Most travellers to Cambodia go there to see just one thing - the grand temples of Angkor - flying in and out of Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, without seeing anything else of the country. Granted, the temples are an amazing sight and my first view of the five pineapple shaped towers of Angkor Wat (the main temple) looming tall as the sun rose behind will stay with me forever. But, Cambodia has so much more to offer than just temple ruins and can quite easily keep you entertained on a two week holiday (or longer) as I discovered on my most recent visit.
Over two weeks I saw traditional village life on the Mekong (with a bit of dolphin spotting thrown in), experienced the urban buzz of the capital, took a road trip through stunning countryside stepped with verdant rice paddies, visited floating villages and then headed to the coast for rest and relaxation in some rather chic places.
Let's start (as I did) in the capital, Phnom Penh. Once considered the loveliest of the French-built cities of Indochina, the city's charm has managed to survive the violence of its recent history and (looking at the city today) it’s hard to imagine that during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) the city was a ghost town with all its inhabitants forced out into the countryside. Roll on 30 years and the capital is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
Set on the banks of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers, the city certainly sprawls and modernity is rearing its (ugly) head with high-rise buildings appearing on the skyline and rather aggressive Range Rover drivers on the roads. However, down by the riverfront near the Royal Palace, where most of the tourist action takes place, you'll find it's predominately an old fashioned city with bustling markets, shop houses, colonial architecture and wide tree lined boulevards.
The city is easy to get around, although the roads are chaotic with cars and mopeds shooting at you from all directions and so crossing can be a little challenging - the trick (as I discovered) is to super glue yourself to a local and do as they do, walking with purpose and never, ever hesitating! You can delve into the cultural history at the National Museum and wander round the Royal Place with its gleaming spires, multi-coloured tiled roofs and Silver Pagoda paved in 5,000 silver floor tiles. Or stroll along the very pleasant riverside promenade which comes alive at night with local activity, have a bit of fun at the markets or maybe pop into one of the trendy little boutiques on Street 240. As for food, well Phnom Penh is a bit of a gourmet delight with everything from fine dining to local Khmer street food.
Two places I think should definitely be included in any trip to Phnom Penh are Tuol Sleng - a former high school taken over by the Khmer Rouge where they tortured around 17,000 men, women and children - and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, now a peaceful memorial set amidst rice paddies, it was there that the Khmer Rouge carried out it's dreadful genocide burying the bodies in mass graves. I realise these are not usual holiday highlights - and are heart wrenching at times - but they stand as a stark reminder of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and do allow you to dig below the surface and understand Cambodia and its people better.
Hitting the road north, I was heading out into the countryside travelling past traditional stilted Khmer houses, children frolicking by the river and local ladies setting up their stalls at the daily market including one specialising in a certain delicacy - the Cambodian's are known for eating pretty much anything so why was I surprised to find that the delicacy was deep fried tarantulas? I have to admit that it took a lot to coax me out of the car and when I did, I had to be guarded from the local children who thought it highly amusing to throw a couple of live ones on you!
For the next two nights I stayed on an island in the middle of the Mekong River - accessible only by boat it was a secluded pocket of rural Cambodian life, mostly spared from the modern world. Cycling round the island revealed a stunning landscape peppered with fruit orchards, rice paddies and the smiling faces of villagers who viewed me with a mix of curiosity and excitement.
The island was a great base from which to try and spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. Nearly extinct, there are pockets of protected waters in the area where you are almost guaranteed to spot them - not as graceful as their bottle-nosed relatives - these grey slug like dolphins still caused a camera frenzy on board our small boat each time they surfaced.
My visit to the island may have been brief but, I was fortunate to be able to leave a positive (and lasting) impact by accompanying the Chief of the island on a tree planting ceremony (part of the island's forest regeneration programme) which will be marked with a wooden name plaque in my honour.
Next on my itinerary was Siem Reap, the town closest to the Angkor ruins, and one which has changed beyond belief since my first visit 11 years ago. Then the main road in from the airport was nothing more than a dusty track and the town had a few mediocre hotels. Now there's a paved highway and some of the most luxurious accommodation I've seen anywhere in South East Asia, and it's all down to the throngs of tourists that descend upon the town. Don't let that worry you though as Siem Reap still (thankfully) manages to retain its small town feel and has a surprisingly sophisticated selection of restaurants, bars, boutiques and an excellent local craft scene.
So what makes these temple ruins so popular? Firstly, it's the sheer scale - from around 800AD until the mid-15th century, Angkor was the heart of the Khmer Empire and with each new King came a wave of newly constructed temples growing to around 1,000 in total spread over an area around a quarter of the size of Greater London. Secondly there's the mystery as the temples lay all but forgotten in their jungle shroud for over 500 years until 1860 when a Belgian explorer, Henri Mouhot, was hacking his way through the jungle and suddenly came across this fantastic feat of building and design.
It would take weeks to see all the sights of Angkor and so it's necessary to decide on your “must sees”. For me, it's Angkor Wat - the world’s largest religious monument - whose sheer size never fails to impress me no matter how many times I see it. Then there's Ta Phrom, its walls, pillars and doorways under the clutches of the strangler fig. I also love entering the walled city of Angkor Thom from its less touristy east gate; guarded by stone faces it leads you to Bayon where even more brooding stone faces (54 to be precise) stare at you from all angles. Beyond the Grand Circuit are many other temples, often more overgrown and almost deserted. These include my favourites of Banteay Srei (it was so densely sculpted its elaborate carvings still exist today, perfectly preserved) and Beng Melea where you are confronted with the crumbling stones of a temple left to the ravages of the jungle.
After all the travelling round I required a few days to chill out and so headed out to the coast, first to a luxury island resort of the kind you'd expect to find somewhere like the Maldives, and then to a rather nice French colonial seaside resort where beautifully decorated villas are the order of the day - I'll be divulging more about that next month but for now, I’ll leave you with a tempting shot from my infinity pool and one word that a client used to sum up a recent two week trip she took to Cambodia with her husband - “Amazing”!
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[Images - All mine!]