After reading articles from other travel bloggers and hearing stories from fellow backpackers, I have to admit that I had a greatly distorted image of Phnom Penh going in. Perhaps the average traveller is just getting soft, maybe they always were, or maybe there is a side of Phnom Penh that is actually incredibly dangerous. Regardless, I had begun to wonder what I was getting myself into. Was I about to set foot in yet another bad situation like I had so many times before? There had to be a real reason why so many backpackers warned me to just avoid Cambodia’s capital, right?
Instead, of taking the advice of so many, I went. And when I arrived, I was markedly confused. To my eyes, it was Bamako without the chaotic traffic. It was a city on a wide stretch of river lined with cafes and restaurants, perfectly paved streets, and tuk-tuk drivers that didn’t find the need to yell fourteen times at me, or get in my face in regards to whether or not I wanted a ride somewhere. It was tight inner city streets full of smiling kids begging for photos, and friendly hellos.
Maybe it was just the change coming from Vietnam where, as a tourist, I was the ears to an unrelenting choir of stabbing “hello, hello, hello, helloooo” everywhere I went. Or maybe, backpackers are full of shit. Maybe Phnom Penh is too far from a beach and a mojito. Perhaps there aren’t enough bikinis and jello shots to appease the average backpacker fantasy of Southeast Asia in Phnom Penh.
Sure, Cambodia’s capital isn’t roses and lolipops either. After exploring the side streets and local markets, it was obvious that there was a bit of an edge to the city. At times, I got resentful looking glaces as I walked. But in general, It was far from the squall of darkness and doom that had so often been portrayed to me by others. I’d even heard reference from some that Cambodia should be avoided all together these days, as it has become too dangerous for tourists.
It’s all just sensationalism isn’t it? It’s just another example of tourists making their travels sound hard at the expense of reality. It’s perhaps just another excuse to avoid actual local life instead of baking on a beach, dancing with 4,000 other tourists on a full moon-lit beach, then spending all day sleeping in a hammock while on your iPhone talking to family members back home, telling them how “you’ve begun to find yourself”.
In so many ways, Southeast Asia has been exactly what I expected. It’s the land of gullible tourists, partypackers, phony hippies, and a scattering of some really badass travellers that put the rest of us to shame. But in many other ways, it’s completely different.
Phomn Penh, much like most of Southeast Asia, is not an under-developed place. The vast majority of people have smartphones, the roads are all paved, and the standard of life seems to be improving for most. The streets are owned by Toyotas and not oxen-carts. Sure, it’s no New York City, but Phnom Penh is certainly no wasteland either.
But beyond the development itself, Phnom Penh was far nicer than I would have expected. I couldn’t have been happier sat in a park watching the sun go down over the national palace. It felt legitimate weaving through the local markets. And it just felt comfortable, in so many ways.
I’m sure that if you’ve stuck with this article long enough, you’re starting to wonder my point. And, well, I guess it’s two-fold. For one, the lesson I keep learning in travel is that you must make your own judgement. Don’t skip a destination because others told you to, and never tell another traveller to skip a destination, either. Each person has their goals in travel. Some like to party, and others like to push through markets and spend time chatting with the monks they meet. And secondly, when you go somewhere you shouldn’t sugarcoat it, nor should you dramatize or sensationalize it. Say it like it is travellers, for the sake of my sanity and those who hope to follow in your footsteps.