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Paul and I recently participated in the Lotos Rally 2024, a 14-day self-drive vintage jeep adventure on back roads through magical Cambodia. Covered in red dust, we explored the world’s grandest collection of 12th-century temples, experienced the rural countryside, and got a glimpse of daily life.

The landscape of Cambodia boasts lush green rice fields, mountains, forests, waterfalls, crater lakes, and big rivers. Despite recent economic growth, it is still classified as a developing country. The Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge, which took place from 1975 to 1979, resulting in the death of 2 million Cambodian citizens, is still tangible. This is heartfelt, as the country is blessed with a population of young Khmer people with an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism who predominantly practise Buddhism. 

Team Ensleyvandenberg and teams from Germany and Switzerland drove 1600km in 14 days at a maximum speed of 80 km/h in a “resto-mod” Willy Jeep. Cambodian Travel Partners and Cambodia Jeep accompanied us with a team of three local mechanics who rebuilt bridges, restored roads, and fixed broken jeeps on the spot. True heroes who always had big smiles, no matter how challenging the task was.

The impact of COVID-19 is still apparent in Cambodia, as Chinese tourists have yet to return. This has particularly affected hotels located in small villages, which are struggling to stay afloat. While the local staff are hardworking, they could benefit from professional training, as sometimes service can be a bit disorganised.

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While we were travelling, we made it a priority to connect with the locals. We found that they loved to engage in small talk and had a great sense of humour. Paul pointed out that I looked like an Avatar compared to the tiny local women who were half my size! As we drove around in our open jeeps, we were greeted by schoolchildren waving at us and shouting, “Hello, hello!” It was a heartwarming sight.

Lily and Andre, owners of Cambodian Travel Partner, consciously tried to support the local communities during the rally by incorporating as many local suppliers as possible. They arranged homestays for dinner, where we were served tasteful homemade food, hired regional guides who were true experts in their village, and used fisher boats and tuk-tuk drivers for transportation. We visited an Elephant Sanctuary for retired elephants, a rubber plantation, a silk farm, minority villages and local vibrant markets. During lunchtime, we would randomly stop at a school and share our lunch with the entire village or at a temple to share our drinks with monks (who do not eat after 12.00 hrs.). Lily would then ask one of the monks to bless our jeeps for safe passage. The experience was so unexpected, making it all the more enjoyable.

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Cambodia is not on the global hotlist, so there is no over-tourism (like the neighbouring countries). The food is delicious, all organic and inexpensive. Of course, one must behave respectfully, including dressing accordingly when visiting religious sites. Cambodia has both an inspiring and depressing history. It is a captivating destination that casts a spell on all those who visit. When visiting, please be a traveller, not a tourist. You will be welcomed with open arms.

Want to plan a meetup with Kisa?