When US punk band Dead Kennedys released their 1980 hit song Holiday in Cambodia, the title was redolent with irony.
Few dreamt of holidaying in such a strife-torn trouble spot, and those hardy souls who did visit dropped briefly into Angkor Wat in the north to view the stunning temples, and then got the hell out.
But today, nearly 40 years later, Cambodia in peacetime has become one of the hottest destinations in Asia, with rapidly growing tourism numbers, a fast-improving infrastructure, some of the region’s most elegant new resorts and a whole array of attractions being discovered right through the country.
And their quality and scope surprise even the locals. When Phnom Penh hotel worker Phearoth Rin, for example, came to work at a new luxury eco-resort on an island off the south coast, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I had no idea that there were places as beautiful as this in Cambodia,” he says. “The first time I got off the boat here, and saw how clear the water was and all the fish and squid swimming up, I was amazed. I cried.”
While some of the around 5 million foreign tourists who came to Cambodia last year still treated it as a one-stop shop, visiting only the ancient temples outside Siem Reap before departing, there are many more now who are using the city-sized shrines as a springboard to tour the entire nation.
And that’s never been easier. China has been building better roads, the new railway line over the border into Thailand is due to open this March and a fleet of modern tourist boats has been launched on the Mekong River.
“People from overseas never really realised before what we have here,” says tourist guide Sarun Peng, who works with local tour company Travel Asia a la carte (via global broker kimkim). “They know about Angkor Wat from Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. But we have so much more, and when they come, they really like what they see.
“Often our feedback is that they find the local people very friendly, too. And for you, it’s cheap. Very cheap.”
It’s also extremely well organised. Although the sheer size of the crowds flocking to Angkor Wat these days has led to fears that the UNESCO World Heritage site, and its atmosphere, is being damaged, the local management committee has put in place a system of photo-ID tickets to ensure all visitors pay, and is rigorous in enforcing rules about not touching or climbing on the monuments.
Despite the crowds, it is still awe-inspiring and, with the buildings scattered over an astonishingly vast 162 hectares, it is possible at times to escape the throng at the lesser-known temples.
At others, it has to simply be borne with good humour and patience – “Could you move so I can get a photo?” is a familiar plea.
That’s certainly the case as you wander through the main temple of Angkor Wat itself, the biggest religious building in the world, built in the 12th century, with more than 3000 carvings of “heavenly maidens”, and surrounded by a magnificent moat.
It’s equally true, too, of a visit to The Bayon Temple – or “Angelina Temple” as locals have helpfully dubbed it for us tourists – in the centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. But it’s still breathtaking, with the gnarled trunks of trees growing through and out of the buildings, and their branches winding around as if to cradle the ruins of their precious shrines.
And getting up at 4.30am to beat the crowds and see the sunrise over Angkor Wat doesn’t always work either. The day I arrived, bleary-eyed, at the moat’s edge, there were around 2000 other people with the same idea and the sun was obscured by cloud.
Siem Reap itself is fast developing into a busy tourist hub, and now looks like Bali’s Kuta did 20 years ago. Gone are the dusty mud streets of even 10 years ago. Today the paved Pub Street is a haven of restaurants, bars, massage parlours and entertainment, and sometimes an odd mix of many.
The stunningly-dressed woman singer serenading foot massage customers with an Adele song turned out to be neither a woman nor a singer, and the voice being lip-synched to was entirely Adele’s. Even more entertaining is a night at the Cambodian Circus Phare, a project originally set up in refugee camps that’s a thrilling fusion of theatre, dance, music, juggling and contortion.
The food is also extraordinary, from the French and Khmer restaurants in the top hotels to the modest fare in locals’ cafes and markets. Less spiced than Thai or Vietnamese food, it’s light and more delicately flavoured.
My personal Siem Reap favourite, the humble Red and Green Curry Restaurant just off Pub Street, offers a stunning version of the national dish of creamy fish amok for just $US2.50. The more upmarket Haven is a training restaurant for young people from orphanages and shelters, and is also well worth a visit.
Wherever you go, every village seems to have a speciality food. There are the sugar palm villages that offer sauces and lollies in jars and packets along the main roads, and others selling smoked fish, dried fruit, fruit soaked in salt water and spiced with chilli, and the sticky-rice roadside stalls that specialise in cooking rice with black beans and coconut milk inside sections of burnt bamboo.
Perhaps rather less palatable to tourists are the villages, like Skuon, that serve up local insect delicacies such as worms, beetles and deep-fried tarantulas. During times of famine under the notorious Khmer Rouge, many people resorted to eating these for protein, and developed the taste for them. While our driver happily crunched on a tarantula, I tried to avoid the kids seeking cheap thrills, and a few cents, putting live ones on tourists’ arms.
There’s a great deal to see all over Cambodia (see box), and now there is a great new range of luxury accommodation to see it from, too. The headline-grabber is the luxury tented camp from hotel guru Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani Wild, which opened late last year along a wildlife corridor between the Bokor and the Kirirom national parks in the south. Fifteen large tents are positioned above rivers and waterfalls, with guests able to participate in conservation programs.
Another new resort is luxury ecological escape the Alila Villas, with 50 rooms on the island of Koh Russey off the south coast, which opened in November. Opposite them, the Six Senses Krabey Island, with 40 pool villas also on a private tropical island, the beauty of which moved restaurant manager Phearoth Rin to tears, is due to launch on March 1.
Further south, on another island, the $US40 million five-star Royal Sands Koh Rong opened its doors in April last year with 67 pool villas and a total of 148 rooms.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, 2018 also saw the opening of the magnificent new Rosewood Phnom Penh, set on the top 14 floors of the 39-storey Vattanac Capital Tower One in the centre of the city, with panoramic views and a classic-meets-contemporary vibe. At the same time, in the west of the country, the new ecolodge, the Cardamom Tented Camp with its nine luxury glamping tents in the mountains is one of the finalists in the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards 2019.
In addition, the country’s two heritage Raffles hotels, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh’s Raffles Hotel Le Royal – think guests such as Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham – are about to undergo massive renovations starting in April.
It’s now little wonder that last year Cambodia experienced the third largest increase in the number of international tourists in the Asean region, behind only Vietnam and Indonesia, of 11 per cent, according to the country’s Ministry of Tourism. And that was in an election year, too, when the world’s longest-serving prime minister, the widely detested Samdech Hun Sen, cemented his grip on power.
By 2020, with rave reviews from recent visitors, the naming of the country by National Geographic Traveller as No. 5 on the “Cool List 2019” and so much new infrastructure, the number of foreign tourists is expected to top 7 million.
“We are looking forward to them coming,” says tour guide Sarun Peng. “We always give a very friendly welcome.”
FIVE CLASSIC CAMBODIA SIGHTS
The massive complex of ancient stone temples outside Siem Reap is astonishing to behold
TONLE SAP LAKE AND RIVER
The largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia, with the river connecting it to the Mekong, is a wonderland of wildlife and humanity. The villages on stilts, and the floating villages, are sheer engineering genius, and colourfully ramshackle.
S21 AND THE KILLING FIELDS
Visiting the old torture HQ of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh and the fields outside the city where they committed even more barbarity, are both sombre experiences but fitting testimony to the Cambodian people’s resilience and courage.
CENTRAL MARKET PHNOM PENH
One of the most beautiful buildings in Cambodia – if not Asia – the glorious art deco Central Market was built in 1937 following the plans of French architect Louis Chauchon with a vast domed roof and four wings of stalls and shops.
The 4350-kilometre-long river drains more than 810,000 square kilometres of land and is a breathtaking sight. How better than to experience it than with a river cruise for a few hours with dinner, or a few days?
Sue Williams travelled at her own expense, but was a guest of Six Senses Krabey Island
Qantas, Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways and AirAsia fly regularly to Siem Reap in Cambodia. See qantas.com.au
The Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa in Siem Reap looks and feels like an historic hotel, but is not very old at all and has a beautiful pool at its centre. See victoriaangkorhotel.com
The Palace Gate Hotel in Phnom Penh is a beautifully restored French colonial villa and has two great restaurants. See palacegatepp.com
Travel Asia a la carte can create customised trips in Cambodia. See travelasia.travel