After returning from a recent visit to the Kingdom, Mark Bibby Jackson explains why you really should visit Cambodia now.
Cambodia is a country that I love. I first came here in 2004 and then lived in the country for the better part of a decade, starting AsiaLIFE Cambodia magazine, traveling and writing about every province in the country. That’s where I became a full-time writer. I know Cambodia and I owe Cambodia.
Due to Covid, I had not visited the country since 2019, so I was looking forward to visiting the country for the recent Asean Tourism Forum (ATF) held in January, taking advantage of the opportunity to take a trip to the Cardamom Mountains organized by my good friend Nick Ray, Lonely Planet writer and passionate campaigner for the country’s tourism industry. After 18 days, I left convinced that there will never be a better time to visit the wonderland. These are five reasons why?
Cambodia is open
Something we never thought we’d have to say before Covid. But Cambodia is open to all vaccinated tourists. As long as you have a negative PCR test 72 hours before departure, all you have to do is take a lateral flow test at the airport – I received my result within 30 minutes – and then you are free to travel the country as you wish. . Even if your arrival test is positive, you can stay in a hotel until you prove it is negative. There is no pre-departure testing regime, although you may be required to show your Covid pass intermittently.
Tip: Check the arrangement for testing, especially for transit. I had to take a Lateral Flow Test (ART) 48 hours before departure for my four hour transit at Singapore airport.
Angkor is deserted (except Chinese New Year)
Unless, like me, you schedule your visit for the Chinese New Year (rookie mistake), you will discover the amazing deserted temples of Angkor. Ta Prohm is like Angelina Jolie found out in grave robber. Even on Chinese New Year’s Day, I found most temples devoid of tourists and the occasional Khmer having their wedding photos taken.
Tip: Be sure to empty your water bottle at Sala Kdei to minimize your plastic footprint.
If you want to visit Cambodia, find out how you can experience Angkor Wat away from the crowds.
Cambodia has so much space
There are still large swathes of the country that are intact. Largely thanks to the work of Wildlife Alliance the Cardamom Mountains have been preserved as one of the best preserved rainforest areas in Southeast Asia. Now you can stay in true eco-style either in a $4 homestay under the Community ecotourism projects there, or in the high end Wild Shinta Mani ($3,000 per night per tent for an all-you-can-eat stay). The islands are just as pristine. When I first visited, no one was living on it. Now you can stay on the beach in Koh Rong or live the Reilly life on Song Saa private island.
Advice: stay Cardamom Tent Camp; the most remarkable project with solar panels, filtered water, local food and absolutely no noise pollution – apart from the jungle.
There’s a Buzz
There’s a reason so many expats choose to live in Phnom Penh, and tourists love Siem Reap. Both towns have a bustling, laid-back lifestyle and welcoming people. After being locked up for so long dying to Covid, it’s a breath of fresh air to hang out at a bar in Bassac Lane (in Phnom Penh) or have a drink at Madame Wong’s, Laundry Bar or Pomme in Siem Reap and forget all the worries that are happening elsewhere in the world. Cambodia is not only open, but it’s also a lot of fun. Let your hair down.
Tip: Visit the Welsh Embassy at Bassac Lane in Phnom Penh, or sample a craft beer at Apple in Siem Reap
people need you
It’s a cliché in the Cambodian tourism industry, but people come for the temples but leave remembering the people. We might think we struggled during Covid, but many in Cambodia’s tourism industry had no income for two years. Places like the excellent House Jaya in Siem Reap have done their best to keep their staff through the tough times. But people everywhere are suffering from my Samoueng tuk tuk driver in Svay Ran who rents rooms from his homestay in Chambok. They desperately need your money.
Tip: Spend time getting to know the locals, your Cambodian vacation will be much more enriched.
Visit Cambodia now
Cambodia is no longer a two-day add-on to a Thai beach trip. It is a destination in its own right. Take your time. Keep your journey slow and low impact, and enjoy. After what all of us – except the departed politicians – have endured over the past two years, we really deserve it. Visit Cambodia before anyone else.
All photos unless otherwise noted by Mark Bibby Jackson.