How to do Cambodia now - our travel editor's guide


08 Feb 2018

From the ancient magnificence of Angkor Wat to the mid-century coastal charm of Kep, Pamela Goodman discovers a Cambodia recovering from its painful, war-torn past

4Corners Images

There is no escaping the cliché of sunrise at Angkor Wat and, no matter what time you arrive, there is no escaping the crowd, which multiplies inexorably as the night sky gives way to the first golden hues of dawn. But whatever the number of camera-touting tourists jostling for position, nothing can truly diminish the serenity and magnificence of the monument's lotus-bud towers reflected in its lily pond.

4Corners Images

Too many people rush a trip to Angkor, forgetting - or perhaps not knowing - that, in their quest to tick off the bucket list, there are numerous temples to explore. We take our time, spreading our visit over three days and rising early each morning before the heat kicks in. With us is our guide Ohm, who magically secures us pre-crowd entrance to the fabulous twelfth-century Ta Prohm, the second most visited temple after Angkor Wat and more commonly known these days - thanks to the Indiana Jones film - as the Temple of Doom. We sit among the giant, tangled roots of the fig and silk-cotton trees that have been absorbing the temple slowly back into the jungle since its abandonment in the fifteenth century and hear Ohm's story. Cambodia's war-torn past is a sensitive subject, but people are prepared to talk more openly about their personal experiences. Ohm's father, he tells us, was a government minister in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge wrested control in 1975; he was incarcerated in the notorious S-21 torture, interrogation and execution centre - now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - and never seen again.

In Siem Reap, though, we have the most uplifting encounter of our stay, taking a dusty evening tuk-tuk ride to the outskirts of town from the elegant Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor, where we while away the searing, post-temple heat of each day in one of the most beautiful hotel pools imaginable. The big-top tent we are delivered to is home to the Phare Circus, an inspirational troupe of orphaned or unprivileged young entertainers rescued from poverty and schooled in the performing arts. The stories they tell through art, dance, music and acrobatics are personal stories of abuse and hardship, of death and destruction and of triumph against the odds.

In a country that is trying hard to re-establish itself in the face of a frail democracy, where several former Khmer Rouge members are still in positions of influence (not least Hun Sen, the prime minister and president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party), the Phare Circus is shiny with optimism. Siem Reap, too, positively buzzes with creative energy, much of it due to an expanding community of young and talented entrepreneurs delving into fashion, design, food and tourism.

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And the feeling is no different on the coast. At Kep, a one-time upscale beach resort in the south-western corner of Cambodia, an air of sophistication is creeping back. Strung ribbon-like along a two-mile stretch of coast, this small village became so popular with the French colonial elite from the Twenties to the Sixties that it earned the moniker Kep-sur-Mer. Wealthy Cambodians retreated here, too, from the claustrophobic heat of Phnom Penh, many commissioning modernist villas designed by the Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann who was a student of Le Corbusier. In the Seventies, however, the Khmer Rouge put paid to Kep's glamour, ransacking these symbols of prosperity and colonialism and leaving nothing but charred, bullet-ridden ruins, which now stand forlornly among gardens strangled with weeds.

Alamy

And then along came Belgian Jef Moons, who rescued three of the most spectacular villas right on the waterfront, restoring them to create a stylish 18-bedroom hotel, Knai Bang Chatt. On the adjacent plot, accessed through a large wooden door in the garden, he created The Sailing Club, a white clapboard seafront restaurant with a wraparound veranda and long wooden jetty stretching into the sea. There are sailing boats to rent and a new indoor/outdoor lounge area for sunset drinks and late-night revelry. It is all very East Coast America until the sights and sounds of Kep's lively crab market a few hundred metres along the shore draw you back to Cambodia. And it is to here that every visitor should go, to one of the over-water, wooden-stilted shacks (Holy Crab is the most famous) for the region's signature dish - fresh crab with Kampot pepper sauce.

Times are a-changing off the mainland, too, with two of Cambodia's tiny islands being the focus of the country's push upmarket. Both the Six Senses and Alila chains are opening hotels on Krabey and Koh Russey, paving the way for a greater influx of well-heeled tourists to travel beyond Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh. For the moment, though, exquisite little Song Saa, in the Koh Rong archipelago, continues to top the pile of beach resorts, its luxurious eco-chic credentials setting a new benchmark in Cambodia when it opened in 2012. Its founders, Australians Rory and Melita Hunter, were well ahead of the game back then, not simply in terms of the hotel they created but in recognising that with time, love, education and investment, Cambodia could turn its back on the past and welcome a brighter future.

Ways and Means

Pamela Goodman visited Cambodia as a guest of (01242-787800). Ten nights cost from £4,978 per person, including four nights, B&B, in the Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor, three nights, B&B, at Knai Bang Chatt and three nights, all-inclusive, on Song Saa Private Island in a Jungle Villa. Flights and private transfers are included.

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