Cambodia: Asia’s Veiled Treasure
By Lisa Byers
Although Cambodia as an eccentric holiday destination may not come to mind for many, it may come as an enchanting and pleasant surprise to those who seek exoticism and have a taste for the unusual. While traces of the country’s ruinous past affected by the Khmer Rouge peak out from the city corners to remind its people of the pain and devastation, Cambodia continues to emerge as a persevering and an exuberant empire. From Phnom Penh’s buzzing economic capital and historical dedications to its fallen civilians, and reaching across to Siem Reap’s magnificent temples and a reticent floating village, Cambodia rests as one of Asia’s most preciously veiled treasures.
The Royal Palace
Phnom Penh, the nation’s buzzing capital, rests as the country’s economic and political center. Although at first sight the city may seem overwhelming with images of poverty, chaotic food and textile markets, and one-too-many motorbikes, Phnom Penh does have its charms. The Royal Palace is one of the capital’s jewels that welcomes every visitor with its bright yellow walls and ornate curvatures. The temples’ intricate carvings never leave the sanctuaries untouched and add to the complexity of its structural design. For those less enthralled by the architecture, there are traditional folk music jam sessions that lure visitors inside the temples. If you are feeling playful and curious enough, the musicians are more than willing to let you play a little tune on a bamboo xylophone or the bronze gong.
Tuol Sleng Museum
If you are a history buff and want to delve a little deeper into the dark side of Cambodia’s past, the Tuol Sleng Museum is a good place to start. This museum (more like an elephant graveyard) is not suited for the faint at heart. Tuol Sleng, the former prison and torture chamber responsible for the killings of 17,000 civilians (with only 7 survivors) occurring a mere 30 years ago, looks untouched. While a tank of broken skulls greet you at the museum’s entrance, chilling images of empty, reserved and helpless faces of victims line the battered corridors. The quietness on the grounds becomes a piercing silence that echoes through the murky hallways and vacant chambers. This is not an easy visit to say the least, but it is nonetheless Cambodia’s most sensitive and vulnerable aspect of their history that continue to linger amongst the culture today.
Siem Reap, the nation’s most visited and prosperous city, thrives on tourism based on one main attraction: its temples. As one of the eight world wonders, the temples of Angkor Wat welcome every traveler to experience what it feels like to walk around in 12th century A.D. To fully explore the breadth and beauty of the city, it is advised to spend a few days exploring and uncovering every nook and cranny either by tuk-tuk, by bicycle or, when in Rome, by elephant. A rigid stair climb up the temples and in between the hidden creases of the ruins infiltrated by gargantuan tree roots is an audacious yet playful way to explore the splendor of such wonders (Lara Croft style). Whether it is the temples that draw you to the city, its luxurious resorts and spas, or authentic Cambodian cuisine, Angkor Wat will hit the spot.
Chong Khneas Floating Village
Chong Khneas, located on Boeung Tonle Sap Lake, is situated 30 minutes outside of Siem Reap and home to Cambodia’s famous floating village that greets every visitor with curiosity and wonder. To get there, a bumpy tuk-tuk ride through Kampong Khleang exposes most of the country’s floodplains, an area suited to fishing and where wooden houses sit on stilt-like wooden masts. The boat ride onto the murky waters of Tonle Sap, however, is a quiet and peaceful one that sheds light onto the nation’s most eccentric possession. For those looking for a quick bite to eat or just curious about a family’s pet alligator, one requires a makeshift canoe and a paddle (or a very long stick) to traverse from one boathouse to another. If it’s Cambodian quirks and foibles that tickle your fancy, then Chong Khneas if your guilty pleasure.
Let the adventures begin!