My trip to Cambodia was about 12 days – but my journey in Cambodia spanned centuries!
From the 12th century in Angkor Wat to the 20th century at Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields – Cambodia has shown me two sides of its past, but present-day Cambodia with its melting pot culture, cuisine, art and architecture leaves behind the over commercialised Thai beaches and crowded Vietnamese cities. Here there are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, undiscovered, virtually uninhabited islands and people… friendly, forgiving, with a welcome “sampeah” everywhere you go.
Press your palms together in front of your face and slightly bowing forward, say “Chum Reap Suor”. This is sampeah.
Cambodia’s tourism is in its infancy – the only way to get there is via Bangkok or Singapore. I arrived at Siem Reap, just a small town which grew up alongside the river. I spoiled myself here with a stay at the Orient Express hotel – La Residence – an oasis of luxury – just what you need after a hard day sightseeing!
And Siem Reap is the culture capital of Cambodia. Visions of the Spires of Angkor Wat come to mind. The 900 years old Hindu Temple, now a home to Buddhist Monks, is a legacy from a 14 year old boy king, who sealed his fate in his after life, dedicating his temple to Lord Vishnu. It is based on the Hindu Mount Meru and its five peaks (a mythical place where Gods live, somewhere north of the Himalayas) so he built a “heaven on earth” and where his ashes lie – is a straight and upward route to Heaven! Trekking the ruins, reading the relief sculptures and waiting for sunrise behind the towers – is an awesome experience. It’s so huge, so spread – the best view to take in its scale is from the bright yellow balloon, anchored to the ground, where you can see the temple and its moat in all its glory.
As if that wasn’t enough, I visited 2 other very important temples at Siem Reap. There are over 20 on the ‘must see’ list – but I chose just 2 more.
If you’re a Tomb Raider fan, you will be familiar with Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm has been abandoned for centuries. Grown over by the jungle, strangled by tree roots – the temple stands as it was found after five centuries. The tree roots make the ruins look eerie and mysterious and the huge trees provide shadowy recesses where their roots twist and turn, like snakes throttling the very life out of the stones!
My last temple was Bayon – easily recognisable by the huge faces on all its towers. There are 216 faces on 54 4-sided turrets. The theory is the King made the faces in his own likeness, and it is Buddha that looks out in all directions. But the 4-faced turrets are very similar to the Hindu God Brahman and so the debates continue! Whatever the scholars decide, I very much enjoyed the temple and the feeling someone was watching over me, no matter which way I turned!
Tonlé Lake – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and a UNESCO site – is an amazing place to visit. The lake and river are a hub of noise and activity. This is where large communities live in floating villages, complete with churches, schools and restaurants! The river floods during the monsoon and the lake swells to 5 times its size, as it reduces in the dry season the water flows in the opposite direction, so the plains are filled with rich soils and the floods are great for fish. Our boat trip was just about an hour, but was colourful and interesting, criss-crossing other boats, enjoying the views of the villages as we passed. Some small boats followed us for a photo opportunity with live snakes, or children jumped ship selling cold beer and soft drinks!
All too soon I left Siem Reap to travel south. I’d heard so much about Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia – but it was still a shock! The crowds and the noise made Siem Reap feel, almost sleepy, in comparison.
From ancient history to modern day history – the story of The Killing Fields dominates all visits to Phnom Penh. Before you can enjoy the stunning Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum, you must appreciate that every Cambodian you meet will have been touched by the Khmer Rouge and their ideology. Let the S-21 prison now the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum touch you, and if the skulls and bones of nearly 1000 victims of Pol Pot’s army in the Stupa at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) bring tears to your eyes, as they did to mine – Cambodia will have touched you too.
Known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ the translation is literally ‘Hill of Penh’ after an old woman, named Penh, discovered 4 Buddha statues floating in the river. She set up a Stupa to house the statues on top of a hill and so the town was named. The scenic river front is bustling with bars and restaurants at night, while the days are great for riding in a Tuk Tuk in the wide boulevards, taking in the markets and historic cultural sights – our guide showed us everything!
And so – to the beach!
And not just the beach – reefs for snorkelling, lush tropical islands to explore and a motorboat you can hire for the afternoon for $60 to take you wherever you fancy!
There are lots of beaches to discover, but the main ones are: Ocheutal Beach, Serendipity Beach and Victory Beach.
I stayed at the Sokha Beach Hotel in Sihanoukville, about 230kms (3 to 4 hours drive) from Phnom Penh. OK – it’s unashamed luxury… but the perfect base to chill and relax. I let the culture and the sights of Cambodia soak in to my routine of pool-time reading and sunset walks. The town with its markets and restaurants is just 10 minutes away by Tuk Tuk. There is strong evidence here of the US Military (This was the last place of evacuation after Vietnam) and Russian influence too – investing in hotels and bridges. The hotel was lovely and peaceful in the week, but invaded at the weekend by local Phnom Penh families and children getting away from the city life. And the town is a backpackers haven – cheap accommodation and food and nothing much to do, except chill and contemplate.
Leaving Sihanoukville behind, yes, I’ll picture the deep fried spiders and crickets, and the live crabs for sale in the market… but most of all I’ll picture the smiling faces of the local people, and their warm welcome “Chum Reap Lear” Cambodia!