Cambodia: Unearthing the Past
s the sun warms ancient stones, and sleeping giants seemingly come to life, Cambodia awakes to another temperate morning. The gentle chanting of prayers permeates the still, misty air while the stupa-studded landscape is awashed in an orange glow. Saffron-swathed monks weave in and out of the rock passageways in single file, as visitors begin to assemble for a glimpse of the historical masterworks.
Steeped in history and traditions, Cambodia beckons travelers across the globe with the world-famous Angkor Wat – but the rest of the country often remains overlooked. Home to unexplored coral reefs, patches of virgin jungles, and some of Southeast Asia’s largest wildlife preserves, the country truly is a treasure trove of diverse ecology.
From the heydays of the Angkor Empire to the dark underworld of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has undergone decades of highs and lows. The nation’s history is too complex to be summed up in just a few words; yet even today, remnants of the past can still be seen on the streets.
Although still recuperating from the aftermath of the civil war, the people of Cambodia do their best to make tourists feel at home. Coupled with their friendly disposition, the Cambodians’ deeply seated passion to reveal tourism attractions and their rich cultural history has become a national priority. So while neighboring Thailand is known for its “Thai smile,” the Cambodians welcome you with their beaming hearts.
Geographically smaller than the state of Oklahoma, Cambodia is a compact country – but it sure packs a punch. With over 14 million people living in the kingdom, the diverse landscape is distinct both culturally and geologically.
The country spans the massive Cardamom Mountains in the west to the remote islands off its south coast, across the mighty Mekong River that cuts through the center of Cambodia, and ending in the wild, treacherous mountains of the east. Each region is a world unto itself. Whether it’s history, culture, adventure or just pure relaxation you’re after, Cambodia promises a well-rounded trip for the curious traveler.
Unleash Ancient Civilizations
Magnificent and time-warped temples await in Siem Reap
Duration: 1-2 weeks
he tourist hub of Cambodia, Siem Reap, is home to several ancient temples dating back to the 12th century. An ideal way to get acquainted with the country’s ancient history is to comb through its thousands of temples. The temples range from meticulously manicured grounds to ruins reclaimed by the wild jungle in various stages of reconstruction.
Angkor Wat is by far the most iconic and prodigious of the temples, pictured on the flag as well as incorporated into many business names and titles. As the largest Hindu complex in the world, the towering stone megaliths are accessible via a stone bridge over a massive moat system. The centralized temple is a short walk from the main entrance of the site and it symbolizes the home of the gods. Panoramic vistas can be taken in from atop the structure itself or from the nearby hot-air-balloon viewing platform, a popular sunset destination.
Only a short ride away, Angkor Thom sits deeper in the jungle and is another prevalent tourist destination near Angkor Wat. Sunrise is the best time to visit Angkor Thom, as the molten reds bring fleshy tones to the ancient ruins, almost awakening the stone giants from a primordial slumber. Leafy vines crawl all over the crumbling walls of the ruins, while intricately decorated Buddha statues hide within aged shrines.
Plan a full day to visit Banteay Srei Temple, the “Citadel of Women.” Erected in the 10th century, this structure is delicately carved with lively figures of monkey guardians andflowering branches. Surrounded by a wide moat, this seemingly floating citadel is well worth the lengthy commute, at almost two hours away from Angkor Wat by tuk tuk.
Combine this with a day trip to Tonlé Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake that is home to several water-based communities.
Treasures of the Jungle
Asian elephants and tigers roam the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary
Duration: 1 week
ith the natural habitats of wildlife shrinking across the globe, the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary plays host to a variety of rare and endemic animals including the Asian elephant, tiger and cloud leopard. Spanning an area of 225,000 hectares (2,250 square km) in the Mondulkiri forest, the sanctuary is one of the largest protected areas in mainland Southeast Asia. First designated as a forest reserve in 1962 by King Sihanouk, the sanctuary was then established in 1993 by Royal Decree. Now it is partially supported by the Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The tourist center is a great way to start your explorations in the sprawling reserve. Single-day and half-day guided trips are available at the center. Home to wild bantengs, tigers and numerous bird species, the sanctuary is teeming with exotic critters as well as diverse ecosystems ranging from hilly evergreen forest to wet grasslands. Hosting the largest Asian elephant herd in eastern Cambodia, the region also has more tigers living in the wild than anywhere else in the world. Elusive clouded leopards and jungle cats join their cousin, the Indochinese tiger, in the sanctuary as well. Phnom Prich is also one of the last strongholds for the endangered green peafowl and the white-winged duck, both of which are extremely rare these days.
Homestays are available within the Mondulkiri Protected Forest at the Dei Ey village, where you get a chance to interact with the indigenous Phnong people and learn about their way of life. It’s also worthwhile to make a day trip to the Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), a non-governmental organization, founded to help treat sick or neglected domestic elephants.
If you’re a photography enthusiast, start your trek early in the morning, when creatures are most active and easy to spot. You’ll also be avoiding the mid-day heat. Be sure to pack a telephoto lens – you’ll be surprised by how close you can get to wild animals in one of the last wildernesses of Southeast Asia.
Giving Back: Volunteering
Contribute your time to children in need
Duration: 2-4 weeks
merging from the tragic memories of the Khmer Rouge, Ponheary Ly strives to rebuild her country through education and by providing for the youth of Cambodia. In 2006, she founded the Ponheary Ly Foundation, a charity organization geared towards educating the new generation. As a CNN Hero of the Year, she has been honored for her tireless work in creating institutions, such as the Srayang Dormitory.
Located in Koh Ker, Srayang Dormitory is one of the many schools Ponheary Ly has helped set up. The rural village is tucked in the northern reaches of Preah Vihear Province and it is very remote – but this is also where help is needed most.
Primary schools are free to attend in Cambodia, but not all children go as many families keep them home to help on the farm and earn money. At Srayang Dorimitory, all of the children who can’t afford to attend are supported by the foundation.
You can contribute to the education of young Cambodian students, whether by teaching computer skills or giving English classes. Experience life in the rural communities in Koh Ker and get to know Cambodians on a far deeper level than you would as a tourist.
Not just that, you’ll also get to explore this remote part of the country during your free time. As the capital of the Angkorian Empire from AD 928 to 944, Koh Ker is home to some of the most inaccessible temple complexes in the country. The massive Prasat Thom dominates Koh Ker, rising above the jungle with a garuda figure on its rooftop. Other temples worth visiting include Prasat Krahom (Red Temple) sculpted with stone archways and red-bricked galleries; and Prasat Chen where the statue of the wrestling monkeys, now lying in the National Museum of Phnom Penh, was discovered.
Just three hours away from Siem Reap, Koh Ker is equipped with few tourist infrastructures – but therein lies its charm. For those who would like to experience lonely temples partially overgrown by the forest and inhabited only by birds, Koh Ker is the place to go.
Roaming Empty Beaches
Get cast away on remote islands in the south
Duration: 1 week
hile Cambodia is just a hop away from the well-trodden island trail of Thailand, its secret beaches surprisingly remain empty. Sprinkled along the southern coast are tropical islands, furnished with nothing much than a few beach huts and miles of pearly white sand.
Sihanoukville, also known as Kompong Som, is a port city and also the gateway to the islands. As a popular backpackers haven, it’s affordable and relatively quiet (as compared to the popular beaches in Thailand). Named in honor of the then-king, Sihanoukville was built in the late 1950s to create Cambodia’s first and only deep-water port. During the 1960s, when Cambodia opened its doors to the world, the city started making a name for itself.
The big attractions around here are the four beaches ringing the headland. They might not be the region’s finest but it’s still possible to have stretches of sand to yourself. On weekends and holidays Sihanoukville is extremely popular and can get crowded with wealthy Phnom Penhers.
For scuba enthusiasts, you can easily book your dives at Koh Kong, where you’re just a hop away from the best dive sites in the country. The liveaboard program with Scuba Nation Diving Centre provides local insights to fish hangouts and rare aquatic finds. You can sign up for snorkeling or dive trips to Koh Tang and Koh Rong, some of the most beautiful islands off the coast.
Whether you’re a diver, beach bummer or simply a holidaymaker looking for somewhere tranquil to relax, the southern coast is a perfect spot to do just that.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012).