Thinking of taking a trip to Asia this year? conor forrest explores the safer option of independent travel and everything that entails, and profiles Cambodia – a country you won’t want to miss.
For those considering travelling abroad on their own, or for couples who may feel a little daunted by the prospect of visiting an entirely different culture, independent travel – in which you can take advantage of a half curated, half independent tour – offers the best of all worlds. It’s a great way to step outside the guidebook and see beautiful and unique parts of the world that many tourists will never get the chance to experience, travelling, eating and sleeping the way the locals do.
So where to first? You could do far worse than Cambodia, a country with truly breathtaking scenery and some of the friendliest people on the planet. Though it’s not possible to see everything the country has to offer in one trip, there are several sights that are unmissable. Catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, an astonishingly beautiful Hindu temple and the largest religious monument in the world, take a wander through the bustling capital, Phnom Penh, which lies on the banks of the Mekong River, and pay a visit to the floating lake villages of Tonle Sap, built on three storey stilts to avoid the annual rising waters. If you want a truly authentic experience, speak to the locals who will give you an idea of what everyday life in Cambodia is truly like. Some independent travel packages offer home stays, a must for anyone wanting to learn about the culture – sign up when you can! You might want to wait until the conclusion of your trip, when your stomach has adjusted, but try some of the local delicacies such as deep fried spiders and crickets, which taste a bit like roasted potato skins (or so we’re told). Nor should you be afraid to branch out a little off the beaten track. We spoke with one recent traveller to the country who stayed in the beachside town of Sihanoukville, known for its nightlife, beaches and tropical islands, described as “Ibiza on steroids”. A mere five miles down the road, however ($2 via a tuk tuk, the best way to travel around in Cambodia) is Otres Beach, a far more relaxing affair complete with beautiful sand, massages, food, drinks and plenty of sunshine.
Horrors, however, do lurk in its not-too-distant history – the Cambodian genocide orchestrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge witnessed the deaths of between more than one and three million people between 1975 and 1979. Similar to the concentration camps of Europe, Cambodia’s Killing Fields are a harrowing yet necessary stop for those wishing to learn more about the regime and its victims – pay a visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (once known as S-21), a monument to the millions who lost their lives.
the low down
If you’re travelling solo, most independent travel companies, such as TravelBag, Explore, Intrepid or Responsible Travel, will bunk you with a fellow traveller of the same sex (if you’re not travelling with your other half), though you can usually pay a single supplement if you’d prefer your own space. The former is, however, a great way to meet new people, share travel stories and watch your bucket list get longer and longer. There’s also a great mix of ages and experiences – with people from many different nationalities and backgrounds ticking off their dream destinations. Don’t be afraid to say hello – many people on these trips will be from different countries with varying standards of English, so an open and friendly perspective will make for a much more enjoyable trip! Packages are generally split into several categories: basic, classic and comfort. Basic is usually the most flexible option, offering the chance to travel with your group from A to B, and then leaving you to your own devices as regards shopping, food and taking in the local sights, though they will provide some advice on what to do and see. Your budget should include sufficient funds for daily activities and meals. Classic-type packages offer a happy medium – there’s a bit more guidance provided, and many activities will be built-in. You should bring enough money to pay for dinners and drinks, and a few souvenirs. Comfort, meanwhile, does exactly what it says on the tin. Great for a more relaxing trip abroad, comfort packages tend to eschew the backpacker feel for more luxury accommodation – though you may wind up being on your own in a fancy hotel. Regardless of which package you choose, there are a few things to keep in mind. First – pack light. Bring functional clothes that you’re happy to wear straight from your backpack, and invest in comfortable and sturdy footwear. Second, keep an open mind, particularly when it comes to food. Deep fried spiders are widely available in Cambodia, for example and, while that might not seem particularly appealing, they’re actually not that bad. A sense of humour and a friendly disposition will make it a much more enjoyable trip!
Top Traveller Tip
If you’re visiting any of Cambodia’s spectacular temples – including Angkor Wat – make sure to arrive before the Korean tour buses. Watch the sunrise and wait for their departure (they, along with other visitors arriving as part of package holidays, tend to return to their hotels after the sun comes up) before enjoying your breakfast and then beginning your exploration of these fascinating historic complexes.