“Cambodia is kicking!” the newest edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia begins.
“The years of fear and loathing are over. Right now, Cambodia is just about as hot as it gets on the global travel map. Peace has come to this beautiful yet blighted land after three decades of war, and the Cambodian people are embracing the world,” states the guidebook, penned largely by Phnom Penh resident Nick Ray.
“Tourism is taking off, but a journey to this little kingdom is still one of Asia’s genuine adventures.”
For the most part, the edition, fake copies of which are already available from vendors on Sisowath Quay, presents a comprehensive and mostly up-to-date guide to Cambodia’s sites, from the compulsory tour of Angkor Wat to the beaches of Sihanoukville, and the jungles, tribal villages and waterfalls of Ratanakkiri province.
But a reliance on drama to add spice to the long, dusty roads the guide chronicles, continues to portray Cambodia as a “Wild East” adventure destination filled with gun-toting heavies, free-flowing drugs and vast tracts of land untouched by civilization or rule of law.
The guide features useful cultural tips: On the concept of saving face, (“take a deep breath and keep your cool”); on table etiquette (“it is polite for the guests not to eat everything in sight”); on how to sampai and on how to place your chopsticks at the table.
And it also includes some less touristy pointers.
In one section, it offers a warning on drug use in Cambodia, entitled “Yaba daba do? Yaba daba don’t.”
Yaba, or methamphetamine, is “a dirty drug” often laced with toxic substances such as mercury, the guidebook advises, and reminds readers not to buy cocaine in Cambodia.
“Most of what is sold as coke, particularly in Phnom Penh, is actually pure heroin and far stronger than any smack found on the streets back home. Bang this up your hooter and you are in serious trouble,” the guide warns.
The book does not shy away from criticism of corrupt government officials, opportunistic private corporations, the slow progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal and NGO workers “riding the gravy train to Geneva.”
Television too, falls in the Lonely Planet’s sights for being mostly “puerile political propaganda,” while local journalists are lumped together and soundly disparaged as being mostly corrupt and happy to accept money to plant stories.
In assessing the political situation, the guide covers most bases and describes the 1997 fighting between troops loyal to then second prime minister Hun Sen and first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh as a coup, a term generally avoided in more temperate parlance.
The anti-Thai riots of January 2003 are also included under the heading “Life’s a Riot,” and the book pulls no punches in stating that then-Phnom Penh municipal governor Chea Sophara was ousted after the riots, even though he was outside Phnom Penh at the time.
“He had annoyed the Thais by building a new road to the Cambodian border temple of Prasat Preah Vihear and annoyed Prime Minister Hun Sen by becoming too popular with the people,” the guidebook reports.
The guide also elaborates on the exploits of the royal family and delves, especially, into retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s long-standing passion for filmmaking and his short-lived series of international film festivals prior to the Khmer Rouge regime.
Readers will likely find that most of the guide’s suggestions—such as price guidelines, dining suggestions, health advice and safety tips—are close to the mark, with only a few surprising additions and omissions.
Internet access, in an unfortunate typographic error, is listed as costing $0.50 to $1.50 per minute rather than per hour.
This guide is written with an obvious compassion for Cambodia and its inhabitants, and that, the author Nick Ray would no doubt assure readers, is the most important travel tool of all.