by Travelin’ Gal Maxine Albert
As a travel writer who has circled the globe and seen many fascinating locales, it’s a rare treasure when I find a place that touches my heart and soul. Cambodia is one such place. I came to see the dazzling 12th–century temples. What I found was a beautiful country with vibrant, friendly optimistic locals determined to forge forward, healing from their turbulent past – and the inspiring people who champion them.
Seeing the lost city of Angkor, twice the size of Manhattan with over 100 temples was staggering. The most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is literally heaven on earth. This masterpiece of ancient Khmer architecture represents Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of the gods, with more than 3000 apsaras (supernatural nymphs) devatas (deities) and extensive bas-reliefs carved into its walls and the magnificent Hall of the Thousand Buddhas. Seven hundred feet high, covering hundreds of acres and surrounded by a giant moat, it is a sight to behold. Watching the sunrise on the western gate as the central tower came into view was mystical. In the afternoon I visited Angkor Thom with its wondrous Bayon Temple with 37 towers and countless sculptural adornments, which received cinematic fame as a setting in Angelina Jolie’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Next, a water blessing from a monk in the countryside, followed by a private sunset boat ride on an ancient waterway with gin and tonic in hand.
To beat the huge crowds, navigate the immense temple complex and see the true gems, you need an expert like Andy Booth, Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Cambodia Specialist for 2013. A retired London banker, Andy was so enchanted with this beautiful land and its people that he moved here and established ABOUTAsia Travel believing that luxury travel can change lives in a country struggling to rebuild itself after the Khmer Rouge. 100% of the profits go to the educational charity ABOUTAsia Schools. Andy’s company creates custom itineraries to Cambodia’s most incredible places with top guides like mine, the fantastic ‘Bon’.
It’s not surprising that Siem Reap is on everyone’s hot list of places to go in 2014. As the gateway to the famed Angkor Wat, with old French shop-houses, tree lined streets, a river and a wave of chic restaurants, cafes and bars, it has become a coveted destination in itself. Stroll the charming town teaming with art galleries, boutiques, open-air markets and shops selling all varieties of local wares. Snag Khmer silk lovelies at Artisans d’Angkor, handmade by local villagers. Dreamy photographs of Angkor Wat at Mc Dermott Gallery make great souvenirs. Visit the fashionable shops and galleries in the stylish FCC complex, then have a drink on their terrace overlooking the river. Try the tasty local cuisine, like delectable fish amok in coconut curry at Sugar Palm Restaurant, in a lovely wooden Khmer House. Savor an after dinner cocktail at the very cool Shanghai 1920’s looking ‘Miss Wong’s Bar.’
Amansara, a former royal retreat for King Sihanouk turned resort is a serene oasis of luxury and tranquility, just minutes from town but a world away from the hustle and bustle. Stunning suites, exquisitely decorated, feel like private villas with scenic floor to ceiling windows, private courtyard with plunge pools and bath drawn at dusk with floating lotus flowers. I received one of the best massages ever at their superb spa. The service is impeccable and amenities include local guides for guests. The ever charming and beautiful general manager, Sally Baughen is always around taking care of each and every guest like you’re family. She is also at the helm of Amansara’s philanthropic arm, which supports the performing arts (I saw a wonderful local dance troupe there), children and women’s health, higher education, mine clearance, cultural heritage and wildlife preservation. A hotel guest mentioned that during his last stay, Angelina Jolie and her family, including her adopted Cambodian son, Maddox, were in residence. The famed actress who was awarded Cambodian citizenship in 2005 for her work with community development and conservation in the country, visits the Kingdom several times a year.
Back in town, the newly renovated uber-posh Park Hyatt Siem Reap, now an exemplar of high design is ideally located on the main road within walking distance of the Night Market and the Old Market. In addition to fostering and empowering young adults with educational and vocational training, the hotel supports a sewing school where young women can learn professional skills.
Also in town, Shinta Mani Club, located in the midst of the French Quarter is a glamorous boutique hotel with a dramatic, stunning temple-inspired design by the acclaimed Bill Bensley. The Shinta Mani Foundation provides free hospitality training and outreach to members of the Siem Reap community. Personable general manager Christian De Boer works closely with his very sweet, professional staff, providing them with weekly English lessons, helping them open bank accounts and encouraging their dreams. Many of the staff work there while attending college. A percentage of guests’ daily room rate is given to the foundation. Again, just by staying there, a visitor can change someone’s life.
Song Saa Private Island
Imagine you’re on a secluded idyllic tropical paradise surrounded by sapphire waters, waking to birdsong, just you and nature. That’s the magic of Song Saa Private Luxury Island set in a glorious seascape in the Koh Rong Archipelago just 35 minutes by boat from the port of Sihanoukville. 27 luxurious villas stylishly decorated using sustainable material and local artwork offer the utmost in relaxation, comfort and intimacy. Spacious decks boast private plunge pools, your own small sand beach, outdoor shower and daybeds for lounging, sunning and listening to the waves. It’s an untouched paradise with white beaches, verdant gardens, palm trees, a lovely spa with beautiful treatment rooms and an over-water lounge/restaurant with panoramic ocean views.
Owners Rory and Melita Hunter developed Song Saa with the environment and the people in mind. They established Cambodia’s first marine reserve, employ and train locals and initiate projects to return jungle and mangrove forests to deforested portions of the Archipelago. On a visit to nearby village Prek Svay, I saw how their foundation fosters sustainable fishing and other environmental programs with the community. Their ‘Boat of Hope’ involves transforming an old Cambodian fishing boat into the region’s first floating education and sustainability centre.
As I was leaving this remarkable country I thought about a quote I saw at the Amansara Resort. “Many small people, in many small places, do many small things that change the face of the world.”