History, culture and compassion in Cambodia

Ismat Abidi books herself on a Gap Adventures 30-day Indochina tour and makes her way across the sights of Cambodia.

Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
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The flight from Melbourne to Bangkok was unsurprisingly empty. I helped myself to four seats and took an extended power nap. Notices about the 11pm curfew were scattered around the arrival terminal and the hotel circled no-go areas on the city map, mainly the central commercial district. Walking around Bangkok, however, there was absolutely no feeling of the prevailing political unrest or tension. I felt absolutely safe.

I had booked myself on a Gap Adventures 30-day Indochina tour ($1,941; Dh7,132 including accommodation, transport and breakfasts). An old school friend booked onto the same tour, which was a great last-minute surprise. With just one day in Bangkok to explore and meet my travel group for the next month, I'll save my stories of sights, sounds and review of Gap for when I return to Thailand for the final week of my Indochina adventure.

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En route to Siem Reap by bus, we made a pit stop in the Cambodian town of Poipet on the border with Thailand. It had a bizarrely huge market for a passing-through point, with knock-off goods of every kind imaginable from the 1980s, '90s and 2000s. There may have been a few genuine brands from nearby factories, but it was hard to tell. The most prominent brand in most stalls was Manchester United. I would soon learn that United merchandise was a common theme in most stalls I passed throughout South-east Asia. The humidity hit me hard so I picked up a banana leaf fan for US$1 (Dh3.67). If you head to Cambodia, don't bother using the local currency - the locals prefer dollars and it's easier to manage your spending.

As the bus neared Siem Reap, the rapid development was evident, with rows of hotels on either side; all built within the past decade. Central Siem Reap was buzzing with merchants eagerly calling on us to "open your hearts and open your wallets!". One street vendor that caught my attention was sporting a T-shirt that read "Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin". It sounded like an interesting proposition. Ten minutes later, seven screeching girls had their feet dipped in a pool with local Suluk fish nibbling at them. If you haven't already tried it, do. It's much more fun than a foot scrub and cheaper, too ($3).

The next morning was an early start to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat (city of temples). Plenty of tourists had the same idea, it seemed. I spent the whole day walking around the awe-inspiring temple complex that took 37 years to build. With walls covered in carvings of myths and legends or the occasional root of a tree, it was difficult to be anything but impressed by these ruins. The occasional references to "Tomb Raider filming", Angelina Jolie and Maddox by passing foreign tour guides was quite amusing. There are plenty of temples to explore in this 8th wonder of the world - a very good reason why multiple-day passes are issued. The admission fees are a bit steep (one-day, three-day and seven-day passes cost $20, $40 and $70 respectively). Some of the site is badly preserved for such a high entrance fee, but would I pay it again to see more of this ancient wonder? Absolutely.

My time in the capital Phnom Penh played out like unexpected emotive history lesson coupled with learning more about the strength of the Cambodian people, their kindness despite a bitter history and the resilience and drive of the younger generation. I walked through the cells of the S21 prison, a high school turned into a prison by theKhmer Rouge in the 1970s. The tour is very raw, and rightly so. Blood stains on the ceilings, bullet marks on the wall, torture implements on beds, paintings by survivors and eerie photographs of each victim's face before being brutally tortured to death. The lack of glass cabinets or mock-up cells makes it a heart-wrenching visit.

Similarly, the walk through the mass graves in the Killing Fields, where bones and shreds of victims' clothes are clearly visible in cordoned-off mass graves, was emotional. Only after seeing these sites did I realise the extent of the brutality the Cambodian people had endured. I had never read about this genocide in great detail, but for Cambodian children it's still a story told in living rooms, not classrooms.

Fast foward to the current generation, and the progress is evident. There is also a lot of help from compassionate foreigners. In Siem Reap, the Angkor Hospital for Children is worth a visit, whether to donate blood or learn how the Japanese photographer-turned-philanthropist Kenro Izu helped save the lives of thousands of Cambodian children. In Phnom Penh, the non-profit Veiyo Tonle Restaurant, which serves great food (and lemon ice tea), supports the local New Cambodian Children's Life Asssociation orphanage and even employs some of the older orphans. I spent some time at the NCCLA with the eldest orphan, 18-year-old Nartyl, who is starting an architecture course at university next year.

The final stop before crossing into Vietnam was the beachside town of Sihanoukville. The huts on Occheutal Beach are great to stay in ($25; Dh92 per night for a double). Apparently this is the wealthiest area of Cambodia, but from the little I saw, it wasn't rich in culture. It's undeniably stunning and great place for a beachside weekend, a spot of snorkelling and a boat trip to your own private island, but I felt as though there were plenty of other places in the region better suited for this. Sihanoukville is becoming swamped with hedonistic tourists who want to turn it into something like Thailand's more notorious beach towns, which it will probably become in five to 10 years.

For a country that has been through so much, so recently, with more than one million people violently exterminated, all I felt from the locals was compassion and drive. That is what impressed me the most and is the reason I will return. Next week: Ismat Abidi visits Vietnam, the next stop in her journey around the world.