From its crumbling historical temples to the mighty Mekong River, Cambodia is one of the most fascinating destinations to explore right now, says travel writer Lizzie Pook.
I’m in Skuon, about 90 minutes north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. They call this place Spider Town, on account of this market – which sells the local delicacy (dried tarantulas) alongside other bizarre snacks such as stuffed frogs, dehydrated crickets, huge water boatmen and chunky scorpions.
It’s one of the more under-the-radar tourist attractions in a country that is experiencing something of a boom of late. Not only is there a wave of luxury hotels opening in Cambodia within the next year – including Rosewood in Phnom Penh, Six Senses in beachy Krabey Island and the Alila Villas Koh Russey on the south coast’s Koh Rong archipelago – but a new Emirates route into Phnom Penh has also recently launched, making it more accessible than ever. On top of that, Angelina Jolie’s Netflix film First They Killed My Father will shine a light on the country’s dark years under the Khmer Rouge this autumn – making Cambodia one of the most buzzed about destinations right now.
Back in Phnom Penh, I’m staying at the resplendent Raffles Hotel Le Royal. A beautifully-preserved heritage property (the oldest hotel in the city), it was built in the 1920s and has had many incarnations, including as a makeshift Red Cross hospital during the Khmer Rouge regime. But it remains luxurious and reassuringly homely. The marble-floored lobby bursts with swollen-bellied Buddhas, fragrant jasmine and dark mahogany (a theme that’s continued in the hotel’s elegant-yet-comfy rooms) and the wonderfully ornate ‘Elephant Bar’ is just about the best place in Cambodia to sip on specialist gins. I make a daily ritual of swimming in the tranquil pool at night-fall, as bats skim the water around me, picking off tiny insects for their supper.
When in Phnom Penh, the pristine Royal Palace (built in 1866) is a must-visit – filled with ornate hedges, white doves, perfectly trimmed lawns and gleaming gold tiles. So the next day I set out for a purposeful stroll around the grounds. When here, look out for the ‘elephant riding station’ – where the king mounted the famous white elephant that he owned as a pet and rode for his coronation. If it’s jewels you like, the Emerald Buddha temple and the dazzling silver pagoda (with its Buddha made with 2,086 pieces of diamond and pure gold) won’t disappoint.
But for all its beauty and pomp, there’s no escaping Cambodia’s dark history. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge regime – led by Marxist dictator Pol Pot – executed upwards of two million people. So I know a visit to some of the hundreds of Killing Fields spread across Cambodia is an important one.
Now a tranquil, leafy place filled with vibrant yellow butterflies and birdsong – Choeung Ek, some 11 miles outside Phnom Penh, is the final resting place of almost 9,000 men, women and children, who were executed and thrown into mass graves. Here, a ghostly 17-tier stupa rises above the fields and houses over 5,000 skulls, bones and items of clothing of some of those killed – a stark but vital reminder of the country’s harrowing past. It’s certainly a tough visit, but it’s a crucial one, too.
The next day I take the 50-minute flight to Siem Reap. As soon as I get to Raffles’ Grand Hotel d’Angkor – a beautiful 1930s property with heritage touches, such as an intricate, old-fashioned glass elevator in the lobby – I clock the HUGE, glistening aquamarine pool stretching out into the distance like a mirage. It is hot here. Temperatures are pushing 40 degrees. I need to get in that pool. And, as both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have been guests at Grand Hotel d’Angkor, I plunge in and hope I’m sharing some sort of splashing territory with the former First Ladies.
After freshening up, I spend my afternoon temple-gazing. Ta Prohm, built in 1186, otherwise known as the Jungle Temple, is most famous for its starring role in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. Smothered in tarantula cobwebs and choked by parasitic trees that creep and crawl around its ruined walls, it is eerily beautiful. Nearby though, the 12th century Angkor Wat is most people’s real draw to Cambodia. And rightly so. Encircled by a vast manmade moat and with an entrance gate carved with thousands of beautiful apsara dancers, it really is stunning. Built on three levels, it is the world’s largest religious temple, filled with intricate bass relief carvings – depicting Hindu mythology and historical wars, fights between demons and cosmic gods; a teeming mass of elephants, chariots, horses and warriors.
The next morning, I join the kitchen staff on a trip to the local market to buy produce for our cooking class. It’s a stifling explosion of headless geese, fly-covered chicken, peeled frogs and heaving baskets of bloody fish. Knowing we’ll turn it into delicious curries and crisp salads later I simply stand on the spot, take a deep breath in and think – this is Cambodia, a riot for all the senses, but good for the soul.
Snaking through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the mighty, murky Mekong River is the twelfth longest in the world. It’s also a prime point from which to explore traditional Cambodian life (and some of the most beautiful scenery around). Which is exactly what I did from Aqua Expeditions’ vessel – a modern, glass and mahogany ‘boutique’ cruise ship where the bedrooms have epic floor-to-ceiling windows, rainforest showers and huge California king beds. There’s even a plunge pool and an outdoor cinema on board.
On the three-day cruise, which winds up the river from Phnom Penh and back, I woke up each morning among reed beds, floating villages and wooden fishing boats. Days were spent cycling through local villages - happening upon weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and traffic jams made entirely of cows. We saw trees laden with coconuts, semi-aquatic houses on stilts, vibrant fields of lotus flowers and tiny monks swathed in orange. Each night we returned to the boat for some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted: red snapper, seafood curries, moreish sticky rice and spicy stir fries. Incredible.
This article first appeared in the ITC Travel Group magazine Other Shores. To order your copy, please click through to our brochure request page.