Angkor Wat, the magnificent focal point of the Khmer civilization, jumps to the forefront of everyone's mind with the mention of Cambodia. The Khmer civilization (802 - 1431 A.D) is without doubt one of the most intriguing cultural entities to have influenced Southeast Asia. For many intrepid travelers, this is the ultimate reason to visit the country. Yet Cambodia has so much more to offer international travelers in terms of a rich cultural, natural and historical heritage. Not only are there the world renowned Angkor Wat complex and surrounding temples, steeped in history and mystique, but for those who enjoy relaxing on tropical beaches, the country offers some of the most beautiful unspoiled beaches in the world. Just off the coast lay coral studded islands and exotic fish, while inland, indigenous flora and fauna, waterfalls, and tropical forests all await discovery. Cambodia covers an area of 181,035 square km and is divided into 21 provinces. It is bordered to the north by Thailand and Laos, to the east and south by Vietnam, and to the south and southwest by the Gulf of Thailand. Much of Cambodia is relatively flat with vast tracts of land given over to rice production. Other areas of Cambodia are mountainous, including the Dangrek, Cardomen and the Elephant mountain ranges. Cambodia has places of interest all over the country but the principle attractions can be divided into three main areas: Phnom Penh, Siemreap (Angkor), and the South coast. That said, more and more people are heading off the beaten track and venturing into the hill tribe regions of Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, and the Kirirom National Park.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The centre of the Khmer Civilization was located in the Angkor Wat area, which is situated on the plain of present-day Siemreap province, north of the Great Lake of Tonle Sap. Throughout the course of Khmer history, the battle for supremacy on the throne was frequently attained by violent means. There were successive capitals built by different kings in the region, not far from each other. These capitals are in the area of Angkor Wat and Roluos and carry different names such as Harihalara, Yasodharapura, Jayendanagari, and Angkor Thom as well as few with unknown names. The Khmer civilization's territory once spanned much of what are now Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The architectural achievements from this period are without equal in the region and are on par with the wonders of ancient Egypt or the ruins of the Aztec civilization. The in-depth study of the Khmer civilization is a pain-staking collaborative effort by historians and archaeologists. Most of what is written was found after the excavation of Angkor when carved stones revealed aspects of the basic constituency of Khmer society and its chronology. They told of religious rituals, King's praise, and the literature of Indian epics of "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata". There was little said about ordinary life of the Khmer people. Interestingly, information about the daily way of life came not from the Khmer themselves, but from Chinese records. In the middle of 13th century during Chinese Yuan Dynasty, a Chinese ambassador named Zhou Daguan traveled to Angkor, stayed with the local villagers, and explored the empire for a year before his return. He wrote in his Chinese chronicle about this amazing empire, and explained vividly how the people lived, resulting in a clear portrayal of the Khmer society during the period.
Siem Reap, the provincial capital, is a pleasant sleepy town serving as a base for visitors to the ancient capital of Angkor. With the recent completion of international standard hotels including the renovation of the famous Grand Hotel D'Angkor, the more than one hundred ancient temples and monuments in the vicinity can be enjoyed in style and comfort. Well-organized guided tours ensure visitors make the most of their holidays regardless of their length of stay. Though not essential, a well-informed professional guide will enhance any tour, providing insight and history often not available in guide books. Many of the temples are best viewed at different times of the day due to their geographical orientation and the angle of the sun.
Phnom Penh centre, Cambodia
Cambodia's modern capital is an animated bustling city nestled on the banks of the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Mekong and the Tonle Sap. These rivers then split again as the Mekong and the Tonle Bassac, at a place known to the Khmers as Chaktomuk, meaning four faces. Phnom Penh is truly reminiscent of a colonial town with its wide tree-lined boulevards and low-rise buildings dating back to the days of the former French colonial power. There is a large choice of entertainment venues around Phnom Penh ranging from lively nightclubs to quiet social venues, karaoke bars and fully licensed casinos. For those interested in cultural offerings, there is traditional Cambodian music and dance, such as the graceful and popular Apsara dancing which dates back to the Angkor period. There is also the Russian-trained royal ballet and performances of classical Western music. The French Cultural Center offers something different every night from dance to theatre to cinema and music. Bars and nightclubs dotthe riverbanks. One such place is the Foreign Correspondents' club, an eclectic watering hole for expatriate residents and foreign visitors. Additionally, many international hotels provide live entertainment in the way of jazz pianists and vocalists singing contemporary ballads. Overall, Cambodia's guests are never short of interesting distractions regardless of taste and personal preference.
Silver Pagoda (or the temple of the Emerald Buddha), formerly a wooden building, was rebuilt in 1962 in concrete and marble. The pagoda is floored with over 5,000 silver tiles each weighing 1 kilo. It is famous for its 90 kg solid gold Buddha made in 1907 and an emerald Buddha said to be made of baccarat crystal. Sharing the pagoda are many other interesting artefacts and jewels. It is one of the few temples to remain intact during the Khmer Rouge regime. This is a religious shrine so please remember to dress conservatively.
Designed by George Groslier and the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens, the National Museum was built in 1917 in traditional Khmer style and inaugurated in 1920 by King Sisowat. The National Museum houses the world's foremost collection of ancient Khmer archaeological, religious, and artistic artefacts from the 4th to the 13th centuries. There are over 5,000 pieces and is the repository of the Kingdom's cultural wealth. In addition, the roof space is home to the largest bat colony in the world living in an artificial structure. Every evening these bats flock out of the roof and swarm around in the sky before searching for food.
Unfortunately, the royal residence, set back from the riverfront, is closed to visitors but is still visible from the outside and well worth seeing. It is located between the Silver Pagoda and National Museum.
Located on a man-made hill twenty-seven meters high in the middle of Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom is a revered place of worship for all Khmers and is the namesake of the capital. The original pagoda was built in 1373 to house four Buddha statues said to have been deposited by the waters of the Mekong. The temple is the focal point for many Buddhist ceremonies especially Pchum Ben. Wat Phnom has a unique atmosphere and is surrounded by various fortunetellers, mystics, faith healers. Elephant rides around the site are available.
Tuol Sleng Museum, known as the Museum of Genocidal Crimes, was used by the Khmer Rouge as a detention and torture center in the late seventies. Today the building houses exhibits, paintings and photographs of many of its victims. Visitors can see the crude cells built in the classrooms and the torture devices used to extract confessions.
Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, Cambodia
Killing Fields of Cheung Ek is situated 15 km southwest of Phnom Penh and made famous by the film of the same name "Killing Field". It was a place where more than 17,000 civilians were killed and buried in mass graves; many of them transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. This place is a chilling reminder of the brutalities of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. In the center of the area is a 17-story glass 'stupa', which houses 8,000 skulls exhumed from the mass graves.
Note: Both Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields exhibits may be disturbing for some and are not suitable for younger children and adults who are easily shocked.
Built in 1958 as a memorial to Cambodia's war dead after the gaining of independence from France in 1953, the monument, built in the Angkor style, consists of five levels decorated with 100 snakeheads. It is at its most impressive later in the afternoon with shadows highlighting the complexity of the design and giving the structure a warm orange glow.
The recently refurbished riverfront park is the focal point for Phnom Penh residents' leisure activities. Early risers can see the many locals welcoming the new day with Tai Chi and other exercises while the sun rises majestically over the river. In the early evening and all day Sunday many people stroll, picnic or just sit and watch the world go by. Local delicacies are served by vendors all along the riverfront and visitors can indulge in dried salted fish or other favourites such as boiled duck embryos still in the shell.
The pretty river town of Kampot is just five km from the sea. Once a fashionable haunt of the French elite, it was known as La Perle de la Cote d' Agathe. There are stunning offshore islands viewed from the serenity of a beautiful bay. King Sihanouk owned one of these islands and would often use it for entertaining. This region is famous for its production of durian, the foul smelling fruit, and is reputed to have the best seafood in the country.
Giant sea anemone at Kompong Som, Cambodia
Kompong Som, Cambodia's only maritime port is 232 km from Phnom Penh and accessible via one of the best inter-provincial roads in the country. Kompong Som is not only a seaport but also an area famous for its picture-postcard tropical beaches. Situated on a headland, visitors can choose from a range of beaches, several of which often remain completely deserted. The most popular are Ochatial beach and Sokha Beach due their immediacy to the town. Local fishermen will take visitors to any one of the nearby islands where the coral, teeming with tropical fish, is perfect for snorkelling, diving, and fishing. There are many restaurants catering to international tastes but its well worth trying the freshly caught crab, shrimps and other seafood the region has to offer.
In keeping with the colonial practices of the time, many of the French elite, unaccustomed to the heat of Cambodian summer, retreated to the Bokor Hill Station set in the Elephant Mountains. At an elevation of just over 1000 metres, it is famous for its pleasant climate, clear streams and tranquil surroundings. Visitors will be taken with the forested vistas and breathtaking views of the sea. The best time to visit is between November and May.
A full day trip to Mekong Island is an excellent way to sample the daily lives and traditions of rural life in Cambodia. This ten-hectare island has been planned as an authentic showcase of the cultural, zoological, and agricultural diversity and richness of Cambodia. The tour price includes transport, an excellent lunch and a captivating show of traditional Cambodian dance. There are also elephant rides available on very friendly Asian elephants.