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Cambodia: Beautiful

Cambodia is a beautiful country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The capital is named Phnom Penh; literally, the "mountain of (grandmother) Penh," which refers to the small hill at the very heart of the city, with its Wat Phnom temple on top. It is a fairly large, sprawling city with very few paved streets, palm trees everywhere, and decrepit pastel-colored houses remaining from French colonial times. During the dry season, the hot and dusty air makes breathing difficult, and during the monsoon rains, the city turns into a sea of mud. Two rivers run through it--the Mekong and the Tonle Sap--where you can sit and contemplate graceful rowboats and children bathing in the muddy waters. The local people, called Khmers, are very warm and friendly, and their language is beautifully melodic.

Cambodia offers a wealth of things to see and do. It is, honestly, the coolest place on Earth. In Phnom Penh, one should first visit the city's landmarks. The sights include the beautiful Royal Palace, with its Thai-inspired architecture; the Independence Monument; the National Museum, which displays ancient artifacts amidst the intense smell of guano from the bats that inhabit its ceilings; several beautiful government buildings, such as the National Assembly; and numerous Buddhist pagodas, with their gilded stupas and mosaic floors. On a graver note, there is also the Genocide Museum, which displays the methods of torture used during the communist Khmer Rouge regime, and black and white pictures of some of the 2 million victims. The Choeng Ek Memorial is a few miles outside of town where you can see an enormous display of skulls and the mass graves that were used. You should be warned though neither of these are for the faint-hearted.

As far as entertainment goes, I believe it is physically impossible to be bored in Phnom Penh. The city overflows with places to eat, ranging from roadside vendors to fancy ethnic restaurants. There is an abundance of open-air markets, where you can buy anything from tropical fruit to Khmer silk and ornate silver jewelry. It is cheap and easy to have clothes and shoes made. The five-star Cambodiana Hotel has a pool and tennis courts, as does the International Youth Club. The recently built Hong Kong Center offers bowling and pool tables, and casinos and karaoke bars are popping up everywhere. There also are a handful of "movie theaters," which consist of small rooms where you can watch a laser disk movie on a large TV. Another fun activity is going swimming and jet skiing in the river, although the water is far from clean.

One of the highlights of Phnom Penh is definitely the nightlife, as people of all ages have access to clubs, from the typically Cambodian to the purely French. Transportation to all these places is very convenient. You simply have to stand in the street for a few minutes before you are assailed by a swarm of motorcycle taxis and cyclos (man-powered bicycles with a seat in front,) offering you a ride for under $1. When you feel the need to escape the bustle of the city, you take a trip to the beach in Sihanoukville or Kep. The beaches are dirty but peaceful, cheap hotels abound, and you can lunch on grilled crabs right on the Equator. Near the town of Siem Reap are the world-famous ruins of Angkor Wat, an enormous complex of stone temples dating from around the 10th century. Some of them are truly breathtaking and remarkably well-preserved, with Sanskrit engravings and intricate bas reliefs of the epic Ramayana. It also is possible to take trips to neighboring towns, such as Kampot, Rattanakid or Battambang, or boat trips to fishing villages along the river.

Cambodia is a truly exciting place filled with contrast. It combines developing world poverty with high-class luxury. It mixes the rich local culture with a definite French flavor (most of the older generation still speaks French), as well as some newer American and Chinese influences. In any case, it is a beautiful country with a tragic history and newborn energy. It is, honestly, the coolest place on Earth.

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