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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Cambodia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Cambodia.
Chartreuse rice paddies and tree-covered hills ease by as I gaze out the window on the four-hour train journey from Phnom Penh to the southern riverside town of Kampot. Arriving at the tumbledown station, before bumping along a dirt track in an outsized tuk tuk, I’m prepared for the possibility that Kampot is little more than a rural backwater. But the approach belies the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of this emerging destination, with a boom of new cafe, bar and restaurant openings propelling this historic port forward.
Set on the banks of the winding Praek Tuek Chhu River in Cambodia’s south. Kampot has long attracted foreigners, from the Malaysian and Chinese merchants plying their wares before French colonizers stamped their presence on the port town, to the Americans, Aussies and Europeans who are making it their home now, with a growing number of creative-types drawn to the city’s laidback vibe.
The days of the Khmer Rouge are finally behind it (Kampot was one of the regime’s last strongholds until the mid-1990s), and the delightfully restored Royal Railway trains began running again from the capital last April, with bright yellow and blue exteriors, pull-down windows and comfortable vinyl seats offering a charming way to journey towards a much-changed Kampot. Today you’ll find international standard restaurants tucked into crumbling French colonial building’s, attractive shop fronts that peer onto the faded beauty of the tree-lined riverfront, and cute cafes that add sparkle to the town’s languid pace. While world- famous among foodies for its pepper, Kampot receives few visitors compared to Cambodia’s temples and beaches. But with anew literary festival, a range cuisines on offer and its bucolic surrounds ripe for exploration, travelers should visit soon, before it truly takes off.
From the outside, there is little to distinguish Twenty Three from the dozens of other restaurants housed in the colonial-era building’s that line the streets of Kampot. But the unassuming eatery has flair where it matters most: in the kitchen. Since opening in May last year, head chef Owen Kaagman has quickly carved out a reputation in the town’s dining scene with perfectly balanced dishes such as the smoked mackerel pate appetizer and roasted sea bass with cauliflower puree main, which I wash down with a glass of white wine at lunch, followed by a decadent chocolate-and-salted caramel pot for dessert.
Trained in high-end London restaurants including the Michelin- starred Medlar, Kaagman now works with two domestic stoves and substitutes cold-climate vegetables with whatever approximations he can find in the local market. “It’s been a massive learning curve in terms of adapting,” he says. But while the potholed streets of sleepy Kampot are along way from London’s fine-dining’ scene, that’s just the way he and co-owner Jeremy Ashby like it. “It’s a beautiful, sleepy little town,” Ashby says, “but it’s getting busier now; you can see it happening.”
A sunset cocktail on the riverfront at the centrally located Fishmarket is the perfect way to wind down at the end of the day. Hugh Munro, who spent four years refurbishing the 1930s Art Deco building before opening the restaurant early last year, admits the town’s growth spurt has taken him by surprise. “I thought we would be ahead of the curve, but in the last six months or so we’ve had five great new places open,” he says as green-hued fishing boats putter along the river behind him. “And it’s only going to get better.”
Cafe Espresso is a Kampot institution that last year moved to one half of a cavernous former salt-storage warehouse outside the Old Market area where most other tourist-oriented businesses are clustered. “This is one of the last abandoned industrial buildings,” says Angus Whelan, who owns the popular spot with his wife, Kiara Notaras. “I had to do all of the plumbing’, electrics, water in, water out. It was a challenge.” The update was worth the work: the minimalist- industrial feel in the space is balanced by a friendly atmosphere (dogs and children are most welcome) and hearty, modern brunch fare such as the pork tacos followed by ricotta- and fig-jam pancakes that I devoured there on a recent lazy morning.
As the trickle of travelers to the town has turned into a stream, this high standard of cuisine is what people are now expecting, according to Angus, who also recently opened Kampot Espresso Bar in the center of town. Few businesses now rely on the backpacker trade of so- cent beers and “happy” pizzas (toppings mixed with marijuana) that were once Kampot staples. “We’ve got to the point that unless you’re doing something new and original, you’re not lasting,” he says.
One of the first creative initiatives that attracted visitors was Epic Arts, which began with a cafe that opened in 2006 to empower the local disabled community by providing them with employment opportunities and the chance to experiment with different art forms. Last year, the organization started staging—in the town’s iconic Old Royal Cinema—its well-received Come Back Brighter, alive telling of the country’s story, featuring some dancers who have disabilities. Shows will resume in December.
The Kampot Arts and Music Association, established a couple of years ago by the famed rock n’ roll band Cambodian Space Project and operating out of a crumbling colonial building that once served as a bordello, is providing a space for aspiring musicians to hone their myriad skills.
More recently band founder Julien Poulson was part of a team that setup the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, which had its first edition in late 2015 and has proved a rallying point for members of the country’s literary set. As well as being the staging’ point for several book launches, last year’s event fostered a relaxed atmosphere by including music workshops and oral storytelling.
Wandering along the riverfront, I stumble upon Atelier, a gorgeous store-meets- eatery designed by French Cambodian architect Antoine Meinnel and run by his brother, David. Setup to showcase the famed Kampot pepper grown on their family’s plantation, every element of the space has been meticulously thought out, from the mosaic patterned floor tiles to the soft-leather menu covers. The pepper culture started around the 13th century, in the Angkorian era, according to the writings of Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan; the Meinnel family only purchased their farm a couple of years ago after returning to Cambodia, following the civil war that ripped the country apart and scattered its citizens around the world. “Kampot pepper is a really interesting product, because [cultivation] knowledge nearly disappeared in the dark period, and there’s really a lot of knowledge in Cambodia,” David says. Atelier hopes to seamlessly blend the new with the old, atrend that’s becoming de rigueur in Kampot.
Next door to Cafe Espresso I meet Kunthear Mov, who moved from her hometown in nearby Takeo province in 2008. She co-founded ethical clothing label Dorsu after spending four years working in one of Cambodia’s many garment factories. “We can employ people in fair conditions so women don’t have to work just any job,” Mov says. She now oversees a team of 16 who produce the label’s classic, comfortable clothing lines that are sold both online and at a reduced rate from their Kampot showroom.
This creative vibe is increasingly attracting people from all over the world, Denise Ruygrok tells me at Rikitikitavi, my accommodation for two nights in Kampot. Along with her husband, she opened the comfortable, Asian- influenced hotel in a converted rice barn the same year that Epic Arts sprang up. “It was love at first sight. There was nothing then,” she says. “The atmosphere is the same, but so much has changed: there are paved roads now, restaurants, hotels, shops. Kampot has progressed.” I take in that progress as I stroll one last time along the riverbank before departing for Phnom Penh. Pepper-infused ice cream in hand. I muse over how classic Kampot and its evolving charms now manage to mingle in such sweet combination.
For designer Phillip Lim, Cambodia always seemed shrouded in secrecy. “My parents never talked to me about it,” he says. “I remember asking to go and they’d say, “Oh, no, you don’t want to do that.’ ” They’d spent a decade there before he was born, fleeing to Thailand as the Khmer Rouge tookpower, and their memories were painful ones, of a country embroiled in civil war. Still, friends said he’d love it, so when he decided on a whim to take his first true vacation in years, Siem Reap was an easy choice. With no firm plans beyond a hotel reservation, Lim spent his stay meandering through temples, cooking with locals, and soaking in the slower pace. Here, he shares a few favorite moments from the trip.
Dawn is breaking over the Gulf of Thailand as the boat drops me off at Prek Svay, a small fishing village on Koh Rong island. About the size of St. Thomas, it’s the largest of the 15 islands in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago, and the second largest island in the country.
Tucked inside my pocket is an unusual map. I won’t need it to navigate — there are no roads here, only a few bush trails that lead into the forested interior — but it might help me understand what the future holds for one of Indochina’s last untouched archipelagos.
Prek Svay is a traditional Khmer village. Plank-board houses sit atop stilts to ward off floodwaters during monsoon season and cobras during dry season. There are no guesthouses or tourist bars here, and nobody really notices as I wander the town’s sandy lanes. Mothers stoke their morning fires, rock babies in fishnet hammocks and call out to one another in singsong tones. The air is pungent with the smell of drying tuna and dung, softened only by the aroma of sandalwood incense wafting from the spirit houses.
It’s been 29 years since I was in Cambodia, and these sounds and smells bring back memories. But this is not the country I remember.
Cambodia in 1987 was reeling from the deadliest genocide since World War II. The country was occupied by Vietnamese troops fighting the Khmer Rouge. I was a young journalist on the Thai border, and my glimpses into Cambodia came from the crowded refugee centers and Khmer Rouge camps.
The villages I saw on patrols were ghost towns; tree roots spilled over abandoned houses like candle wax, and rusted cars sat in the vine-choked streets like so many gargantuan beetle shells. I couldn’t have imagined that somewhere beyond this ruin was a lost archipelago rimmed in white-sand beaches.
“Joom reab sour.” The monk’s voice brings me back to the present. I lower my gaze, press my palms together and touch my fingertips to my brow in a Sampeah, a respectful greeting. I don’t have any papaya or rice to offer as alms, but he smiles anyway, and I watch him pass down a trail until his orange robe fades in the trees.
Turning back to the village, I take my map out, unfolding Koh Rong’s future: the airport, the golf course, the marina, and the acres and acres of luxury residences.
In Cambodia, a land enjoying its first postwar breath of peace in more than half a century, the only thing certain is that the country is poised for momentous change.
“Tourists know Cambodia for two things only: Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields,” Sokheang says. “So I’m really glad you will be telling the world about our beautiful islands.” The former soldier-turned-tour-guide with Abercrombie & Kent is leading me down a trail to a remote 12th-century temple complex near Angkor Wat. We’ve left the tour-bus crowds behind.
I might be bound for Cambodia’s islands, but it makes sense for me to start my journey at Angkor Wat. After all, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the only stop most tourists make in the country, thanks in part to its role as a Hollywood set in the film Tomb Raider.
Sokheang says the government was fighting the Khmer Rouge out here up until about 10 years ago. At one temple, he points to lichen-crusted Buddha statues, their facial features pecked away. “They had no respect for tradition,” he says of the Khmer Rouge. “They used Buddha for target practice, and they placed mines everywhere.”
“This area is mined?” I stop walking. We’re a half- mile into the forest on a faint braided trail.
“Oh yes, many mines, mines everywhere” he says. He sees my face. “Oh, do not worry. We found most of them. I’ve walked this trail many, many times,” he adds. “Now let me take you to a temple tourists never get to.” Once we’re there, we drink cold Cokes and watch the steady flow of tourists, budget backpackers in tuk-tuks and middle-aged couples in air-conditioned minivans. “It’s good you’re going to Koh Rong,” Sokheang says. “It’s time for Cambodia to be known for something more than war.” What does he think of all the changes underway? Siem Reap’s skyline is full of construction cranes and signs heralding new five-star resorts. “Change is good. Starbucks is coming this year, so we’ll have some good coffee.”
I leave behind the bustle of Siem Reap that afternoon and catch a turbo-prop flight to the coastal city of Sihanoukville, packed with traffic and boisterous casino crowds. Sam, my taxi driver, points out his favorite strip bars but warns me to beware the Russian mafia.
When I tell him I’m not lingering here, I’m headed to the offshore islands, he sighs. “Before the revolution, the islands were beautiful, and you could go swimming off the beaches. Nobody lived there. It was all wild. But that all ended with the Khmer Rouge. They took the islands, and nobody wanted to go out there. If you did, you never came back.”
After spending a night in a small guesthouse outside Sihanoukville, I return to the port and board the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem. The hourlong journey in the air-conditioned boat costs $6. A group of Dutch kids are bound for the main island of Koh Rong, so I’m the only visitor to get off on Koh Rong Samloem’s long pier, jutting into Saracen Bay.
It’s a gorgeous bay. Except for a narrow gun slot facing the sea, the bay is almost completely enclosed by forested ridges. The bay is so shallow, I’ll discover later, that you can wade out for a quarter-mile and still keep your bellybutton dry.
Losing track of time is easy on Koh Rong Samloem. Living is cheap. Beers are under $1, and you can find a rustic bed for less than $10, probably $5 if you searched hard. The 2-mile-long arc of beach is backed by casuarina trees and speckled with guesthouses and restaurants. Traditional meals like sweet amok — fish curry — cost only a buck or two.
One morning, two fishermen greet me in English. Up until the revolution, the second language here was colonial French. But the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to erase all traces of Cambodia’s past, killed most of the older generation. Recently, returning refugees have brought back English learned in the refugee camps.
The men are hauling in nets left overnight on the beach. Only a few small minnows flicker among the filaments. “It’s the Vietnamese fishing boats offshore,” one of the men complains. “They’re not supposed to be here. But this is Cambodia, and here, money is everything. They bribe the navy so they can take our fish back to Vietnam.” His friend brightens. “No matter. We’ll be rich soon. The Chinese just bought Koh Rong island, and they want to buy us too. The Vietnamese and the Chinese are buying land to build resorts. Our beaches are much prettier than theirs. I’ll be happy to take their money.”
If Koh Rong Samloem is an easy island to lose track of time on, then my next stop, the exclusive Song Saa Private Island resort, makes telling time even tougher. Cambodia’s only five-star island resort, opened in 2012, is in a self-created time zone, which is one hour ahead of the rest of the country.
“We try to make it easier for our guests,” the concierge explains when their private launch delivers me to Song Saa’s pier after a 30-minute ride. “This way, you don’t need to wake up so early to see the sunrise, and the sun waits for a civilized time until after dinner to set.”
Song Saa has created a new, luxury vision for Cambodia. The island — technically two small islets connected by a wooden bridge — is located several miles north of Koh Rong Samloem and only a half-mile off the coast of much larger Koh Rong island. But it’s worlds apart from the other islands’ backpacker beaches and fishing villages.
Overwater bungalows with infinity plunge pools gaze out at the shallow sea, while ocean-view villas climb the island’s low hill. It’s a self-contained private-island resort. The pools, the restaurants and bars, the spa — everything exists right here. I soon find, however, that while Song Saa is its own world, the owners have made efforts to build bridges with the surrounding communities.
Filippo, the onsite director of the Song Saa Foundation, guides me around on local village walks and hikes. “We work closely with the villages to reduce trash through recycling, reusing and education,” he says while showing me a new water system they built in Prek Svay.
“And recently, we established the largest marine sanctuary in all of Cambodia. We’ll work closely with locals to protect and preserve the area.”
My two-bedroom villa sits on the crown of Song Saa. In the evenings while I cool off in the plunge pool, pairs of hornbills wing over and land in the surrounding trees to feed on fruit. Everything I see from the pool is an ancient, untouched Cambodia, nothing but wild coast and endless forest.
But the future of these islands and Cambodia is up in the air. Hun Sen, the prime minister for the past quarter century, was himself Khmer Rouge. When I speak with locals about politics, the conversations are whispered. One guide only speaks to me about it when he discovers I speak Spanish, a language our driver doesn’t understand. “The government still kills anyone who is against them,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge never left Cambodia. They only changed their uniforms.”
That fear, however, is balanced with a hopeful optimism about the future. Wedged between the economic powers of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is seeing a huge influx of money, and tourism is starting to boom. Everyone I speak with dreams of development and easy money. They want to sell their homes, their beaches, their islands. And who can blame them?
My futuristic map of Koh Rong island on which golf courses and luxury villas replace wild forest? I downloaded it from the website of a company that had recently secured a 99-year lease of the island.
Near the end of my stay on Song Saa, I head back to Prek Svay village. The resort has arranged for me to receive a blessing from the monks before I leave. In their simple wooden temple, I sit cross-legged before the same monk I greeted earlier on my visit. lie is wrapped in his flame-orange robe and has a distant, peaceful smile. Together with two younger monks, he begins to chant in Sanskrit.
The head monk picks up a hammered tin bowl and mixes lotus petals into the water. He dips a bundle of sticks and sprinkles me with a cool mist. Then he ties a red yarn around my right wrist.
“To keep you safe and happy in the future,” the translator explains.
I close my eyes, make the Sampeah and quietly wish the same for these monks and their beloved country.
Abercrombie & Kent is a luxury outfitter exploring Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Its two-week Images of Indochina & Angkor Wat departures from September through April include Phnom Penh and the Angkor Wat complex at Siem Reap ($6,500 per person). A&K can also arrange a custom journey to include other parts of Cambodia, such as the Koh Rong Archipelago. Song Saa Private Island resort is the only five-star island property in Cambodia and has both overwater bungalows and hillside villas; all-inclusive packages start at $1,440 per night. The resort offers plenty of opportunities to explore the culture and landscapes of the surrounding islands. Neighboring islands in the Koh Rong Archipelago have a wide range of guesthouses and small resort accommodations. Visas for U.S. citizens are available on arrival at the airport.
WHEN TO GO
Dry season is November through February. The weather gets unbearably hot from March through May, and much of the countryside takes on a dry, brown appearance. Rainy season, from June to October, brings lower prices and less sunshine, but the country’s jade rice paddies and jungles are the most photogenic.
Remove shoes and hats before entering a temple (or home), and be sure to cover your arms and legs out of respect. Learn to do the Sompeoh (hands pressed together in prayer form) when saying hello and goodbye; when greeting an equal, keep your hands at chest level; raise them to your lips when greeting an older person; raise them to your brow when greeting a revered person (like a monk).
U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Credit cards are fine in the tourist centers of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but bring cash for the islands.
Imagine the Maldives, but with more depth and personality. Here the clever Aussie owners, Rory and Melita Hunter, have created an ethics-first eco retreat, as well as supplying spoiling luxury with a high thread-count.
There’s a spa offering aromatic massages, vast villas with private splash pools hovering on stilts over the lizard-green water, and a superb waterside restaurant with a chill-out lounge and spicy fish amok on the menu. (Eagle rays launch themselves from the water as you eat mango and coconut for breakfast.) But beyond the industry-standard palm trees and beachside infinity pool, the differences are telling.
The oil drums repurposed as light fixtures, for instance, and the villa’s outdoor tables made from gathered driftwood on which guests mix their own drinks, with ingredients and instructions provided.
Then there are the sustainability projects, the hotel’s work supporting local communities and its marine conservation, all evidence of a keen commitment to the area. Not that any of it is forced upon guests. It’s perfectly acceptable to do nothing more than spend the day kayaking around the uninhabited island of Koh Rong, followed by a massage under the stars.
Angkor, spread out over an area of about 40 miles in northwestern Cambodia, was the capital of the Khmer Empire from A.D. 800 to approximately 1200, and was abandoned in 1431, following the conquest of the Khmer kingdom.
After decades of war and strife, its temples and monuments are once more open to travelers, and are among the world’s premier architectural sites. The city’s highlight, Angkor Wat, is a temple complex built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. It took 25,000 workers over thirty-seven years to complete the construction, but after the fall of the empire, the complex remained unknown to the outside world until 1860, when French botanist Henri Mahout stumbled upon it deep in the jungle.
Constructed in the form of a central tower surrounded by four smaller towers, it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and is embellished throughout with exquisite statues, carvings, and bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
Though considered a less-stellar attraction, the nearby fortified city of Angkor Thom boasts at its heart the Bayon, the last great temple built at Angkor. The Bayon is surrounded by fifty-four small towers that are now, like all of this magnificent religious complex, entangled in the dense growth of the implacable Cambodian jungle. The steamy undergrowth and mysterious play of light and shadows joins nature’s work to man’s, evoking an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom atmosphere.
Now restored to its 1930s colonial splendor by Raffles International, the Grand Hotel Angkor is the ideal home base in the area, with a state-of-the-art spa and 14 acres of gorgeous gardens.
Once considered the loveliest of the French-built cities of Indochina, Phnom Penh has managed to preserve much of its charm through the violence of Cambodia’s recent history; let’s hope the same can be said after the current invasion of foreign investors and joint ventures.
The best way to savor this fascinating city as it rediscovers itself is to stroll its wide, bicycle- and pedicab-jammed avenues, which are lined with colonial architecture in various stages of repair, and stop in at one of the sidewalk restaurants that are springing up around town.
In the midst of it all, the sprawling Royal Palace is off-bounds to visitors except for a magnificent consolation prize, the Silver Pagoda compound. This is one of the country’s rare showcases for the brilliance and exuberance of Khmer art and civilization.
Pol Pot destroyed most of it, but he overlooked masterpieces like the life-size gold Buddha, weighing close to 200 pounds and adorned with over 9,500 diamonds, the largest approaching 25 carats. One can only wonder what the Royal Palace is holding back.