more reliable, meaning black outs are – almost – a thing of the past, in major hubs anyway, and the Wi-Fi access is generally pretty awesome.
Everyone in Cambodia is poor
While there’s no denying that poverty well and truly exists in Cambodia, recent years have seen the emergence of a rising middle-class. Along with that, a new wave of young Cambodians have emerged and are excited to push their country forward and carve a prosperous future. The glaring divide between rich and poor can be unsettling, and there is abject poverty to be found across the country. However, the country’s economy continues to grow, with GDP increasing by 6.7% in 2016, the tide is very slowly starting to turn.
There’s no luxury
The Kingdom of Wonder can evoke images of US$2-a-night dorms, weary backpackers and lost hippies all travelling on a shoestring. Yes, this does still exist but today Cambodia is full of more luxurious options for those who aren’t on a tight budget. The kingdom is full of stunning, and reasonably priced, boutique hotels and a string of five-star hotels are gearing up to open in the capital and Siem Reap. Off the coast, private islands are being preened to add to the premium Song Saa Private Island offering, and there are more upmarket eateries, bars and brands being introduced by the week.