PHNOM PENH

Aside from the heat and almost tactile humidity, the streets of the vast, 
sprawling capital city are seemingly governed either by complete chaos or an unreal sense of mutual respect. Cars, trucks, scooters, traditional tuk-tuks and motorbikes all compete for the same space. The only thing preventing massive pile-ups (I only noticed three traffic lights during the 30-minute journey from the airport to the hotel) is the slow speed with which everyone navigates. Vannuk, our guide for the first leg of our journey, gave us a brief run-down on the current state of Cambodian politics while on our way to Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, our home for the next two days. Sofitel.com

DAYTIME
The National Museum
Built in 1917, the museum mimics traditional Khmer architecture and houses relics and statues from all over the ancient Kingdom of Cambodia. An over-sized bronze cast of a reclining Vishnu takes centre-stage in one of the display rooms and is breathtaking for its incredible detail. The huge sandstone garudas, in Hindu mythology the beast that Vishnu rode, are my firm favourites. Pay a few dollars to dedicate a jasmine wreath to one of the gods while you’re there. Cambodiamuseum.info

Sofi tel Phnom Penh Phokeethra
Sofi tel Phnom Penh Phokeethra
Image: Matthew McClure
The Khmer triumphed over a horrific disaster to become a proud,
friendly people

The Royal Palace
The residence of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni is one of the many buildings found within the Royal Palace compound. Pay a visit to the famous silver pagoda, where the floor tiles are cast from solid silver. Take a walk along the outer galleries and enjoy the impressively detailed Ramaketi frescos, which are being lovingly restored after years of tourist wear and tear.

Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum 
Millions of Cambodians lost their lives during Pol Pot’s vicious social experiment in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge mercilessly restructured Khmer society, closing hospitals and schools and outlawing any capitalist activity. Cities were evacuated and the populace was forced into backbreaking manual labour in the outlying rural areas.

Those suspected of conspiring against the regime were abducted and held in a former high school in the centre of the capital, then known as S21, where they were kept in appalling conditions and confessions were forced using inhumane forms of torture. To get a real sense of the sheer scale of the slaughter, visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where a huge commemorative stupa (a traditional structure used to house the ashes of the dead in Khmer culture) contains the excavated skulls and bones of victims. Tuolsleng.com

National Gallery, Phnom Penh
National Gallery, Phnom Penh
Image: Matthew McClure
National Gallery, Phnom Penh
National Gallery, Phnom Penh
Image: Matthew McClure

NIGHT TIME
Independence Monument
This impressive structure was built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France. The square in which it’s situated is a hub of activity any day or night of the week, with young Cambodians lounging around 
enjoying picnics and catching up on gossip. It’s quite a sight at night, when all the lights are switched on.

Kanika Floating Restaurant and Bar
Take someone special on this beautifully appointed catamaran that offers meals and drinks while cruising the Tonle Sap river. I got the distinct impression that the focus is firmly on the experience of drinks on a river cruise rather than the food, but the friendly waiters and the occasional shipboard karaoke party that crosses your path make it completely worthwhile. You’ll need to access it through the Himawari Hotel entrance. Facebook.com/kanikaboat

Romdeng Restaurant
This is a firm favourite with the tourist set and stepping into the beautifully lit gardens that surround the colonial French villa in which the restaurant is situated, it’s easy to see why. Romdeng offers traditional cuisine in a delightful setting in the heart of Phnom Penh. Feeling brave? Order a plate of fried tarantulas. Just to say that you did.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Image: Matthew McClure
Independence Monument, Phnom Penh
Independence Monument, Phnom Penh
Image: Matthew McClure

SIEM REAP

This resort-style city is located about 300km north of Phnom Penh and serves the many thousands of tourists  making their way to the various temple complexes each year. The beautiful Siem Reap river meanders through the town centre and serves as a useful reference point for finding your way.

Our guide, James, told us that recent government projects had done wonders to clear illegal building from the banks, making the water cleaner and ridding the area of many waterborne diseases. Our home away from home was the charming Shinta Mani Club and Resort on Oum Khum Street, where a cool, 
scented hand towel awaited us at the end of a long, hot journey from the airport. Shintamani.com

DAYTIME
Angkor Wat

Set aside at least half a day to visit this sprawling temple complex, built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat is arguably the most internationally recognised temple in Cambodia and is still a site of significance, national pride and daily worship by many Khmer people. This enormous 
sandstone edifice in its original Hindu incarnation is meant to represent Mount Meru, the mountain residence of the gods.

Each tier is progressively steeper, symbolising the difficulty of ascending to the upper reaches of heaven. The outer galleries are decorated with many 
thousands of metres of intricately detailed bas-relief carvings, illustrating scenes from the mythological Hindu Ramayana and Mahabarata.

Angkor Wat temple complex
Angkor Wat temple complex
Image: Matthew McClure
Devata, Angkor Wat
Devata, Angkor Wat
Ancient Statue, Angkor Wat
Ancient Statue, Angkor Wat
Image: Matthew McClure

Look out for:
The one Devata, or guardian spirit carving, revealing her teeth while smiling The Hall of a Thousand Buddahs, where devotees  placed a small statue of the sage at the end of their pilgrimage. Monks removed and buried many of these statues during Khmer Rouge rule in an effort to protect them. The delicious chicken curry with jasmine rice at Khmer Angkor, a restaurant at the end of the western causeway leading to Angkor Wat. This is the best place to relax in the heat of the day with a cool drink and a spectacular view of the temple.


Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was built to serve as the capital city of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. It is located just over a kilometre from Angkor Wat and is accessed by its impressive southern gate, which is decorated on either side by stone balustrades formed by larger-than-life Devas and Asuras, churning the mythological sea of milk using the seven-headed Naga snake.


Look out for:
The large man-made pools that would have traditionally been used by the king and his family for bathing. Village children now regularly use them for cooling off in the heat of the day. Ask your guide about grabbing a shot of one of the faces that decorate the southern gate from atop the ancient city wall. It’s easy to climb and worth the effort. The beautiful upper galleries and corridors on the top  tier of Baphuon Temple. From here you can appreciate  the massive reconstruction and preservation effort that has kept the temple from crumbling into dust.


Ta Prohm Kel
Situated within the walls of Angkor Thom, this small, unassuming temple was a centre of learning for Buddhist monks at the height of Jayavarman VII’s reign. It has been left largely unrestored and the roots of silk cotton trees and strangler figs writhe in and out of the stonework. The location shot to fame when it was used in the 2001. Hollywood blockbuster, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and attracts a massive influx of tourists and film buffs on an annual basis.

Killing Fields, Stupa
Killing Fields, Stupa
Image: Matthew McClure

NIGHT-TIME
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
This ancient temple on top of a hill predates Angkor Wat and was built as the focal point of a new capital city by King Yasovarman (889–910). Be sure to cover your knees and shoulders in advance of your visit. Arrive at least two hours prior to sunset as the incredible popularity of this site for photographers catching the sunset over Angkor Wat means that authorities limit visitor numbers to 300 at peak times.

Phare Cambodian Circus
This talented troupe of performers are former Khmer street children who have been given a second chance at life. The circus was co-founded by a former Khmer Rouge survivor who lost her friends and family to the genocide. On on the evening of our visit, we watched a touching interpretation of her life story. Aside from the technical skill involved, the performance was particularly touching as it illustrated the amazing spirit of the Khmer people, who triumphed above a horrific national disaster to  become a proud, welcoming and friendly people. Pharecambodiancircus.org

Pub Street
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve suddenly washed up on a beach in Thailand as you navigate this night-time hot spot. Locals and foreigners alike frequent the various bars and restaurants lining Street 8, and towards the early hours of the morning during any day of the week, the revelry spills out onto the street itself. Alcohol is served in buckets and is cheap, so be warned.

Kanika Boat, Floating Restaurant
Kanika Boat, Floating Restaurant
Image: Matthew McClure

TRAVEL NOTES

You’ll get a foot in the door immediately with the locals if you use the traditional Cambodian greeting, Sampeah. Bring your hands together in prayer-like fashion and bow your head slightly. This ancient form of acknowledgement was outlawed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. ]The currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. The exchange rate is roughly R30 to one riel, but I would advise travelling with plenty of American dollars on hand.

All the locals use dollars for daily transactions, both in the urban and rural areas. Keep in mind that, while you’ll be able to exchange your dollars upon your return, you won’t be able to do the same with the local currency. Be aware that temple complexes are still regarded as sites of worship for the Khmer people, and as such should be accorded respect and reverence. Ask your guide for the dos and don’ts of conduct.

For example, at Phnom Bakheng, resist the urge to drape your legs over the edge of the carvings as you relax and take in the sunset as this is regarded as disrespectful. The average temperature in Cambodia is around 27°C from 
October until March. This is the cooler and drier winter season and makes for more comfortable travel, especially as you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors. Summer temperatures can exceed 40°C. Organise your visits to temples over lunchtime, as crowds are thinner in the heat of the day.

Cathay Pacific Airlines
Cathay Pacific Airlines
Image: Matthew McClure

LOOK LIKE A TOURIST
Immersing yourself in the culture and ambience of a foreign land and people can be an intimidating experience . With its “all bases covered” approach, Wendy Wu Tours takes the legwork out of organising your trip. Our guides in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap deserve a special mention for being flexible, accommodating and gracious.

Wendy Wu Tours will pre-book your guides in advance, in addition to organising permits for visiting the various temples, transport to and from your hotel and even meals. Don’t forget that daily tips for your guide are not included in the overall  rates so you’ll need to budget an extra $5-$7 a day for this. Wendywutours.co.za


GETTING THERE
Cathay Pacific runs flights that depart regularly from OR Tambo International Airport to Hong Kong. Their hospitality did much to relieve the drudgery of a 12-hour flight and their new premium economy offering is surprisingly spacious and comfortable. From Hong Kong International we flew straight into the capital, Phnom Penh, which is a three- to four-hour flight. Once there, you can take a bus into Siem Reap (an eight-hour trip, due to the current state of the roads), or book a short flight with Dragonair. 


Gallery of additional images:


May 2015

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