Cam­bo­dia

Travel Digest - - EDITORIAL - Roger All­nutt flew to Cam­bo­dia as a guest of AirAsia.

It is ten years since ROGER ALL­NUTT vis­ited Cam­bo­dia – the King­dom of Won­der. In the cap­i­tal Ph­nom Penh and large ci­ties like Siem Reap and Bat­tam­bang, there have been ma­jor im­prove­ments in in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing the build­ing of new ho­tels for the in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists.

Ph­nom Penh is a rel­a­tively small city by Asian stan­dards, with the pop­u­la­tion of around three mil­lion, lo­cated along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The in­ter­na­tional air­port is only 10km out of the city, but traf­fic on the few ma­jor roads is hor­ren­dous. Most peo­ple ride mo­tor­bikes, some­times whole fam­i­lies, with odd an­i­mals and other gear.

The main attractions of the city are cen­tred around the Royal Palace and Na­tional Mu­seum, which are close to Sisowath Quay on the water­front – a favourite place for an evening prom­e­nade. There are also ladies sell­ing lovely flo­ral bou­quets and lo­tus leaves for the tem­ples, fam­ily groups gath­ered along the river­bank, colour­ful street hawk­ers ( you can try the bar­be­cued bee­tles, bugs, snakes or a spi­der or two), court­ing cou­ples and masses of chil­dren. The Royal Palace is a ma­jor com­plex in­clud­ing the fa­mous Sil­ver Pagoda and is Ph­nom Penh’s most iconic build­ing and well worth a visit. The Na­tional Mu­seum com­prises four linked gal­leries around a lovely gar­den court­yard and houses a rich col­lec­tion of arte­facts, from pre­his­toric times. Fur­ther north along the river Wat Ph­nom is the main tem­ple and the grounds are a popular spot for lo­cals. This is the old French Quar­ter with many build­ings of the colo­nial era ( the French left in 1953) still re­main­ing. The For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club of Cam­bo­dia near the Royal Palace, was where most jour­nal­ists re­ported the war in the 1970s and it is a good place for a snack and a drink, although most of the pa­trons ap­peared to be tourists. There are plenty of restau­rants and the food is in­vari­ably ex­cel­lent and in­ex­pen­sive. The streets run­ning at right an­gles to the river north from the Royal Palace, teem with tiny shops, bars, restau­rants and mar­kets. Many will have seen the film The Killing Fields and the place where some of the worst atroc­i­ties took place are close to the cap­i­tal at Choe­ung Ek. Dom­i­nat­ing the area is a large stupa that is crammed with layer upon layer of skulls, a sober­ing memo­rial to one of the dark­est pe­ri­ods of re­cent his­tory. If that is not enough, then a visit to the Geno­cide Mu­seum at Tuol Sleng Prison ( once a high school), only con­firms the ex­tent of the in­hu­man­ity of the Kh­mer Rouge. For years the choice of ac­com­mo­da­tion in Ph­nom Penh was limited to guest houses and small ho­tels. Nowa­days there are a num­ber of up­mar­ket ho­tels in­clud­ing Raf­fles Le Royal, Sof­i­tel Pho­keethra, Hi­mawari Apart­ments and I en­joyed my stay at Ho­tel Cam­bo­di­ana. A large con­fer­ence and ex­hi­bi­tion area has been built on Di­a­mond Is­land. Most vis­i­tors to Cam­bo­dia con­cen­trate on Ph­nom Penh and Siam Reap – the town close to Angkor Wat. Although it is pos­si­ble to fly be­tween them, a bet­ter op­tion is the five- hour ferry ride on the Tonle Sap River ( which joins the mighty Mekong River at the cap­i­tal) and across the lake of the same name be­fore ar­riv­ing at Siem Reap. Dur­ing the first cou­ple of hours you pass a suc­ces­sion of fish­ing vil­lages, where peo­ple live on boats or on houses built on stilts. Siam Reap is a neat town that makes its liv­ing from tourists vis­it­ing Angkor Wat and

also from the pro­duc­tion of fish paste. It has a lively mar­ket, plenty of good restau­rants and the num­ber of ho­tels cater­ing to the vast hordes of tourists is amaz­ing. Many ho­tels are four or five star and the prices for many are very rea­son­able. I stayed at Sokha Angkor Ho­tel which is ide­ally lo­cated in the cen­tre of town and not far from the air­port and Angkor Wat. A highly rec­om­mended bou­tique ho­tel is NitabyVo, which has the added at­trac­tion of views of the tem­ples at Angkor Wat from the rooftop pool. The com­plex of tem­ples, lakes and ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels was con­structed dur­ing the pe­riod of Kh­mer civil­i­sa­tion that dom­i­nated Cam­bo­dia and east­ern Thai­land for about 500 years un­til the 15th cen­tury, but was hid­den by jun­gle growth un­til dis­cov­ered in 1860. Due to the civil war Angkor has only been open to tourists again since 1994. The main com­plex is Angkor Wat ( mean­ing cap­i­tal tem­ple) and it is worth­while get­ting there in time to watch the sun­rise over the build­ings, when the lo­tus shaped tem­ples are re­flected in the pond near the en­trance. Inside the walled com­pound are a myr­iad of tem­ples, fres­coes with scenes from daily life and wars, in­cred­i­bly steep steps, even a monk or two in saf­fron robes. In the heat and hu­mid­ity it is quite ex­haust­ing clam­ber­ing up and down to get the best views. To pro­tect the in­fra­struc­ture from crum­bling due to the num­ber of tourists, some ar­eas are closed off and wooden walk­ways and stairs have been erected. Close to Angkor Wat is Bayon, an es­pe­cially at­trac­tive tem­ple with carv­ings of the face of Bud­dha. Close by is the won­der­ful Ter­race of Ele­phants, a bas- re­lief frieze of ele­phants stretch­ing some 300 me­tres. The tem­ples at Ta Prohm ( used in the film Tomb Raiders) are still cov­ered by trees, some with amaz­ing root sys­tems that seem to grow straight out of the tem­ples. It gives you an idea of what Angkor Wat must have looked like be­fore the growth was cleared away. A must see at Siem Peap is a per­for­mance by the amaz­ing Phare Cam­bo­dian Cir­cus. De­vel­oped by the Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak non- gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion, as part of their pro­gramme to as­sist vul­ner­a­ble lo­cal chil­dren through var­i­ous arts, the one- hour show is a mix of story- telling through ac­ro­batic and gym­nas­tic skills, all done with in­cred­i­ble en­ergy, vi­tal­ity and hu­mour – it leaves you to­tally gob­s­macked. I was so im­pressed I went on two suc­ces­sive nights. The sec­ond city of Cam­bo­dia is Bat­tam­bang, about a six- hour drive north of Ph­nom Penh. Along the way you pass a num­ber of vil­lages where tra­di­tional crafts are still pur­sued, eg sil­ver­smiths at Kom­pong Luong, pot­tery at Kom­pong Chh­nang and mar­ble carv­ing at Pur­sat. There are many tem­ples ( such as Ph­nom Udong and Ph­nom Banan) – some re­quire climb­ing hun­dreds of steps to reach the stu­pas. Bat­tam­bang is a re­lax­ing overnight stop and many of the French colo­nial build­ings still re­main along the Sangker River. A Peace Mon­u­ment built in 2007 to com­mem­o­rate the end of the civil war is made en­tirely of guns and gun parts left from the con­flict. A fun trip out of Bat­tam­bang is on the quaint Bam­boo Rail­way. You ride on an 8km stretch of dis­used track on a sim­ple four- wheeled un­der­car­riage with de­tach­able wooden plat­form on top and cush­ions for com­fort – at around 40km per hour through the lo­cal veg­e­ta­tion. South west of Ph­nom Penh and quite close to the bor­der with Viet­nam, the coastal area around Si­hanoukville is be­ing rapidly de­vel­oped as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. The town

is a pleas­ant mix of lo­cal mar­kets, streets and the beach front, lined with cafes and bars, back­packer and small ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion. Get­ting round is cheap and easy on a tuk tuk three- wheel taxi. If you are look­ing for some­thing bet­ter Sokha Beach Re­sort is rec­om­mended. Off shore are a num­ber of idyl­lic get­away is­lands with glo­ri­ous sandy beaches and clear wa­ters for div­ing. There are com­pa­nies of­fer­ing in­ex­pen­sive day cruises to the is­lands such as Koh Tas, Koh Rong and Kog Rong Sam­loem. You can fly to Si­hanoukville or al­ter­na­tively the road trip only takes about four hours. There are huge swathes of rice pad­dies, pretty fish­ing vil­lages along the way and at Kam­pot you are in the mid­dle of an area, which pro­duces some of the best pep­per in the world.

Lo­tus tem­ples of Angkor Wat re­flected in the sur­round­ing pond.

Song Saa, is 35- min­utes by boat from the port of Si­hanoukville.

Peace Mon­u­ment in Bat­tam­bang, made en­tirely from guns and gun parts.

Per­form­ers at the Phare Cam­bo­dian Cir­cus, Siem Reap.

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