For most, the temples at Angkor are Cambodia. Actually, it’s only the beginning of an intriguing story that runs from unspoiled jungle landscapes and ancient treasures to sophisticated hotels and elegant shopping.
By Jim Thompson
When the opportunity came up for select members of the World Travel Media Guild to visit Cambodia, I was excited. For adventure lovers, Cambodia is a treasure trove of lost empires, tropical landscapes and exotic cuisine – a rare undiscovered and unspoiled jewel in the heart of Indochina.
A very reasonable flight cost from LAX to Bangkok – my jumping off point for the Cambodia adventure – made the decision to go all the easier.
Arriving in Bangkok, I headed for the Eastin Grand Hotel Sathorn (http://eastingrandsathorn.com). Located in the Sathorn business district in the heart of the city, the hotel has its own access to the BTS Skytrain, Bangkok’s mass transit system (http://www.bangkok.com/bts). The elevated electric trains are safe, efficient, cheap and the best way to explore all the cultural, business and shopping opportunities of the city.
The Eastin was the perfect location. The Skytrain offered an easy, bargain-priced way to see the major attractions of the city and the area supplied plenty of restaurants and shopping within walking distance. At a most reasonable cost (depending on dates and room type) it offers elegantly furnished, spacious rooms, excellent restaurants and a top floor infinity pool with spectacular views of the city,
Next door is the renowned Blue Elephant Culinary School and Restaurant (http://www.blueelephant.com). It can take months to get reservations, but it’s worth the wait. Located in the historic Thai Chine Building, the restaurant features a staggering array of authentic Thai cuisine from traditional recipes to modern twists on classic dishes.
Bangkok was also the gathering point for our group. Joining my wife Adelina and I for this magnificent adventure were WTMG Executive Committee Member Nikolai Minert (Finland) and his lovely wife Ljuba (Estonia); WTMG Executive committee Member Victor Radulescu (Romania) and his associate Vasile Brancusi also from Romania; Miroslava Badjeva (Bulgaria); Marina Shamrai (Russia); Danielle Perrier and Gerad Antonetti (France).
You’ll Need a Guide
Our introduction to Cambodia actually came in Thailand where we met the man who was to be our group’s guide – and ultimately, our friend – in Cambodia. Theng Samban (we called him Sam), the owner of Merry Travel Asia (http://www.merrytravelasia.com) met us at the hotel and accompanied us as we drove across the Thailand/Cambodia border (about four hours).
Merry Travel Asia – which actually began by working exclusively with other tour agencies – is rapidly becoming one of the top tour companies working directly with business and private clients in southeast Asia. The main reason for this transformation is the vast knowledge of the staff combined with the leadership and vision of owner Theng Samban. Not only do they work with the most reliable, reputable and professional tour operators in the country (assuring they can offer any type of tour you may want), but they guarantee the lowest prices available.
Before we even got started, I realized the value of having a professional guide. Land travel is a great way to see the country, but the border crossing is difficult to navigate and not recommended without a professional guide service. A guide will save you time and money and make the experience all the more enjoyable.
Sam was able to get us accommodations at the wonderful Pacific Hotel & Spa in Siem Reap (http://www.pacifichotel.com.kh/). Featuring 236 rooms and suites, the Pacific blends Khmer architectures with contemporary design, modern conveniences and five-star service. Best of all, it is only minutes from the great temples.
Deep in the forests of this area in the north of the country rise the elegant stone spires of what was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Besides the great Angkor Wat, Angkor Architectural Park is a sprawling complex covering 250 square miles and encompassing more than 50 temple ruins, including the jungle-strangled ruins of Ta Prohm made famous in the film, “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.”
Considered one of the greatest man-made wonders of the ancient world, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and unrivaled in scale or grandeur. Built for the Hindu god Vishnu and know as the “temple mountain,” it fuses creativity, symmetry and spirituality within its stone wall. It is the very symbol of the country.
Carved into the stone stretching around the central temple complex are more than 3,000 heavenly nymphs (Apsaras). Hindu legend says these sultry, seductive celestial singers and dancers had ultimate power over mortal and immortal males because of their remarkable beauty and elegance. Each carving is unique and, while faded with time, their haunting beauty reaches beyond history.
Seeing this great temple is an overwhelming experience matched by only a few places on earth. There is a sense of calm that lays on the stone spires and bas-relief carvings bringing a tingle to the spine, while, at the same time, imparting a sense of well-being. Despite the crowds, there was little noise to interrupt the sense of calmness and tranquility. While most scurry to explore the towers and carvings, this is a place to be savored, not rushed. Sitting in the shadow of the great Angkor Wat as the centuries unfold before you is an experience like no other.
Siem Reap is also home to some of the finest restaurants in Cambodia, like the Skoha River Restaurant (http://www.sokkhakriver.com/). Serving French fusion cuisine that includes such delicacies as pan-fried salmon steam with snow peas, in a garden setting, the Sokha River is a delightful place to relax after a long day visiting the temples.
Nearby, stands the gigantic stone faces of Bayon and the jungle-swallowed Ta Prohm beckon. The enigmatic faces gracing the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom make it one of the most remarkable – and magical – buildings on earth. Over 200 mysterious god-king faces carved on the 54 towers stare out from a time long past in this mystical place.
Fans of Indiana Jones will recognize Ta Phrom’s crumbling walls and towers that are permanently locked in a deadly embrace with the marauding roots of jungle trees. The temple has been left in this unclaimed state giving one a sense of how many of the monuments of Angkor looked when first seen by European explorers. It is, in some ways, an other-worldly reminder of the awesome and relentless power of the jungle.
Construction on this Buddhist temple, which began in 1186 and dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII, was originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King). It is believed that nearly 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend at the temple, among them more than 2700 officials and 615 dancers.
The most popular attraction at Ta Phrom is the a tree root formation on the eastern side of the central enclosure of the temple that is nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. It is also called the “Tomb Raider Tree,” since it is where Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie) picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth.
Sam, our guide, sensed our feelings about the rich history of this place and scheduled a special luncheon catered by Restaurant Collection (http://www.restaurantcollection-sr.com) in the jungle on the grounds of the Praat Thom pyramid in Koh Ker. Located about 75 miles from Angkor Wat, Koh Ker was the capital of the Angkor Empire from AD 928-944 and one of Cambodia’s more remote temple complexes.
We dined on Cambodian delicacies just steps from the step pyramid. This almost Mayan-looking sandstone-faced monument rises 140-feet above the jungle floor. It was another reminder to see this part of the world with an experienced guide.
We continued our ‘native’ experience with a stop near the Laos border to visit the Khone Phapheng Falls – the widest (8.5 miles in the wet season) and one of the most stunning falls in the world – followed by an overnight stay at Mekong Bird Resort in Stung Treng (http://www.mekongbirdresort.com).
This eco-friendly resort standing on the banks of the Mekong River offers an authentic experience in wood bungalows that take you close to nature while offering modern convenience (even WiFi). Nestled in the trees, the Mekong Bird Resort features organic food from ingredients grown right in their own lush gardens in a relaxing atmosphere.
An endless procession of motorbikes whiz through throngs of pedestrians; street vendors offer everything from handmade items to fake Rolex watches and Gucci bags; pungent aromas from make-shift kitchens serve up local foods that include fried crickets and brazed spiders; all of this set to the endless drone of an industrial city against the backdrop of golden temple spires peeking through modern high-rises along the Mekong River.
The city will catapult you from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge seen in the Tuol Sleng Museum to the splendors of the Royal Palace. Phnom Penh is chaotic, intriguing, fascinating and alluring.
Our home-away-from-home while in Phnom Penh was the majestic Sokha Phenom Penh Hotel & Spa (http://www.sokhahotels.com/phnompenh/). Featuring 549 rooms, five top-rated restaurants and a full service spa, it offers luxury in a comfortable setting and a respite from the chaos of the city.
Sokha Phnom Penh is strategically located on Chroy Changvar peninsula and opposite the Royal Palace, the Sokha Phnom Penh provides breathtaking view of the majestic Royal Palace, Chaktomuk River and a wide sweeping view of the Cambodian capital city.
Although it can be a difficult experience, the Tuol Svay Museum of genocidal crimes is an important stop for any visitor to Phenom Penh.
Housed in an ordinary looking former school, the Tuol Svay Museum is a horrific abyss that chronicles the torture and death of more than 17,000 people by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1978. Black-and-white photos show the pain, anguish and suffering of men, women and children. It can be a profoundly depressing experience to see evidence of such horrors but it I also a testament to the victims and the government which has vowed they will not be forgotten.
Shinning like a grand jewel box among high rise buildings near the waterfront, the gilded Royal Palace links the past and present. As the official residence of King Sihamoni, only part of the compound is open to the public. Topped by a 200-foot high tower inspired by the Bayon Temple, the Throne Hall is the highlight. But, the star attraction is the nearby Silver Pagoda. Housing diamond and silver encrusted Buddhas, it is named for its floor which is covered with five tons of shimmering silver tiles,.
Here, the extraordinary Emerald Buddha (it is believed to actually be made of green jasper) sits atop a gilded pedestal illuminated by a ray of sunlight from above. Nearby stands a life-size solid gold Buddha. Adorned with 2,086 diamonds, the largest weighing 25-carats, the Buddha weighs nearly 200-pounds. Intricate ceremonial masks and extensive murals grace the walls and highlight other treasures like the 175-pound bronze Buddha, the Silver Buddha and figurines of solid gold that tell the story of the richness of the Khmer civilization.
Originally, the pagoda was constructed of wood in 1892 during the rule of King Norodom and then rebuilt in 1962. It was preserved by the Khmer Rouge to show the outside world its concern for the conservation of Cambodia’s cultural riches. Unfortunately, much of the pagoda’s contents were lost, stolen or destroyed in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion. But, what remains, is spectacular and speaks to the richness of the Khmer civilization.
Other structures in the complex include the shrine of King Norodom (1860–1904); an equestrian statue of King Norodom; the shrine of King Ang Duong (1845–59); a pavilion housing a huge footprint of the Buddha; a pavilion for celebrations held by the royal family; the shrine of King Norodom Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Suramarit (1955–60); and a bell tower, whose bell is rung to order the gates to be opened or closed.
Food throughout Cambodia is special, but what you find in Phenom Penh ranges from the spectacular to the bizarre. By their own admission, Cambodians proudly tell you that they “will eat anything with four legs except a table and anything that flies except an aircraft.”
Open markets feature specialties like tarantulas, grasshoppers and other creepy crawly things along side of pepper cooked crab, fresh fish from the Mekong and coconut-infused Khmer curries.
One highlight of our time in Phnom Penh was dinner on board the Golden Cruise Phnom Penh that cruises to Tonle Sap, Basac and the Mekong River. The food (dishes include a wide array of western and Khmer dishes). Besides dinner cruises they offer lunch and sunset adventures.
We were also privileged to meet with Tith Chantha, the Secretary of State of the Kingdom of Cambodia. During the meeting (which included all of the WTMG members in Cambodia) plans were made for future visits and for a strong cooperation between Cambodia and the World Travel Media Guild. Future events in Cambodia will be announced in the coming weeks.
Like its capital city, Cambodia is a crossroads of culture, history and wonders packed into a thriving, turbulent, congested, glistening, grimy, thrilling jumble that is both defined by – but is more than – its spectacular temples.
IF YOU GO
VISA. From most countries, visas can be obtained upon arrival at border crossings and at airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. There are some countries that do not require visas for visitors and others that cost more. Check with the government of Cambodia for details and information.
TEMPLES. Pass to visit the temples and sites in Angkor Archeological Park can be purchased on site. Cost (in U.S. Dollars): $37 (one-day), $62 (three day), $72 (seven day).
WHERE TO STAY
Pacific Hotel & Spa (Siem Reap). 236 rooms & suites. Blends Khmer architectures & contemporary design and convenient to temples. $50-$400. http://www.pacifichotel.com.kh/
Mekong Bird Resort (Stung Treng near falls). 20 rooms. Eco-friendly resort on the banks of the Mekong River offering authentic experience. $25-$50. https://samchansokthy.blogspot.com/2016/07/mekong-bird-resort-stung-treng-place-to.html
Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel (Phenom Penh). 549 rooms. Top hotel featuring five restaurants & full-service spa. $100-$2,400. http://www.sokhahotels.com/phnompenh/
WHERE TO EAT
Sokha River Restaurant. (Siem Reap). French Fusion Cuisine in a garden setting. http://www.sokkhakriver.com/
Viroth’s Restaurant (Siem Reap). Traditional Khmer cuisine in contemporary setting. http://www.viroth-restaurant.com/
Batchum Restaurant. Set in lush tropical gardens and just a short distance from the main temples of Ankgor. http://batchumkhmerkitchen.com/
Madame Butterfly (Siem Reap). Cambodian cuisine mixed with Thai and Chinese influences in a traditional wooden house & tropical gardens. http://www.restaurantcollection-sr.com/
Golden Cruise Restaurant (Phenom Penh). Lunch, Sunset and Dinner cruises offering traditional seafood dishes. http://goldencruise-phnompenh.com/
FCC Restaurant. Khmer dishes infused with French influences and western dishes. http://www.fcccambodia.com/red/phnom_penh/restaurant_bar.php
Asian Square Restaurant. Fresh, organically grown local dishes in a relaxed, contemporary setting.http://www.asiansquare-restaurant.com/
Merry Travel Asia. Tours and guides for small and large groups. (It is highly recommended that you work with a guide when traveling to Cambodia.) https://merrytravelasia.com/
NOTE: Members of the World Travel Media Guild visited Thailand and Cambodia from May 17-25, 2017)