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After years of sitting quietly in the shadow of its neighbours, Cambodia has now found its feet as a standalone destination. With a flurry of new hotels, and the unveiling of hidden regions and beaches to explore, it’s now time to charge down everything this reborn destination has to offer.
My first stop was Phnom Penh, which I was about to explore by cyclo. As I discovered the hidden backstreets with my ‘driver’ Kanya, an architect student, I started to see the city with new eyes. Kanya’s keen and well-trained gaze picked out the old hotels, temples and churches which exist as a reminder of life long before the dictatorship that reigned here. Phnom Penh’s buildings are a reminder of a past overshadowed by a bitter history – and yet, were utterly beautiful in the evening light.
Trundling along, I was told a story of a village boy who travelled to Switzerland to become chocolatier, and who now works in a luxury jungle camp a few hours from the capital, all down to the work of the Shinta Mani Foundation. So, with this delicious thought I travelled west to Shinta Mani Wild, a jungle camp in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains.
My arrival into camp was not as you, nor I, would expect. I found myself hitched up to a zip line, hurtling over dense jungle greenery and then skimming towards a finishing line surrounded by a thunderous waterfall. A group of welcoming faces and a tequila-based cocktail were eagerly awaiting my arrival. As I stopped for the first time to take in my surroundings, it felt like I had stepped back in time; the lodge’s design encapsulating the time when Jackie O visited the Cambodian jungle back in 1967. There was a certain chicness and glamour mixed with the wildness of the jungle.
Sitting the on the deck of my luxurious tent, a place idyllically positioned to take in the river view while the interior showcased memorabilia from an era gone-by, I watched the boisterous flow of the river cut through the nature around me. Amongst the wilderness, the butterflies seemed to busily chase nothing and kingfishers blitzed from bush to tree, and back again. The beauty was astounding, and the atmosphere truly relaxing.
Time to bid farewell to Shinta Mani Wild. The coast is now calling.
After a short, bumpy ride to Sihanoukville, a speedboat awaits. The short journey across the water takes me to the island paradise of Song Saa. I step off the vessel and I immediately relish the feeling of having sand between my toes.
On my first morning, I wake up early for yoga by the pool. Fortunately, for everyone looking to get the most from their day, the team overlooking Song Saa has cleverly set the clocks one hour earlier from the mainland to maximise the hours of daylight. And, the creative thinking doesn’t end there. For years now, they have also been running a community initiatives programme and forged strong links with the village on the opposite island. The village’s temple and school get much-needed support; and the Song Saa team helps to protect the unique culture in the area.
Two more luxury brands have stuck their flag into the sand in this part of Cambodia – Alila Koh Russey and Six Senses Kabey Island. While both fuse modern facilities with the highest levels of luxury, they are also deeply inspired by the surrounding nature and vibrant heritage in the area. A rich sense of place permeates that is perfect for the considered traveller.
So far, my journey through Cambodia had been a whirlwind of city gems, forest luxury and ocean calm – but now, the iconic temples of Angkor await.
Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor and home to a vibrant hotel and restaurant scene. By far the biggest draw here is the temple. And it is so easy to see why. The way the forest and temples have become so intertwined here is fascinating and beautiful. The roots are forced to grow in strange formations along walls and stone paths; while the moss-covered rocks shimmer with running water.
I set off early, while just as a tickle of rain carefully dots the ground. I achieve what I set out to do and beat the biggest crowds. All but a few fellow early-risers are present to keep me company. I entered the temple and had a moment of realisation – we were one of the very first to enter the space that day. Calm hung delicately through the air. It was a rare and special treat – albeit only for a few minutes, but still something worth savouring.
I’m back outside, and for the first time, everything on my trip seemed to stop moving for a split second. Then, out of nowhere, a great, unrelenting hulk of rain clapped the ground all at once. The area and the people came alive under the cleansing water; the children burst into celebration, darted from puddle to puddle and embraced every moment.
Cambodia is truly in vogue. And the smiles of these children show just why; it’s a country born from optimism and perseverance. But, above all, it’s a place where mesmerising moments come and go as quickly as the rain.