THE MANY FACES OF CAMBODIA
Over the decades, the Cambodians have experienced poverty and political instability through the genocide of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge but modern Cambodia is a delightful country with plenty to offer tourists.
This is due in no small part to the jungle-choked ruins of Angkor Wat built in the 12th century, ancient capital of the Khmer Empire and the world's largest single religious monument. Only a handful of the 1,000-plus temples have been cleared of forest, while the rest remain so mysteriously cloaked in vines they are often used in backdrops for Hollywood films. But despite having the unofficial eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure are its people.
We stayed at the tranquil 5* Shinta Mani Resort which is a newly renovated boutique property centrally located in the leafy French Quarter of Siem Reap, 5 kilometres from the amazing iconic Angkor Wat Temples.
We flew from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville (55mins), a peninsula ringed by pretty whiteish-sand beaches and surrounded by a smattering of attractive islands, we stayed at the 4* beachfront Tamu Hotel.
A 4hr drive from Sihanoukville to Koh Kong through the Cambodian countryside we arrived at our riverside location for our 30 mins’ boat transfer upstream to the 4* boutique 4Rivers Floating lodge. Situated in the heart of the protected rainforest of the Cardamom Mountains and only accessible by boat, this unique ecolodge with 12 safari-style tents all erected on floating platforms is the ideal place to be at one with nature.
We then drove onto Phnom Penh, through mountain ranges & green rice paddy fields. Cambodia’s busy capital, sits at the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. We stayed at the 5* Raffles Le Royal, located in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Lots of activities on offer in Cambodia: Night time food market, where I (not we) tasted red ants ((it was that or Tarantula)! A tour of Tonlé Sap River with transportation by Tuk Tuk & boat. A Bicycle sunset tour of Angkor Park followed by a Dragon Boat ride. An early rise at 4am to view sunrise over Angkor Wat with our private guide, followed by temple tours of Angkor Thom & Bayon temple with its 54 towers decorated with more than 200 enigmatic smiling faces. Followed by a visit to Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider) temple. Shopped for $4 silk pashminas & $3 tourist T-shirts at the local night markets.
At 4Rivers we visited waterfalls, saw fire-flies twinkling like Christmas lights in the trees and went kayaking on the river.
In Phnom Penh, we took self-guided tours of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also called S21) which was a secret centre of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here and there are only 12 confirmed survivors. Plus, a visit to Choung Ek Memorial site (The Killing Fields) located 45mins (15kms) outside of Phnom Penh.
Both S21 & Choung Ek were extremely evocative and yes at times my emotions got the better of me. I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this part of my trip but it really helped me understand something of the horror of living under the Khmer Rouge and I found it all a very moving experience.
Dining in Cambodia was very reasonable and the cuisine is influenced by a variety of countries. French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai plus local Khmer dishes. Rice and fish play big roles because of the abundance of both due to the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap Rivers. We tried the local dish ‘Fish Amok’ on several occasions (steamed fish in coconut cream) which could be found for around $3USD and was delicious.
This is a fresh fruit nation and you’ll find fruits on offer you’ve never even heard of, let alone tasted. The Cambodian brewed beer 'Angkor' can be purchased from 50 cents a glass to 6 USD (depending where you buy it).
Most popular time to go is between November and February, with the peak season falling between late December and mid-Jan. There’s little rain and it isn't uncomfortably hot. However, Angkor Wat and the Cambodian islands can be very busy over this period.
Late October to early December or early February to end of March are also good times to consider as there’s a chance of rain, but the payoff will be in slightly reduced numbers of tourists and lower room rates.
I recommend a minimum of a 2 week stay visiting different locations.
Even as it develops, Cambodia remains an authentic adventure. Cambodians have a saying – ‘SAME SAME, BUT DIFFERENT’ which sums up Cambodia perfectly, it’s like its Asian neighbours but oh so very, very different!
My Top Tips is to book a personal guide at Angkor Wat as the guide will know all the best places for you to take great memorable pictures. Our guide was Piseth Cham Roeun of www.cambodiatoursguide.com