Cambodia: Beyond Angkor Wat
Featured destinations: Cambodia
Published 07 November 2016
The temples of Angkor are the number one tourist attraction in Cambodia. In fact, according to Lonely Planet, they’re the number one tourist attraction in the entire world. To go to Cambodia and not see the crumbling ruins of Angkor Wat would be a travesty, so I’m not in any way suggesting you miss them out. Instead, step away from the temple-obsessed masses and linger longer in this fascinating country. Beyond the wats you’ll find plenty of historic sights, natural wonders, rare wildlife, and a sizzling cuisine to boot, as I discovered on a recent holiday.
Trying the food
When I travel I’m all about the food. I love to see the sights too of course, but the food is where you can gain a greater insight into a culture, and broaden your taste horizons at the same time. So naturally, on arrival into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, my boyfriend David and I headed straight for the nearest restaurant. And top of the menu was amok, a traditional Khmer fish curry made with lemongrass and shrimp paste, giving it a mildly pink colour. Its lively, complex flavours, unfamiliar to our western palates, meant it soon became our go-to dish. Amok goes especially well with a locally-brewed beer, which I was amused to see the Cambodians have named Angkor. And very refreshing it was too.
Angela at the Royal Palace image: Angela Griffin
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace
Phnom Penh is more relaxed than I expected. The wide streets and tree-lined boulevards, as well as the (Mekong) riverside location, probably help too, and I found the whole place blissfully crowd-free. Our first port of call was the Royal Palace and its accompanying Silver Pagoda, both ridiculously ornate and jewel-encrusted, and particularly fetching as they glittered in the bright sunlight. The Silver Pagoda, inlaid with five tons of silver, houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which is not made of emerald but Baccarat crystal, as well as another gold Buddha bejewelled with 9,584 diamonds in a dazzling display of wealth.
A cell in S-21
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Sadly, Phnom Penh is not all gilded palaces and breezy riverside strolls. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was one of the most harrowing places I’ve ever been to. But let me start with a bit of history: from 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was controlled by the Khmer Rouge, an oppressive group whose regime caused the deaths of up to two million people, around a quarter of the population at the time. The Khmer Rouge used Tuol Sleng, a former high school, as a prison, and renamed it S-21. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed here. When S-21 was discovered by the invading Vietnamese Army in 1979, they found 14 bodies on-site, as well as a mass grave 7.5 miles away at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
Tombs at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum image: Angela Griffin
The Genocide Museum is not a place for the faint-hearted. Its tiny cells each contain a graphic photograph of how the room was discovered, often with pools of blood on the floor. An exhibition displays portraits of the victims, many of whom were children, as well as the grinning guards. Paintings depict the torture methods, which are too gruesome for me to go into here. The horrors of it all brought me to tears, which I am again fighting back as I write.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
We visited the Killing Fields too. Although there wasn’t a lot to see – just some holes in the ground and a commemorative monument filled with sculls – it was a peaceful, well-kept place, the air filled with the sounds of tweeting birds and the shrieks of children playing at a nearby school, far removed from the terror that once happened there. For some, touring these sites might not be the ideal way to spend their holiday, but I think it’s important that people visit these places, remember the victims and learn from the mistakes of the past.
After the highs and lows of Phnom Penh, we continued to Battambang.
Battambang’s bamboo train image: Angela Griffin
Battambang is best known for its bamboo train, a motorised bamboo platform that travels up and down a single train track. Once used by locals to transport goods, today the train is a quirky tourist attraction. Of course we had to ride it, and were impressed at its speed as it zipped through the countryside. When we met another train coming the other way, the lighter one of the two was emptied, dismantled and removed from the track to let the heavier one past. We met quite a few other trains, one with 20 people on it, so of course being just two and a driver, it was us that had to move.
A floating house on the Tonlé Sap image: Angela Griffin
From Battambang, we took the boat to Siem Reap, a seven-hour journey passing pretty floating villages, rice fields, children waving and screaming with excitement at seeing the foreigners, and endless stretches of countryside. At one point the river became so thick with weeds that it felt as if we were sailing on grass. We eventually reached the Tonlé Sap Lake, where we entered a little channel through the trees to Siem Reap.
David exploring the ruins of Beng Mealea image: Angela Griffin
From Siem Reap we visited Beng Mealea, one of Angkor’s furthest away temples. After two hours in a tuk-tuk we arrived to find a crumbled ruin intertwined with tree roots and vines. Because the temple was in such a bad state, we could climb over the rubble, finding lost corridors and passageways full of dust. David hummed the Indiana Jones theme tune as we scampered over the rocks and swung from the vines. It felt like a true adventure!Irrawaddy dolphin
Our final stop was Kratié. I’ve loved cetaceans since I saw my first dolphin in Scotland as a child, so I wanted to visit Kratié to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We took a boat out onto the Mekong River, with the hope, but not the expectation, of seeing one, especially as there are only about 20 of them in the area. But we were lucky. We soon saw their large round heads and short beaks above the water, and admired their cute little smiles, not too dissimilar from their seafaring cousins. But unlike seawater dolphins, these didn’t leap and jump, although a few of them slapped their tails. I enjoyed every moment we spent with them.
See Cambodia with Round the World Experts' Cambodia Explorer itinerary, a tailor-made holiday including stops in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Angkor Wat.