>The wonders of Cambodia

>Visit Angkor Wat in tuk-tuk, the three-wheeled vehicles.

It is often said that when you least expect it, something amazing will happen. The same happens with countries. PETRA WITOWSKI found that Cambodia – the land of Pol Pot, landmines, orphans and Angkor Wat – exceeded all expectations.

It’s a country where a 175km journey takes 7 hours by road, everyone works in US dollars, and you can shoot a gun without a license or ID. Where orphanages regularly appear on a backpacker’s itinerary and you can pick up sapphires for next to nothing. It’s a small country, surrounded by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and has been ravaged by war over the past 30 years. Struggling and poverty-stricken, it’s an amazing place to visit and there’s no better place to start than Phnom Penh, the inland capital of Cambodia.

While expensive hotels straddle the riverfront near the Palace, the cheapest place to look for accommodation is down by the lake. The guesthouses sit over the water on wooden stilts, competing with each other for sunset views and menus. You can find DVD’s, drinks, hammocks, anything to make your stay enjoyable and relaxing. After a long day out at the Killing Fields, all you want to do is lay back, watch the sunset over the lake and sip a cold beer.

Nowhere can you see the atrocities committed by Pol Pot’s regime better than the Killing Fields. Just outside of town on a dusty road lies a large field, bordering a local school. Here lie mass graves – shallow pits really – where the bodies of thousands were buried.

During Pol Pot’s reign of terror, people were kidnapped and murdered for not agreeing with his regime. Men, women and children were beaten to death, photographed and buried. While most of the pits are now empty, bone fragments and torn clothing still poke out of the ground. A memorial was set up on-site, and filled with the skulls of the dead. It’s difficult to leave without tears in your eyes and complete dismay.

If you can stomach it, the S-21 Museum in town explains the horror in further detail, filled with photographs and video footage of the massacres. It’s hard to relate this horror with the people, who are so cheerful and pleasant. It is the most crucial tourist attraction in Phnom Penh, which may seem strange. However, it proves how strong the people are, knowing they survived these horrors not so long ago.

Just down the road from the Killing Fields, tuk-tuk drivers will constantly try to take you to the shooting range. This is an experience. You sit down at a table and peruse the menu. 25 rounds on an AK-47 or M-16 will set you back 20 US dollars. Throwing a hand grenade will cost another 30 dollars. If you’re cashed up, you could go for an anti aircraft missile for 200 dollars, or even a rocket launcher. Just like a restaurant, you choose what you want, put down the money, get a jacket and earplugs and step into the shooting range. Shooting a machine gun is terrifying and not something I want to experience again in my life.

In need of a pick-me-up? Grab some fruit, some rice, a few toys and head down to an orphanage. Thanks to Angelina Jolie, the plight of the Cambodian orphans has become a worldwide issue and it’s now common for tourists to visit the local orphanages and bring supplies. And it’s worth it, just to see the smiles on their faces. They’re all delighted to see people, and constantly run up to you with hugs, kisses and gorgeous little laughs. You can see traditional dances performed by the kids and join in some games or teach them English words. No matter what you do, you won’t want to turn away and walk out the door. It’s hard to resist their smiling, hopeful faces.

By boat or bus, you can’t miss Siem Reap, the base for Angkor Wat. It’s on the flags, on government buildings, and on all the currency. This is the symbol of Cambodia, and it’s truly majestic. Cambodia is a Buddhist country, and the Angkor temples are sacred to the religion. ‘Wat’ is the word for temple, and ‘Thom’ means city. As impressive as Angkor Wat is, Angkor Thom is littered with temple ruins. Hire a tuk-tuk or motorbike driver to guide you around the various ruins. Make sure you rise early to capture sunrise at Angkor Wat, and close your eyes, listening to the soft chanting of the monks nearby.

Guide books recommend you spend three days exploring the temples of Angkor. It can all be done in one day, but it’s exhausting. There’s enough time in the day to spend an hour or so at each place. Unlike other historic sites, you’re actually allowed to clamber over the temples. Feel free to climb those unbelievably high steps, peer out through the arched windows, and walk the windowpane to that gorgeous little spot right on the edge of the temple.

Bayon is amazing, with giant statues featuring the different faces of Buddha. Ta Prohm is famous for the trees which have grown over the ruins.

Vandalised over the years and left to decay, the temples are slowly being restored. See the children selling souvenirs, they’re extremely persistent. And watch the monkeys – if they even smell food anywhere around you they will not hesitate to jump on you, trying to get into your bag. Sunset is a beautiful way to finish off, perched high upon a temple, watching the sun slowly sink below the surface.

Battambang is a dusty stop on the road from Thailand to Phnom Penh. It’s the last stop on the sole train journey in Cambodia, when it’s running. Taking 14 hours to travel the 275km to Phnom Penh, travellers take this opportunity to ride on top of the carriages. Not hard, considering the train never goes over 20 km/h!

Battambang is more useful as a step to Pailin, home of sapphires and ex-Pol Pot commanders. Pailin is close to the Thai border and it’s possible to cross, but in this region there is no bus service. The only way to travel is by shared taxi or private car, which can be costly.

There are so many hidden gems in this country, off the beaten track. The southern beaches may not compare to Thailand, but they are warm and relaxing. The northern countryside remains unexplored, and here you can visit traditional villages, explore temple ruins for free and experience the worse roads Cambodia has to offer. Don’t go too off the beaten track in the north though – undiscovered landmines are still buried throughout the countryside, a legacy of Pol Pot.

Cambodia truly has something for everyone and it’s difficult to leave. People try to scam you, but always with a smile on their face. And you won’t be able to leave without a smile on your face too.

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