Cambodia’s gold standard
Jun 09, 2017 12:21PM

Cambodia is establishing itself as a magnet for luxury lovers keen to embrace a history of beauty and tragedy. Hollie-Rae Brader discovers more.

The streets are alive with thousands of smiling faces. People chant, jeer and cheer in excitement as beautifully coloured dragon boats zip along the Mekong.

Elsewhere along the waterside, families enjoy picnics outside the Royal Palace, children scream with delight as they go head to head with tourists in a friendly game of football, and locals delve into Cambodian delicacies such as fried crickets and tarantulas.

I try to soak in the sights and scents, overwhelmed by everything around me. This isn’t chaos as I know it in London, and there’s certainly no shoving to get on a Tube.

In fact, despite hundreds of thousands of people descending on Phnom Penh for the Water and Moon Festival, there is complete harmony around me.

I arrive in the Cambodian capital just in time for the festival. The event is usually an annual affair, but a stampede five years ago caused the government to pull the plug. The hiatus has clearly caused pent-up demand. Cambodians have travelled across the country for this special occasion, and they couldn’t be happier to see dozens of boats racing up and down the river. The beaming smiles of the locals are infectious, and I’ve already fallen for this mystical city and its people.

After hours of roaming around on foot and by cyclo, I end the day with my legs hung over the edge of the riverbank, with the mighty Mekong before me and close enough to the action to be splashed by the lapping water, caused by the motion of 40 oars hitting the water in unison. I can’t help but smile as winning teams chant and sing in the direction of the King, who is proudly sat in an enclosure just a stone’s throw from where I’ve plonked myself. He, however, opted for a throne-like chair rather than the concrete floor.

RECENT TRAGEDY

My experiences a day earlier at the capital’s genocide museum and Killing Fields memorial resonate with me more than ever as I sit among the beaming locals.

Cambodians have a remarkable outlook on life – most likely due to their Buddhist culture – despite a tortured and still widely remembered history at the hands of dictator Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Learning about Cambodia’s recent past is just as important as learning about its ancient history. Just four decades ago, between two and three million Cambodians died from starvation, execution and disease – around a quarter of the population at the time.

First we visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – a high school- turned-prison camp where row upon row of photos of prisoners are exhibited alongside the tools and instruments used to torture them.

Our guide stops to show us the blood-stained floors beneath us and to explain his story – that his parents, siblings and grandparents were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. It’s here that my emotions get the better of me and I can’t stop the tears rolling down my cheeks.

From there we visit the Killing Fields, where the vast majority of prisoners lost their lives. The fields are constantly excavated, with teeth and bones regularly discovered. In a moment of solitude and reflection, I’m left speechless when my guide thanks me for wanting to learn about the horrors experienced less than half a century ago.

UPSCALE OFFERING

I was lucky enough to call the city’s most famous hotel, Raffles Hotel Le Royal, home during my stay. I call it home because that’s exactly how it felt every time I returned to the property, which leads the luxury offering in the capital.

Sister property Grand Hotel D’Angkor is also among the more opulent and luxurious properties in Siem Reap, and this was my home from home during my time in this ancient part of Cambodia. Siem Reap is best known as gateway to the ancient temples located close by, and as a backpackers’ haven. But its luxury offering is escalating, with a wide range of high-end hotels, including the 39-suite boutique property Shinta Mani, a Park Hyatt and Belmond’s La Résidence d’Angkor.

While the temples understandably steal the spotlight, there is plenty more on offer here. One such experience is Phare, a contemporary circus act that sees somersaulting young Cambodians tell folklore tales.

Siem Reap itself is a hive of activity, although some might feel the central market areas are touristy.

The temples of Angkor are magical, and visitors to the area should make the most of a multi-day pass to see the diversity in design. The Angkor complex, however, is vast, and those with limited time should head straight to the Bayon temple, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. Sunrise is best spent in front of Angkor Wat, where misty red and pink pigments slowly rise above the majestic temple. It’s a breathtaking experience, and one not to be missed.

This wasn’t my first visit to the ancient temples of the historic city of Angkor, but I was equally, if not more, awestruck the second-time round.

This time, a day scaling and exploring multiple temples ended in sheer luxury – sailing along a moat that once served Angkor Thom on a beautiful dragon boat, similar to those I’d seen on the Mekong days earlier. I watched, with a gin and tonic in hand, as the sun dipped out of sight, to be replaced by a bright white supermoon hanging low over the waters – the perfect way to reflect on my majestic Cambodian experience.

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