Marvel at the palaces,
markets and bars of the capital, Phnom Penh, before heading north to
Siem Reap for excursions to a floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake and the
extravagant, inspirational temples of Angkor. From there, it is south
to the untouched jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, finishing with a
homestay on a rural family farm.
Phnom Penh: Best for culture Phnom Penh
is eerily quiet. A sole remork – the usually ubiquitous motorised
rickshaw – rolls languorously past the Royal Palace to a deserted Tonlé
Sap riverfront. Here, among the shuttered-up shops facing the palm-lined
promenade, food stalls sell noodle soup and beef skewers to infrequent
The peace doesn’t last. As the Khmer festival that
emptied the city ends, Phnom Penhois who’d been drawn to rural family
gatherings in their tens of thousands flood back to the capital and the
beguiling chaos resumes. After a troubled history, which reached its
nadir with the Khmer Rouge’s enforced eviction of the city in the ’70s,
the ‘Pearl of Asia’ is thriving, with a flourishing café culture and a
glut of world-class fusion restaurants.
has added an extra sheen to its cultural institutions too, many of
which were built during Cambodia’s French Protectorate era, beginning in
1863. Among these is the Art Deco Psar Thmei, a pastel-yellow covered
market with four wings radiating from an enormous central dome.
few hours after dawn and the Central Market, as it is also known, is
already a blur of browsing and bartering. Business is brisk at textile
stalls selling traditional checked krama scarves, while elsewhere
chattering shoppers weave past fruit outlets piled with lychees and
crimson dragon fruit, and stalls overflowing with lotus flowers and
bunches of fragrant Rumdul, Cambodia’s national flower.
Just a few
blocks from the market, the National Museum is close enough to the
riverfront to receive some of its welcome breeze. A group of
schoolchildren in matching white polo shirts and flip-flops plays in the
shade of the terracotta building’s neatly tended garden while, inside,
visitors reflect upon 1,000 years of Khmer sculpture.
Royal Palace, with its glistening spires and dragon-tail details, still
dominates the city’s low-rise skyline. In a corner of one of its
courtyards, a team of artists is working to restore a 1901 mural of the
Reamker – Cambodia’s version of the epic Hindu poem the Ramayana.
I did classical painting at university, we studied the Ramayana,’ says
lead artist Roeung Sreyna, gesturing to the mural behind her, where
spirits and horse-drawn chariots float over a celestial palace in the
The project is slow and technical. Matching the colours
takes time, as does cleaning stains and fixing damage from humidity. ‘We
take one section at a time,’ she says, pointing at a three-foot-wide
band. ‘Two months for each section, and we have to work slowly. If it
were a normal painting, we could do it in a year, but this is our
history, so we have to take care.’
Tonlé Sap: Best for lake life In
the village of Me Chrey, the streets are made of water and the wooden
houses float. The village’s 500 families are among the thousands who
have settled on the surface of the freshwater Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s
‘Great Lake’, where, not surprisingly, life revolves around the water.
As dawn breaks, Me Chrey is already abuzz. Toddlers paddle small
aluminium tubs down the main street, fruit and vegetable sellers in
bright floral clothing and conical hats navigate boats between houses,
and householders check for breaches in ‘fish banks’ – submerged reed
baskets where fish are kept until market day. Shouted greetings and
lively chatter are punctuated by the occasional snort of a pig from a
floating pen. Further out on the water, a family retrieves traps and
nets laid out in wide, intricate arrangements.
It’s an itinerant
existence. The floating houses, which are tied to one another, are moved
by the villagers four times a year to follow migrating fish stocks. The
lake’s wildly fluctuating dimensions also a play a part – in the rainy
season, Tonlé Sap swells to more than 6,000 square miles, raising the
floating houses by around eight metres. Dry season sees the potential
spots to anchor reduced significantly.
Sok Ang has lived in the village for more than 30 years. Four years
ago she opened up a shop, connected to the family’s one-room home, which
she runs while her husband and children do the fishing. Today, however,
the kids sit behind with some neighbours, watching a soap opera on a TV
connected to a car battery – the main source of power in the village.
The shop sells all the necessities, from shampoo to cooking oil as well
as lotus-seed snacks. ‘I sell whisky, too, but beer is more popular
around here – especially Klang beer, which means strong,’ says Sok,
laughing. The shop doesn’t have a name – at least not officially.
‘Everyone calls it Yeay [Grandma] Ang’s shop. I don’t have grandkids,
but the village calls me that.’
Me Chrey is one of the less
visited of Tonlé Sap’s villages and seeing it by kayak is the most
atmospheric way to experience it. There is none of the noise or fuss of a
regular tour boat, allowing the visitor to glide past a clump of water
hyacinth and observe a gaggle of black-and-white mynah birds cavorting
undisturbed. The sedate, unmotorised pace is also more in tune with
village life. Following guide Chin on a meandering tour of the back
streets, a wooden boat squeezes past in a narrow channel. It’s powered
by a small girl, with equally diminutive oars. From the back, her baby
sister waves excitedly. Children look up from swinging hammocks to note
the kayaks’ silent passing.
Paddling a kayak is easy, but not
effortless; the perfect refreshment comes in the form of a strong, sweet
iced coffee served by a mother and daughter in a covered boat that is
part coffee shop, part convenience store. Competition for Grandma Ang –
but here, in this remote, placid, water world, it’s no surprise to learn
that cooperation holds sway. ‘The whole village are friends,’ says
Grandma Ang. ‘I know everyone. If a family has a celebration, we all go
to help out. Same if someone is sick – if one family has a fast boat,
they’ll bring them to the mainland. We all have each other.’
Angkor: Best for temples It’s
late afternoon in an incense-filled hall in Angkor Wat. A tough-looking
teenager in sunglasses and ripped jeans approaches an altar. On woven
plastic mats, women pray to a Buddha statue, barely visible through the
thick jasmine smoke. A fortune teller earnestly reads Jataka tales –
stories of the Buddha’s former lives – and from the surrounding
cloisters, lined with smaller, standing and seated Buddhas draped in
saffron silks and fresh garlands, the sound of distant chanting echoes.
The teenager takes off his trainers, carefully placing them next to the
women’s flip-flops, and silently puts his hands together to join the
group in prayer.
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious
structure, an architectural representation of the Hindu universe and the
undoubted star of a massive temple city built, over the course of 600
years, by dozens of rulers who considered themselves part god, part
king. Known today, rather prosaically, as Angkor Archaeological Park,
the 150-square-mile site was the political and cultural centre of the
Khmer empire and at its peak supported a population of one million.
temples are still active centres of faith and everyday life today.
Among the tourists who cross Angkor Wat’s sandstone causeways to explore
its warren of chambers, courtyards and covered galleries are ranks of
the devout. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is now bereft of the vast
majority of its eponymous statues – a legacy of the brutally destructive
Khmer Rouge era of the early ’70s. Yet its spiritual significance