Despite a turbulent and harrowing past, Cambodia is without question one Asia’s most magical countries.
Whether the purpose of your visit is to see the spectacular Kingdom of Angkor, to cruise the mighty Mekong River or to learn about the dark history, one thing you won’t be expecting is how you feel leaving this captivating country having been touched by some of the world’s most optimistic, warm and kind people
Angkor Archaeological Park
My trip started in Siem Reap, home to the greatest concentration of architectural riches in the world including Cambodia’s most famous temple of all; Angkor Wat.
It can be hard to know where to begin with the dozens of temples on offer and would be impossible to see everything on such a short trip, so it was great to have my local guide there to help me make the most of my time.
I started with sunrise at the spectacular Angkor Wat, covering a huge 81 hectares comparable in size to the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Its distinctive five towers are emblazoned on the Cambodian flag and the 12th century masterpiece is considered by art historians to be the prime example of classical Khmer art and architecture.
Next I had to see the famous Ta Phrom temple, a global icon after featuring in Hollywood hit Tomb Raider!
Ta Prohm has been relatively untouched since it was discovered and retains much of its mystery. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments of Angkor, it was abandoned and swallowed by the jungle, looking very much the way that most of the Angkor temples appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them.
Aside from the best known, there are an array of more remote options to explore further afield. A combination in my opinion makes for the perfect overview!
One can’t help but feel a little ‘templed out’ at times, so a great way to avoid this is to split the day up and add something other than just temples.
Within a short drive from Siem Reap there is some terrific birdlife, picturesque countryside for cycling and South East Asia’s largest fresh water lake, Tonle Sap to visit. The local floating villages and communities on the lake can be explored by traditional boat or even Kayak!
Locals on Tonle Le Sap Lake
After a fantastic few days in Siem Reap I bid farewell and travelled south to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh often gets bypassed but it is here that you get to fully understand the magnitude of what these people have been through.
Phnom Penh’s city sights such as Wat Phnom, Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda are quite compact and easy to see in a short space of time. For shopping lovers, the huge ‘Central Market’ offers bargains galore.
The food scene in Phnom Penh is growing by the day and is in fact very good. There are a selection of ‘good cause’ restaurants worth checking out, where former street children are learning about the hospitality industry in order to provide them with a trade.
Albeit a very sombre experience, I felt it was important to visit the Killing fields and the notorious Tuol Sleng museum.
Tuol Sleng was a former school which was turned into a security prison under Pol Pot’s rule – the classrooms were turned into torture chambers equipped with various instruments to inflict pain, suffering and death. The Khmer Rouge leaders meticulously recorded and photographed each prisoner that passed through and evidence of this can still be seen in the museum today.
Most of the 17,000 prisoners were then taken to Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) and executed.
Only 7 of the prisoners survived after being liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979, all of whom used skills useful to the Khmer Rouge leaders in order to stay alive.
Of course I knew about the Pol Pot regime beforehand but it’s only when you travel to Cambodia and hear the story told first hand when it really hits home – and having only been 40 years ago, everyone is affected by it in some way. They are the most remarkable people and I cannot begin to explain my admiration for their positive and optimistic outlook on life.
To round off your trip to Cambodia there are some superb places on the coast to spend a few days relaxing including Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Kep with a variety of accommodation to suit all budgets.
For the outdoor lovers, there are some excellent jungle camps and Eco lodges waiting to be discovered.
Phnom Penh is a convenient gateway into Southern Vietnam and it’s possible to get all the way to Ho Chi Minh City by road and boat along the Mighty Mekong. In addition flight connections from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are ever improving, making it simple to combine Cambodia with other neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Thailand or Laos.
Pandaw Cruises on Mekong
Cambodia might be small but it sure is mighty, the spirit of the people is contagious and I will have fond memories that will last a lifetime.