The mighty temples of Angkor, with Angkor Wat being the best known, are among the most famous tourist attractions in Asia and quite rightly tend to dominate the minds of visitors to Cambodia. Much of the time a visit to see these spectacular relics from the Khmer Empire is added on to exploration of Thailand or Vietnam. There’s a lot more to see in Cambodia however and with new options opening up all the time we should be looking at the country as a destination in its own right and not just a short extension from elsewhere. Charlie recently had the chance to spend more time seeing what else Cambodia has to offer.
The capital, Phnom Penh, has grown enormously over the last 20 years however the old centre still has attractive tree-lined avenues and it is generally a low rise city. The striking Royal Palace is well worth visiting and the towering multi-colour roofs are a highlight. Within this complex is the Silver Pagoda, named after the silver tiles that cover the floor. Nearby is the National Museum with a very fine collection of Khmer art and treasures. All of these are easily visited in a long half-day. Here you are within close distance of the Tonle Sap River (with the mighty Mekong River beyond) and the riverfront is a fine place to relax afterwards, whiling away time and enjoying a drink from one of the river-facing cafes such as the historic FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club).
Looking at a much darker side of recent Cambodian history it is difficult not to be moved by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge ‘liberated’ the capital, a high school was turned into Prison S-21 for detention and torture. Thousands of people passed through its doors and the Museum documents some of its prisoners and victims in the chilling black and white photos. Over 17,000 ended up at the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields, originally a Chinese cemetery, another sober reminder of the recent horrors the Cambodian people have been through. The central mausoleum contains many of the relics and skulls and the grounds mark the different burial and execution sites. While this is a very different side to most holiday activities it is difficult to experience Cambodia without visiting these memorials to its recent past that affected the whole population so deeply.
Phnom Penh is well worth a visit and in addition to the sights there are markets aplenty, a burgeoning café and bar scene plus excellent food options. One particular favourite was the Friends Restaurant staffed by former street kids – giving them employment and training.
Cardamom Mountains and National Parks
Heading South-West from Phnom Penh, using the main road to the coast, you come to the Cardamom Mountains and Kiriom National Park. In reality this is a succession of parks and reserves, joined up in places, remote in others and under pressure everywhere. There are areas of virgin rainforest, sometimes coming down to the sea, and increasingly there are places to stay and explore this stunning and beautiful landscape.
We were lucky enough to be staying at the brilliant Shinta Mani Wild a luxury camp that is helping to preserve one of the key corridors linking protected areas. Stopping logging and poaching is the priority and as part of this commitment they pay for, and have located, a Wildlife Alliance ranger station on the reserve. Heading out with the Rangers is just one of the many activities on offer along with jungle walks, a river cruise, kayaking and chef foraging tours.
Protecting the forest is paramount to the extent that no trees were cut down in building the resort and its huge 100sqm luxury tents are set on stilts. Most are located over or next to the gushing river and they are all totally isolated from each other – giving a wonderful isolated experience in the surrounding forest. The headquarters and bar are a relaxed central meeting area, and sit next to the main waterfall (where you can swim) while nearby is the pool – a massive cast iron ‘bath’ constructed on site and seeming to float in the forest.
Last but not least, and probably this should be first, is the dramatic arrival that most of the guests take. Sitting above the rainforest is the longest zip-line in Asia, a 350m adrenaline rush, which brings you close to the camp. The final 40m is a second short and quick zip across the main waterfall for a dramatic entrance and much needed welcome drink! Shinta Mani Wild is a unique experience and one of an number of options to see some of the fine rainforests and wildlife that Cambodia can offer.
A short (10m min) boat ride off the southern coast is the island of Koh Krabey or Six Senses Koh Krabey as it is now called. A heavily wooded island it looks as you approach as though there are hardly any buildings on it. The construction was cleverly done to avoid damage to the tree cover and the result is a very natural looking resort – the noisy resident hornbills don’t seem to mind. The exception to this ‘invisible look’ would be the large low level spa at the top of the island, under the trees, and the main open-air reception with stunning sunset bar, main pool and main restaurant. It’s about 15 mins to walk around the island, there are regular electric buggies, and on the far side is the second restaurant and chill out area. This is close to the main beach, which is quite small, although there are a number of swimming points elsewhere and a broadwalk around many parts with strategic loungers for nearby villas.
The villas themselves are stunning with deck and pool, of varying sizes, and many have sea views. All are in the trees with a jungle feel and simple but very modern styling. They are extremely comfortable and luxurious. Six Senses is known for its wellness and spas and Koh Krabey also has an ayurvedic doctor. As a getaway bolthole and relaxing end to a Cambodia tour it looks a great bet. There are other island options in place or appearing, Song Saa is probably the most famous, so over the next few years there will be more and more choices for a beach break in the Gulf of Thailand.
Siem Reap and the world of Angkor
Siem Reap is the undisputed centre of tourism in Cambodia with the Angkor temples as the jewel in the crown and one of the highlights of South-East Asia. The growth of the town and number of visitors is immense and yet Angkor itself is a huge site so can it cope? There is so much to see and the timing of your visits can play a big part in avoiding the crowds.
Beforehand I was nervous about how busy it would be and even a 05.00 arrival at Angkor Wat, timed to see sunrise, didn’t mean we had the place to ourselves. There were many people there for dawn but even so it was beautiful and well worth the early start as the light broke. Working our way around the stunning temple complex, we had plenty of time to scan the bas-reliefs (in this case the Battle of Lanka from the Ramayana) before heading into the central 2nd and 3rd levels. There was no queue to get up the incredibly steep steps to the third level and the lovely views out from the galleries were unimpeded. Strolling out through the gardens and over the temporary floating causeway we came across large numbers of visitors arriving. We were breakfasting by 09.00 having had a wonderful morning exploring Angkor Wat without the crowds – go early!
This was really the same with all the visits in the main area. The brick temple of Pre Rup is a great (and lesser-known) spot to watch sunset from and Banteay Kdei is an earlier, smaller temple which makes it a great introduction to the whole area. We visited Ta Prohm, the wonderfully atmospheric & famous ‘jungle temple’ and had much of it to ourselves and then headed further out to Banteay Srei. This was perhaps the most beautiful and intricate of all the temples with pink stones and gorgeous carvings. Last but not least the majestic multi-faced Bayon – this was pretty much empty but it was midday and exceedingly hot!
We saved the best for last and if you have time a long half-day (75km) trip out to Beng Mealea is a must. Here the huge temple, built to the same Angkor Wat floorplan, has been taken over by the jungle and hardly anyone goes there. A well designed wooden walkway enables you to get right into the centre to see the crumbing walls and towers with huge strangler figs.
We weren’t there at the busiest time of year however even if you go at peak season with some careful planning and early starts you can really can enjoy Angkor at its best.
Siem Reap is not just about the temples however. If you get the chance, and the water levels are right, then try heading out to the massive lake, Tonle Sap, with its floating gardens and water villages. The centre of Siem Reap itself is also worth exploring – the central market and river area are full of life with buzzing markets and a plethora of restaurants/bars at night.
We stayed in the Shinta Mani Angkor which was a high quality stylish property in a central location. As per the Shinta Mani Wild the staff were outstanding. We visited a number of others properties with the Anantara looking good for Families and the Jaya Riverpark having an outstanding responsible ethos and atmosphere.
All in all a tour that combines the capital, rainforest experiences, beach and one of the foremost sights in Asia is going to work well. There is more to Cambodia than just these, for instance the wildlife in eastern Mondulkiri & the Mekong dolphins in Kratie or relaxed Kampot with its pepper crabs! If you get the chance give yourself time to see the country properly, and not just as an extension to another holiday, you will not be disappointed.