Every country has its iconic sight, and in Cambodia’s case this is undoubtedly the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat, familiar from thousands of images in glossy travel brochures. But as in most cases, there’s a whole different side to the country and a great number of other aspects and attractions to explore to get a fuller and fairer picture of what Cambodia really is. Put the temples into their proper context of history and cultural influences and you get a far better idea of Cambodia as a whole. With quality escorted tours to Cambodia you’ll be able to make the most of a short visit here and take in the main sights, as well as gain a unique insight into the many extraordinary facets of this stunningly beautiful land.
Apart from the Angkor temples, the old French capital of Phnom Penh has its own strangely faded allure, full of more recent ghosts and redolent of a bygone age when young reporters like Graham Greene were sending their bulletins back from the Indochina front and getting drunk in the evenings before filing the next day’s copy. There are numerous museums and pagodas here, and beyond the towns and cities a timeless natural beauty in the sandy, unspoilt beaches and the majestic mountains of the interior.
Phnom Penh’s fabulously exotic location at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers adds greatly to its considerable old-world colonial charm, and spending a relaxing day or two exploring it makes the ideal start to a vacation in Cambodia. The crumbling French colonial mansions are reminiscent of Havana, and you can have a good trawl through the city’s chequered past in the Tuol Sleng Museum. This contains amongst other things a graphic account of the appalling rule of the Khmer Rouge, which leaves you full of admiration for a people who seem able to not quite forget it but to move on so cheerfully and resiliently when it might have taken others generations to deal with the trauma. Stepping back out into the fresh air, don’t miss the Wat Phnom hilltop pagoda which gave its name to the city and the stately Royal Palace and amazing Silver Pagoda with its solid silver floor tiles. For another dose of grim reality and to pay some respects you could take a trip outside the city to the Killing Fields, where 18,000 people were butchered by the Khmer Rouge.
At Siem Reap we get reality of a different and more worthy kind in the age-old Angkor temples which tower majestically above the surrounding landscape. Here, a great empire still speaks to us, consistent, serene and full of wisdom. Angkor Wat, the most famous, is only one of the many temples here which were in their prime at the height of the Khmer Empire of the 12th and 13th centuries.
Cambodia is a land of contrasts, offering great natural beauties and a history and culture to rival any in the world. Its people have been through more than their fair share of suffering but remain the friendliest and most hospitable on earth, eager to show off their country to visitors who often have little idea of the wonders in store for them.
David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.