Hear the name Cambodia and you are instantly transported to the atmospheric mystery of ancient temples shrouded in jungle. But Cambodia is so much more than Angkor Wat, with the palm fringed beaches of Sihanoukville, fishing villages on Tonle Sap Lake, and ever-present saffron clad monks in silent pilgrimage.
Where to start? The capital city, Phnom Penh is one of the precious few cities left where some of the atmosphere of old Indochina remains intact. The impressive Royal Palace is well worth a visit and needs at least a couple of hours to explore it properly. If you are interested in history the nearby museum is excellent, and a confronting but essential site to visit is S21, the Tuol Sleng prison where despotic Pol Pot imprisoned so many in the 1970’s. From here they were taken to the Killing Fields on the outskirts of town, also a sobering visit.
This sense of history is also palpable at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club, the watering hole for all the international journalists during the Vietnam War. There is no better place to relax at the end of a hectic day of sightseeing, than with an ice-cold beer, watching life on the Mekong pass by.
I travelled between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap by river. Cruising along the Mekong River and across the enormous Tonle Sap Lake reveals the importance of this waterway as a source of food for Cambodians. With a massive tonnage of fish harvested every year, it truly is the lifeblood of the region. The stilt houses built alongside the river offer a fantastic insight to a way of life very different than our own.
Over the years I have been lucky enough to visit most of the great archaeological sites around the world; the Pyramids in Egypt; Machu Picchu in Peru and Tikal in Guatemala are amongst my favourites. They are all rivalled by Angkor Wat. It is very difficult to describe the scale and majesty of Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. Built by kings who were said to be incarnations of the gods, these incredible temple-cities were once home to hundreds of thousands of people, each built to outshine all its predecessors in scale and grandeur. Spend a minimum of two days exploring these temples with local guides who bring them alive…absolutely extraordinary. Some temples are overgrown with jungle and others cleared. Each has its own special appeal. You will be blown away by the massive size of some and delighted by the beautiful art in others. I have been there several times and always look forward to going back.
To write about Cambodia and all its wonders would be incomplete without a mention of the Cambodian people. The majority of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism which teaches the concept of reincarnation and means they are mindful of others, polite and friendly. With everything the Cambodian people have been through you will be amazed by their infectious optimism and relentless positivity.
A visit to Cambodia is rewarding, touching and thought provoking, leaving you thirsting for more.
By Chris Lyons
Some of our favourite tailor-made Cambodia itineraries are: