Thursday, January 30, 2020

Cambodia - A collision of the Ancient and the Modern World

While traveling for 10 days in Cambodia, we felt like we were constantly smiling. There is a certain sense of calmness which is almost second nature to the locals. The children, with grins on their faces, waved and shouted, “Hello! Hello! What’s your name?”. It wasn’t just the children who were adorable. We passed grown men, giggling and playing friendly tricks on each other on a regular basis.But there’s another side to Cambodia. A raw and very real side that is unavoidable. Cambodia is a country that has been ravaged by Khmer Rouge regime that wiped out nearly two-fifths of the country’s population and instilled fear into the survivors.

Today, you'll see people with missing limbs in the streets – a very real effect of the millions of landmines that were planted in the country’s rural area. And the Khmer Rouge's distaste for intellect has left a mark on the citizens' perception of education. But despite the heartbreaking history, Cambodia is flourishing in many ways. People almost seem to ignore their country’s painful past and are inexplicably joyful. And the tourism industry in Cambodia is growing rapidly.

We Started our tour in the capital city of Phonm Penh. This surprisingly contemporary metropolis is made of two extremes – there is an abundance of sleek cafes and modern charm, but is also a place with a deep and painful history.On our first day we visited Tonle Bati – an ancient temple by the lake. We instantly started drawing comparions and were astonished to see how closely the Jain – Buddist Culture it represented.

We later hung out by our Hotel Pool – you got to enjoy the Victorian charm of the Raffles Hotel. In the evening we walked around the Victory Monument, a nice stroll where locals hang out together under the lit up trees. Just what us as toddler parents wanted. Enough exploration to grow as people and enough relaxation to have a renewed sense of vigour to tackle the big upcoming task of becoming TWIN parents. We prefer action pact on some days and others where we are simply hanging.

Visit to Phnom Penh is not complete without a visit to the famous Elephant Bar, an institution in the city and where the famous Raffles afternoon tea is served. The bar has one of Asia’s largest selection of gin with over 30 different gins. Their signature cocktail is the Femme Fatale, first concocted for Jacqueline Kennedy during her visit to Cambodia in 1967.

Mali’s is a restaurant popular with tourists seeking to taste Khmer cuisine. A wonderful restaurant in the middle of Phonm Pehn. Amazing tropical feel, friendly staff that helped us manoevur Vegeterian Food, and the food itself was so fresh and flavourful, especially the Amok , a local dish. . We enjoyed their traditional and Site created cocktails.

The following day we Continued exploring and visited the Royal Palace which is close to the popular riverside promenade. There is a small museum which also displays local clothing and a few hand made homeware in lines with the Indus Valley Civilization.

All around the palace , there are scenes from the Ramayana - which are painted in the most intricate fashion. Only all the characters depicted more Asian features than those that we see in India.

That afternoon we also visited the tragic past of Cambodia.

In 1975 to 1979 about two-fifths of the country was brutally slaughtered by an organization that overthrew the government called the Khmer Rouge. They attempted to create a society based solely on extreme work in rural areas. City people were transported to the fields to labor in brutal conditions. Even more horrific, if you had a high school education, wore glasses or had soft hands, you were brought to the killing fields where you had only one fate.

Not learning about the Khmer Rouge while in Cambodia is like not learning about the Nazis while in Germany. It's part of their history and awareness should be spread so something like this will never happen again. There are killing fields all throughout Cambodia, but the one near Phnom Penh is the most well-known and is easily accessible. The killing fields has an audio tour that exceeded our expectations. It told the complete story of the area with different audio points to follow along.

After the heaviness of the killing fields, continue on to the S21 Genocide Museum. S21 was a school before 1975, but Khmer Rouge transformed it into a prison camp where they tortured and interrogated nearly 9,000 people before transporting them to the Killing Field where they all met the same fate.

That evening, the only things that was gpoing to list the heaviness of our heart was a warm pizza and cold white wine. A bustling kerbside eatery just like you'd find in Italy, Piccola De Luigi's certainly has a claim to making some of the best pizza in Phnom Penh. After dark, reservations are recommended.

For our last evening, we chose the Sora Sky Bar in the Rosewood Hotel. Perched on the 37th floor on a spacious cantilevered terrace, Sora undoubtedly boasts the best views of the capital – it is the highest building after all. High tables dot the space, private pergolas housing soft seating that cater to groups sprinkle the edge of the deck, and a large bar forms the centerpiece. 

We took an early morning flight to Sihounkville and then a hotel speed boat to Koh Rong.

There's hardly any online presence of hotels on Koh Russey because the electricity is limited and therefore limited internet. With the help of our Travel Agent – Faro Holidays, we found this exquisite boutique hotel – Alila Villa. With the bed facing the sunset and the beach shack just a few steps away – we were in the lap of luxury.

It only helped that the Executive Chef came to meet us on our very first day – and understood our dietary restrictions – after which breakfast lunch and dinners were simply a treat. We did not order anything from the menu while we were staying there. Leaving it to the chef was the best decision we made. Every Meal was a treat in itself !

The 3 days on the island we simply enjoyed going from the pool to the ocean and enjoyed the bottomless Cocktails – It was simply heaven. In between all the snoozing under the shady palm trees – I took the Kayak out at sea.

We met other honeymooners and lovers and some of the best conversations one can hope to have are over good meals. We did not venture out of the hotel – this R & R, Imagine waking up to the sound of the tide crashing on the shore as you stare out your bungalow onto your own secluded beach on your private side of the island.

Leaving this island was no easy feat – but I was simply excited by the fact that I was going to tick of yet another thing off my Bucket List – “ANGKOR WAT”

We flew to Siem Reap and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Tonle Sap. The floating villages at Tonle Sap Lake have become something of an interest for tourists visiting Siem Reap. The fascination with people who live in floating houses, travel to floating schools and eat at floating restaurants is quite an attraction for the many visitors that come to Cambodia

As well as the floating villages, there are also stilted villages along the banks of Tonle Sap Lake, where houses and buildings rest on tall, thin stilts that keep the occupants dry during the wet season, with giant ladders to reach the lower levels during the dry season.

In Siem Reap we stayed at the Park Hotel, which is literally 200 mtrs from Pub Street - which is the epicenter of all things touristy. we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the Happy Hours and an infinity Pool.

A note on sunrise at Ankor Wat: Let’s just say that sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of those tourist attractions that may leave you disappointed. We heard how hectic it can get, and we really wanted to see the temples at our own pace. I’ll say this: if you aren’t too bothered to get to Angkor Wat at sunrise, you may be better off skipping it. It can be straight-up annoying to be surrounded by such a massive crowd with selfie sticks and people who know no personal space.

We even heard of a fight break out as people were trying to get a prime spot. That said, if you feel the need to go to Angkor Wat at sunrise, GO. We didnt – no shame. It's a Bucket List item Just know that those tranquil pictures you see are deceiving. It will be madness. Yes, even if you arrive super-duper early. Caution: Angkor Wat will always be packed with people no matter what time of day you go. Leave early to get ahead of the hundreds of people doing the same route you are. That way you will be ahead of the pack and exploring empty temples through the day.

Explore the preserved bas-relief on each of the outer walls. If you have time, head up to the third level for an incredible panoramic view of the temple and surrounding areas. However, be prepared for up to a 45-minute wait in the scorching sun as there is only limited space.

Bayon Temple is one of our favorites. There are hundreds of cheeky smiling Buddha faces built into the temple, and because you're there early, the sun will slowly creep down brightening each face one by one.

One of the more well known temples is Ta Phrom Temple. Commonly called the "Tomb Raider" temple, this one is especially crowded. Nature has reclaimed this temple with enormous teak wood trees towering over walls and fallen bricks. Go there in the afternoon and you may be the only few people.It's amazing to see how nature can take over a places after centuries of time.

Once you had enough temples for the day (trust us, you’ll get to that point), head back to your hotel and take a much-needed nap. Then it’s time to hit the town. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from in Siem Reap. Pub Street has a galore of International cuisine. None that are super fancy - but are really pocket friendly. WE dined at Elia Greek Restaurant.

And also enjoyed some Margaretias and a meal the following day at Viva - the burrittos are to die for ! After that meal - there is not much you can do. So we literally just walked over to the next Massage parlour and enjoyed the 7th one hour massage of the trip ! By the time the trip ended - wehad had 10 massages - in the 10 days that we were out of home. GUILTY AS CHARGED.

Be sure to see the free Ansana dance at Temple Bar. The show starts a little after 7 p.m., but get there around 6:30 p.m. to get a good table. Their jugs of beer are decently priced and the cocktails are fun.

The next day, Get picked up by your tuk tuk driver at a much more reasonable hour (8 a.m. or 9 a.m.) and head off toward Bantaey Srei. Considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art, Banteay Srei is cut from stone of a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carving anywhere on Earth. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’, and it is said that it must have been built by a woman, as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hand of a man. Banteay Srei is one of the few temples around Angkor to be commissioned not by a king but by a brahman. 

During the sad history of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge did more than take lives. They nearly destroyed an entire culture, including any artistic expression. The Phare Circus is an organization that is reviving the arts that was nearly destroyed. They provide an education for the poor children of Cambodia and give them the opportunity to learn acting and high-flying tricks by joining the Phare Circus – how cool is that? The students are enthusiastic and put on a great (and interactive!) show.

Tip: There is limited seating so be sure to book at least a day before.  Note: The Phare Circus has relocated and it is a bit of a way outside of town. You will need to hire a tuk tuk driver to take you there, wait for you during the show and bring you back.

The following day, we went to what is Considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen . It is a popular place of pilgrimage on weekends and during festivals. It played a significant role in the history of the Khmer empire, as it was from here in AD 802 that Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a devaraja (god-king), giving birth to the Cambodian kingdom. Attractions include a giant reclining Buddha, hundreds of lingas carved in the riverbed, an impressive waterfall and some remote temples.

From the entrance a sealed road winds its way through some spectacular jungle scenery, emerging on the plateau after a 12km ascent. The road eventually splits: the left fork leads to the picnic spot, waterfall and ruins of a 9th-century temple. Take your swimming gear if you are all for Picnics and waterfalls - but consider this as ok to miss if you have been to Lonavala one too many times. The waterfall is an attractive spot and was featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. However, it could be much more beautiful were it not for all the litter left here by families picnicking at the weekend.

The right fork continues over a bridge (you'll find the riverbed carvings around here) to the base of Wat Preah Ang Thom, which sits at the summit of the mountain and houses the large reclining Buddha carved into the sandstone boulder upon which it is built. This is the focal point of a pilgrimage for Khmer people, so it is important to take off your shoes and any head covering before climbing the stairs to the sanctuary. These days the views from the 487m peak are partially obstructed by foliage run amok.

A spectacularly carved riverbed, Kbal Spean is set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor. More commonly referred to in English as the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, the name actually means ‘bridgehead’, a reference to the natural rock bridge here. Lingas (phallic symbols) have been elaborately carved into the riverbed, and images of Hindu deities are dotted about the area. It was ‘discovered’ in 1969, when ethnologist Jean Boulbet was shown the area by a hermit.

There is an impressive carving of Vishnu on the upper section of the river, followed by a series of carvings at the bridgehead itself, some of which were hacked off in the past few years, but have since been replaced by excellent replicas. This area is now roped off to protect the carvings from further damage. Following the river down, there are several more impressive carvings of Vishnu, and Shiva with his consort Uma, and further downstream hundreds of lingas appear on the riverbed. At the top of the waterfall are many animal images, including a cow and a frog, and a path winds around the boulders to a wooden staircase leading down to the base of the falls.

Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples, and its urban areas can surprise with their sophistication. Chaotic yet charismatic capital Phnom Penh is a revitalised city earning plaudits for its sumptuous riverside setting, cultural renaissance, and wining-and-dining scene. Second city Siem Reap, with cosmopolitan cafes and a diverse nightlife, is as much a destination as the nearby iconic temples. 

My recommendation : Take a return fly via Bangkok - shop your hearts content and you will have the whole package - Travel, Spa-Retreat + Shopping !


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