A Taste of Cambodia
Cambodia is beginning to emerge from the shadow of its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam as a tourist destination in its own right. With its world-famous temples clustered around Angkor Wat, relatively unspoilt tropical beaches and some great food, Cambodia has all the right ingredients for an amazing holiday.
Cambodia is making a name for itself as an upand-coming destination. Travel is becoming easier within the country as its transport infrastructure is upgraded, and there is now a wide selection of good value accommodation on offer. Cambodia’s main draw remains the wonders of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, but its pristine white-sand beaches are also growing in popularity with visitors.
Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure, plays a central role in the identity of Cambodia with the quintessential image of its central towers appearing on the national flag. It is the nation’s most important tourist attraction, drawing more than a million visitors a year.
This immense temple complex, which was built in the first half of the 12th century, represents the Hindu conception of the universe, with the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods, sitting atop three rectangular galleries placed one above the other. The walls of the galleries around the central temple are surrounded by moats, representing celestial mountain ranges and cosmic oceans.
The galleries are elaborately decorated on a huge scale with bas-relief friezes depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The columns of the galleries are adorned with sculptures of deities and representations of apsaras, the feminine water sprites of Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
At the time of the temple’s construction, the Khmer empire ranged across Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat was once at the heart of a vast city, but all that remains of that metropolis are the hundred or so stone temples scattered over a huge area in the jungle around the main complex of Angkor Wat. The ancient city’s wooden buildings have long since collapsed and faded into the undergrowth.
By the end of the 12th century, Buddhism began to replace Hinduism as the main religion in the empire and the next major construction project reflected this transition. Dating from around 1190, Angkor Thom, or the Great City, was located north of Angkor Wat on the site of an earlier royal capital.
The Bayon Temple was built as the main centre of worship in the new city. It projected powerful images of the recentlyadopted Buddhist faith, whilst retaining some structural details from Hinduism. The temple is dominated by a giant four-sided image of the face of Avalokitesvara, an important figure in Buddhism, smiling out impassively to all the points of the compass. The central tower is surrounded by 51 smaller towers, each adorned with the same four enigmatic faces.
After this golden age, the Khmer empire went into a slow decline, finally collapsing in 1431. Without a strong state structure to maintain the temples, they were abandoned to the elements with the voracious jungle reclaiming many. Angkor Wat, however, continued to be used as a place of worship, protected from the encroaching jungle, to some degree, by its moat.
In the 1860s, the French explorer, Henri Mouhot, brought the splendour of Angkor Wat back to western attention with the publication of the journals from his travels in the region.
Since those days, Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple have been restored to help preserve them for future generations. One temple, Ta Prohm, has been left with gnarled tree trunks growing from within its walls as a testament to the march of nature.
Heading down from the temples in the north, Cambodia’s coastline is home to some amazing beaches. Over recent years there has been rapid development as better roads reach the coast, but it’s still possible to find quiet spots to relax in and deserted white-sand beaches for a tropical idyll.
The resort of Kep, the sleepy capital of Cambodia’s smallest province, retains a relaxed atmosphere.
It’s famous for its seafood and sunsets. A giant crab statue looms out from the sea to greet visitors as they arrive, symbolising Kep’s main culinary delight.
The Crab Market, located on the waterfront, has a number of restaurants serving up fresh crab, fried with pepper from nearby Kampot. The restaurant’s terraces jut out over the water and are ideal for watching the sun slowly sink into the sea.
A short boat ride from Kep is Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, which offers simple beach hut accommodation and secluded, palmfringed bays for chilling out on by day. At night, the generators are switched off at 10pm, allowing the sounds of the waves lapping against the shore to take over, while the stars are left to illuminate the sky.
Along the coast is the town of Sihanoukville, which, in complete contrast to Kep, is a brash, bustling resort with crowded beaches and raucous all-night parties. For a more tranquil experience, take a tuk-tuk, a taxi that is open to the elements, to the nearby beach of Otres. This white-sand beach has the mini-resorts of Otres 1 and Otres 2 at either end, where beach bungalows and swish boutique hotels sit sideby-side.
These small resorts have plenty of beachfront restaurants where you can laze on a sunbed sipping from a fresh coconut. Indulge yourself with a massage on the beach and, as the evening closes in, enjoy a sundowner with a spectacular sunset view.
In-between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is a long stretch of empty sand backed by coconut palms and casuarina trees. The beach can get crowded at weekends with day-trippers from Phnom Penh, but in the week it’s mostly deserted. It’s easy to find a spot to sling a hammock between a couple of trees and settle down to enjoy a lazy day of swimming, sunbathing and snoozing in the shade.