The Real Land of Smiles


Recommendable trips:

My favorite remains Phnom Penh:

  • streets 402, 63, 130 & markets (central and Russian market)
  • restaurants: farm to table, irrwaday, coriander, an original Iraqi place (street 118), Chinese dumplings on Monivong
  • streetfood: frog, pork ribs in mango sauce, fresh coconut, coconut desserts, fresh spring rolls, fried noodles

keep in mind that Cambodians love communal meals and sharing is thus the way to go, meaning you can try even more different dishes!

  • Russian market area and the cafes and restaurants around (particular Tini café and the grilled seafood restaurants in the evening)
  • visit a hairdresser for 2$
  • go to a 4D Cinema
  • drive around the Independence Monument at night
  • explore the area behind the White mosque
  • and generally smile, smile, smile!


When arriving in Cambodia, after living in Tajikistan and traveling through Thailand – I did not feel entirely motivated to get to know the country and its people. Since my travels through Thailand had been enjoyable, however neither breathtaking nor authentic, my interest in South East Asia had slowly faded. I was disappointed by the lack of possibilities for a tourist getting off the usual track, and became disenchanted in how I was seen and treated as a traveler. Of course, Thailand was beautiful and easy to travel through alone, but not a place I will return to, at least not as a tourist. I thus arrived in Cambodia in the rainy season and started off living in Phnom Penh, the apparent crazy city, without neither enthusiasm nor motivation.


My affection started to grow with discovering the fruitful and lively markets, encountering beautifully decorated areas and more importantly: getting in touch with its people. Interestingly enough, even without basic language skills, a conversation in Khmer was possible. People approach you, interaction happens and happiness is constantly spread. I have never in my entire life smiled, and been smiled at so much – and I have seen its increasing positive impact on me.

However, indicators of a developing country are present: corruption is a daily occurrence, proper education is sparse, poverty to be sensed and seen everywhere, ecological awareness still absent, and the past evermore present. History is haunting, as to which change seems impossible. Cambodia additionally has a long-reigning head of government, who uses fear to consolidate his rule of the country. Hun Sen, in office for over 25 years, even warns for the Khmer Rouge to return, even if his previous involvement herein is questionable.

Historical interlude: In 1975 to 1979 Cambodia experienced a genocide in which approximately 2-3 million of its 8 million inhabitants had been murdered or starved to death. The Khmer Rouge had intended to introduce a communistic society, in which they aimed for a complete agrarian and self-sufficient state. Thus, all cities were evacuated and its inhabitants forced to work as farmers, in mobile units and were continuously resettled. Hence, families were torn apart, and the killing of minorities (Cham muslims, Khmer Krom, Vietnamese, Chinese) and educated people became a daily component. The Khmer Rouge reign then ended bloodily with the invasion of Vietnamese troops and their 14-year occupation of Cambodia. It took years for a UN-supported trial to be introduced, which is on going.

In my internship we monitored the Khmer Rouge proceedings to critically assess its importance for the country. Even though villagers are daily invited to observe the trials, schools do not teach the recent bloody history and the consent is to forget the past, rather than deal with it. Since the past is to be forgotten, life in Cambodia seems very easy – particularly, as an expat. A whole bubble has been created over the past twenty years which proceeds parallel to the local happenings. Thus, due to the ample amount of NGO’s, Cambodia seems to attract people with a save the world attitude, who do not seem to hold back with their opinion on how to improve conditions and how crazy traffic seems to be. Additionally, life is cheap, weed seemingly legal and laws absent – which is particularly exploited by sex tourists who come to Cambodia for merely one reason: enjoying the ‘presence’ of mostly very young girls and boys. In general, the tourism industry is rapidly growing and turning Cambodia and especially Phnom Penh into a booming, constantly changing city. It is in a constant rush, traffic its main component; a feeling one may sense whilst sitting within a tuctuc or on the back of a motodop driver. Hopping from one place to another is therefore easy, living in the vibrant city of Phnom Penh entertaining and lovely. And if needed, one may leave the craziness behind and head to the beautiful coast, idyllic islands, remote jungles and little towns located at quiet rivers – basically anywhere the heart desires. My favorite was Kampong Cham, a little Muslim town cluttered with mosques and temples, therefore mixing the sounds of both whilst one could observe vehicles traversing the shaky bamboo bridge connecting the town to a beautiful island.


Cambodia thus remains a place of happiness for me – a place to explore, to learn, to engage, to get amused by daily occurrences (such as 6 people squeezed on a motodop) and more importantly to smile.




Alexander Benz & TZH


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