Brian W Fisher

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Captivating Cambodia

Captivating Cambodia | Why Cambodia? Why captivating? Why not?

Having toured most regions of neighbouring Thailand over the past twenty-five years, the urge to see the 7th World Heritage Wonder, Angkor Wat for myself, finally overcame previous concerns as to the stability of Cambodia as a holiday destination for British tourists.

Those concerns dissolved soon after arrival at the capital Phnom Penh.

But...I'm jumping ahead somewhat. Any detailed 'Fact-Finding Tour' – the aim of which to produce an honest and factual report as to that country's suitability for fellow citizens, had to start with 'a wish list', followed by timely and detailed research and logical planning.

Questions needed to be asked like – should I make all my own travel and accommodation arrangements? (as I normally do) or, because Cambodia has not yet reached the level of sophisticated infrastructure as Thailand and Singapore, should I place the onus upon a tour operator to produce an itinerary flexible enough but with guarantees of service?

I chose the latter in this instance, as I felt that such would be a better option for first time travellers to that country.

The internet, as we all know, can be a fabulous tool when used to sift information and produce links, which can direct one to individual, specialised companies. Naturally, I used it on this occasion for that very purpose.

However, its not an oracle – it can't have opinions – it can't make decisions for you. Users must adopt a degree of cynicism when reading advertisements that claim to offer 'huge discounts' or 'outstanding service' etc. In my case, I suppose the task is a little easier, having experienced the process many times and have learned to discern the subtle differences of such claims.

So, I did my homework, made my short-list and began contacting those companies selected as 'possibles' by e-mail. I never cease to be amazed at those times, when some companies never even bother to reply, when some responses are so impersonal and lacking in vital detail (such as quoting prices) but the whole exercise is always worthwhile because, inevitably, one or two replies 'shout' professionalism.

For my planned tour, that short-list was quickly reduced to a single respondent – Messrs Dragon Tours &Travel Ltd of Llandaff, Cardiff. I found Rob Davies and Ki Shieu more than willing to share their personal knowledge of Cambodia, happy to add, subtract and flex one of their standard itineraries to match my exact requirements. I felt confident enough to trust them to make all the travel and accommodation arrangements (something I've never done before!).

On such long, long journeys, I frequently meet two types of travellers. One type always prefers to get to their destination as soon as possible – the other finds long-haul flights of some 13 hours, too much of a strain and seek alternatives.

Having experienced both, I opted this time to take the second option. Doing so, does have a number of benefits. The choice of airlines is very much increased and by having one stop en route, allows stiff legs and aching backs some relief.

Which airline then?

I chose Emirates...why? A few reasons actually. Dubai is about half way...their fleet of aircraft are newer than most, the seating configuration is generous, they fly from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester...and the duty free shopping experience at Dubai's new terminal, is well worth the couple of hours 'wait' between connecting flights.

Dragon Travel was happy to change airlines to suit my requirements and it must be said that such willingness is rare indeed. It should also be said at this point, that the overall cost of my individual itinerary and its many changes from the 'standard' package advertised, was little different to it. Readers should never be afraid to request changes to a 'package', which they believe would enhance their chosen holiday. The motto is...Never ask – never get!

Armed with the necessary tickets and detailed itinerary and having chosen the month of November to undertake my 21 day tour, I boarded the aircraft and set off for Bangkok.

Whoa! I can imagine readers asking...why Bangkok when the tour is to take place in Cambodia? Good question and the answers are quite simple.
1.    Flights from the UK to Bangkok are many and varied but NONE direct to Cambodia.
2.    The 'City of Angels' (as Bangkok is called) is the perfect starting point and allows the traveller to prepare for the vivid contrasts yet to be experienced.

There were a number of attractions in Bangkok that I'd not yet sampled, despite many previous visits to that vibrant, bustling city, so I'd planned a 3 day, 4 night stay in one of the most popular areas around Sukhumvit. The night market stalls, which line the pavement are a Mecca for holidaymakers, many of whom, after shopping, drop into one of the many bars and clubs to sample very different kinds of wares.

Tucked down Soi 5 (near the brilliant, cheap and fast overhead transport (Nana) station) is one of my favourite Far Eastern hotels, the Bel-Aire Princess, a boutique establishment with large, fully equipped rooms, smiling efficient staff, a delightful roof-top swimming pool and a sumptuous breakfast buffet – all at a price of the average UK B&B.

On then to Cambodia.

Dragon Travel, as I mentioned earlier, had made all the prior arrangements, the first of which was to have me met on arrival (9am) at Phnom Penh airport after a 50 minute flight from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways. The acid test for me whenever I use a tour operator, is the standard of that initial introduction. First impressions always count...what would I encounter?

I need not have worried. Sam, as he asked me to call him (because his Cambodian name was Touch Kimasamnang...quite a mouthful for us Farangs, as we are often called) bowed his welcome, took my case and led me to the Toyota saloon car, which, with its driver (Dini), was to be my mode of transport whilst in that region. Sam turned out to be a natural comedian as well as a mine of information, as day one of my Cambodian experience began.

I was whisked away to the Juliana Hotel, close to the city centre, which was to be 'home' for the next two nights. Checking-in without wasting time, I made an even quicker change of clothes and was soon back in the lobby, to the surprise of my guide, Sam.

As to the hotel. It's listed as a 3 star, I found that stated category to be just about accurate. Everything worked, the swimming pool was large and welcoming and the rooms of the standard expected. It lacked a little imagination as far as the public rooms were concerned and the choice and quality of food offered could have been better. My meeting with management gave us an opportunity to discuss possible 'improvements' and, I might add, suggestions were taken in good spirit, as were the assurances of implementation. Would I stay there again? Yes...the hotel can be said to be 'Fit for Purpose!'

I spent the rest of day one touring the city's most memorable sights such as the Royal and Pagoda Palaces and two exquisite museums, with a delightful lunch break at a local restaurant. After a few hours observing my driver negotiating the streets of this old French Colonial capital, I soon renamed it 'Moped City'. These (all Japanese) 'sewing machines on wheels', whiz and whirr in every direction at once, on either side of the road and laden with many more people than their makers designed them for. What an experience!

Day two was very different. The world knows of the atrocities committed by Cambodia's once notorious leader, Pol Pot. That most evil of men systematically murdered millions of his own people – mostly without even firing a single bullet! They were tortured in the extreme before being taken to, what has become known as 'The Killing Fields', located outside many regional cities, made to dig huge mass graves and then were forced to kneel at the edge before their skulls were crushed with a club made from stout bamboo poles and their bodies tossed into the pit.

After some discussion, I elected to visit one of these 'Killing Fields' as well as the Toul Sleng Museum of Genocide, a chilling reminder of man's inhumanity to man. That a beginning towards democracy has been attempted through elections, is a welcome renewal of normality, one which, I fervently hope, will be grasped firmly by all Cambodians of whatever status. These venues are listed on most tour operators schedules and if for no other reason than to be reminded of what man is capable of, I urge tourists to see for themselves, when the experience can be a trigger for good folk to intervene when evil lurks in their presence.

Back in the city and only after a cold beer and a most palatable lunch among local people – and allowing my thoughts to drift forward from what I'd witnessed earlier, I toured two very different markets...the Central Market and the Russian Market. They're both indoors, the first housed in a high-domed building with aisles of stalls radiating from a central hub. Far more interesting is the Russian Market with its maze of narrow alleys criss-crossing every which way and with hundreds of traders displaying their goods. This is the place to find all manner of ethnic treasures, artefacts and souvenirs.

My stay in Phnom Penh ended the following morning with the short drive to the airport, ready for the hour-long flight to Siem Reap, the nearest city to the famous Angkor temples and which was to be my base for the next four nights.

Since the popularisation of Angkor over the past decade, hotels of all standards have been built to cater for the exponential rise in tourism. One really great regulation the government has placed upon developers is that no building (hotel or otherwise) shall be greater in height than the two towers of Angkor Wat Temple. What a superb rule. It means that the hotels are no taller than four stories and that the cityscape is maintained at that level.

After careful research back in the UK, I had selected the Khemara Angkor Hotel as being suitable both in location and standard for my needs. This turned-out to be a very wise choice. It far exceeds its star rating. Every aspect of this hotel is a blend of Cambodian hospitality intertwined with 'western' modernity. The rooms were great, the food was excellent (as was the service), the pool very welcome after a long day traversing the many stone steps to be found at all temples of interest. At the end of my stay there, I coined a phrase and gave it to a most receptive manager, Richard Vinda. It was 'An oasis of tranquillity in the middle of a frenetic city of contrasts'. I think he liked that!

Now, about the highlights of Siem Reap and its environs. A boat trip out onto Asia's largest lake, Tonlesap Great Lake, is not to be missed...just do it and make sure you take your camera.

Don't forego an evening at Angkor Village, where an hour-long, spectacular Cambodian dance performance follows a delightful mixture of local food, eaten alongside fellow guests, where everyone sits at floor level and legs drop into a 'gully' under the table. Quirky, pleasant and  functional. This, as well as all the other venues and attractions throughout the entire tour, came at no extra charge to the original agreed quotation – of great comfort when one wants to spend money on other things.

The longest day, without doubt, were visits to Angkor Thom Temple, the Bayon Temples, Tommanon Temple, Chau Say Tevoda, Terrace of Elephants, Leper King and Taprohm Temple...all toured in one morning. To say that the scheduled lunch break was welcome is something of an understatement.

However, the pulsating feet were soon forgotten, as the wondrous view of Angkor Wat appeared on the skyline and cameras were aimed at it by the throngs of visitors. I, like most others, lingered, let the images wash over me, took-in the monumental construction, which took generations of workers to complete, was awestruck at the dimensions and, when sunset neared, looked for the most exquisite angles and backgrounds to point my own camera and capture the moment forever.

Was Angkor Wat all that it was cracked up to be by the countless reports? Yes it was!

There can be no doubting its magnificence – its ancient splendour – its attraction for thousands of visitors and the fact that it was once surrounded and inhabited by over a million people (the Khmers) and for whatever reason, abandoned and subsequently reclaimed by the tropical jungle for hundreds of years until the diaries of botanist and explorer Henri Mouhot were published posthumously in 1864.This revelation gripped the world and led to the first photographs being taken by Briton, J Thompson in 1867. The rest is history.

Day five saw me climbing sandstone outcrops to the waterfalls at Phnom Kulen, looking at The Rock Temple with it's reclining Buddha and sharing a picnic lunch with my guide, to the accompaniment of clear, rushing water – another delightful memory to savour. In the afternoon, I was taken to yet another temple, Banteay Srei, a much smaller temple than any seen so far but with stunning stone carvings and engravings. What I witnessed seemed impossible. Original, Khmer calligraphy – but not done with pens, brushes and ink – but with the most delicate chisel strokes to leave a permanent legacy of the mastery of stone carving that race of people could accomplish. Truly amazing!

The sixth and last day in the Siem Reap area and I was lolling in a narrow, long-tailed boat en route to the island of West Mebon. The air was clean and fresh, the scenery a mixture of jungle and agriculture, the calm, water surface dotted with tiny fishing boats, their owners perched motionless under the blazing sun but sensibly wearing the typical straw, circular-shaped hat so common to all parts of rural Cambodia. In the afternoon, we ventured further east to Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and Srah Srang – all interesting in their own right.

Time to move again and another airplane trip back to Phnom Penh. There was still much to explore in this southern region before heading all the way south to the sea. Sam's smiling face was there to greet me, as was Dini, the driver. We headed for Takeo, stopping on the way to inspect the beautiful temple of Tonie Bati and the hilltop pagoda of Phnom Chisor.

My scheduled overnight stay was to be the Phnom Da Hotel in Takeo. That never happened however. Although I arrived to check-in a little after we'd enjoyed lunch at yet another local restaurant on the way, a cursory look at the room, which was to be mine that night, had me doing a smart 'about turn' and leaving pronto. “Sam,” I said, “this place is not fit for Europeans, please phone your office and arrange for us to continue onwards to our next scheduled town of Kampot and organise an extra night's accommodation there will you?”

Now, in my experience, such a request 'out of the blue' - and in such a remote rural area - and in a country like Cambodia, would not bode well for me and I certainly had doubts as to whether such would be acceptable and attainable at such short notice? I need not have worried, as, minutes later, a smiling Sam returned carrying my luggage, nodding agreement as he did so and losing no time in explaining to me that everything was 'fixed' and our 70 mile journey would proceed without delay. That I would be required to pay an extra $50 was accepted without a quibble.

Kampot turned out to be quite a 'sleepy' little town, nestling alongside a wide river. Completely void of large international hotels, available accommodation was limited to Guest Houses of varying standards. My booked one was the Bokor Mountain Lodge, owned and managed by a New Zealander of Maori descent, Eric Karatau. Not salubrious, the rooms were functional and clean, some having great views onto the river. Making up for the lack of 'splendour' were the cracking breakfasts, taken on the pavement, the laid-back atmosphere and the caring staff.

I made a detailed tour and inspection of most other available accommodation, looking for the standards Europeans would demand and found only one other – namely, the Rikitikitavi, a few doors away from where I was staying, with the same river views. It was managed by a Brit and his Dutch wife, had similar, acceptable rooms as well as a first floor terrace restaurant. Readers...take your pick...either establishment will suffice.

Late one afternoon, Sam accompanied me on a long-tail boat for an hour's slow drift from upstream of Kampot, down the river's winding course to a mooring immediately across the road from the Bokor Mountain Lodge. This was so restful and it let one dream of the tropics as the setting sun filtered through the palms and flora lining the western edge and formed a myriad of dancing lights on the rippling surface the boat's slowly turning propeller was making. A cold beer in one hand and a bag of locally picked cashew nuts in the other completed my reverie.

Not very far away from Kampot, is the small, seaside resort of Kep. It’s very well worth a visit if only for the fresh crab lunch. An easy walk along the one seafront road lets you savour the place, chose a spot to eat, barter for locally made souvenirs, or even elect to stay the night in one of the suitable, small hotels/guest houses. I found a couple and after inspection, would have no qualms about booking. They were, The Beach House (overlooking the ocean at one end of the road) with a small, freeform, elevated pool and the Star Inn (similar view but located at the opposite end of the road). There are signs of more construction and my enquiries soon revealed that, as suspected, it was to be for further tourist accommodation.

Although there are twelve hours of sunlight each day, they seemed to get progressively shorter as my itinerary became more crowded and difficult to keep up with. I crammed-in as much as I could before arriving at my final Cambodian destination – Sihanoukville – my chosen resort, one where I could relax somewhat and reflect on my experiences of the past couple of weeks.

The Sokha Beach Resort claims a 5 star rating and for a non-city hotel, its claim is justified. The building and style has that look of luxury and once inside, the hotel lives up to that promise. It is classy but not pretentious, all expected features are present, the food is excellent, the rooms are spacious and beautifully appointed and its location on the edge of a manicured crescent of white, powdery sand is exceptional. The huge free-form swimming pool attracts most guests at least some part of the day, if only to use the swim-up bar? Loungers abound, some cleverly placed against a shady backdrop of frangipani and bougainvillea trees – others occupied by those seeking an even deeper tan.

There were a couple of examples where the management could have earned 'Brownie Points' - but didn't! Internet access, although available in the business centre, was tricky to access due to a complicated password system, which many guests found not only frustrating but very expensive. The one other commonly overheard remark was, that the very limited and repetitive food menu available around the swimming pool and gardens, lacked imagination.

Around Sihanoukville.

Other than a good market to browse, the town centre area has little to offer the tourist, most of whom, day or night, make for the much more interesting mix of bars, restaurants and small shops located near the Golden Lion Traffic Circle (a large roundabout to you and me). Here, establishments with names as imaginative as Snake House (small hotel), Monkey Republic (guest house and very busy bar) or as bland as Mick and Craig's (cafe & bar) nestle up to each other.

With beer a little over one US dollar and tasty food not much more, night life exudes the whole area in friendly banter between the many ex-pats, holidaymakers and locals, well into the wee small hours. The lack of taxis mean that getting back to your hotel (with jaw ache and a rosy feeling of well-being) is by wrapping your arms around a young, smiling Cambodian as he opens the throttle of his 'mobile sewing machine', letting the night air billow one's clothes and act as a 'wake-up call', as, with a slight stutter, he brakes it to a stop and awaits your proffered dollar (or two?).

On the last morning of my tour - and if as by magic as a bus boy wheeled my suitcase to the hotel's wide, open, palisaded entrance, Sam suddenly materialised, his beaming smile one of genuine pleasure as we exchanged handshakes before he relieved me of the now somewhat heavier case.

With over a hundred miles drive ahead to Phnom Penh airport, we exchanged information and shared a few jokes as the car's air-conditioning maintained our comfort. Around the halfway point, Dini veered off the main highway and pulled-up at what passes for a Transport Café in Cambodia. Unlike anything I'd ever experienced, we ate (I drank cold beer and clicked my camera's shutter) and just blended in. Great!

Sadly, on reaching the airport for my short return flight to Bangkok and onwards to the UK, I had to part company with the two guys I'd come to take as real friends. Smiles, at the moment of leaving, turned a little bittersweet. 'Parting is such sweet sorrow', as Shakespeare would have it.

My fascinating tour of Cambodia was almost over. It was time to gel the memories, begin penning the detail, scan the digital images in my cameras and start the mental process, which, hopefully, would lead to the production of this report.

I must leave it to readers to decide, whether its content has informed, helped or even entertained them?

As for myself, I'll indulge and end where I began by summing-up Cambodia in a single word...CAPTIVATING!
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