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.