Recovery from the tormenting years of Khmer Rouge's reign, up until a decade ago, has been slow but sure for Cambodia. Now a peaceful Buddhist nation with historical wonders and an air of grace, it is worth taking the time to marvel at Cambodia's rich and vibrant culture. Of course visitors are drawn to the wonder of sites such as Angkor Wat, but Cambodia has so much more to offer that it's almost difficult to stay focused. So read on, make your plans, and try not to fall for the charm of the country and its people.
Cambodian boutique accommodation is popping up all over the show, from converted colonial buildings in paddy fields, to atmospheric resorts and modern, high-tech hotels. For those after a little seclusion (and something a little different), 4 Rivers Floating Lodge (ecolodges.asia) is made up of a series of tented villas floating on the Tatai River. This is a fantastic, first-class jungle retreat, taking glamping to a whole new level in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. For those who fancy staying somewhere a little more central, historical La Villa in Battambang (lavilla-battambang.net) is perfect for exploring the city, is close to Sangker River and walking distance to Wat Kandal. The villa was constructed in the French colonial style in the 1930s and has been authentically restored to its former glory, complete with antique tile floors, after it was used as a Vietnamese army quarters during the Khmer Rouge period. If this wasn't enough to convince you, the swimming pool is out of this world, you won't want to leave.
From local markets selling lemongrass and sawtooth mint to fish curries from abundant food stalls, Cambodia offers feasts for food-loving travellers. Visitors to the country who are in search of a banquet will find there are two different types of cuisine on offer: Cambodian and Khmer. Cambodian dishes have roots in food from China, Vietnam, Thailand and France, all of which are nations which have influenced the country at some stage during its history. Khmer cuisine refers to the indigenous dishes of Cambodia. A fantastic way to discover more about the dishes on offer is to take a cooking class, which can help put Cambodian and Khmer cuisine into the context of the country's history. Try your hand at whipping up amok, a steamed fish curry that is almost a national dish.
As the nation's memories of the civil war are still raw, there are charities and organisations in Cambodia that are fighting poverty and protecting the environment through tourism. Artisans Angkor is one example of this, as the group aims to revive and foster Khmer arts and crafts while improving the lives of people living in rural areas. Through silk-making, woodcarving, lacquering and painting using traditional methods in fair working conditions, the organisation develops the education and welfare of its employees all with an eye on sustainability. Mith Samlanh is a Cambodian charity that runs a similar program at its Friends restaurants and works with street children to protect and reintegrate them in society.
Relatively untouched forests and the remote Virachey National Park in north-eastern Cambodia have several key wildlife sites, are venues for adventure tourism and play host to deep jungle treks that last several days. Another fantastic place to explore on foot is Prey Veng, on the east bank of the Mekong River. Or take a load off and kayak instead, on Tonle Sap Lake, an ever-changing landscape offering kayaking routes though flooded forests and floating villages. Going bush in Cambodia is a must-do for any budding (or experienced) photographer, with its wealth of inspirational subject matter, whether it be wildlife and nature or the famous temples at Angkor Wat.
SAMPLE THE CULTURE
Cambodia is an incredible place to visit in order to experience a unique, historical and cultural heritage. The spectacular temples at Angkor Wat are grand and intricate Unesco World Heritage sites. The temple complex makes up the largest religious monument in the world, dating back to the 12th century and is still a place of worship for monks.
Ta Prohm is another popular temple to visit; as it has been left almost exactly as it was found. A little eerie and almost swallowed by the jungle, Ta Prohm is a place of great beauty, with a haunting history in the air.
These iconic temples are only the beginning of Cambodia's beauty. From secluded, pristine beaches, to the buildings of Phnom Penh, dolphin-spotting in Mekong River to visiting remote hill tribe villages, the opportunities to explore Cambodian culture are endless.
Malaysian Airlines flies from Auckland to Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur. Return Economy fares start from $1150.
Mai Journeys' escorted tour, Boutique Cambodia for Women, runs from June 21 to July 3 and costs $7050pp. maijourneys.com