Look beyond... Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is wonderful, but there’s much more besides to recommend Cambodia. Siem Reap resident and writer Lara Dunston explains why the country shouldn’t simply be tagged on to a south-east Asia trip, and is worthy of exploration in its own right.
The beautiful blue and red glow spreading behind that inimitable profile of the temple roofs makes sunrise at stupendous Angkor Wat one of the world’s most longed for, most lyricised travel experiences, and it more than lives up to the hype. For many visitors to Cambodia it is the sole reason for coming, the focus of a few days in the country, and usually tagged on to a tour of other south-east Asian countries, such as Laos and Vietnam. I too spent most of my inaugural short stay exploring the ruins, and tasting all the wonderful food in markets and restaurants, but returned home to Bangkok, where I was living at the time, hungry for more.
So much so that in 2013 I decided to move permanently to Siem Reap – departure point for Angkor Wat. I quickly realised how much more the country has to offer, especially when I explored the rural and coastal regions, where low-key development has raised their game for travellers. Cambodia really warrants thorough exploration, I believe, and I urge others to come for a week or two at least. Friends who tell me they are intending to travel through south-east Asia for a month are taken aback when I urge them to spend the whole time in Cambodia, but they never regret it when they do. Overleaf I share my best discoveries with you.
Faces of ancient Bayon Temple At Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Siem Reap beyond the temples
A flourishing arts scene, fabulous shopping and Cambodia’s finest restaurants are good reasons to linger longer in the increasingly sophisticated ‘Temple Town’. Kandal Village is a cool neighbourhood of Chinese shop-houses selling covetable items. I like Trunkh’s original gifts like vintage shop signs and kitsch tea towels, and Louise Loubatieres’ textiles, ceramics and lacquerware. A short tuk tuk ride away is artist Theam’s House, with its leafy sculpture garden and labyrinthine galleries where artisans work. Nearby, at fashion designer Eric Raisina’s couture house, weavers work on traditional looms.
Siem Reap’s increasingly sophisticated dining scene grabbed global attention when French chef Joannès Rivière’s Cuisine Wat Damnak landed on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 50 in 2015, and climbed to 43 in 2016. It fell off the list in 2017, but other Cambodian-helmed restaurants have taken the helm. Celebrity chef Luu Meng’s palatial Malis is favoured by Phnom Penh elites when in town (try beef curry in lotus leaf); neighbouring Chanrey Tree offers refined renditions of home-cooked Cambodian food (seafood with Kampot pepper; grilled stuffed frog; pineapple fried rice); and The Embassy, Mie Cafe, Mahob Khmer, Pou, and Spoons all serve inventive modern Cambodian cuisine.
Cuisine Wat Damnak © Cuisine Wat Damnak
The countryside around Siem Reap
Siem Reap is a brilliant base for excursions to lesser-known temples beyond Angkor, and to the floating villages of the serene Tonlé Sap lake, south-east Asia’s largest. A 30-minute tuk tuk ride out of town lies lush countryside of lofty coconut palms and rice paddies. While most travellers visit sublime Banteay Srei – the pink sandstone ‘citadel of women’, renowned for its intricate carvings – very few explore Banteay Srei district. They should.
The new Banteay Srei Community Tourism Association offers immersive tours by tuk tuk and ox cart to see small cottage industries and farms, where you can try your hand at noodle making, planting rice and basket weaving.
The temples beyond Angkor
90-minute drives from Siem Reap, sprawled atop Phnom Kulen (‘mountain of lychees’) are the remnants of an early Angkor-era temple-city buried beneath the forest floor. The existence of the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata was only confirmed in 2013, by archaeologists using cutting-edge laser technology. In 802AD, it was where King Jayavarman II was crowned ‘universal monarch’ of what would become one of Asia’s most powerful empires, the Khmer.
Three hours’ drive south-west from Phnom Kulen is sixth-century Sambor Prei Kuk, one of Cambodia’s oldest temple cities, with 100 ruins scattered over 1,400 hectares of forest, marshlands and rice fields on the Sen river. Close by, Kompong Thom town is rarely visited by tourists, yet has a riverside, French-owned boutique hotel, Sambor Village Hotel, and an evening market.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Battambang’s old town contains some 800 historic buildings, from an atmospheric 150-year-old Chinese temple to splendid French colonial mansions. Phare Ponleu Selpak, Cambodia’s largest performing and visual arts school, was established there in Anchang village by a group of Cambodians who bonded in a Thai refugee camp after the Pol Pot era. Many graduates have gone on to open their own galleries in town.
Another hit is Jaan Bai, a stylish social enterprise restaurant with art, which provides training and employment for disadvantaged youths and is supported by master chef of Thai cuisine, David Thompson. Battambang is a great launch pad for tuk tuk excursions to rice paddies and rural villages, where a smattering of historic pagodas and medieval temple ruins punctuate your trundles. These include 11th-century Phnom Banan’s hilltop towers and shady Ek Phnom, which survived Khmer Rouge battles.
Temples & musuems of Battambang
Walking in the Cardamom Mountains and Koh Kong
The jungles of the Cardamom Mountains and Koh Kong Conservation Corridor teem with birdlife and wildlife, such as hornbills and gibbons, and make for wonderful hiking. North of Koh Kong, the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge has comfortable safari-style tents floating on Tatai River, and is a good base for light treks and kayaking mangroves.
Later this year, Shinta Mani Wild, designed by Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley, is set to open, with even more luxurious tents perched over a river and waterfalls in the Tmor Rung wilderness between Kirirom and Bokor National Parks. This nature reserve is one of south-east Asia’s last remaining habitats for wild elephants, bears and tigers, and the project will help to protect a 400-acre river valley from logging, poaching and mining, and give guests opportunities to walk with rangers.
Shinta Mani Wild
Cambodian coast and islands
The south coast’s empty, powder-white stretches of sand and aquamarine waters are still something of a secret, often overlooked in favour of Thailand’s better-known islands. I know where I’d rather be.
Rapidly developing Sihanoukville has the finest beaches but there are plans to transform it into a mini Macau, with colossal casino resorts lining the coast. Until work begins, ‘Snooky’, as its nicknamed, is perfect for a few days in the sun. Koh Rong’s beach has squeaky-soft sand
Otres beach, Sihanoukville
Recommended C&K tour: Cambodia Explorer –16 Days & 13 Nights from £4,225
Venture beyond Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh on a comprehensive private tour through the Khmer kingdom. Explore the remote temples of Kor Ker and Beng Mealea, visit alluring Battambang and explore the mangroves and jungles of the Cardamom Mountains in south-west Cambodia.