As someone born in 1989, I confess I had a fairly superficial understanding of Cambodia until this year, when I decided to travel across south-east Asia. Of course, many who remember the 1970s will associate the place with its dark past (more on that later), but for many in my generation, Cambodia is seen as a warm, beautiful place, and I was enticed by my friends’ recommendations.
I booked my holiday with Intrepid Travel, which runs a ‘Real Food Tour’, designed to give visitors a taste of the country. Much of Cambodia’s tourism appeal is based on its cuisine, which is light, refreshing and astonishingly cheap, too. Adventurous eaters will especially enjoy the frogs legs, crickets and rats on many menus. Vegetarians might struggle a little, though.
Our tour ventured through numerous areas, including Phnom Penh, where the Romdeng restaurant is certainly worth a visit. Among the specialities are tarantulas with black pepper sauce, red tree ants with beef fillet and spicy basil stir fry, as well as a less daring prawn, mango, snow pea and cashew nut stir fry. Travellers looking for a good cocktail should head to the nearby Foreign Correspondents Club.
During my trip, I had the chance to give Cambodian cooking a try, in a class at the Feel Good Cooking School in Phnom Penh. My group learnt to make fish amok (Cambodian steamed curry) complete with a decorative banana leaf, which I confess I was hopeless at folding. For pudding, we had Sankhya Lapov, an egg custard made with coconut milk, which you steam inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. Cambodian food is good if you like delicate flavours; it uses lots of lemongrass, coconut and lime in recipes, as well as palm sugar, which helps to make a surprisingly tasty salad dressing.
What was impressive about my visit was that we were shown the great strengths of Cambodia today, while also being taught about its past. As many will know, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, a communist group, seized power and killed approximately three million people, before being stopped by the Vietnamese in 1979. I spent a day visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I don’t think I will ever forget this; these events were some of the worst to happen in the 20th century, and deserve more discussion in the West.
The rest of the tour took my group through the beautiful area of Kampot, where our group stayed at Natural Bungalows, which provided my best night’s sleep. The hotel has wooden rooms, nestled among pretty shrubbery, and the restaurant overlooks the Preaek Teuk Chhu river. The (appropriately named) Classy Hotel in Battambang was provided a relaxed stay, complete with a pool, stunning rooftop views, and a cheap range of spa treatments (US $6 for an hour massage).
Seeing Cambodia with a group tour was a wonderful way to discover the country, travelling with friendly companions of different ages and backgrounds and with knowledgable local experts to guide us. Cambodians themselves are incredibly friendly, especially the children, who excitedly shouted ‘hello’ at our group on our cycle tour through Battambang. If you look like Wednesday Addams in sunglasses – like me – prepare for numerous (well-intended) comments on your skin. ‘You look like a boiled egg,’ I was told – and I took it as a compliment.