Originally published 26 April 2011
When our family and friends heard that we were going to visit Hong Kong and Cambodia, the most frequently asked question seemed to be “why”? The visit to Hong Kong could easily be explained. It was to be a trip down memory lane, as we had lived there in the early seventies. But Cambodia? In most people’s minds, the links with its relatively recent infamous past – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – would not at first make it seem an attractive travel destination of any great interest.We too were not entirely sure what we were letting ourselves in for but we put ourselves into a very safe pair of hands in the shape of Mark Hotham, our Audley travel specialist. After talking with Mark at length, he was able to get a feel for the type of trip that would suit us, giving maximum destinations and experiences, but without the itinerary being exhaustingly relentless.
Hong Kong reignited our love for Southeast Asia. We had three wonderful days there, revisiting some places where we once lived, and experiencing a whole new Hong Kong, including getting around on the extremely efficient MTR (Mass Transit Railway) which was only just being built when we lived there.
We purchased an Octopus Card for this, and it also gave easy access to the iconic Peak Railway, and the Sky Viewing Station at the top of the Peak too.
We stayed at the ideally located Langham Hotel on Kowloon side, only a stone’s throw from another feature from earlier times, the iconic Star Ferry. We were also able to use our Octopus card for this short trip across the harbour. Whilst staying at the Langham, we celebrated our return to Hong Kong with an indulgent but memorable dinner in their Michelin starred T’ang Court Restaurant. A short walk from the Langham hotel took us to the unexpected delights of Kowloon Park. A very restful, yet quite contemporary landscaped park in the middle of this vibrant area of Kowloon.
After only two and a half hours flying time to Phnom Penh, we arrived in Cambodia at the end of the wet season (November) where the temperatures were anywhere between a welcome 28 and 32 degrees centigrade. This made sightseeing and walking around pretty comfortable. In addition, one main reason for our visit there at that particular time of the year was to be able to experience the water festivals. These take place when the various rivers are full to capacity after the rains, and many teams from all over Cambodia compete in boat races – the boats we saw in Phnom Penh had upwards of 60 crew members rowing for pride. It was an incredible sight.
Our heads and hearts are full of the images, sights, sounds, and smells, but perhaps the most lingering image of all is the one of the Cambodian people.
And what of our time in Cambodia? I could tell you about the stunningly beautiful Royal Palace, the intriguing Silver Palace, and several of the capital’s other main sites by being pedalled around the city on a cyclotour. It will be an experience we will never forget. We felt a compelling obligation to visit the Genocide Museum, and the Killing Fields, in order to gain a better understanding of the evil that visited this country. We are so glad we did and in so doing had a rare opportunity to meet one of the survivors of S21, a notorious prison in Phnom Penh. Another unforgettable, though much happier experience, was a visit to the Friends restaurant/school for an unexpectedly good lunch (and great value), which offered an opportunity to see charity truly making a difference to young people’s lives – we felt so inspired that we purchased ‘a notional brick’ – this organisation helps street children make new lives for themselves. Thank you Audley for raising our awareness of this and similar organisations’ valuable work!!
I could tell you about the insightful and very instructive drive from Phnom Penh to our next destination, Siem Reap. Thanks to our brilliant guide Rith (pronounced Ritz) we were able to see and experience so many things which make up every day Cambodian life: the ubiquitous rice fields; being invited to watch a villager threshing the rice stems on his much-cherished threshing machine and covering a bemused nearby water buffalo in the process with the discarded ‘straw’; watching a very skilful lady winnowing a large sieve half full of rice, and lastly, the winnowed rice laid out to dry on woven bamboo matting on any available space.
I should also tell you about a boat trip one afternoon on the Tonle Sap Lake, though to call it a lake seems an underestimation in its description because once past the lakeside habitation, it seems you are going out into a vast ocean! The life which goes on along the waters’ edge is remarkable, and very humbling, to us in our world of plenty. The houses (also shops, smoke-houses, spirit houses etc), are built on stilts and are made of various recycled materials, each one a testimony to the individuality of its occupants. Some are painted bright colours, others have assorted pot plants on the verandah. Many of the children who lived in the houses and saw us passing by never failed to give a cheery wave and big smiles – though this was a common sight throughout our various excursions in Cambodia.
Having already visited the area’s magnificent Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples, one unexpected delight of our time in the Siem Reap area was a visit to Banteay Srei – the so called Women’s Temple. Built of yellow and pinkish-hued sandstone, the carvings were totally exquisite, and a contrast in style from the more imposing Angkor temples. Another water festival was taking place during our visit there, and once again, boats with teams of between twenty to twenty five members were racing against each other. It was a great day out for locals and tourists alike.
I need to tell you too about the last destination on our itinerary – Kep in the Kampot region. Mark was absolutely right about this gem of a place, that it would be a great place to finish our trip. We stayed at the Veranda Eco-lodge and the view from our own veranda towards the sea was stunning. The area is known for its seafood, especially crabs, and also the Kampot pepper grown on a nearby plantation. So, one lunchtime we naturally had to try a local speciality, crab with fresh green peppercorns. This was served at the Kimly restaurant in Kep – deliciously simple and simply wonderful! That same morning, we had hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us out to the pepper plantation and what a great way of seeing the countryside that was. He also became our ‘guide’ when we arrived at the plantation, giving us an unofficial tour. This short trip provided us with a couple of great gifts to take back home. The next day the same tuk-tuk driver arranged a short boat trip for us to nearby Rabbit Island – a very pleasant and relaxing way to spend a few hours on a lovely beach setting.
What I would really love to share with readers of this article though, is the magic of Cambodia and its people. Even now, several weeks after returning from our trip, our heads and hearts are full of the images, of the sights, sounds, and smells, but perhaps the most lingering image of all is the one of the Cambodian people. Their families and their culture were cruelly shattered in the 1970’s, but they are a truly stoical, determined people, rebuilding their lives in inspiring and imaginative ways. They have big hearts, a beguiling sense of humour, a huge willingness to share their love of their country with visitors and for us to enjoy our time there – they do make you very welcome. The guides and drivers provide so much more than a duty to fulfil your itinerary – they can, if allowed, add a richer dimension if you go with an open heart and open mind. I promise you, any trip here will be much the richer for it.
There is so very much more I wanted to add, but it would take up far too much space. Perhaps you need to go for yourself and tap into the magic that is Cambodia.
Find out more about tailor made trips to Cambodia
Book a holiday to Cambodia and experience one of Southeast Asia's more popular destinations with the most famous tourist highlight being the glorious jungle-tangled temples at Angkor. Other attractions include the post-colonial grandeur of Phnom Penh and the lovely beaches at Sihanoukville.Read more about Cambodia »
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