Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series on Cambodia. to read the first part of this story.
At first glance Phnom Penh is a chaotic city complete with traffic, people, trash, pollution and noise. When I took a closer look, it grew more complicated. The capital of Cambodia is happily confused, caught between old and new traditions. A group of workers lounged outside their auto shop enjoying a laugh. A mom held her child as she waved and smiled at each person walking by. Amidst the tumult of the city live a people who are genuinely laid back, content and completely accepting of all the commotion that goes on around them.Our first stop through Phnom Penh was a brief one, enough to drive through and visit the Cheung Ek Killing Fields Museum on our way to the beach in Sihanoukville. The Killing Fields Museum is a memorial to the nearly three million Cambodians who were killed during the Khmer Rouge. A tour through the Killing Fields is an extremely humbling and tragic look into what took place during the Khmer Rouge. The self-guided tour is not for the faint of heart and we had a long drive ahead to think about what we saw.Sihanoukville, Cambodia was about a four hour drive south of Phnom Penh. When most people think of Cambodia it is usually assumed that the country is a land-locked sea of rice paddies. Cambodia is actually home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Gulf of Thailand.
We arrived after dark and were unsure of what to expect when we checked into our hotel, the Jasmine, but knew we were close to the beach. We woke the next morning more than pleased to see the amazing view from our hotel terrace. Grass huts and beach chairs lined the coast, while colorful wooden boats were pushed up on the sand.Cambodia has a large French influence, which we noticed each time we ate breakfast. The menu always had crepes, baguettes and the coffee in Cambodia was hands down the best I've ever had. After a quick French-style breakfast we were ready to hit the beach.We decided to rent a boat for the day, which only cost $10 per person, $50 total. The driver took us out to three islands just off the coast. At the first stop we snorkeled and went swimming in crystal clear blue water. It almost made us forget about the sweltering humidity we'd been battling the entire trip. We then motored on to the second island where we ordered lunch and drank Angkor beers on the beach. The beach on this island looked like a postcard; blue water, white sand and colorful fishing boats anchored off-shore. Though I love exploring the city, you can't beat sipping beers and eating fresh fish on a beautiful beach. We spent most of the day walking along the water, swimming and relaxing in the sun. I could have moved into the little bamboo shack nestled back by the palm trees and been completely content living there forever. As all good things go, it eventually had to come to an end. Sunburned and tired, we returned to the mainland.That evening I very reluctantly accompanied my friends to the Snake House, a restaurant that the men in the group had found in our travel book. The Snake House does not serve snake but has them on display. A lot of them. Poisonous ones. Aside from being on display they're milked for venom, which is used to make anti-venoms. If you are terrified of snakes, like I am, I would not recommend going here, but it did make for a good story to write home about. Thanks to my phobia we only stayed at the Snake House for one drink.Serendipity road is appropriately named and the place to eat, drink and dance in Sihanoukville. The Monkey Republic became our bar of choice, known for cheap beers and a great place to meet other travelers. Almost every restaurant and bar on Serendipity has bungalows for rent for around $15 a night. You can literally stumble from the beach, to the bar, to bed.A few days on the beach was exactly what we needed. Rejuvenated and ready for more exploration we made a quick stop to see the nearby Ream Wild Life Sanctuary. We took a river boat and saw yet another side of Cambodia we did not expect; exotic birds and thick rain forests. Sad to leave this amazing paradise, we made our way back to Phnom Penh.
The afternoon we arrived in Phnom Penh, our legs cramped after the three-and-a-half-hour drive from back from Sihanoukville, my four travel companions and I decided to take a relaxing stroll down the street from our hotel, the Midland Inn. In most large cities throughout America if I were to walk down the street and see someone smile or laugh at me I'd most likely check a mirror to make sure I didn't have something on my face. In Cambodia, nearly everyone laughs and waves. The only difference here is that they aren't laughing at you, they genuinely want to say hello or laugh or wave and it makes them happy. I realize this is a hard concept for the generally ill-tempered American to grasp, but it also made me happy.The streets were a river of motorbikes. We stood at one of the city's main roundabouts and just watched in amazement as clusters of cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks miraculously made it through without crashing into anything or anyone.We met up that evening with a few new friends we'd met along the way, at a restaurant that housed the largest buffet I have ever seen in my entire life. Tonle Baasac offered every type of Khmer cuisine we could have imagined. Needless to say, we did not leave hungry that evening.I found you have to keep an open mind when trying food in Southeast Asia. There were a couple times the unexpected showed up on my plate in the form of chicken feet and pig intestines. Outdoor markets are very abundant throughout Cambodia and we always made a point to stop and try something new.Cambodia is a diverse country, rich with history and culture. I did not have many expectations going in but I now know that the kind, welcoming people and the gorgeous landscape met and exceeded all of them.Larisa Graham is the digital content specialist for Colorado Mountain News Media. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.