Reflections on Cambodia
Auriole Potter shares her memories of slow travel in Cambodia
Some of the best places to visit in Cambodia
It’s easy to group Cambodia in with Vietnam – and even Laos – when considering a trip to Asia. However, this is doing the country a gross disservice. Cambodia, as I discovered recently, is very much a destination in its own right.
As I travelled the length and breadth of the country, I discovered the best places to visit in Cambodia; not only the fascinating history and colourful Cambodian culture in the two major cities, Siem Reap and the capital Phnom Penh, but also lush jungle, beautiful beaches and the gentler pace of rural village life.
I started, as many do, in the temple town of Siem Reap. I was surprised at just how much there was to see beyond Angkor Wat itself, with many of the other, smaller temples just as fascinating and made more enjoyable by the fact that we had many of them almost to ourselves. This was made possible by my expert guide who had a knack of knowing just what time we should depart one temple to avoid a bus load of tourists, and when to arrive at another to miss a noisy group of school children. I spent a morning with the German Apsara Conservation Project which provided further insight into the temples and the restoration process.
I discovered just how much there was to do in Siem Reap beyond the temples and would strongly recommend at least four nights here. There are the peaceful waters of Tonle Sap, flat as a millpond, with diverse bird life and lively floating villages at its fringes. There are explorations of the surrounding countryside, where time stands still, and ox carts are more common than cars. Families will enjoy encounters with elephants, awe-inspiring acrobatics at the circus and adventurous food tours, while those looking for a culture fix can delve into the city’s burgeoning art scene.
I continued to Phnom Penh, a much larger and more international city than Siem Reap, and one of the top places to visit in Cambodia that is often overlooked – or at best seen as a one night stop to dip into the history of the Khmer Rouge. This, of course, is both necessary and horrifying in equal measure. Beyond this, however, is a buzzing, up and coming city, with an enticing street food scene, myriad architectural styles to uncover and access to the Mekong River, a lifeline to the many communities that live along its banks. It was here that I had one of my most memorable meetings: a morning with a local young chef who welcomed me into her beautifully restored home and taught me the secrets of Cambodian cuisine.
It was then on to the coast, which in places is every bit as picture perfect as the Maldives. En route I made the discovery of the trip: a lovely little boutique property across the river from Kampot, well worth a night or two to break the journey south from the capital and the perfect place to enjoy some R+R. Kampot is known primarily for its pepper but beyond this are rows of brightly coloured shophouses. I spent a happy morning wandering amongst them before setting off on a river cruise in the early evening when flocks of birds came into roost and fleets of old-fashioned fishing boats headed out to sea for the night.
The coast itself exceeded all expectations. Powder white sand, swaying palms … it was everything one could ask for from a beach destination. The choice of top-end hotels isn’t huge but there’s still something for everyone, whether you’re looking for laid-back luxury on a small scale, a larger resort style property or all-out indulgence on a private island complete with pool villas, tropical reefs and a world-class spa.
I ended my trip in the Cardamom National Park at an extraordinary property comprising 15 jungle tents offering the height of comfort and luxury, strung out along a river valley. The incredible setting is complemented by an exceptional dining experience and an array of engaging activities, including accompanying local rangers on their jungle patrols, removing snares and deterring poachers; heading out on foraging expeditions and learning how to make use of the local fauna for food and medicinal purposes; floating downriver in kayaks or on the lodge’s expedition boat; or simply enjoying the unlimited spa treatments on offer. The property welcomes those aged 13 and above, so this is a perfect option for families with older children, but typical guests are active couples looking for the ultimate wow-factor getaway.
My trip through Cambodia was an excellent reminder of how important it is to take things slower and really get to know a country. Rather than simply ticking off the highlights and flying on to the next place, I gained so much by spending a few more days in each spot, allowing time for chance encounters, fascinating detours and the opportunity to sit at a pavement stall or cafe, watching the world go by.