With a wave of luxury hotel openings this year, Cambodia has found itself firmly in the spotlight. But as Lizzie Pook discovers, its complicated past is just as intriguing as its dense forests and beguiling temples…
I’m feeling ever-so-slightly faint. Phnom Penh’s Central Market is something of an assault on the senses: a glorious, teeming-hot explosion of headless geese, peeled frogs, heaving baskets of bloody fish and mountains of soft, fleshy fruit. I’m here with Chan, a local Khmer chef, buying fresh produce for this afternoon’s cooking class, and I watch in awe as she stalks neatly around the bustling avenues of shoppers, filling her bags with rice paper, chicken legs, soft mangos, carrots and beef.
But this high-octane energy is what Cambodia’s all about. And is no-doubt part of the reason why the country is experiencing its current boom. It helps, of course, that an army of luxury hotels have announced openings here this year – including Rosewood in Phnom Penh, Six Senses in beachy Krabey Island and the Alila Villas Koh Russey on the south coast’s picturesque Koh Rong archipelago. Not only that, but Angelina Jolie’s Netflix film First They Killed My Father, which is currently available to watch, deftly shines a light on the country’s dark years under the Khmer Rouge regime, too.
I’m in the country to explore two of its key destinations: the busy capital, Phnom Penh – bursting with ornate temples, a surprising amount of art and culture, yet battling to come to terms with its dark past – and Siem Reap, the sun-baked gateway to the magnificent, imposing and world-famous Angkor Wat.
My base in Phnom Penh is the impressive Raffles Hotel. The oldest hotel in the city – built in the 1920s – it’s a place of old-world glamour, marble interiors and a hell of a lot of gin (its historically well-stocked elephant bar is arguably the best place in the city to drink the stuff). Pro tip: make sure you’re here on a Sunday as the monumental Raffles brunch – with its lobster thermidor, cheese, mashed potato, pasta and champagne stations – is a gourmet behemoth of beauty.
You don’t have to go far to get your fix of some of Cambodia’s estimated 5,000 temples, either. The pristine Royal Palace (built in 1866) is a must-visit – filled with ornate hedges, plumes of white doves, impeccably well-trimmed lawns and dazzling gold tiles (if jewels are your thing, the Emerald Buddha temple and the dazzling silver pagoda – with its Buddha made with 2086 pieces of diamond and pure gold – are gloriously decadent.)
But for all its regality and pomp, there’s no escaping Cambodia’s dark history. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge regime – led by Marxist Dictator Pol Pot – executed upwards of two million people in its bid for an ‘egalitarian’ society. The stark yet emotive Genocide Museum is an important place to visit, as are some of the hundreds of ‘Killing Fields’ that riddle Cambodia’s farmlands.
Now a tranquil, leafy place filled with vibrant yellow butterflies and birdsong – Choeung Ek, some 11 miles outside the capital is the final resting place of almost 9,000 men, women and children, who were executed and thrown in mass graves. Here, a ghostly 17-tier stupa rises above the fields and houses over 5,000 skulls, bones and items of clothing of some of those killed. It’s a stark but vital reminder of the country’s harrowing past.
A bug’s life
The tray in front of me is teeming with desiccated crickets. Hundreds of them are piled high, motionless, upturned, stiff, shiny and seasoned with spices. They’re there to be eaten (the locals knock them back with portions of chips), but for some reason, I’m not feeling particularly peckish.
I’m in Skuon, about 90 minutes north of Phnom Penh. They call this place Spider Town, on account of this market – which sells the local delicacy (deep fried tarantulas) alongside other bizarre snacks such as stuffed frogs, dehydrated crickets, huge water boatmen and chunky scorpions. One of the locals tells me that they’re running out of spiders, as the demand for the local delicacy is so high. They also need to insects to make ‘tarantula wine’, where the spider is suspended in rice wine for 2-3 months before the liquid is drunk to help with muscle aches and pains. Funny, I think, that often one of the most glorious things about a country is what you see when you’re travelling from place-to-place.
The next day I take the 50-minute flight to Siem Reap. Raffles’ Grand Hotel d’Ankor is a beautiful 1930s property with delightful heritage touches – such as an intricate, old-fashioned glass elevator in the lobby and photogenic monochrome tiled corridors. Most exciting to me, right now, is the colossal, glistening aquamarine pool that stretches out from the back of the hotel like a mirage.
It is hot in Siem Reap. Really hot. Temperatures are pushing 40 degrees (a result, I’m told, of the fact that there are so many temples in the area that they soak up and hold the heat like furnaces). As both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have been guests at Grand Hotel d’Ankor, I plunge headfirst into the pool, confident that I’m sharing some sort of splashing territory with the former First Ladies.
I decide to spend the afternoon temple-gazing. On approach, the gates of Angkor Thom (a huge-scale temple ruin dating back to the 12th century) look like something from King Kong; strangler figs choke the towering rocky facade and civil-war-era bullet holes riddle the sculptures that flank the entrance. Bayon Temple nearby has carvings of more than 200 gigantic faces within its walls, but the wonderfully unrestored Jungle Temple (Ta Prohm) is my personal favourite. Now best known for its role in Tomb Raider, it’s quite literally plastered with eerie cobwebs and parasitic trees – the entrance itself tangled with sprawling python-esque vines.
The big draw here, though, is certainly Angkor Wat. Built between 1113 – 1132, the world’s largest religious temple is encircled by a vast, mirror-like, man-made moat. Adorned with the carvings of thousands of celestial dancers, the three-tiered temple is sometimes illuminated with a sunset glow that renders the stones and surrounding trees a vibrant gold. A stroll around its walls will unveil a gallery of expansive bas relief carvings, some over 100m long, illustrating intriguing Hindu mythology and colossal wars – the bloody fights between demons and gods shown as a messy teeming mass of elephants, chariots, horses and warriors.
On the water
Finally, for a different view of the country, I take to the water. The Aqua Expeditions cruise vessel is a modern ship of glass and mahogany. Suites here come with floor-to-ceiling windows, rainforest showers and cosy California king beds. There’s even a gym, spa, cinema and plunge-pool on-board. My three-day cruise takes me from Phnom Penh, up the wide murky forks of the Mekong river and back.
It’s pretty special to wake up each morning in a tangle of reeds, with mountains like sleeping goddesses looming in the distance and plumes of herons floating down to the river banks for breakfast. We disembark the boat each day to cycle through the local villages and farmland – whizzing past lemongrass fields, Jar Jar Binks cows, houses on stilts and tranquil river views.
We see marooned wooden ships, emerald green fields, dazzling spirit houses and skinny-ribbed dogs. We pass trees laden with mangos, heaving with coconuts and fields bursting with vibrant lotus flowers. Tiny monks swathed in orange traipse round on their alms-giving ceremonies, while water buffalo belch at us as we hop into kayaks for a paddle among the water hyacinth.
Each evening we return to the ship for a feast of serpent head fish curries and aromatic stir fries, followed by a bottle (or two) of wine as we watch the inky waters of the Mekong flow by. The perfect way to round off a trip to a complicated, beautiful and intriguing country.
Western & Oriental offers a ten night Essential Cambodia trip plus a four night cruise on the Aqua Mekong on an all-inclusive basis from £5,534 per person. With three nights at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh; three night at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and a guided itinerary including all excursions and transportation. This price includes return economy flights with Thai Airways and private transfers (020 3588 6130). For more information, visit www.westernoriental.com.