Cambodia has an illustrious past, but for the last couple of years it has proved a stable and easily accessible country for travellers. And tourists heed this call massively, for not only Europeans and Australians have discovered it, many Asians also travel through this marvellous country. And this is understandable, for travelling through it is fairly easy, it offers great variation and the locals are the most friendly and hospitable people you can imagine. But you shouldn’t wait too long to go here, for, contrary to its neighbour Thailand, Cambodia is as yet still clear of western commercial superpowers….although the first Starbucks is planned to open in December 2015.
Before my trip to Cambodia, I could hardly imagine that the small and contemporary country of Cambodia used to be the centre of South-East Asia – the powerful old Khmer empire made up all of present-day Thailand, Myanmar (Birma), Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos – until this summer, when I came face-to-face with the largest religious complex in the world: Angkor Wat. Never had I witnessed such an impressive and large temple complex, an absolute highlight on my trip through this fascinating country and, quite rightly, an imposing heritage from the ancient Khmer Empire. And yes, hordes of tourists visit this UNESCO World Heritage site daily, but if you plan your trip well it won’t be too bad and I am sure you will be as enchanted by the beauty of this world wonder and the fine details as I was.
It’s a good idea to buy a three-day pass which will allow you to enjoy the vast complex to the fullest without suffering from ‘temple overkill’. A dip in the swimming pool will provide a welcome change, but you can also take a bicycle tour through the countryside outside of Siem Reap: here, you will come across sleepy villages with amazing markets; rice fields that are an unbelievable shade of green and enchanting lotus plantations.
Of course, there is so much more to Cambodia than just Angkor Wat. For instance, you can’t avoid this country’s horrible past, the genocide and terrible injustices that took place in recent history during the Pol Pot regime. I was deeply moved by my visit to Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. There are many killing fields throughout Cambodia, but these are the most famous and have become a national memorial. The audio tour (even available in Dutch) is especially good and elaborately describes the Red Khmer’s history and all the atrocities that took place here on this deceptively quiet place; looks can be deceiving indeed. It is an intense experience, especially when combined with a visit to Tuol Sleng, the torture prison, but it also makes you realise the scars this country has received and how admirable it is that the Cambodians are such a resilient and friendly people.
In addition to this, Phnom Penh also has several lighter highlights, for instance the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Above all, it is a wonderfully authentic, crowded Asian city where tangled electricity cables hang over the streets like cobwebs; a large variety of food stalls intoxicate your senses with their lovely smells; the Tuk-Tuks take you effortlessly from A to B and where all the mopeds driving around make you dizzy. An interesting new movement is also happening in Phnom Penh: there are many new restaurants that prepare superb modern Khmer cuisine and trendy coffee bars that aim to offer street youth a wonderful new opportunity on the labour market. Phnom Penh is aiming to put itself on the map as ‘foodie’s capital’ and turns out to be quite successful!
On my journey through this varied country I also visited a place that surprised me with its beautiful nature and exceptional quietude. Right in de middle of the jungle at the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains I found a lovely Ecolodge, not far from the Thai border. Time seemed to have stood still here…. the Tatai river meandering quietly through the landscape, where boats are the primary means of transportation and dinner consists of freshly caught fish.
And not many of you will associate Cambodia with beaches, but although there may not be as many as in its neighbouring country Thailand, there is something for everyone in terms of beach life. For instance, there is a wonderful, long-stretched beach just under Silhanoukville, of which Otres 2 is the most interesting part and where, in addition, you will find a perfect Local Hideaway. But it is also great to take the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem, which has several nice places to stay. And here, I took part in a spectacular activity: swimming in the dark in a sea that was illuminated by sea sparkle, a kind of plankton. I felt as though I was part of a Disney film and was scattering ‘fairy dust’!
I could easily fill another couple of pages with all there is to see and do in Cambodia, but I have tried to limit myself to my personal highlights. One thing ‘s certain though: you simply must put Cambodia on your ‘to visit’ list!
And of course, I managed to find you some surprising Local Hideaways….
but as usual, the device is: “don’t spread the word!”
Esther van Onna – Founder Local Hideaways. November 2015
Local Hideaways Cambodia: www.localhideaways.com