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For some, Angkor Wat epitomizes the Cambodian travel experience. The ancient ruins at Angkor stand as one of mankind's greatest engineering achievements, best experienced as day breaks - so long as you beat the tourist hordes to a good spot across the lake.
I hadn’t been awake for longer than a minute. I peeled back the tarp door to my room, walked out onto my deck, and leapt. It was an abrupt but purifying way to start the day. The cool, brackish water instantly defogged my mind, and my eyes opened to see the surrounding Tatai River and dense Cambodian rain forest. A lone sampan, anchored along an islet, was the only man-made object to interrupt the natural scenery. My chic bungalow lightly swayed on the calm water behind me, an incongruous encampment against the wild jungle backdrop. Located on the southern tip of the Cardamom Mountains, near the Gulf of Thailand, the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge lives up to its name. Accessible only by boat, the retreat’s 12 landless suites all float on their own buoyant platforms, moored to the riverbank. Outfitted with a ceiling fan, armoire, and wood-paneled shower, each of the towering, safari-style tented rooms also provides a nearly 360-degree view of the tropical landscape. A boardwalk connects the rooms to a central lounge and dining area decorated in a muted variety of Miami Beach sleek. At first blush, getting to this secluded outpost might seem daunting. I took a five-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, followed by a half-hour longboat ride from the village of Tatai. But the journey is well worth the peaceful reward. The Cardamom Mountains contain the largest and most intact evergreen rain forest in mainland Southeast Asia. For decades, the region was largely off-limits to developers because of land mines and fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge militia. This very isolation protected the area’s natural habitat, which is now home to scores of endangered species, including Asian elephants, hairy-nosed otters, and Siamese crocodiles. Mine-clearance efforts and the end of hostilities have made travel here safe for more than 10 years, but it remains a sparsely populated frontier. The area’s remoteness is remarkable in and of itself. In the afternoon, I took a boat ride to the Tatai waterfall with several other guests. Even our skipper, a young Cambodian man who leads visitors on these trips every day, was still in awe of the lush surroundings. “So quiet and beautiful,” he said, looking at the palm trees along the river’s edge. After we arrived at our destination, I spent the rest of the day sitting beneath the waterfall’s forceful but soothing cascades, letting nature’s masseuse relax my muscles. I returned to the lodge for dinner beneath an orange and purple sunset. On the restaurant’s uncovered patio, the only sound accompanying the clang of my utensils was the soft splash of kingfishers swooping to pluck fish from the river. I was less delicate, digging into skewers of mozzarella, watermelon, and fresh shrimp and a plate of steamed river fish topped with a basil cream sauce. In the lingering twilight, I sipped a gin and tonic on my private terrace before easing under my bedsheets. As the gently undulating waters rocked me to sleep, any illusions I had about roughing it in the wilderness drifted away. —Brendan Brady 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Koh Andet Island, Tatai Village (20 minutes from Koh Kong), Cambodia. 855/(0) 97-64-34-032, ecolodges.asia. From $139 per night. Includes breakfast and boat ride from the village of Tatai. Photo by Dolly Van Cleve. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue. See more overwater bungalows: The Mandina Lodges, GambiaSoneva Gili by Six Senses, MaldivesPunta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, PanamaLe Méridien Bora Bora, French Polynesia
I arranged for a 5:00 a.m. ride with a tuk tuk driver and skipped the sunrise at Angkor Wat in hopes of being the first to arrive at Ta Prohm that morning. Built in 1186 A.D., its original name, Rajavihara, means royal temple. The disheveled blocks, the jungle, the mist, the quiet and an absence of distraction contributed to incidental meditation. There's a surreal beauty where nature overtakes architecture, something sensual about nature's and time's touch. I came to Ta Prohm to be close to something ancient, to feel the power of nature, to steal a moment of beauty.
Visitng Ta Prohm feels like you are rediscovering a lost kingdom being reclaimed by the forest. The trick is to go to Ta Prohm first, while everyone else is at Angkor Wat, and explore the crumbling ruins alone.
Everywhere I go, I check out the market. The Old Market in Siem Reap is not to be missed. Situated along the Siem Reap River at the south side of the Old French Quarter near Pub Street, the Old Market (locally known as Phsar Chas) is a covered, open air market tightly packed with vendors. As you enter on one side of the market, there are vendors selling traditional handicrafts and souvenirs: silver and spices, t-shirts and trinkets, carvings and jewelry, Khmer silk and perfumes. As you delve deeper, you'll find vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat and fresh seafood--as in breathing, writhing fish, eels and sea snakes. At the heart of the market, of course, is a busy food court where vendors serve locals and travelers soups and dishes. And on the outskirts is the houseware and hardware section. The market closes at sunset...the pulse then shifts to Pub Street! Map: http://www.canbypublications.com/maps/somrmapmain.htm
The Passage is a lively pedestrian street in the heart of the Old Market District of Siem Reap lined with restaurants, pubs, hotels and galleries. I highly recommend the restaurant Chamkar for its Cambodian-French style vegetarian dishes that omnivores will love as well.
Situated among lotus ponds and palm gardens, the buildings at Angkor Village incorporate native Southeast Asian hardwoods and mimic traditional Khmer architectural styles. Ride on an elephant to Phnom Bakheng hill and watch the sunset or explore the 12th-century stone temples of nearby Angkor Wat. Angkor Village Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia. From $89. 855/(0) 63-963-361, angkorvillage.com. Photo courtesy of Angkor Village Hotel. This appeared in the November/December 2010 issue. See other timber lodges.
Koh Rong Island is a MUST for anyone traveling in southern Cambodia. Not only is it the least developed island I visited in Southeast Asia, but if you’re willing to wade a short distance from the shore after dark, you can experience a magic like no other. Along these shores, phosphorescent plankton fill the water. You simply have to trouble the water for an exotic lightshow to display all around you. It’s like stepping into one of the night scenes from Avatar….all of a sudden you are surrounded by glowing tiny lights. The wander of this experience made me want to stay in the ocean all night! (All of the little glowing dots in the picture are plankton.) Koh Rong Island can only be reached by boat from Sihanoukville. When I was there, there were only 3 choices of accommodation and the power only came on during certain hours. We stayed at Monkey Beach Bungalows, where this ocean experience was literally steps from our bungalow. You can book a bungalow on the island & transportation through the Monkey Republic guesthouse on Serendipity road in Sihanoukville. Get there now, before it becomes just another tourist “hot spot!”
With more than 40 different plant species in its garden, Botanico GastroBar feels like an urban jungle. The new café serves excellent coffee along with homemade sugarcane rolls with anise and feta. At night, a stylish crowd comes for the globally influenced menu that includes chorizo burgers and passion fruit–vodka cocktails. No. 9B St. 29, 855/(0) 17-873-101. Photo by Phnom Ben. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
Located near the Royal Palace, Street 240 offers some of the city’s best shopping. 1. ARTILLERY A café, gallery, and shop, Artillery sells clothing, textiles, and accessories from independent labels such as Push Pull Cambodia, above. The modern art gallery exhibits local and international artists. artillerycambodia.com 2. SPA BLISS After a facial at this spa, browse the boutique’s selection of antique saris, linen dresses, and quilted pillows. blissspacambodia.com 3. WANDERLUST In addition to its line of clothes produced in Cambodia, Wanderlust sells locally made bangles and woven friendship bracelets, plus bags that a Phnom Penh NGO creates out of recycled magazines. wanderlustcambodia.com Photo courtesy of Push Pull Cambodia. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
You know those places; the ones that make you over-stay your visa and dream of never returning home? Well, this is one of those places. Straight out of a delicious “paradise found” novel, Koh Rong island off of Cambodia’s south-west shore is a white-sand beach surrounded by warm, clean water that glows with phosphorescent creatures at night (see my post: “Secrets of the Ocean after Dark”). Staying in your own private bungalow, with a verandah that looks out at the sea, you can spend your days lying in your hammock, having a drink at the resort bar, playing beach volleyball or going for a snorkel. The only “traffic” you’ll see on this island is the locals walking their water buffalo down the beach once a day. Be sure and give yourself more time than you think you’ll need, because after about an hour here, all you’ll be thinking is, “how much longer can I stay?” Koh Rong Island can only be reached by boat from Sihanoukville. When I was there, there were only 3 choices of accommodation. We stayed at Monkey Beach Bungalows. You can book a bungalow on the island & transportation there through the Monkey Republic guesthouse on Serendipity road in Sihanoukville.
Packed with over 240 venders selling hand-made Cambodian crafts, the Night Market of Siem Reap is hands-down one of the best places to pick up unique souvenirs. Established in 2007, and running well into the nighttime hours, the market holds an array of items from handmade tapestries, to paintings, to carvings made of wood or stone. Plus, buying local keeps all proceeds within the community. Two of my all-time favorite t-shirts were picked up at this very market, just after I took this photo. And as with most worldly markets, you can definitely barter with the venders over the price. Cost for my two t-shirts (which have stood up much better than anything purchased in the states): $2. The feeling I get when I wear them: priceless.
Vestiges of European colonial settlement remain throughout much of Southeast Asia, often contrasted against more traditional hill tribe villages and always set in (cooler) rolling mountain ranges. These former frontier towns were once the summer homes of wealthy colonials looking to escape the heat of the lowlands and Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are dotted with these high-altitude enclaves. Sapa, nestled in the hills of North Vietnam is one of the best preserved towns of this era with its terraced rice fields contrasting against Bordeaux-style villas. Borkor in Cambodia is a different type of hill station with a dark past. Abandoned in the 1990s, Borkor fell into ruin, giving it a distinct ghost town feel though as re-development has started in Bokor Hill, so plans to visit soon should be made fast. In up-and-coming Myanmar, Kalaw has many old examples of British architecture, including Tudor-style houses and rose gardens, plus traditional villages, pagodas and a surprising number of curry houses, thanks to the area's Nepali population.
As a travel landscape photographer, the sunrise at the Angkor Wat Temple is something I have always wanted to capture. I have never heard of their being a bad sunrise and the morning we made the trip to the temple at 4:45AM gave us a spectacular sky that made it impossible to take a bad photograph! The photo I am using for this highlight was taken on an iPhone. What the photograph doesn't show are the thousand tourists behind me that are also jockeying for the perfect spot to capture the sky, the temple, and the reflection but the experience is still worth the early morning and fighting the hoards of tourists plus you get an early start exploring the other nearby temples and beat the Cambodian heat!
A new road has made the seaside town of Kep once again a favorite weekend getaway for Phnom Penh residents and expats. Don’t leave without trying the region’s Kampot pepper–spiked crab, left, which locals enjoy at Kimly. The six-room hotel Villa Romonea can order guests dinner from any of the crab shacks and serve it poolside. From $125. 855/(0) 12-879-486. Photo by Stuart Isett. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
Cambodian cuisine is delicious; similar to Thai, if not as spicy. Frizz Restaurant offers a cooking class on a breezy rooftop patio, which is a great way to spend a morning or a day. Our teacher, Heng, was patient & thorough, with enough culinary training to explain why things were done a certain way. We made my favorite Khmer dish, fish amok, so I was very happy. We even made the little palm-leaf "pots" to cook it in.
Outside the main cities of Southeast Asia, the small dirt roads leading from village to village provide adventure seekers the perfect opportunity to get “lost.” Whether on a bicycle or a motorbike, you never have to fear what’s around the next corner, and more often than not, you find that getting lost is exactly where you need to be. On this particular day, we hired a motorbike and headed down a dirt road leading us away from the town of Battambang, Cambodia. After wandering around a gorgeous temple filled with young novice monks, our dirt path took us into a small village where we found every yard filled with racks full of small round things drying in the sun. We wandered in to take a closer look at what they might be & were waved over to the side of the house by two women. The older woman was fervently steaming balls of paste, and then passing them to the younger woman who was rolling them out onto the drying racks. Upon a closer view, we discovered that they were making rice paper for spring rolls! I’ve certainly eaten my share of spring rolls, but have never stopped to think how the rice paper is made. No big factories churning out thousands an hour here; just some quick-moving dedicated women who make their living hand-rolling rice paper. Being lost can mean seeing ways of life that are quickly vanishing in the modernization of the world. If you want to get lost in the rice paper village, head north out of Battambang on the dirt road following the river.
Les Artisans d'Angkor is part tourist attraction, part shopping destination. The company creates workshops that teach young rural Cambodians an artistic trade to help them find work near their homes. At the Les Artisans d'Angkor shop in Siem Reap, you can take a tour through the workshops and watch students as they learn how to create silk fabrics and garments, stone and wood carving, lacquer ware, polychrome products, silver plating and silk paintings. After you have finished the tour you can head to the store where you can purchase the items you just saw being created, in addition to a host of other fantastic Cambodian souvenirs, and feel good about supporting local craftsmen while you do so.
Giant stone faces greet visitors as they enter the Bayon complex. This ancient Khmer center houses over 200 of these serene faces, with theories they were modeled after the bodhisattva (enlightened being) or the Bhuddist king, Jayavarman VII, who built the city center.
Siem Reap's Central Market is a fun one, with food, clothing, and goods a wander is worth your time. The touts are thin and the restaurants surrounding the market all sale good, affordable Khmer food. One of the main streets, Sivatha Road is a couple of blocks NW of the market. The Central Market is quite big for this tiny town so it is tough to miss it.
Like many travelers, I am drawn to stores and shops and restaurants where my tourist dollars can help those in the the countries I am visiting. If you are in Phnom Penh, Daughters is a must-visit (and Friends deserves its outstanding reputation I might add.) Actually just around the corner a bit from Friends, Daughters has some terrific t-shirts for men and women (best in city in my opinion) jewelry and adorable things for kids. There also is a highly regarded small spa in the back and a cafe upstairs. Simply a great place with solid products, good food and services - well worth a visit (and a small video you can watch upstairs that explains more about their work)
This photograph was taken in Kep, Cambodia - a small seaside getaway known for its rich pepper plantations, salt fields and extraordinary crab market where locals and tourists alike go to browse, buy and eat what is considered by many to be the best crab in the world. This was one of the stilt-supported restaurants we found at the crab market along the shore where we were greeted by the most polite, passionate and welcoming waiter. He was so enthusiastic to practice his English with us and provide only the best service, food recommendations and experience. I have never met a waiter so kind, warm and genuine. He gave us the best seat in the house with a breath-taking view of Kep's ocean-horizon sunset and the sound of waves crashing. This was by far the most jaw-dropping sunset I have ever seen; a large golden circle making its way past the Elephant Mountains to the other side of the world. For dinner we shared a delicious plate of crab, shrimp and squid with salt, cooked lime, lemongrass, basil, a citrus dressing, and Kep's very own whole green peppers. Needless to say, every aspect of this dinner was incredible: from the food, to the staff, to the view, location and atmosphere. It was such a magically delicious experience for the taste buds, eyes and ears. All for less than $10. The famous crab market is an absolute must when visiting Kep, Cambodia.
Last fall many villages in Siem Reap suffered damage from severe floods. Hôtel de la Paix, a boutique property in the city, supports community projects such as the Life and Hope Association (LHA), a nonprofit run by the monks of Wat Damnak, and the Green Gecko Project, an organization that educates and feeds children. A three-night package includes a Khmer meal, a temple tour, and a visit to one of the projects. Guests with more time can arrange to work at LHA’s Children’s Development Village, which is now home to kids orphaned by the floods. Hôtel de la Paix, 85/(5) 63-966-000, three-night community packages from $1,190. Photo courtesy of Green Gecko Project. This appeared in the March/April 2012 issue.
At the Vine Retreat, an eco B&B on a farm two and a half hours from Kep, guests can harvest the peppercorns the chef uses to prepare traditional Cambodian dishes like lak lok (grilled beef with onions and peppers, topped with a fried egg). From $25, 855/(0) 11-706-231
We visited the inspiring Green Gecko Project while in Siem Reap. It's an organization run by a husband and wife team who educates and cares for Cambodian street children. This is a great place to volunteer or drop off donations. Green Gecko is more than a project, it’s a family. It currently provides 70 former street-kids with education, training, support, food and shelter. The children, lovingly known as “Geckos,” were excited to meet us and share their stories, artwork, and even a crop of purple rice they had just harvested from their test farm. Geckos are supported into adulthood until they are equipped to live on their own. I was inspired by the bright, confident kids that we met and the empowering reach of project.
Your first minutes at Beng Mealea feel like you're stepping onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Vines and tree branches have taken over and transformed the temple into an adventurer's fantasy world. As I climbed through the outer wall of the temple and into a quiet inner courtyard I felt like an ancient explorer making the discovery of a lifetime. This was my favorite of Angkor's temples - partly because it is one of the least-visited, and partly because of the adventure it provides. There are heaps of rocks to climb over, vines to swing on, and incredible visions of nature taking over man-made structures around every corner. As I crawled and climbed my way all over the temple, I marveled at nature's power to assert itself, no matter the circumstances. If you want to act out your explorer fantasies, this amazing temple is definitely worth the trip. This temple is less than an hour's drive from Siem Riep, and it goes without saying that the picture-taking opportunities at this overgrown site are fantastic. The heat is oppressive so I recommend an early morning visit.
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