Ascend to the realm of the Gods in Angkor Wat. Descend into the hell of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng. Languish in azure waters on the beaches of Koh Rong. Thanks to a history both inspiring and depressing, Cambodia delivers an intoxicating present for adventurous visitors.
It’s an irritating reality that some places defy description. Angkor Wat, for instance, demands silence. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a way to frame where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open.
Siem Reap: Gateway to the great temples of Angkor that were built over a span of 600 years from 802 AD to 1432 AD by a succession of self-proclaimed God Kings. Their allegiances switched between Hinduism and Buddhism. At its zenith, Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, boasted a population of over a million people with an infrastructure comprising hospitals, courts, massive baths, hundreds of temples and markets. Eventually, water supplies got depleted, the court moved to Phnom Penh and Angkor was abandoned to pilgrims, holy men and the elements.
At the heart of this archaeological wonder lies Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building. Angkor Thom is most striking, since it was a living city, humans and gods co-habiting there. There are myriad temples, baths and staggering monuments scattered around a vast area. Rickshaw is a great way to get around these sites. Set aside 3 days or more to imbibe this archeological feast and prepare for plenty of walking. Some of the more remote temples of Angkor include Prasat Preah Vihear (dramatically situated high atop an escarpment in the Dangrek mountains), Koh Ker (abandoned for centuries to the forests of the North), Kbal Spean (River of a Thousand Lingas).
Landmine Alert: At no point during a visit to remote monuments should you leave welltrodden paths… there are landmines in the area.
Browse the lively restaurants of the Old Market area in Siem Reap, choose from exotic barbeques, or sample the subtleties of Khmer cuisine. Tonle Sap Lake is home to other-worldly floating villages and the Prek Toal Biosphere, with rare water birds and bamboo skyscrapers.
From Seam Reap, an overnight sleeper-bus took us to Sihanoukville on the southern coast, where regular ferry services ply to the idyllic Koh Rong islands. Relatively untouched, these islands are quickly gaining in popularity with tourists and ubiquitous developers.
Further east lies Kampot, world renowned for gourmet pepper, a relaxed atmosphere and one of Cambodia’s finest ensembles of French Colonial architecture. The seaside resort of Kep is famed for its spectacular sunsets, pepper crab and was founded as a colonial retreat for the elite in 1908. These coastal retreats form a perfect getaway for those looking to get beyond beaches of Sihanoukville.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is in the midst of a boom, with hip hotels, designer restaurants and funky bars ready to welcome the urban explorers. Once the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh is regaining its shine with one of the most beautiful riverfronts in the region and a curious mix of temples, old colonial structures and modern buildings.
Pol Pot is a name that sends shivers down the spines of Cambodians and foreigners alike. He is most associated with the bloody madness of the Khmer Rouge regime that heaped misery, suffering and death on millions of Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society, ever attempted; its goal was a pure revolution to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves. Disobedience of any sort brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services ground to a halt. The country cut itself off from the rest of the world…
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison. This soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Thousands of people held here were taken to the ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek and executed. Today, Tuol Sleng museum stands as an eerie testament to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite having the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. With an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.