Meera Dattani looks beyond Angkor Wat and discovers this rising Indochinese star has the whole package
The ‘new Vietnam’, the ‘must-see’ of Southeast Asia, Indochina’s ‘finest jewel’ – call it what you will, Cambodia is big news.
The ancient temples of Angkor near Siem Reap have always drawn big crowds, but now the rest of Cambodia, including its capital Phnom Penh, is making its mark.
SELL: A MOVE UPMARKET
Healing from the dark days of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, this land of temples, French-colonial towns, rice paddies and beautiful islands has everything going for it. Picture Khmer stilthouses, floating villages, orange-clad monks and white-sand beaches – this is Cambodia. Add to that friendly locals keen to share their country’s history and culture and it’s hard to resist.
Born out of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of the neighbouring region 1,000 years ago, Cambodia has history and culture by the bucketload. It’s not surprising tourism is now its second-largest income source with 3.6 million international tourists in 2012, a 24% increase on 2011 and a figure that is reflected in UK bookings. “We’ve had an excellent year in southeast Asia with bookings at an all-time high,” says Tim Greening, director at KE Adventure Travel. “Burma’s a big reason, but for the first time, Cambodia is selling well. We’ve always had people adding Angkor Wat from Thailand or Vietnam, but now Cambodia is becoming the prime destination.”
One of the biggest changes has been Cambodia’s move from a backpacking destination to one with wider appeal, according to Dragoman Travel. “There’s been significant growth in its offering of more luxurious accommodation, and a large expansion in the small-group adventures market,” says marketing manager Lorna Archibald.
With more flights connecting Cambodia within southeast Asia and several leading airlines making UK connections easier, such as Qatar Airways’ new service to Phnom Penh, Cambodia is easy to visit on a multi-country Indochina tour. Alternatively, there is a wide choice of escorted tours, self-guided tailor-made holidays or trips along the wide Mekong River, which snakes through much of Indochina.
Although a year-round destination, travelling between mid-November and February when evenings are cooler is common. Off-peak between June and October’s rainy season is rewarding too, with fewer tourists, greener scenery and Angkor’s temple moats filled with water.
SEE: ANGKOR, THEN WHAT?
Siem Reap: The base for most visitors to the Khmer temples of Angkor is Siem Reap, which is a destination in itself – its night markets are second only to Phnom Penh’s, and it has excellent restaurants and a growing cafe culture. The temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom and more are a few miles away. The best guides steer you to lesser-visited ones for uncrowded sunrise and sunset experiences. To avoid temple fatigue, a boat trip to Tonlé Sap lake’s floating villages is a popular day trip.
Phnom Penh: One of Southeast Asia’s most underrated capitals, its markets, riverside restaurants, rooftop bars and Mekong River setting make it a must. Historic sights such as the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and an excellent National Museum are worth visiting, while the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek (or Killing Fields, outside Phnom Penh) are sobering, but important experiences to understand Cambodia’s recent history.
Battambang: This laid-back French-colonial town on the Sangkae River is perfect for a change of pace. Culturally rich, it has some of Cambodia’s best-preserved architecture, beautiful wats and is easy to explore on foot or by bike. Experiences include the Battambang Circus and riding the bamboo train outside town.
Sihanoukville and the islands: Coastal town Sihanoukville is renowned for budget beach living, but an increasing number of five-star resorts and four-star boutique hotels are opening, such as Sokha Beach Resort and Moha Mohori. But it’s the islands such as Koh Rong and Ream National Park’s Koh Thmei and Koh Seh that amaze. For off-the-scale luxury, privately-owned Song Saa Island offers everything from private pools to its own reef.
Kep and Kampot: Along Cambodia’s eastern coastline is a region of mountains, waterfalls and national parks, home to riverside town Kampot with its old French quarter, and revived colonial seaside resort Kep with its boutique hotels and local speciality, crab. Koh Tonsay has beautiful beaches and the nearby national park has good trails.
Elsewhere: The Cardamom Mountains in western Cambodia offer walking trails, wildlife and waterfalls amid tropical forest, as well as community-based ecotourism village Chi Pat. The northeastern Ratanakiri province is home to rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
STAY: WHO TO BOOK WITH
First-timers, active travellers, foodies – it’s all covered. Intrepid Travel’s Classic Cambodia (six days from £635 excluding flights) combines Angkorian temples with Phnom Penh’s historical spots, while Hayes & Jarvis’s nine-night Cambodia Discovery (from £2,099) and Gold Medal’s seven-day Cambodia Discovery (from £630 land-only), also cover main attractions.
Gold Medal also offers day tours such as Angkor Wat from £43. Travel Indochina’s extensive Cambodia itineraries include a seven-day Highlights of Cambodia cultural tour (£785 excluding flights) with special sunrise access at Angkor Wat.
For food-lovers, Western & Oriental’s seven-day Culinary Cambodia (from £2,089) includes a cooking class, lunch at a Phnom Penh restaurant that trains disadvantaged children and homecooked food with a Khmer family.
Going local is integral to G Adventures’ 10-day/eight-night Cambodia on a Shoestring tour (£499 excluding flights and most meals,) which visits one of its projects, the New Hope vocational restaurant in Siem Reap, which trains disadvantaged women. InsideVietnam also emphasises local experiences on its Vietnam and Cambodia Uncovered and Indochina Encompassed tours.
For nature lovers, Mountain Kingdoms’ 16-day Cardamom Mountains Trek (from £1,325 excluding flights; £2,555 with) explores this wildlife haven in southwest Cambodia while Explore’s 13-day Heart of Cambodia tour (from £1,897) includes a cruise searching for Irrawaddy dolphins.
For cyclists, Cambodia’s terrain is ideal. KE Adventure Travel’s best-selling 16-day Backroads of Cambodia (from £1,720) is an easy-graded trail from Angkor Wat to the Cardamom Mountains and the operator is introducing a walking tour to Koh Rong in 2014. Biking through rural Cambodia is also offered on Exodus’ 16-day Cycle Indochina and Angkor (from £2,049) and Explore’s new 15-day Cambodia by Bike (from £1,798).
For comprehensive coverage, consider Intrepid’s Best of Cambodia (14 days from £820 excluding flights), Imaginative Traveller’s new 14-day Best of Cambodia (from £660 excluding flights) and Wendy Wu Tours’ 16-day Around Cambodia (from £2,390) which includes Battambang, Kep and Kampot.
Cox & Kings’ Cambodia in Style, a 14-day private tour (from £3,395) to Bangkok, Battambang, Phnom Penh and Kep, is excellent for those who’ve already visited Angkor. Regent Holidays’ 14-day Cambodia in Depth also delves deeper.
For family and youth travel, The Adventure Company’s Indochina Family Adventure (17 days from £2,192 per adult/£2,082 per child) uses internal flights to minimise travel time and books hotels with pools. Explore’s Edge brand targets 18-30s with its 10-day Cambodia on a Shoestring (from £499 excluding flights).
Top multi-country itineraries include Intrepid Travel’s 18-day Best of Vietnam & Cambodia (from £1,295 excluding flights) and Dragoman’s 18-day Indochina Explorer tour (from £925 plus kitty/flights) to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Intrepid Travel also sells short-break add-ons, such as Secrets of Angkor (three days from £210), which includes a Buddhist monastery visit.
For cruise travellers, AmaWaterways’ seven-night Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong sails from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (from £1,124 cruise-only) and Western & Oriental’s eight-day The Lost Civilization: Saigon to Siem Reap (from £1025) is on board boutique ship Jayavarman. Aqua Expeditions is also expanding into Indochina in 2014 with a luxury vessel sailing from Siem Reap to Vietnam via Phnom Penh.
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