No trip would be complete without taking in these special sites
JEWEL IN THE CROWN
Established as the seat of Cambodia’s royalty in 1866, the Royal Palace is but a baby when compared to the country’s many ancient temples. Yet with its pointed spires and crenellated ivory-coloured walls, it’s an architectural jewel. Highlights include the Silver Pagoda, which contains countless jewelled treasures, a cast-iron pavilion originally used at the opening of the Suez canal, and the throne hall, once the centre of the royal court and still used for ceremonies today.
Described as “a building enlarged from Cambodian temple prototypes seen on ancient bas-reliefs and reinterpreted through colonial eyes”, the National Museum is much more than an attractive structure. Its walls house one of the most extensive collections of ancient Khmer art in the world. From monumental Hindu gods carved in stone to intricate bronze representations of Buddha, the artworks on show encompass a wide sweep of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. By striving to preserve this artistic legacy and to repatriate pieces looted during times of war, the museum authorities are preserving a sense of pride in the nation’s past.
A WORLD’S WONDER
With its profile of tiered towers and monumental walkways, Angkor Wat stands as the apogee of Khmer art and civilisation. The religious structure, the world’s largest, is steeped in symbolism. Walk over the enclosing moat, across causeways and into successive layers and compounds to reach a heavenly inner sanctum – the whole being a representation of Mount Meru, the Hindu equivalent of Mount Olympus. Much more than a picturesque ruin, it embodies Cambodia, both ancient and modern, and has been revered from its construction in the 12th century right up to the present day.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
Angkor Wat may be the peak of Cambodia’s architectural wonders, but Prasat Preah Vihear literally sits on top of a mountain. Perched 525m up on the edge of the Dangkrek escarpment, the temple has been a centre of pilgrimage throughout the ages, and all of lowland Cambodia seems to unfold beneath its sandstone structures. From the northern end, the complex runs 800m to the cliff’s edge, taking in a number of stairways and atmospheric pavilions. And with a new road from Siem Reap now in place, it can be easily added to your itinerary.
Although Cambodia is relatively peaceful today, the violence of the Khmer Rouge years has left an indelible mark on the Kingdom. The murders of those considered enemies were carried out across the country, with the sites of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek killing fields in Phnom Penh amongst the best preserved and curated. The former served as an interrogation centre; the latter as a place of execution. Both are unflinching reminders of a time when ultra-Maoist dogma superseded common morality and Cambodian society turned on itself. Visiting the sites is a grim experience, but they are nonetheless rewarding for those prepared to look deeper into the dark side of humanity and to better understand modern Cambodia.