Take a chance this year by discovering a country that may not be on everyone’s bucketlist (but should be): Cambodia. This Asian country is bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and although it’s not as popular as its neighbors, it is still full of jaw-dropping temples, tranquil beaches, and one of the world’s best spiritual retreats.
When visiting Cambodia, you must take advantage of all of the opportunities for adventure. After all, this is a country that’s home to jungles right out of Tarzan! Witness the ancient temples that are deeply embedded within these jungles at Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to Khmer Empire-era landmarks. The Khmer Empire lasted from 802 A.D. to 1432 A.D. meaning there’s a lot of history to uncover at these sacred sites! The three main attractions within the park are Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
Angkor Wat is a magnificent temple that was built over the course of 30 years in the 1100’s by King Suryavarman II. When Suryavarman II died, it was left untouched and forgotten about until the 1800’s, when French colonizers rediscovered it. The temple is massive and acts as the heart and soul of Cambodia. Clear up a couple of hours to trek through just this temple alone, and watch out for the monkeys! Tons of them inhabit the temple and aren’t too afraid of visitors.
Bayon is another temple in the park known for its incredible 54 Gothic towers and the 216 smiling faces that adorn them. Yes, you read that right! 216 faces have been carved into the sides of the towers, all of them representing Avalokiteshvara, a Buddhist bodhisattva who is widely revered for the ability to look in every direction, identify who is suffering, and aid them.
Ta Prohm is the temple that provided the backdrop for Angelina Jolie’s adrenaline-rushing performance in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). It’s also famous for its “untouched” appearance—large tree canopies droop over the temple and its walls are covered with complex tree roots that twist every which way.
Take a break from the jungle to get a taste of the Cambodian city. Its capital, Phnom Penh, is one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities. Learn about the history of Cambodia at the National Museum, where you will encounter a great collection of over 5,000 Khmer (the people of Cambodia) cultural artifacts such as sculptures, statues, ceramics, and more from different periods.
Next, stroll the halls of the elegant Royal Palace, which was commissioned in 1865 by former King Norodom. The construction of this building is what actually made Phnom Penh the capital—prior to that, the capital was a small town called Oudong. Today, it still remains as the official residence of the royal; King Sihamoni lives here, so certain areas of the palace are closed off. There is much to explore on these royal grounds, like Throne Hall, which contains the royal’s fabulous golden thrones, The Silver Pagoda, a temple that has a floor covered with five tonnes of silver, and the public gardens, which are lovely to saunter around.
If you’re an animal lover, you must include Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center on your itinerary! It’s run by Wildlife Alliance and houses animals that have been victims of the illegal wildlife trade. Once the animals are rescued, they are rehabilitated until they can be released back into the wild. When you book their Wildlife Tour, you’ll be up close and personal with the animals that live there. Activities included are hand feeding elephants, entering the tigers’ private den, having a Cambodian-style lunch, seeing leopards, gibbons, otters, and other animals; and feeding baby macaque monkeys. All proceeds go back to the animals at the wildlife center.
Take in some Cambodian cultural arts with Cambodian Living Arts. They have spent years perfecting the revival of traditional Cambodian arts by training dancers, singers, musicians, and performers. The result is truly fascinating. Catch one of their spectacular shows at the National Museum, where they will take you through a voyage from Angkor’s palaces to the villages of today through song, music, and theatre.
Another cultural “wow” to prioritize is a Cambodian classical ballet show. It’s called “apsara dancing” and has been around since the 7th century. In Hindu mythology, “apsaras” are female creatures that visit Earth from Heaven to entertain gods and kings with their enchanting dance. You can watch the mystical dance at Selapak. At this dance school, you can sit back and catch a performance or partake in the dancing yourself! Experts teach numerous classes here, so if you’re feeling adventurous, give it a try!
Step away from the hustle and bustle of the city to take a peek into country living. Rural landscapes make up more than 85% of the country, so taking the time to view it is important in understanding Cambodia. About 40 minutes from Phnom Penh is Koh Dach, or “Silk Island,” which gets its name for the many silk weavers that live there. Silk and agriculture are mainly responsible for the economy here. Pop into one of the silk weaving centers to watch the weavers create incredible patterns and clothing by hand. Then, tour the traditional villages in the area until you come upon the Mekong River. The river is a Southeast Asian icon, as it touches six countries in the region. Relax here, sip on fresh coconut water, and enjoy the view.
Head to a different body of water as you enjoy Cambodia’s famous beaches. The country’s largest and most developed island, Koh Rong, has 28 beaches, but its most famous is Long Beach. With its turquoise waters and pristine white sand, it’s no wonder that its coastline provided the backdrop for the 32nd season of the TV show, Survivor. At night the beach becomes even more magical as the water lights up from its glowing plankton!
Sail back to the mainland to indulge in some mouthwatering cuisine. At Malis, Cambodian celebrity chef Luu Meng has created a menu that highlights traditional Khmer cuisine with a contemporary twist. Meng has made it his mission to revive these old Khmer traditional dishes, many of which were lost after the tragic Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. Try the “Living Cambodian Set Menu” for a journey through some of the Khmer people’s most cherished dishes. Expect goodies like Moringa Soup and Bang Kang Malis Fried Rice with Mekong river lobster.
The last attraction on your itinerary will be Sambor Prei Kuk (meaning “The Temple in the Richness of the Forest” in the Khmer language), a pre-Angkorian temple complex that dates back to the early 7th century. The area is home to some of Cambodia’s oldest known buildings, and has more than 100 temples, some restored and others unmoved, swallowed by the jungle’s many trees and vegetation. One of these is Prasat Yeai Poeun, arguably the most attractive temple to look at. Massive trees surround and cover the temple, causing it to look like something out of the next greatest Indiana Jones film.
Temples are definite spiritual symbols, and along the trip, surely you have felt some sort of peace while within them. Continue this feeling with your very own serene spiritual retreat at Song Saa. This private island and luxury resort aims to surround you with peace, beauty, and lavishness. Book the breathtaking Royal Villa to secure amenities like a kitchenette with full refrigerator, a Mojito-making station, oversized sunken bathtubs, a lounge area, an outside terrace with a private pool, two yoga mats, indoor and outdoor rain showers, and direct access to the ocean!
To fully treat yourself, be sure to book one of their spa retreats. The “Destress” retreat features five nights of Khmer blessing rituals. The package includes a list of treatments such as a Traditional Khmer Herbal Leaf compress massage, a Tropical Fruit and Herbal Facial, and a Foot Ritual and Back Massage. Other inclusions are a bath ritual, a monk ceremony, a personal yoga session, and a person meditation session. The resort also offers a ton of activities to further appreciate the dazzling surrounding island like snorkeling, kayaking, an island safari, and Buddhist ceremonies, to name a few.
Cambodia is truly a land like no other. With its colossal ancient temples, quiet countryside, and bustling city, there is much to adore and explore here. Traveling to this Southeast Asian country has provided a spiritual retreat like no other. What a way to start off 2020!
By Aaliyah Pasols