Shedding Light on a Hidden Gem

17th August 2018

Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia often feels as if it plays second fiddle to its neighbours. Holidays to South East Asia often focus on the beaches of southern Thailand or the natural beauty of Halong Bay in northern Vietnam, and a trip to the region may only include Cambodia as a brief add-on, if at all. But once you get into the country, you may, like Chris Ambrose, find yourself wanting to stay longer…

Dragging ourselves out of bed at 4am with the promise of a cold shower feels both a curse and a blessing. The early hour gives little relief from the soaring temperatures that make the nights a struggle, but, bleary-eyed, we mount our rickety hired bicycles and set out tentatively on to the dark and eerie streets of Siem Reap – our destination: Angkor Wat, one of the so-called ‘eighth wonders of the world’. The target for many visitors is to watch the sunrise over the temples here, and as we frantically pedal through the leafy surrounds, north of Siem Reap, we join the crowds in time to see the distinctive silhouetted outline of the world’s largest religious complex (which features on the national flag) evolve beneath the morning sky. It is undoubtedly impressive, and, pleasingly, given the huge scale of the area it doesn’t feel overrun by visitors, offering plenty of space to absorb the majestic scene in peace.

Bicycles turn out to be the perfect way to navigate around the vast area that contains the numerous temples in various states of ruin, allowing freedom of movement and generating a much welcome breeze as the day progresses and the temperature roise. If two wheels aren’t for you, you can hire a tuk tuk to take you around instead. Wandering through the sandstone structures allows a close-up inspection of the grand architecture and ornate carvings found throughout, as well as access to the beehive-esque towers that have survived to varying degrees since the twelfth century.

Having had our fill of the key attraction of Siem Reap, we decide to head off to a lesser known part of the country. An bus journey, rather unnerving thanks to the customary erratic driving and poorly maintained roads, takes us to the slightly tacky surrounds of Sihanoukville on the coast. After a day spent on the crowded and grubby main beach of the town, we take a gamble and board a catamaran ferry for the 45 minute journey to the island of Koh Rong Samloem.

Stepping onto the jetty at the end of the trip, we are presented with the most idyllic island setting I’ve ever come across. Clear waters lap gently against the white sand of the vast shallow bay, where palm trees line the beach and a light breeze circles around us. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s a glorious cliché. Perhaps the strongest sense we are hit with, as we drop down onto the warm sand, is the tranquility of the place. After travelling through the renowned bustle of South East Asia we suddenly find ourselves at a place with no roads –and therefore we have escaped the all-too familiar buzz of two-stroke engines from the countless mopeds.

Bumbling along the soft sand beneath the palm leaves with our luggage (without roads, it’s a walk or taxi boat transfer around the bay), we soon come to our bungalow, nestled in the trees on the edge of the beach. The simple but comfortable accommodation mirrors a number of such single storey developments that are partially hidden along the coastline, each set to capitalise on the main attraction: the unblemished beach stretching out to the sea. Here we pass the days swimming in the stunningly warm waters of the bay, occasionally meandering along the squeaky white sands to eat a fresh fish barbecue or sip a local cocktail, and barely encountering anyone else in the process.

Back on the mainland and feeling refreshed, we head along the coast to Kampot, where we hire bikes again and take a ride around the nearby salt fields, stopping off at the tiny little exhibition where a very enthusiastic lady shows us the tools used by the farmers and lets us try a sample. It tastes exactly as you’d expect salt to taste, but, out of respect, we make the appropriate appreciative noises to please our cheerful host. Taster sessions aside, the flat coastal marshlands that enable the plentiful salt production do make for some more enjoyable cycling – free from the hectic city roads and with just the sound of cowbells and the occasional grunts of acknowledgement from their namesakes for company. We also sample some more rewarding cuisine, including some delicious homemade pasta, unexpectedly served from a street-side shack by a native Italian.

From Kampot we treat ourselves to a break from the precarious buses, and board the train on the recently restarted Cambodian railway, which offers a couple of services a week between the coast and the capital. Although we are subjected to some ‘relaxed’ time scheduling of the service, trundling through the lush green countryside in four comfortable (and, surprisingly, air-conditioned!) hours in a spacious carriage ends up being a very rewarding experience.

Apart from the visually impressive (if limiting in terms of information or access) Royal Palace, the two main destinations for most visitors to Cambodia’s capital have a distinctly darker tone. For around £15, you can hire a tuk tuk that will take you to both the notorious Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city and the equally infamous S21 prison within Phnom Penh, as part of a day that will inform you about – and powerfully drive home the horrors of – the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.

An audio tour offers an uncompromising account of what occurred in this now quiet suburb, which formed one of the most prolific killing fields. Numbered boards mark out the route that unsuspecting victims made through the complex, including to the dips and mounds amongst the trees that indicate the burial sites. A vast selection of harrowing photographs, written testimonies and exhibits set the scene in the classrooms of the former school that became the notorious prison, helping you to realise – as best you can – the torment that innocent Cambodians suffered. It is a truly horrifying experience, but one that feels very much necessary in order to gain a greater understanding of Cambodia. For further background on this dark period in the country’s no-so-distant past, you can usually find a small cinema in the city showing one of several documentaries or films about the events.

After a day of such grim realities, you may find yourself in need of some relief, and the bar at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, high up overlooking the river in Phnom Penh, offers a tranquil spot for some quiet contemplation on a country that combines a complex balance of terrifying human struggle with immense natural and historical beauty; a country not initially high on our bucket lists, but one where we have ended up spending twice the time we expected, and to which we would happily return.

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