Cox & Kings’ Wai Law recently went on a holiday to Cambodia. He discovered the charms of Phnom Penh, visited curious floating villages, found tranquillity in Battambang and visited what he believes to be an even better alternative to the ancient ruins of Siem Reap.
“Tạm Biệt, Tạm Biệt” (meaning goodbye in Vietnamese), were the words I heard shouted as we drifted away from the jetty in a speedboat. Sadly, I was leaving the beautiful Vietnamese countryside, but my adventure was only just beginning. We headed up-stream along the Mekong from our point of origin, Chau Doc in the South West of Vietnam. Our destination was Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city of Cambodia, a four hour journey away.
The journey seemed to take no time at all. After a packed lunch, a quick glance of my novel and a short snooze, our Blue Cruiser was heading towards the pier in Phnom Penh, passing some fantastic cityscape along the way.
The first stop in Phnom Penh was the Royal Palace where the King of Cambodia still resides. The Royal Palace and its grounds are beautifully decorated, with wonderfully manicured lawns surrounded by pagodas and mausoleums. If you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the King himself. The Grand Throne Hall is an exquisite example of South East Asian Buddhist architecture. Today, it is used for royal occasions, such as coronations and weddings. The first construction of the Throne Hall was made of wood, but was demolished in 1915 and replaced by the present building. Opposite the Throne Hall is the Moonlight Pavilion. This serves as a venue for the royal dancers to perform their traditional Khmer dance. However, perhaps the most famous of all the buildings is the Silver Pagoda – the floor is said to be laid with more than five thousand silver tiles hence its name. The locals refer to it as the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha” because of the emerald Buddha perched inside.
After a short stay in Phnom Penh, we headed out onto Highway 5 (the main east to west route across Cambodia) to the country’s second largest city, Battambang. There was a good mix of chaos along the way – wild animals, monks and pot-holes, as well as a good dose of beautiful landscape.
One of my favourite highlights en-route was the amazing floating village, Kompong Luong. I have visited a few floating villages before, but this one on the Tonle Sap Lake was certainly the most memorable. With almost 10,000 inhabitants it is just like you would expect any village to be. There are shops selling everything from planks of wood to mobile phones, restaurants, bars, a school, a church and even a floating petrol station.
Battambang has a relaxed atmosphere; the tranquil Sangke River and the colonial French architecture make it a very attractive city. Wat Banan is one of the highlights of the Battambang province, about a twenty minute drive out of the city and its five towers sit on top of a hill; to access them you have to ascend the 358 steps to the top. Luckily, whilst I was struggling up all of these steps, I was joined by a little old lady with a Chinese fan. Her fanning was a most welcome distraction – well as keeping me cool, it gave me the incentive to reach the top. Once at the top there are spectacular panoramic views of the province.
Eleven years had passed since I had last visited this city and it was stunning to see how much it had changed. One noticeable difference was the roads. When I travelled to Siem Reap by bus all those years ago it was on a dusty track. Now the main road into the city is lined full of hotels and resorts, which is a huge indication of how much tourism has grown.
When one thinks of Siem Reap, many will instantly think of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a stunning place, but my personal favourite has to be Beng Mealea, which is believed to be pre-Angkor Wat. The temple is about an hour and a half’s drive from the city and is hidden under dense jungle cover. In the past there was no easy access here, but there is now a road that goes through the nearby village, but the temple is still relatively untouched by tourists. It is cool and shady as you walk around underneath the large trees and you have to negotiate large piles of sandstone bricks, but the atmosphere is magical and mysterious. You really get a sense of the past here.
All in all, my trip to Cambodia was a huge success and I am already planning my next visit.
Luxury holidays specialist Cox & Kings offers a range of escorted tours and private holidays throughout the Indian subcontinent, Far East, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.