JOURNEYS

9-Day Cambodian Culture Cruise

An ancient stone temple with five peaks pointing into the sky

PHOTO BY GYORGY BAKOS

Cambodia may be most closely associated with Angkor Wat—the complex of temples that forms one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites—but the country offers much more. This nine-day journey through Cambodia begins with two days in Phnom Penh, one of Asia’s most charming capital cities, long known as the Pearl of Asia. You’ll then board a luxury small ship for an unforgettable three-day cruise up the Mekong River, which has been a highway for commerce and culture in Southeast Asia for centuries. At the end of your cruise, you’ll recognize the Cambodia of your dreams as you spend two nights in Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat.

You’ll also enjoy the best of Asian hospitality, beginning with superlative service and comfort aboard your Korean Air flight to Phnom Penh. The crews are pros at making sure that the long journey across the Pacific is a restful escape, with award-winning cuisine and a selection of entertainment that’s so extensive you may even wish the flight were a few hours longer.

A ship on the ocean

TRIP HIGHLIGHT

Mekong Cruise

A three-night cruise aboard the Aqua Mekong will let you see floating villages and extensive bird sanctuaries—a slice of Cambodia that many travelers miss.
Michael Holtz

TRIP DESIGNER

Michael Holtz

Michael Holtz is the ultimate jet-setter and the original Smart Flyer. He founded SmartFlyer over 20 years ago after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis and has been globetrotting ever since. His curiosity sends him around the globe in search of the best that the world has to offer. Michael is widely known for designing unique, once-in-a-lifetime itineraries and always knows the smartest way to issue First/Business class tickets for his discerning clients. Michael sits on both the Starwood and Park Hyatt Advisory Boards.
Passengers rest in a first-class airplane. A flight attendant walks the aisle

DAY 1Fly to Phnom Penh

Korea is called the “Land of the Morning Calm,” so becoming a SKYPASS frequent flier and earning enough miles to join Korean Air’s Morning Calm Club would be a fitting way to fly. You’ll find benefits like private lounge usage (up to four times over a two-year period) and priority baggage handling, among others.

After you board your Korean Air flight in North America, get comfortable for your journey across the Pacific. First Class and Prestige Class passengers can enjoy touches like amenities from Atelier Cologne. If you’re on the A380, you’ll also find an inviting cocktail lounge, the Celestial Bar. Passengers in every class can choose from award-winning menus that features Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Western dishes. You’ll arrive at Incheon airport rested and relaxed and, after a short layover, continue to Phnom Penh.
A Cambodian temple at midday. Tourists stand around on the stairs.

PHOTO BY RENÉ DEANDA

DAY 2Arrive in Phnom Penh

Your home In Cambodia’s capital city is a place that transformed the local hotel scene when it opened last year—the Rosewood Phnom Penh. Located on the top 14 floors of Cambodia’s tallest building, the Vattanac Capital Tower, the hotel’s rooms and suites feature 360-degree views of the Pearl of Asia, a nickname bestowed on Phnom Penh thanks to its many temples and grand French colonial buildings. Both French colonial and Khmer touches are incorporated into the design of this elegant contemporary hotel that includes four restaurants and a spa, resulting in an inviting sanctuary.

Begin your exploration of this compact, unique city by sampling the food. Cambodian cuisine may be overshadowed by that of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, but it’s worthy in its own right. In fact, it incorporates some of the best elements from those neighboring countries: the chilis and coconut typical of Thai cooking; and the French influences that mark Vietnamese cuisine. A lunch of dishes from some of the city’s street carts will provide a savory introduction. Try lort cha rice noodles, num pang sandwiches, and a dessert of fried bananas.

In the afternoon, visit the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, after the name given to this former high school when it was converted into an interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. This repressive regime would be responsible for the deaths of roughly a quarter of the country’s population. The Tuol Seng Genocide Museum’s displays, including thousands of photographs of political prisoners, give voice to the regime’s victims.

Then tour the Royal Palace, built in 1866 and still used by the current king. Its many buildings and temples are lavishly adorned with Italian marble, Baccarat crystal, and solid gold, making for a gorgeous as well as fascinating glimpse into Cambodian royalty.

Return to the Rosewood Phnom Penh for a sunset drink followed by small-plate Japanese dishes at Sora. The open-air bar is located on the 37th floor, with views in every direction of Phnom Penh below.
A brilliant yellow building with a terra cotta roof.

PHOTO BY CHETRA CHANN

DAY 3Explore Phnom Penh

After breakfast at your hotel this morning, head to Choeung Ek with a car and driver, roughly 40 minutes to the south of the Rosewood.

Choeung Ek is one of the many sites known collectively as the Killing Fields, where Khmer Rouge forces systematically executed around hundreds of thousands of Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. At Choeung Ek, 129 mass graves were filled with the remains of victims of the regime. The remains of almost 9,000 people have been unearthed and a memorial stupa houses the skulls of many of them. (Many of those killed at Choeung Ek were first interrogated at Tuol Seng, or S-21, which you visited on the previous day.) While visiting Choeung Ek, as well as Tuol Seng, can be an upsetting experience (and you might want to consider other options if you are traveling with young kids), the Cambodian government and people are determined that the world should never forget this dark moment in the country’s history.

In the afternoon, return to Phnom Penh, where you will board the Aqua Mekong for a cruise back in time to the ancient wonders of Angkor Wat, passing through landscapes of rice fields and small villages on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. You’ll be greeted upon boarding with a watermelon drink before being taken to your suite—one of only 20 aboard the small ship. Later in the evening, a Khmer Apsara dance performance will set the tone for your cruise.
A modern-looking cruise ship on the open ocean.

DAY 4Cruise Tonle Sap River

You’ll begin the day by cruising along the Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake of the same name to the Mekong River. It’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and features such a high degree of biodiversity that it’s a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Birders will want to take their binoculars up on deck and look for species to add to their checklist.

Most of this day, however, is focused on Cambodia’s artisanal and craft traditions. An excursion to the island of Koh Chen, in the middle of Tonle Sap Lake, provides an introduction to Khmer silverwork. While this craft almost vanished during the days of the Khmer Rouge, it’s flourishing again: The island’s men craft silver pieces and female artisans hammer them to create intricate designs of birds, trees, and flowers.

Later in the day, you’ll continue on to Kampong Chhnang. This serene riverside village is dotted with temples underneath swaying palms, and it’s also known for its pottery. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that potters here were using wheels as early as the sixth century; a recent revival in the craft incorporates contemporary motifs and shapes, and you can find clay pieces from the village in design hotels throughout Cambodia and Asia. You’ll also have a chance here to learn about palm sugar and taste the sweet product of this area.
People paddle canoes along the river.

DAY 5Cruise Tonle Sap Lake

Today you’ll explore the mouth of Tonle Sap Lake, where vast wetlands stretch to the horizon and ages-old villages stand atop stilts that extend to the lake bed. The lake varies dramatically in size over the course of the year: After heavy rainfalls, it can be five times larger than it is in the dry season.

The Tonle Sap area is a remarkable area of biodiversity, with some 200 species of fish, 13 species of turtles, and 225 species of birds. There are also other creatures, like Siamese crocodiles, which local residents believe to be harbingers of good luck.

You can meet some of those residents in Chhnok Tru, one of the communities constructed on stilts, where structures are connected by wooden boardwalks. During a stop at the village’s ice factory, you’ll learn about one of Chhnok Tru’s more surprising products. Later in the day, you’ll call at Moat Khla, a village that floats atop the lake, where you’ll experience a Buddhist blessing ceremony.
A cruise ship sails down a broad river as the sun sets.

DAY 6Arrive in Siem Reap

Your final day aboard the Aqua Mekong includes a call at the Prek Toal Core Bird Preserve, which extends over some 85 square miles. It’s one of nine nature preserves located on or near Tonle Sap Lake that provide sanctuaries for the area’s remarkable—and threatened—bird species. The principal draw is a collection of big birds, like pelicans, storks, and ibises. They’re concentrated in a relatively small area of the preserve, especially during the height of the dry season, making it easier to spot them.

After this ornithologist’s dream excursion, you’ll continue onto Siem Reap, where you’ll disembark and make your way to the Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor for the next two nights. With a location near Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, this French colonial–inspired resort is an ideal base for exploring the region. Its 59 spacious suites and inviting cool pool surrounded by lush foliage make it an ideal spot to return to at the end of a long day of wandering around ancient temples.
Cambodia Culture Day7

DAY 7Angkor Wat

Today you’ll explore one of the world’s most famous and fabulous monuments, Angkor Wat. Extending over 400 acres, this complex of temples ranks among the largest religious sites anywhere. You’ll want to get an early start: There’s a lot to see, and it’s best to go before the midday sun becomes intense.

Ta Prohm, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, has been left largely in the condition in which it was found, with trees having taken root in the building, with the jungle looming in on all sides. The result is an atmosphere that feels like it’s come straight from an Indiana Jones film. Next, head to Ta Keo; one of the most imposing temples in Angkor Wat was begun in the 11th century and was designed to evoke the mythical Mount Meru. It rises to a height of almost 150 feet and includes a series of terraces and galleries.

After lunch, visit Banteay Srei. Given its relative compact size, this red sandstone temple from the 10th century has been called the gem of Angkor Wat. Its delicate carvings of Shiva and other gods from the Hindu pantheon are considered masterpieces. Your last stop of the day will be Banteay Samré, a 12th-century site that includes a tower in typical Angkor style, and two galleries that once served as libraries.
A person in a hat rides a motorbike down a sunny forest road.

PHOTO BY JOSEPH ANSON

DAY 8Siem Reap

Recover from your full day of exploring Angkor Wat by sleeping in, enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, and then visiting the hotel spa. Even relaxing can be a cultural experience here, thanks to treatments that incorporate local herbs and traditional Khmer techniques.

Because the main draw of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, many travelers skip over the city itself. But spend some time today visiting highlights like the Old Market. Snack on roasted corn on the cob and fried bananas. (You can also sample fried tarantulas). Siem Reap is also a good place for buying souvenirs, ranging from T-shirts to handcrafted artisanal items. If you’re in search of anything in particular, ask the hotel concierge for suggestions before heading into town.

Later in the day, spend your final evening in Cambodia with a sunset cruise on Tonle Sap Lake. As you enjoy a cool cocktail, you may want to bring along a copy of Korean Air’s route map and start contemplating where to go on your next Asian adventure.
Cambodia Culture

PHOTO BY WEI GAO

DAY 9Fly to Phnom Penh and depart

A quick flight to Phnom Penh will be the first leg of your journey home. You’ll make the hop to Incheon Airport and then settle in for another comfortable flight aboard Korean Air. While the trip across the Pacific isn’t a short one, you’ll feel pampered no matter which class of service you choose, thanks to Korean Air’s efficient and diligent service, one of the best entertainment systems in the skies, and meals that showcase the best of Asian and Western cuisines.