Cambodia: No longer a one-temple pony With great beaches, a thriving arts scene and a world-class resort on the horizon, Cambodia is finally coming out of the Angkor Wat shadow
Cambodia showcases a rich menu that would entrance any traveler.
Buddhist wats and French colonial-era buildings provide an enduring romance. This is a country that reached its historical and architectural zenith during the Khmer empire. As a result, for years, Angkor Wat has been the lynchpin of Cambodia’s tourism industry, turning the country into a favorite for hit-and-run tourists, little aware that the country is more than one temple, more than one city.
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But three years into the country’s “Kingdom of Wonder” tourism campaign, word is at last starting to spread about the beaches, the dolphins, the forests and the plush resorts that draw more than 2.5 million tourists every year.
Here are some of the things helping rebalance Cambodia’s appeal.
1. Art eruption in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s tourism king, but it is keen to diversify.
Within the last few years, the town that lodges and feeds Angkor’s annual visitors has embraced its creative side and evolved into a chic, edgy town inhabited by avant-garde artists and designers.
The city’s creative hub, West Alley, is now a destination in itself. Filipino Loven Ramos is one of those at the center of the creative cusp that has produced some of the best contemporary art in the country.
His monthly flea market at his boutique hotel (1961, the River Road, +855 6396 6961, www.the1961.com) is the place to be on the last Sunday of every month as people come in droves to dumpster dive for treasures.
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1961, his boutique-style artsy getaway is still free from hordes of tourists. The hotel pays homage to the 1960s — a period of great creativity and expression in Cambodia — through its eight guest galleries’(art spaces turned rooms, or rooms cum art spaces).
From hand-printed bedding to walls riddled with literary musings, each room is dedicated to a person, family or concept that helped shape the 1960s in both Cambodia and the wider world.
2. Phnom Penh turns chic
Formerly called the Pearl of Asia, Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a little bit ugly, a little bit beautiful. But big things are happening to this small city.
While it’s no Bangkok, in the last year Mango opened up a shop on Sihanouk Boulevard (that was big news) and the country’s first Western-style cinema opened up (even bigger news).
From October 27 to November 5, Phnom Penh will host the first Cambodia Fashion Week, an event the organizers (www.cambodiafashioncouncil.org) optimistically hope will put the country on the world map as a credible fashion hub of the East.
And the city’s riverside area got a little more cosmopolitan cool with the opening of Rahu (159, Sisovath Quay, +855 2321 5179), a hip restaurant-bar attracting a Cambodian nouveau riche and expatriate crowd. They dine on sushi and US$5 cocktails, choose from 16 different martinis and a menu split into small and large plates.
It all gives Phnom Penh an ambitiously chic edge.
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3. Adventure tours gather pace
Let’s face it. Well-trodden trails are boring. Everyone wants to do something different, to be the first to explore new areas.
Cambodia can accommodate.
Whether it’s flying over the temples of Angkor in a helicopter, trekking in the Cardamon Mountains, taking an elephant ride in Mondulkiri Province, witnessing rare and endemic Irrawady dolphins on the Mekong Discovery Trail, kayaking through mangrove waterways at Four Rivers Floating Lodge ( +855 97643 4032) or staying in community-based eco-tourism sites in Koh Kong (www.wildlifealliance.org/ecotourism), there are some pretty adventurous ways to spend your dollars in the Kingdom.
Quad Adventure Cambodia (Near Old Market; +855 1778 4727/+855 9278 7216; www.quad-adventure-cambodia.com) is one company that promises customers will leave them muddy, dusty and happy (and perhaps a little bruised). Navigating the countryside on all-terrain quad bikes is a fun way to experience Cambodia’s countryside.
But be quick to get on this unusual rural adventure before it becomes something everyone does.
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4. The beach secret’s out
Cambodia’s islands have always rivaled those found in Thailand but somehow few people noticed.
Not any more.
The islands that dot Cambodia’s south coast are now being developed and marketed, and the three key beach communities — Sihanoukville, Kep and Koh Kong — are home to the full array of accommodations, from budget hostels to five-star resorts.
Sihanoukville is regarded as the best, with six beaches stretching along the coast. Kep is less developed than Sihanoukville, despite being Cambodia’s first recognized beach destination, and Koh Kong is popular with divers and eco tourists.
Best of all though are the beaches found on the islands out in the Gulf of Thailand –- a match for anything on Thailand, and less crowded.
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5. Cambodia gets the luxury resort treatment
Most exciting for anyone with a bit of spare cash -– two of the islands off the south coast in the Gulf of Thailand are set to become home to one of the world’s most exclusive resorts.
At US$700 per person per night in low season, a figure that peaks at US$1,300 per person per night during high season (not including taxes and extras), Song Saa luxury resort (www.songsaa.com, +855 2368 60360), is aiming to become the Burj al Arab of Cambodia.
This exclusive getaway for wealthy castaways is tipped to be not only the next big thing in Kingdom, but also one of the next must-visit high-end luxury island retreats in the world.
It’s 30 minutes from the international airport at Sihanoukville yet promises a foray into southeast Asia’s natural world.
The islands are surrounded by coral reefs, home to seahorses, tropical fish and even dugongs. You may share your breakfast with hornbills. Sustainability has been a key factor in its construction.