Rand-friendly Cambodia is a kingdom of wonders

With beaches, temples and history, this Southeast Asian nation is a dream come true - and so easy on the pocket too, writes Brian McLean

01 April 2018 - 00:26 By Brian McLean
Striking statues at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
Striking statues at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
Image: 123RF/giannimarchetti

When my wife Cari agreed to go to Cambodia and asked me to arrange the itinerary, I was in my element.

The Killing Fields have been a morbid fascination of mine for many years, the beaches seemed magnificent, and the Angkor Wat temples have long lingered on my bucket list.

Research showed that accommodation, food and beer would be abundant and cheap.

We arrived in Siem Reap late one night and were through customs and into the balmy, tropical night within the hour. Soon, we were beetling down a three-lane road in a tuk-tuk, surrounded by buses, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians, dogs, the odd taxi, a few tatty Corollas, a Bugatti and a few Rolls-Royces.

What we did not realise at the time was that the way Cambodians drive is the way they are: unbelievably polite. No hooting, no shouting, no revving, no cutting anyone off . just a simple first-come, first-served philosophy with manners and more patience than any Westerner could muster.

BEERS FOR 50C

At the little Laysung Boutique hotel, the receptionist was waiting to welcome us as if it was midday rather than 1am. The hotel has nine rooms built around the cleanest swimming pool I have ever seen. The rooms are spotless too.

After a beer, a swim and a nap, we woke to a perfectly blue sky, hotel breakfast and $9 massage.

Siem Reap, apart from being the gateway to the world's largest religious site, is also home to some fine market shopping and, most importantly, Pub Street. This 500m stretch of road offers myriad bar-hopping and snacking opportunities.

We spent our day chatting to other visitors, swapping tales and sipping 50c (US) beers. At one port of call, a 1l gin-and-tonic cost $5. There was also live music and an overwhelming variety of food on offer at under $5 a plate.

Back at our hotel at the end of the day, we arranged for an early morning pick-up from our driver, Chinn.

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, offers an array of bar-hopping and snacking opportunities.
Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, offers an array of bar-hopping and snacking opportunities.
Image: 123RF/macfromlondon

At precisely 4am, he arrived in his trusty tuk-tuk and we set off to procure - along with thousands of other early risers - the necessary documentation to visit the famous Angkor temples.

The predawn calm of this little city offers a spiritual awareness that is almost overwhelming. The half-hour trip to the temple site, alongside countless others on foot, tuk-tuks and bicycles, is done in almost complete silence, the anticipation palpable.

THE GRAND TEMPLES

On arrival at Angkor Wat, we grabbed a hot chocolate from one of the hundreds of vendors, bypassed the crowd waiting to photograph the complex from across the moat, and headed into the main temples.

South African photographer Obie Oberholzer recently said: "The whole place is of such magnificence and grandeur that it is almost unimaginable for modern man to comprehend."

Many hours and thousands of steps later, we deemed ourselves "templed out". Chinn appeared from the melee of tuk-tuks, armed with a small cooler box filled with water and beer for our trip back to our oasis and pool, as we contemplated what we had seen.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia's mind-blowingly beautiful temple complex.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia's mind-blowingly beautiful temple complex.
Image: 123RF/Dimol

The next day we headed for Sihanoukville, the main coastal town and gateway to the islands.

After an uneventful flight and a 30-minute drive, we arrived at our hotel - about 500m from the ferry terminal from which we were to depart at 9am.

There are two major tourist islands: Koh Rong for the youngsters and Koh Rong Samloem for those with more birthdays under the belt. We opted for the one with the longer name.

The 40-minute ferry ride took us there. After a 10-minute walk along the beach we arrived at the Sol Beach Resort, where the service and food would turn out to be the best of our trip.

Over the next five days we experimented, sipped, imbibed, were massaged and manicured (well, not me), wallowed, ate and snacked our way along the entire 2km-long beachfront.

THE WORLD'S LOVELIEST BEACH

While sipping cocktails on our verandah one night, with only 15m of white sand between us and the turquoise water, we debated whether this was in fact the finest beach we had ever been on.

We had, however, been told of a spot called Lazy Beach on the other side of the island. It's accessible only on foot through a tropical rainforest.

Wooden jetty and fishing boat on Koh Rong Samloem island, Cambodia.
Wooden jetty and fishing boat on Koh Rong Samloem island, Cambodia.
Image: 123RF/donyanedomam

At the entrance to the walkway, we found Octopussy, a rondawel-shaped pub, alongside the notorious Tree Bar. We paused for a pre-lunch cocktail at each establishment.

Then the stroll through the beautiful forest commenced. Ten minutes along the way, the Jungle Bar enticed us in for a refreshment. After another 10 minutes we arrived at the finest beach in the world.

After two hours in the water, we headed to the beach's eatery and bar, where we found French, Italian, English, Texan English and Australian, plus a smattering of Afrikaans - and several unrecognisable tongues.

After five magnificent days on this island, we found our (highly suntanned) selves at the jetty for our ferry back to Sihanoukville and a flight to Phnom Penh.

FIELD OF NIGHTMARES

Phnom Penh is a real city. One-quarter of the nation's population lives there, with poverty and opulence existing side by side.

I had wanted to visit the Killing Fields and the S21 prison (Toul Sleng) for a long time. At last the day dawned.

Over a stretch of three years and eight months between 1976 and 1979, the ruling Khmer Rouge tortured and killed three million fellow Cambodians. Their weapons were disease, starvation, hands-on killing and simple abuse.

Coloured bracelets commemorate those who lost their lives at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
Coloured bracelets commemorate those who lost their lives at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
Image: 123RF/rtakken

S21 and the Killing Fields - two of over 300 sites discovered - were exposed to the world in 1980, yet the Khmer Rouge was recognised by the United Nations as the official leading party in Cambodia for many years afterwards.

Apart from Auschwitz, there can be no other acreage in the world that can illustrate in so simple a manner mankind's most deplorable acts

Seeing them was humbling, stressful and emotional. Apart from Auschwitz, there can be no other acreage in the world that can illustrate in so simple a manner mankind's most deplorable acts.

After the emotionally charged day, in exceptionally humid conditions, our air-conditioned room was a relief. An evening meal on the hotel rooftop, with its magnificent vista of Phnom Penh and the Royal Palace, was a fitting end to a day I will never forget.

In 11 days we saw the most awe-inspiring temples. We languished on two of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. We swam in spectacular tropical waters, snorkelled, dived amongst bioluminescent plankton at midnight, drank cocktails in incomparable settings and visited the Killing Fields.

All in the company of humble, hardworking, amusing and caring locals. Cambodia and its people are magnificent. You should go.


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