Isolated from the outside world by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, travellers are now slowly returning, drawn by its astonishing temples. But there’s far more to enjoy than ancient history…
A melee greets you outside Phnom Penh airport. Hail a tuk-tuk and, with your luggage strapped in beside you, hold on as your driver points his motorised chariot headlong into the throng.
It’s a rather high-intensity introduction to an enchanting kingdom of sublime palaces and temples, exotic markets, gorgeous scenery and, of course, chilling memories of the Khmer Rouge that dismantled centuries of civilisation in four bloody years during the 1970s. Fortunately for all, Cambodia undergoing a slow recovery thanks to a growing tourism industry and all that this country has to offer.
EXPLORE THE CAPITAL
Strolling through the Phnom Pehn’s streets and little alleys to who knows where is a great way to get the flavour of a city that sits on the mighty Mekong River. Stop to watch old women gently work out on the open-air gym on the promenade, getting fighting fit perhaps for the Russian Market, a densely packed purveyor of commodities like t-shirts for $1 … a handy purchase when the steamy weather is wearing out your wardrobe.
A highlight is the pointy-roofed Royal Palace and its opulent Silver Pagoda, lined with 5 000 silver floor tiles now sensibly covered with carpet.
VISIT THE KILLING FIELDS
You can’t understand Cambodia without grasping its past. Start at S-21, originally a school that was turned into one of 5 000 jails where the prisoners – political opponents and anyone with an education – were tortured. It’s an emotional visit with stark photos of the victims and the methods used to break them. About 17 000 S-21 prisoners were executed at Choeung Ek, part of the infamous Killing Fields.
Some of the 129 mass graves here were exhumed for documenting and a memorial contains 8 000 skulls, marked with coloured dots to show whether they were killed with a pickaxe, club or a machete.
HAVE A SEEING HANDS MASSAGE
Being the most heavily land-mined country in the world left Cambodia with countless blind and disabled survivors. Many have learned new skills, and Seeing Hands massage centres are abundant. A blind masseur will give you a thorough work-over, with fingers, fists and elbows digging into my muscles until you’re twitching in a conflicting combination of pleasure and pain. An hour costs $8 and it’s so good I sought out Seeing Hands centres in every other town.
TRY SOME … UNUSUAL … DISHES
Ever eaten fried tarantula? Well you can in Cambodia – they’re served in some restaurants and sold in the markets at $1 each, making them a pricy delicacy. And if you enjoyed that, long with various other spiders, one can also sample, fried crickets and toasted silkworms.
For those – like me – who aren’t quite that adventurous, try the infamously pungent durian fruit, delicious mangosteen, and squid-on-sticks hot off the grill. Another treat is sticky rice mixed with black beans and coconut, stuffed inside a bamboo pole and cooked over a fire. Once it’s charred on the outside, you axe away the bamboo and get stuck in. As a former French colony Cambodia has fabulous patisseries too.
TAKE A BAMBOO TRAIN TO NOWHERE
It will certainly be one of the more unusual train rides you’ll ever take. Actually calling it a train is something of a stretch. It’s more of a bamboo platform perched on two axles. Powered by a small engine and a pulley, you can rattle along at a cracking pace watching the countryside shoot by. It’s huge fun, and when you meet another train coming in the opposite direction, the carriage with the fewest people on is lifted off the track to let the other pass.
Before decent roads were built, these trains were originally devised by farmers to transport rice from the paddy fields around Battambang, and saved from obsolescence by becoming a tourist attraction, complete with a little flea market where you stop and turn around.
HIRE A BIKE. AND VISIT THE BAT CAVE
The bike I hired for a guided tour around Battambang wasn’t designed for tall people, but the sights made up for the back-bending ride. There were stops to see a family making rice paper wrappings for dumplings, a woman producing dried banana rolls, a dodgy little shack distilling rice wine, and a temple once used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge.
For a battier experience take a tuk-tuk to the Bat Cave, where an estimated two million wrinkle-lipped bats swarm out of the cave every evening in a swirling stream that lasts for the best part of an hour. It’s utterly astonishing.
STAY IN A STILT HOUSE
The tiny village of Sambor Prei Kuk, north of Phnom Penh, is a centre for “home stay” hospitality where families welcome tourists into their home. This is a real slice of rural life, with a communal meal before a night in a stilt house. It’s very basic, with thin mattresses under mosquito nets laid in a row on the floor. Try not to need a midnight pee, because the squat toilet is back downstairs across the yard.
Homes were traditionally built on stilts to deter evil spirits and wild animals, and because the open space on the ground stays cooler during the day.
HIT THE BEACHES
The rambling southern coastline is studded with bays and islands lapped by a sea that’s warm enough to swim all day. The jumping-off point is the provincial capital of Sihanoukville, but ignore this cross between a building site and a rubbish dump, and head straight for the beach.
My daydreaming was interrupted by a woman offering massages and threading, she had me laughing with a free leg-threading demo and the offer of an all-over depilation, including armpits and bikini line. In full public view, it seemed awfully risqué for this conservative country, so I shaved my legs that night to deter any temptation.
Take a trip to Koah Ta Keiv island to swim – there’s wonderful snorkelling among brain-shaped coral, freaky bright blue formations and waving anemones – and tuck into lunch cooked by the boatmen.
One shouldn’t really visit Cambodia without actually seeing its legendary temples. Built by the Khmer kings built from AD 802 to 1432, it’s one of the world’s most impressive archaeological site has three must-sees:
Its magnificent three-tiered towers soar upwards and are reflected beautifully in the lake at dawn. An 800-meter long corridor surrounding the temple is intricately decorated with bas-reliefs that took some 300 000 stonemasons craftsmen 30 years to complete.
Ta Prohm temple
Like all the temples here, Ta Prohm was abandoned to the jungle for centuries, and the trees that hold it in their clutches are inextricably bound into its stonework, creating an atmospheric, Indiana Jones-style treat.
My personal favourite, it was built in the 12th century with 216 giant faces that smile down enigmatically on us mere mortals.
WHEN TO GO
Winter (Nov to Feb) delivers the best weather, although it can still be steamily hot. From March to May you risk melting into the baking ground, while May to October is rainy season.
Cambodia runs two currencies, the US dollar, and the local riel. It’s handy to pay in a combination of both to avoid carrying wads of riel. Tourist-friendly restaurants typically change $4 to $12 for a main course, but you can eat far more cheaply with the locals.
Some roads are in poor condition so journeys can take a while. Giant Ibis is a reliable long-haul bus company, and tuk-tuks around the towns are cheap and plentiful.
SAA flies to Hong Kong daily. flyssaa.com
From there, fellow Star Alliance partners, Singapore Airlines, Asiana Airlines and Thai connect to Phnom Pehn. Get a visa on arrival or online at evisa.gov.kh
WORDS Lesley Stones