Mysterious Cambodia: Land of Legends and Welcoming Smiles

Photo by Stefania Baini
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I think back fondly on my travel memories of Cambodia:

My early mornings in Angkor Wat where tall towers of ancient temples break through a thick mist hanging on the tropical forest. The smells of the capital, Phnom Pehn where everyone awakens to the pungent smell of food stalls and the cacophony of honking due to tuk-tuk taxis. Around Battambang, along the shores of the rivers, I see the floating villages starting once more their timeless routine.
Once land of the mythical Khmer Empire, in the mid-fifties Cambodia became crucially important during the Second Indochina War. In the seventies it fell in the hands of one of the most blood thirsty regimes of the nineteenth century: the Khmer Rouge. Founded by an elite group of communist intellectuals, its ranks where formed by young people from the countryside. It took them a few years to starve, torture and exterminate up to 3 million people and they spread fear and isolation throughout the country. By the time the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia the society was falling apart and the population had sadly lost hope. Since then Cambodia has been struggling to put a democratic government into power.
There is no direct flight from Europe but the easiest way is to catch a flight to Bangkok and then get a quick one hour flight to Phnom Pehn. The capital lies at the confluence of River Mekong with Tonle Sap and Bassac. Its preserve is still in tact with colonial charm. There is a winding maze of small houses which surround the magnificent Royal Palace and the shiny Silver Pagoda. Devote a couple of hours to visit the elegant gardens and the gold shimmering pavilions, then catch a tuk-tuk and dash in and out of traffic to visit the city’s temples and the Old Market. If you have an interest in the tormented past of this country, it’s worth visiting Tuol Sleng. Formerly a school, it was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and a place of torture. Head out of town for a guided visit of the memorial to the victims of the genocide, otherwise known as the Killing Fields.
The following day, after a visit to the National Museum, catch a taxi to Siem Reap, which can be reached in four hours on good roads.

Bustling Siem Reap is the gateway to the biggest religious complex in the world, the Unesco heritage site Angkor Wat.

The site occupies a surface of more then 1 million square meters and counts dozen of temples, each one with its own style and fascination. To fully enjoy Angkor Wat, I recommend a one week visit. Start your morning early with a climb to Phnom Bakeng temple: from there you can enjoy the view of Angkor Wat’s towers emerging from the forest and the milky mist. Then head to Angkor Wat religious complex: get lost in a labyrinth of corridors, where bas-reliefs depict the daily life of Cambodians’ ancestors, historical facts and the endless battle between gods and demons. Enter courtyards and corridors, climb higher until you reach the the highest and holiest part of the complex. From here you can admire the magnificence of the temple dominating the dense green of the forest. The second famous complex is the citadel of Angkor Thom, whose highlight is  the Bayon with its enigmatic Buddah faces observing the world from the top of a mesmerizing maze of towers.
The citadel complex still has a lot more to offer: the Bapuon, an impressive temple mountain reached through a raised causeway, the terrace of the Elephants and the Leper King and smaller structures scatter around the lush jungle. Apart from the most famous sites, the area boasts many more complexes, each one with its own peculiarity. Ta Prohm, with its trees and huge roots growing over the temple, was used as a movie set for Angelina Jolie’s ‘Tumb Raider.’ Preah Khan has endless alleys and the only two-storey structure that is still standing. Not to be missed are the imposing Ta Keo and the finely decorated Banteay Kdei.

There are also several opportunities for half-day trips that I highly recommend:
1- Climb hanging bridges to explore the collapsed temple of Beng Mealea.
2- Be stunned by the finest decorations carved in pink stone at Banteai Samre, known as the ‘Citadel of Women.’
3- Trek through the jungle at Kbal Spean to discover the ‘River of a thousand Lingas’ and its sculptures carved in the river bed.

It’s now time to leave archaeological discoveries and immerse yourself in the local culture in order to get to know the smiley and sweet Cambodian spirit. Catch a taxi and in two and a half hours you will reach Battambang, a French colonial town on the shores of Sangkae River. Visit the countryside by tuk-tuk and learn about all the various uses of rice. Give your adrenaline a boost on the Bamboo Train, a small bamboo platform powerd by an agricultural engine which runs full speed on tracks among the vegetation.  The following morning join an amazing 7 hour boat trip which takes you back to Siem Reap. The wide river narrows, flowing through rice fields, then widens again and floating villages appear on the shores. You encounter local fisherman attending their daily duties, women washing clothes and will find yourself waving back to smiling kids who run through the fields or sail on long tail boats to school. The final destination is the biggest fresh water lake in South East Asia: Tonle Sap Lake.

Hotels

Sieam Reap boasts a wide range of accommodations for all needs and tastes. I’ve tried the elegant ‘La Riviere d’Angkor Resort’ which is perfect if you want to enjoy Siem Reap’s nightlife. To experience the quietness of the countryside try the charming Angkor Rural Boutique, set amidst the rice fields. If you travel with kids, choose Sokhalay Angkor Villa Resort with its huge swimming pools and wide gardens.
In Battambang stay at La Villa, a boutique hotel set in a perfectly restored colonial villa, and in Phnom Penh enjoy magnificent views from the inexpensive Okay Boutique Hotel.
My trips to Cambodia were unforgettable experiences that seduced my heart and filled me with beautiful images and strong sensations. One visit and I’m sure you will agree that Cambodia is a place full of surprises and adventures.

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Stefania Baini
Stefania moved to Luxembourg from Milan in 2007. She initially came for work and has since built a new life here with her husband and daughter. She graduated with a degree in Literature but has always been working in finance. In her free time she's a passionate traveller and photographer and also loves reading, sports and learning new languages.

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