Go East is a series from Lighthouse that brings you countries and destinations that lie east of India and have not hit the big time yet on the travel circuit. Forget Europe, forget Australia, forget Morocco. Give a miss to South Africa, drop the trip to the US, keep New Zealand waiting. Go east with Lighthouse as we move to Cambodia having covered Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
There is more to Cambodia than the Angkor Wat. Coming out of a tumultuous and bloody recent past, Cambodia is becoming a hub of attraction to tourists from across the world. There is a lot to discover in this once forgotten land and a lot to do as well. There is history, there is natural beauty, there is action, there is relaxation. So, to stand out from the crowd, head to Cambodia. Then you will truly be able to say, “Been there, done that.”
For those a bit weak on countries and their capitals, Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. True to its magical sounding name it is a mixture of the old and the new, of charm and chaos, of calm monks and bustling business on the banks of the Mekong river. There is the National Museum for a look into the glorious past and the Tuol Sleng Museum that covers the more recent, bloody period. The Royal Palace has two magnificent pagodas in the Palace Grounds, the Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, that you must see. Remember though that the palace closes between 11:00am and 2:00pm and that bare legs or shoulders are not acceptable – so, dress accordingly. Of course, you have the local markets always astir where a bargain or two are always to be had. There is food – from the street kind to the upmarket, designer kind. Ditto for shopping. Nightlife centers mostly along the riverside area.
Sihanoukville is your destination if you must visit the beach. A baby by Cambodia standards – the town came into being only in the 1950s as the country’s only deep sea port – Sihanoukville is named after the then king. Of course, he died recently but in the 1950s he was king king. Anyway, there are four beaches to choose from and the weekends do get a little busy with the cream of Phnom Penhers descending for their beach fun.
Having come this far you possibly cannot return without marking your presence at the great and mighty Angkor Wat. What can we say about this magnificient piece of architecture that has not been said before? We will refrain from adding and suffice it to say that the temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia. It is the national symbol, the epicentre of Khmer civilisation and a source of fierce national pride.
Siem Reap is the gateway city to Angkor Wat but does have its own offerings. There is the Angkor National Museum as is to be expected. Wat Bo, one of the oldest temples, makes a nice contrast between the oldest and the glittering new ones though it does not match the craftsmanship of Angkor. But you will find French style arches and balustrades with Thai influenced Buddhist details. Angkor Silk Farm gives you a break from the heavy dose of temples and ancient architecture while you discover the silk making process.
A river trip from Siem Reap lands you in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city with some of the best-preserved French-period architecture in the country and warm and friendly inhabitants. The Hindu influence is a little more open here that can be seen in the statues on the roundabouts in town. Apart from some more temples and monasteries, do check out the bamboo train and Phnom Sampeu, a hill with the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge, a few other caves adorned with Buddhist statues and a monastery with two Buddhist Stupas on the hilltop.
If wildlife is what interests you then Kratie is your destination. Go Irrawaddy dolphin watching – there are only 85 of them in the Mekong. Birders can look for the Mekong Wagtail that can be found in this stretch of the river. Early morning might find them hopping on rocks near the dolphin area. And, there is a turtle sanctuary after all this! Kratie also has an expansive riverfront and some of the best Mekong sunsets in addition to French-era architecture that somehow escaped the ravages of various wars.
Bokor National Park – officially called Preah Monivong National Park – is spread over 1,581 sq km of protected land, most of it rainforest, that’s home to the tiger (nothing to do with the ancient Indian influence), chestnut-headed partridge and green peafowl. In addition to the forest itself, with its unceasing insect and bird calls, the park’s other attractions include Popokvil Falls and the abandoned French hill station of Bokor. On a clear day, there are stunning views down into the valley from Bokor taking in Kampot town, the coastline of Kampot and Sihanoukville.
So, if you too want to tick Cambodia off your bucket list, just call Lighthouse on (0) 9818905024 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The calmness that will pervade you after your visit will be a bonus!