BEYOND ANGKOR WAT
THERE’S MORE TO SEE IN CAMBODIA
By Ian Robert Knight
For most people, when they think of Cambodia, two things probably come to mind. They likely think of the genocide that happened in the 1970’s, and they think of the incredible Angkor Wat temples. But Cambodia has a lot more to offer than that. When you visit this fascinating country in Southeast Asia, make sure you allow time to explore beyond Angkor Wat.
The bustling capital city of Phnom Penh has seen a lot of change in the last 40 years. After democracy was installed, and a normal way of life returned to the capital, things have continuously gotten better and bigger. Now, Phnom Penh is one of Asia’s liveliest capitals, and a place everyone should visit for a few days at least.
Personally, I really love spending time in Phnom Penh. You can really see the history everywhere. Much of the French colonial past is still very visible when you wander through the city streets. And the Khmer and Thai influences are clearly identifiable as well.
The main area of the city, where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet, is a great place to spend a day. Within a short, walkable distance, you can visit the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum. And there’s no better way to end the day than having dinner or cocktails at a riverside cafe.
Royal Palace Complex
A couple of the more interesting things to see in the city are the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace. They’re completely accessible to visitors, and makes for some wonderful photographic opportunities. The grounds are only open during the day, but they do light up the buildings at night. And since some of the buildings are visible outside the grounds, they can still be photographed when twilight approaches.
Who doesn’t love a good market? This huge market is hard to miss when you’re in town. Known in Khmer as ‘Psar Thmei’, which literally translates as ‘new market’, it has one of the largest domes in the world. The original design is sort of an Art Deco style, and has recently undergone some renovations, breathing some new life back into this popular spot. It’s such a great place for photographs, and to practice your bargaining skills.
Maybe a museum dedicated to explaining the atrocities of a genocide in the 1970’s doesn’t sound appealing. But it’s actually a very interesting, if not somber, history lesson that everyone should have. It’s chilling to think that a peaceful people could suffer such indignities at the hands of their government, less than 50 years ago. But they did, and you should visit the sites to learn the stories.
Hotel Le Royal – Elephant Bar
Our hotel of choice in Phnom Penh, is the Hotel Le Royal, a Raffles Hotel property. It’s one of the oldest, and certainly one of the grandest hotels in all of Cambodia. It has undergone extensive renovations over the years to keep it modern and luxurious. The Elephant Bar is a fixture for discerning travelers in Cambodia. In its heyday, it hosted luminaries such as Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin and Jaqueline Kennedy. It’s a wonderful place to sip on a gin n’ tonic, from their ‘Ginventory’ on a hot summer afternoon.
Of course, you wouldn’t be in Cambodia without spending time in Siem Reap. This ‘second city’ is the closest town to the mighty Angkor Wat and other temples. But there are, in fact, other things to see and do in town.
The main market in Siem Reap is certainly worth a visit. Although it caters mostly to tourists, there are plenty of terrific photographic opportunities to be had when you wander the stalls. The wet market is especially colourful and energetic. Here, you’ll find vendors selling every variety of meats and produce. Look out for the fresh frogs — one of Cambodia’s specialties. Yum.
Speaking of eating frogs (which you really should try), Siem Reap has a thriving dining scene. With all the 5-star hotels dotted around the city, plus the millions of foreign visitors arriving each year, the city has grown up. There are countless high-end dining experiences to be had now. You could eat some incredible meals every night, that would make you think you’re in New York, Paris or Tokyo. For a mix of continental and Khmer flavours, try places like Cuisine Wat Damnak, Chi Restaurant & Bar, or Embassy.
Tonle Sap Lake
I’ve written about the floating (or stilted) villages here in the past. Tonle Sap lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The size of the lake changes considerably between the wet and dry seasons. During the wet season, water flows into the lake, and laps at the porches of the houses on the lake. During the dry season, the water flows out of the lake, and the 10 meter high stilts that keep the houses above the lake floor are revealed. It’s truly fascinating.
Although it may not be well-known outside of Southeast Asia, you can actually run a half-marathon race through the grounds of Angkor Wat. Imagine racing through one of the most historically interesting places in the world, at sunrise. The Angkor Half Marathon runs every year in December, usually when we are there. In addition to the 21km half marathon, there are 10K and 5K runs, and a 3km Fun Run. Participating in the 21K, 10K, or 5K will garner racers a keepsake medal and certificate. What a great way to see Angkor!
Cambodia – Not Just for Angkor!
Everyone should visit Cambodia. But when you do, just keep in mind that there’s a lot more to see and do than just visiting the Angkor temples. Give yourself time to see what else this wonderful country has to offer. See it with us, either in December or the spring trips.