Cambodia Travel Guide

Cambodia Travel Guide

Jurriaan Teulings

For many, Cambodia is Angkor Wat. The crumbling remains of the world’s greatest temple complex, and what is the most famous of Cambodia points of interest, are consistently near the top of anyone’s list travelling through Southeast Asia. But what about the rest of the country? On the lesser known side, there’s so much to explore: from the burgeoning LGBT, art and fashion scenes in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, to the fabulous modernist architecture from the country’s long-forgotten 1960s heyday, stretching all the way to a gorgeous Khmer Riviera. Wondering what to do in Cambodia? Mr Hudson has got you covered.

Things to do in Cambodia

Just outside Siem Reap, this collection of magnificent temples of Angkor – some well preserved, others dreamily overgrown and consumed by gigantic trees – once supported the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Unfortunately, catching the sunrise over the five towers of Angkor Wat is on everyone and their mother’s bucket list, so prepare to brave a dark forest of selfie sticks. Alternatively, head for blissful tranquillity at the lesser-known temples first, and return to the main temple by midday. Highly recommended are the tours by Belgian bioengineer, cartographer and photographer Stéphane de Greef, who focuses on the hidden aspects of the site, covering not just the wealth of temples everyone ignores, but also the stunning biodiversity around them.

Cambodia’s brief golden age between independence from the French in 1953, and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s was marked by a great cultural revival. The most tangible legacy of this heyday is the work of visionary architect Vann Molyvann. His style, branded New Khmer architecture, brilliantly merged Le Corbusier’s principles of High Modernism with the layout, building and water management techniques of his Angkorian forefathers. Miraculously, many of the buildings survived the destructive Khmer Rouge regime. Some are in a terrible state of neglect, with trees sprouting from walls like they do at the temples of Angkor. Others are still in use – conference halls, private residences, university buildings. To get a sense of this largely forgotten era, visit the ’Olympic’ Stadium and watch as refrigerator-sized speakers are wheeled in to energize a mass workout at dusk. Even better, book a guided tour by tuk-tuk (three-wheeled auto rickshaw) led by young local architects.

Angkor Wat | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Angkor Wat | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Remembering the genocide

In Phnom Penh, anyone who can stomach it and wants to learn about the atrocities committed by the deranged, xenophobic and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ends up at two places. First, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the S-21 detention centre, a former school building where an estimated 17,000 people were tortured and brutally murdered. And second, an extermination facility south of the city. The latter is the best known of a number of ‘Killing Fields’ – the mass graves where an estimated 1,7 million people (a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time) were discarded. Though most tourists will pay these places a visit out of respect and curiosity, the ensuing reflection on the dark side of humanity is not everyone’s cup of tea.

A more optimistic outlook is offered by the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus, that helps children with problematic backgrounds (often connected to their parents’ war traumas) radically transform into proud, muscular acrobats. At permanent circuses in Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, some shows are re-enactments of Khmer history including the genocide, while others are more of a cabaret, sometimes even including small gay storylines.

 

Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

The best hotels in Cambodia

Phnom Penh 

Compared to other Asian capitals Phnom Penh may feel provincial, but nonetheless, the streets can get quite hectic. Escape the roar of a thousand tuk-tuks in the little oasis of Rambutan, a gay-owned boutique resort around a gorgeous pool on a quiet street south of central Phnom Penh. Built by a French-Cambodian architectural firm run by the daughter of one of Vann Molyvann’s students, it retains the retro feel of New Khmer architecture, brightened up with Dutch owner Dirk de Graaff’s pick of local art.

For the men-only, clothing-optional experience, try the French-run Arthur & Paul resort and spa next door to Rambutan. This cruisy little oasis consisting of a large villa and garden offers spacious and luxurious rooms with homoerotic artwork. All floors are linked by a spectacular spiral staircase, and the downstairs restaurant (aptly named Mâles) and bar are wrapped by a beautiful pool. The bathhouse (yes, that kind of bathhouse) is also very popular with locals.

Siem Reap

For a perfect stay in Siem Reap, book a room at the upscale Shinta Mani Club, a breezy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away from Angkor Wat. The modern design by acclaimed architect Bill Bensley was inspired by the temple complex and includes quirky details like tables on swings and Hindu deities crayoned on blackboards. Excellent service and a generous support of local causes helped this property’s ratings skyrocket to one of the best in the world.

Khmer Riviera

In the 1950s, king Norodom Sihanouk decided the sleepy fishing village of Kep would make the perfect location to create his own Southeast-Asian Riviera. Led by the monarch, the area became an artistic playground for the wealthy French colonial elite, and an estimated 150 villas in the style of the homegrown Modernist New Khmer movement appeared along the coast. When the country fell to the Khmer Rouge, many of these ostentatious villas were stripped and destroyed. Today, about 30 remain, covered in graffiti, slowly pulled apart by vines and roots. Three of them, however, were salvaged by the Belgian entrepreneur Jeff Moons. A single gay father raising an adopted Khmer son, Moons has built a new life in Cambodia, providing jobs and schooling programs for the local community by running the villas as luxury boutique resort Knai Bang Chatt. The fabulously decorated rooms with ocean views attract a well-heeled crowd, seeking both natural and architectural beauty while enjoying the culture and delicacies of the crab market nearby. Those interested can still visit the other ruins – a fascinating, if somewhat ghostly, experience.

Shinta Mani Club Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Shinta Mani Club Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Where to eat in Cambodia

Cambodia’s only master chef Luu Meng is constantly experimenting and digging out the very best of his country’s culinary secrets. The menu of his restaurant Malis showcases a healthy balance of curries, grilled food and specialities. Try his signature dish Prahok Ktis, made with Cambodian fermented fish, kroeung curry paste, minced pork, pea eggplant, chilli and coconut milk, served with fresh, crispy vegetables and rice crackers. Aside from the original restaurant in Phnom Penh, there is also one in Siem Reap.

The Sugar Palm, set in a beautiful colonial villa, is the brainchild of chef Kethana, daughter of Cambodian refugees to New Zealand during the troubled times of the 1970s. In the early 2000s, she returned to her home country to be at the forefront of the revival of Khmer cuisine, re-establishing Cambodian cooking as her mother and grandmother had taught her and adding her own, modern twist. Try the classic Cambodian Fish Amok: freshwater fish, steamed with a lightly spiced blend of coconut cream and steamed vegetables. Like Malis, this restaurant also has a sister property in Siem Reap.

Cambodia nightlife

Phnom Phenh

Hair salon by day, gay bar by night: Space Hair simply is a brilliant idea. Owner Sopheap Chuk teaches his resident Khmer staff the same skills he acquired working several jobs at local beauty salons and hotels. They can tell their Bloody Marys from their Bellinis, and don’t mind showing off some toned muscle either.

The longest running gay bar in Cambodia, Blue Chilli, remains a big favourite among pretty much every gay man or woman in Phnom Penh, local or foreign. The atmosphere is friendly and familiar; the drinks are cheap and strong. The drag shows on Friday and Saturday nights are the best in town.

Siem Reap

Many of Siem Reap’s gay bars tend to be a little tacky. Nothing wrong with that – it’s all perfectly unpretentious – but those who prefer to start their nights with carefully crafted quality cocktails rather than hyperactive drag shows, congregate at the gay-owned, shanghai-styled cocktail bar Miss Wong. Just a stone’s throw away from the screaming mess that is Pub Street, the city’s main tourist drag, this little gem is the perfect hideout to pick up steam for the rest of the night. After a few stiff cosmopolitans and caipirinhas, you’ll be ready to take on tacky.

Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Shopping in Cambodia

For nine years, Khmer fashion designer Kosal Ou learned everything about standards, design and sewing of good quality clothing in a garment factory for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap. Today, his own Kool As U label, is at the forefront of Cambodia’s fledgling fashion scene. It features proud Khmer designs, available at his Phnom Penh shop.

Trunkh’s two shops in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are little treasure troves of upcycled furniture, badges, ceramics, aging hand-painted shop signs, and even carousel animals from the Kingdom of Wonder. The two owners of this ‘first Cambodia-centric lifestyle brand in the world’ collect local objects and fashion on provincial buying forays and design some themselves.

Rather than pursuing a career in Europe, the French-schooled artist Em Riem came back to Phnom Penh to help develop and represent a new Khmer contemporary art scene. To achieve this, he started his own gallery X-EM in 2008, a few blocks away from the Royal University of Fine Arts. His portraits of hunky Khmer guys on burlap rice bags are a few of the eye catchers of Mâles, the hotel restaurant of the Arthur & Paul resort.

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