This post is being written from my perspective as the wife of a wheelchair user, rather than the wheelchair user himself. I hope it will be helpful to other wheelchair users who are thinking of visiting Cambodia. Each disabled person is uniquely disabled and therefore has needs specific to their condition. In our case, the wheelchair user is an incomplete quadriplegic, who is permanently in a chair and cannot transfer unaided.
Cambodia is probably the most challenging place we have ever visited, from the perspective of access for wheelchair users. We didn’t see another wheelchair user in the two weeks we were there, during which we travelled between four places. We were told that Cambodian wheelchair users (because of course spinal and other catastrophic injuries occur in Cambodia just like anywhere else) stay at home and don’t go out, which is not surprising since there is virtually no provision for them. We were also told that Cambodians would not marry a disabled person, or stay married to a person who becomes disabled during the marriage; we were treated with curiosity, given that we have been married for more than 50 years!
Having said all this, in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh we were able to make use of a mobilituk, a tuk-tuk adapted for wheelchair users. This made a huge difference to how easy it was for us to get around, and we certainly missed it when we visited Kep, where one wasn’t available.
It was so much easier and, more importantly, more comfortable, for our wheelchair user to be wheeled into the tuk-tuk, than be lifted (bundled!) into a car, boat or jeep. And, having left the winter in the UK, it was a treat to travel in the open air, despite the dust.
So travelling round Cambodia was hard, but also memorable, maybe because it was hard. This was our itinerary from January 12th to January 28th, 2020, organised by Cambodian Travel Partner.
Our itinerary didn’t work out exactly as originally planned because due to storms in Dubai all our outward flights were delayed, and we arrived a day late. We flew with Emirates as far as Bangkok, and then Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap. Emirates were very helpful with the delays, putting us up, free of charge, in the Novotel Airport Hotel in Bangkok for a night. These delays meant that whilst Cambodia Travel Partner had scheduled a free day in each place (which is a really good idea), we missed the one in Siem Reap, because we were a day late, and we missed the one in Battambang because we decided to spread the itinerary over two days rather than cram it all in to one day. I think having some slower rest days for a wheelchair user is essential for an enjoyable, stress-free trip.
In terms of access – everywhere in Cambodia is difficult. This was our experience:
Despite a lot of communication with our travel agent when planning the trip, not one of the hotels had a room with an adapted bathroom. I loved all the hotels and was pleased that we stayed in such lovely places, but the rooms were not disabled friendly, which meant a lot of lifting.
Scarcely any of the sights we visited were adapted for wheelchair users, although the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum had ramps, one of which was so uneven and steep that we needed to ask for help. All the temples could only be accessed via flights of steps.
Wat Banan Temple, Battambang
Our wheelchair user saw a lot from the outside, but missed a lot of the inside, for example the exquisite bas reliefs in the Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat.
Bas Relief, Bayon Temple, Siem Reap
If we had travelled with a group of heavy lifters it would have been possible for him to see a lot more, but we travelled as a couple, so whilst lifting wheelchair plus occupant up a few steps was possible, with the help of the driver and guide, it was not possible for the flights of steps which often faced us. I am always conscious when asking people to help (and they almost always do – people all around the world are so amazingly kind and helpful), not only of the effort required, but also that it would be very easy for these untrained volunteer helpers to damage their backs or other muscles. But if you travel with a group of in-the-know friends or carers, then it would probably be possible to lift the wheelchair user up flights of stairs to see sights such as the bas reliefs.
But the Cambodian people are very kind and our travel agent couldn’t do enough for us, constantly checking that we were OK and making alternative arrangements if we needed them, such as arranging complementary full body massages for us when we found we couldn’t access the boat to go on the sunset cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.
Mekong River, Phnom Penh
So, on reflection, this was an ambitious trip to take on alone, as a couple – but we did it and had a memorable experience. From the perspective of our wheelchair user, he knew it would be a difficult trip so found it an adventure. The trip therefore met his criteria for an enjoyable holiday. I also knew it would be difficult, but it was harder than I expected.
Cambodia is unlike any other country I have ever visited and we have visited quite a few developing countries. The Angkor temples are truly wonderful to visit and rural Cambodia is fascinating. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is stunning and Tonle Sap with its floating villages is unlike anything I have ever seen before, even if it brought back memories of Lake Titicaca which we visited in 1977! But it is impossible to avoid being affected by Cambodia’s recent history. The Cambodians want visitors to know about this terrible period in their history, and the horrific atrocities that were committed by the Pol Pot regime, but it is hard to take, and very sad.
Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that we are both in our 70s, so any younger wheelchair user reading this should bear this in mind. Whilst you might not mind being bundled about like a piece of baggage in your younger days, it becomes a bit more of a trial as you get older, although if gaining access means being treated like a piece of baggage, it is usually worth it, no matter what age.
Having now had a chance to see quite a bit of Cambodia, for which I feel very privileged, if I were to go back, with or without my companion wheelchair user, I would want to spend more time in Siem Reap at the wonderful Victoria Hotel, taking full advantage of the hotel’s beautiful environment and leisurely visiting all the Angkor temple sites, although this probably wouldn’t be so appropriate for a wheelchair user.
For a complete photographic record of our trip see my Cambodia Flickr Album
Some references we explored when planning our trip
- Cambodia Travel Partner – https://cambodia-travelpartner.com/
- About Asia website – https://www.aboutasiatravel.com/cambodia/tour/packages/disabled-travel-cambodia/disabled-travel-cambodia.htm
- Tobias and Verena Streitferdt Travel blog – https://www.wheelchairtraveller.org/touren/a-tour-with-the-wheelchair-through-cambodia/
- DK Eyewitness – Cambodia and Laos Travel Guide
- Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, River Books Ltd., Bangkok
- The King’s Last Song – a novel by Geoff Ryman