We recently took a three day trip to Cambodia, and fell in love with the country. This small country that for so long has been a side trip from a Thailand vacation, is seeing an upswing in tourists whose main destination is the magnificent complex of ancient temples, the most famous known as Angkor Wat. On my "bucket list" for decades, I experienced an increased sense of excited anticipation as the plane flew into the airport, just a 35 minute ride from Bangkok.
Although selfishly a bit disappointed that we didn't have the ruins to ourselves as Angelina Jolie did in "Tomb Raider," we were nonetheless enthralled by their grandeur and haunting beauty, taking the time to pause and reflect on the silent sweep of time throughout the centuries that was evident in the carvings hacked free of the jungle that had covered them for hundreds of years.
But the unexpected pleasure was meeting the Cambodian people--or Khmer as they prefer to be called. Despite enduring unspeakable horrors of wars and brutal "killing fields" purging through several decades, we found them to be charming, friendly, and refreshingly optimistic. The city of Siem Riap near the ruins is experiencing an economic upturn, which in one of the world's poorest countries where most people make less than $1 a day (public school teachers earn $25 per month), fuels enthusiasm and pride in their history and culture. Visitors from around the world give the small city a cosmopolitan flair, yet the atmosphere is definitely traditional Khmer. One wonders how Cambodia will react to this new-found prosperity: throw caution and environmental health to the wind as did Bangkok, or learn from the mistakes of other cities. So far it appears it is the latter. We plan to return as often as is feasible to enjoy the beauty and reduced stress of this as yet hidden southeast Asian treasure.
An interesting side note: Although Cambodia has its own official currency, the preferred currency is the U.S. dollar. All menus and price tags are in dollars, and even the ATMs cough up greenbacks, a strange experience in a place so far away from the U.S.