Cambodia: Same, same but different

small_transportWe travelled in this beautiful country, which lies between Thailand and Vietnam, over a five-week period. Before our visit, I was very concerned that Cambodia might pose a great challenge for me as a wheelchair user. However, the journeys between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kratje and Ratanakiri were no problem. Also, thanks to the great help of the Cambodians, I was able to visit most sights, regardless of how unreachable they might have initially seemed.

Transport – 4 Points

To cover long distances a car seems indispensable in Cambodia. Prices are negotiable. For example, we paid around $US70 for a transfer from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (aproximately 250km). Between Siem Reap and Battambang, depending on the season, boats can be used – we hired a private boat, as the public ferry had a very narrow entrance. Public taxis are only available in Phnom Penh and are comparatively very expensive. Within the cities we used Tuk Tuks, which are motorbikes which have a small carriage attaced. At first, their access seems very difficult. However, at the local market, we bought a suitable screw-wench with which we could detach the armrest in almost all the Tuk Tuks we used. As the most exotic, of course also the Bambu-train, should not be missed. This is a flat bamboo platform that transports mainly tourists but also locals on the train rails that still exist from colonial times: However, only a few kilometres are actually functional and so it is mainly a tourist attraction.

Infrastructure – 3 points

Infrastructure is one of Cambodia’s weeknesses. Due to a missing railway system one has to travel via roads. However, these are mostly in very poor condition. For the 250 km between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap we drove for about six hours. The asphalt is often marred by hundreds of potholes. In the cities, the roads are mostly good. However, it should be noted that there are some sights, hotels or restaurants that are only accessible by rough, bumpy dirt roads. Flying is only an alternative between the big cities – but the flights are not cheap.

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Even the roads between big cities are gravel roads – some under construction for years.

Hotels – 7 points

Good quality, beautifully landscaped accommodation options are available. However, almost no place we visited was specifically designed to meet the needs of wheelchair users or otherwise physically disabled people. This is understandable, as the clientele until a few years ago were mostly backpackers and adventure travellers. However, there is great interest in making accommodations wheelchair accessible. For example in Phnom Penh we found two accommodation options, “The Pavilion” and “Arun Villa” which are wheelchair accessible. Also,some hotels have even ramps into the swimming pool or to access the restaurant. Further suitable accommodations can be found at www.wheelchairtraveller.org.

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Many rooms in Cambodian resorts are ground floor. The more luxury ones often provide big bathrooms.

Food & Drink – 10 points

The Khmer cuisine is one of the most diverse and delicious that we encountered on our world trip. This originates probably on the one side through neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, and on the other, from its long French colonial period. Rice always forms the base for spicy curries, sour soups, salt crusted fish and so on. In addition, all big cities, like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, feature restaurants from all over the world. Even in smaller places, the menus are illustrated, but beware: In a cooked state, a tarantula is still recognizable, however not, for example, a turtle, which was highly recommended to us as a “Special Fish” dish.

Safety – 9 points

Hard to believe that a country that only 10 years ago had a civil war that lasted for 30 years, can be considered safe. But that’s exactly what Cambodia is. If crime occurs, then only at the economic and political level in the form of corruption. However, at very touristy spots it is still advisable to be careful. Also, it is better to avoid large crowds, as for example during demonstrations against the government in 2013 the police force harassed demonstrators. In the north-west of Cambodia, at the border with Thailand, landmines from civil war still present risks. However, wheelchair users are so far immune, as we rarely wander on our own cross country through the jungle.

Sightseeing – 5 points

None of the tourist sights in Cambodia seemed accessible for wheelchair users. But thanks to the helpful Cambodians they were. For example I was carried 60 steps down to the Mekong to observe freshwater dolphins. We were also able to marvel at the wonders of the famous Angkor Wat temples, at least from outside. Since we visited most of the sights with a guide or driver there was already one helping hand available, and locals are not shy to call others if needed. For particularly intensive assistance, a small tip is expected. Fortunately, we found a tour operator who did a lot of research to make our tour wheelchair accessible: Cambodian Travel Partners. They seemed interested in this new market and promised to develop a sample tour for people with mobility issues and promote the tour on their website.

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It’s easy to geht around the temples of Angkor Wat, but to enter them means climbing up a lot of stairs…

Health care – 3 points

Here, the story of our French teacher comes into my mind, who reported that he almost got a leg amputated because of a small cut in his foot. In fact, many doctors have been trained during the Civil War and thus only know the rough field hospital medicine. Also, even so called ‘international’ hospitals do not adhere to western standards and in a real emergency there is no other choice than to be flown out to Bangkok or Singapore. Therefore, a foreign health insurance that provides return transport is essential. However, pharmacies are well equipped and non-ambulant doctors can usually treat minor illnesses and infections well.

Handling wheelchair users – 10 points

Besides Cuba – with its great human warmth, we also found that Cambodians are particularly helpful and open-minded, and took any physical effort to assist me in exploring the sights. I was lifted into a helicopter, taken up and down stairs, and helped over roots and rocks. The Tuk Tuk drivers willingly deconstructed their vehicles so that my sister could lift me into it! The human empathy was so great that, for example, one guide after a few days spent together had tears in his eyes when we parted. We will never forget Cambodia and its peaceful and friendly people.

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The Cambodians are very friendly to wheelchair users – even if they don’t want to sell something.

 You will find a description of our hole Tour through Cambodia on this website.