The view while flying over Cambodia from the inland tourist mecca of Siem Reap to the coast is jarring: The national forests that once held Asian tigers, elephants, leopards, bears and other endangered species have been replaced by scarred, deforested industrial landscapes.
And where was the beach paradise I was expecting when I landed? Cambodian coastal cities like Sihanoukville and Kampot may have made The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go” list, but for people who have actually made the trek, it’s a depressing destination strewn with garbage and overrun with construction.
“It’s awful,” Australian tourist Andrew Walker told me. He’d visited Sihanoukville a decade ago and was so taken with it he brought his girlfriend back for a holiday. “But it’s all gone now — just a bunch of casinos, whorehouses and hotels.” He’d quickly escaped to Kep, the former St. Tropez of southeast Asia, which is seeing its historic art deco homes demolished in favor of new-style mansions — but still has some sort of tranquility left.