The Best of Cambodia

Visit at dawn and you may see these temples without another soul in sight, while a late-afternoon trip is spectacular, too, for that’s when the stone structures turn a pinkish hue.

 

Cultural Musts | Angkor Wat and Siem Reap

The 700-year-old park of Angkor Wat draws millions of visitors a year to its complex of temples, statues and carvings, spread across 400 square kilometres. Visit at dawn and you may see these temples without another soul in sight, while a late-afternoon trip is spectacular, too, for that’s when the stone structures turn a pinkish hue. Nearby, the town of Siem Reap has become a chic destination in its own right, with boutique hotels and excellent restaurants.

See

In addition to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire, other lesser-known gems of Siem Reap include the Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea temples. Follow your trip to these archaeological landmarks with a visit to the McDermott Gallery, where you’ll find dreamy sepia photos of these temples by US photographer John McDermott, who first captured Angkor in 1995. For a sobering reminder of the country’s brutal and not-so-distant history, head to the Cambodia Landmine Museum, founded by former Khmer child soldier Aki Ra, who collected mine relics to illustrate the destruction wrought here.

Eat

French chef Joannès Rivière has opened Cuisine Wat Damnak, serving up delicious food — try the pineapple, water lily and prawn salad with peanut dressing. The Sugar Palm is more traditional and here’s where off-duty restaurateurs come to chow down on the popular stir-fried chicken with ginger.

Shop

Wanderlust, the project of a former fashion-magazine editor from New York, showcases fashionable cotton dresses and tunics made by local women. At the Old Market, pick up inexpensive local treasures, works of art and purses made of recycled chip packets, which are great eco-chic gift options for friends back home.

Stay

Some of the most luxurious check-in establishments in Siem Reap include Orient-Express’s La Residence d’Angkor and the Aman Resorts’s Amansara. Also, look out for Hôtel de la Paix. Now part of the Hyatt group, it’s set to reopen in 2013 as Park Hyatt Siem Reap after a major refurb.

P.S.

Escape to Shape  is an excellent program that merges cultural immersion with wellbeing in up-and-coming destinations. Its Siem Reap program includes visits to the temples, outdoor yoga sessions and cooking classes at a luxurious villa near Angkor.

 

Capital Gains | Phnom Penh

Part of Phnom Penh’s draw is its carnival-like nature where residents and travellers congregate along the Mekong riverside and under the pretty pagodas. Cambodia’s capital is also a sobering reminder of how poor the country still is, and the network of fair-trade eateries, hotels and even shops show a new commitment to making sure tourism respects the local populace.

See

One of the best ways to see Phnom Penh and its colourful neighbourhoods is by taking a tuk-tuk ride through town (ask your hotel to hail one for you and agree on a price beforehand). The National Museum of Cambodia is a great education in the country’s cultural and archaeological history, while the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda remains the home of the country’s royal family — and the complex is open to the public, except for the actual residential part of the compound. When you are tired of sightseeing, Spa Bliss  is the perfect spot for traditional massage and beauty treatments such as a luxe honey and sesame scrub.

Eat

The city is full of restaurants that showcase both Cambodian food and cuisine from further afield. One of the most delicious, and well-meaning, is Friends the Restaurant, which employs rehabilitated street kids as chefs and waiters. Yumi is the town’s hotspot for Japanese tapas.

Shop

Phnom Penh has some of the country’s best shopping. Don’t go past La Clef de, a concept store with gorgeous dresses and bags as well as items for the home. Central Market and the Russian Market are a bargain-hunter’s dream with jewellery and antiques among the wares, inviting you to pick up unique local treasures.

Stay

The Hotel Sofitel Phnom Penh stands along the river in a former colonial-style mansion with two lovely pools and a spa, while The Pavilion Hotel is a more intimate boutique option.

P.S.

Visit the historic Wat Phnom temple, built on top of a hill. It’s here the city of Phnom Penh was founded in 1373.

 

Castaway Paradise | Kep and Islands Offshore

The southern coast of Cambodia is how Thailand and Vietnam looked 20 years ago. White-sand beaches (such as Serendipity), crystal-clear water, fishing villages, Art Deco villas and fresh inexpensive seafood are only some of the draws. Sophisticated hotel scenes are cropping up around Kep, the former colonial seafront retreat for the French, and in the pristine islands off Sihanoukville, where the gorgeous eco-resort of Song Saa lies in wait.

See

The area between Kep and Kampot (with its atmospheric riverfront cafes) and off-the-coast islands such as Koh Rong are some of the major developments here. Bokor Hill Station, up in the hills above Kampot and surrounded by national park, was once a casino and is now being developed into a huge resort.

Eat

The culinary choices here are top-notch, thanks to fresh seafood and produce such as black pepper from the region’s plantations. In Kep, The Sailing Club at Knai Bang Chatt resort features dishes such as fish amok (white fish in coconut milk), while Breezes is famed for its fresh oysters.

Stay

There are many recent projects in Cambodia turning colonial villas into intimate resorts. Knai Bang Chatt remains one of the standard bearers on the coast with secluded grounds, wonderful spa, infinity pool and comfortable rooms facing the sea. The Vine Retreat can be found in the countryside surrounded by tropical fruit and pepper plantation, with an excellent restaurant and lovely rooms from just US$25 ($24) a night. If you are looking to rent a villa with a group of friends, the modern Villa Romonea is the perfect choice. Song Saa Private Island has brought new luxury to the region. It’s an exquisite resort with a yoga centre, spa and marine park, and the villas here are set between the rainforest and sea, complete with sunken tubs, outdoor baths and secluded day beds.

P.S.

If you’re lucky, you might spot endangered pink dolphins frolicking in the waters surrounding Ream National Park. But even if you don’t, this reserve near Sihanoukville is a gem teeming with birdlife and white-sand beaches.

Words by Ondine Cohane - Published in Voyeur June 2012
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