The perfect trip: Cambodia
Marvel at the palaces, markets and bars of the capital, Phnom Penh, before heading north to Siem Reap for excursions to a floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake and the extravagant, inspirational temples of Angkor. From there, it is south to the untouched jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, finishing with a homestay on a rural family farm.
Phnom Penh: Best for culture
Phnom Penh is eerily quiet. A sole remork – the usually ubiquitous motorised rickshaw – rolls languorously past the Royal Palace to a deserted Tonlé Sap riverfront. Here, among the shuttered-up shops facing the palm-lined promenade, food stalls sell noodle soup and beef skewers to infrequent customers.
The peace doesn’t last. As the Khmer festival that emptied the city ends, Phnom Penhois who’d been drawn to rural family gatherings in their tens of thousands flood back to the capital and the beguiling chaos resumes. After a troubled history, which reached its nadir with the Khmer Rouge’s enforced eviction of the city in the ’70s, the ‘Pearl of Asia’ is thriving, with a flourishing café culture and a glut of world-class fusion restaurants.
Prosperity has added an extra sheen to its cultural institutions too, many of which were built during Cambodia’s French Protectorate era, beginning in 1863. Among these is the Art Deco Psar Thmei, a pastel-yellow covered market with four wings radiating from an enormous central dome.
A few hours after dawn and the Central Market, as it is also known, is already a blur of browsing and bartering. Business is brisk at textile stalls selling traditional checked krama scarves, while elsewhere chattering shoppers weave past fruit outlets piled with lychees and crimson dragon fruit, and stalls overflowing with lotus flowers and bunches of fragrant Rumdul, Cambodia’s national flower.
Just a few blocks from the market, the National Museum is close enough to the riverfront to receive some of its welcome breeze. A group of schoolchildren in matching white polo shirts and flip-flops plays in the shade of the terracotta building’s neatly tended garden while, inside, visitors reflect upon 1,000 years of Khmer sculpture.
The adjacent Royal Palace, with its glistening spires and dragon-tail details, still dominates the city’s low-rise skyline. In a corner of one of its courtyards, a team of artists is working to restore a 1901 mural of the Reamker – Cambodia’s version of the epic Hindu poem the Ramayana.
‘When I did classical painting at university, we studied the Ramayana,’ says lead artist Roeung Sreyna, gesturing to the mural behind her, where spirits and horse-drawn chariots float over a celestial palace in the sky.
The project is slow and technical. Matching the colours takes time, as does cleaning stains and fixing damage from humidity. ‘We take one section at a time,’ she says, pointing at a three-foot-wide band. ‘Two months for each section, and we have to work slowly. If it were a normal painting, we could do it in a year, but this is our history, so we have to take care.’
Tonlé Sap: Best for lake life
In the village of Me Chrey, the streets are made of water and the wooden houses float. The village’s 500 families are among the thousands who have settled on the surface of the freshwater Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s ‘Great Lake’, where, not surprisingly, life revolves around the water. As dawn breaks, Me Chrey is already abuzz. Toddlers paddle small aluminium tubs down the main street, fruit and vegetable sellers in bright floral clothing and conical hats navigate boats between houses, and householders check for breaches in ‘fish banks’ – submerged reed baskets where fish are kept until market day. Shouted greetings and lively chatter are punctuated by the occasional snort of a pig from a floating pen. Further out on the water, a family retrieves traps and nets laid out in wide, intricate arrangements.
It’s an itinerant existence. The floating houses, which are tied to one another, are moved by the villagers four times a year to follow migrating fish stocks. The lake’s wildly fluctuating dimensions also a play a part – in the rainy season, Tonlé Sap swells to more than 6,000 square miles, raising the floating houses by around eight metres. Dry season sees the potential spots to anchor reduced significantly.