HomeTravelCambodia is much more than Angkor Wat — here’s why
Cambodia is much more than Angkor Wat — here’s why
September 26, 2023
Crowds hug the reflective pools waiting for the morning sun to saturate the chiseled towers of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on earth.
Then, after a day or so, they go.
Angkor Wat, in the town of Siem Reap, and the hundreds of almost equally inexplicably grand temples that surround it, provide an endowment to the nation of Cambodia, a never-ending tide of US dollars.
Whether you grew up on National Geographic or Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider,” Angkor Wat is a magnetic force. It’s a place as evocative as the pyramids of Giza and as redolent as one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium benders.
But, since the stabilization of Cambodia just before the new millennium, the nation has struggled to emulate the growth of its more famous neighbors to the east and west, Vietnam and Thailand. It has struggled with its international image, its economy, its infrastructure and, most of all, its own legacy as the birthplace of the mighty Khmer Empire and the shadow of the diabolic Khmer Rouge.
Whether you blame Henry Kissinger or Pol Pot, Cambodia and good news have often been strangers. Then, just this year, something almost miraculous seemed to happen.
Cambodia received 3.4 million air travelers during the first eight months of 2023, a year-on-year increase of 180%, according to the country’s aviation authority. By 2026, Cambodia expects 7 million tourists annually. In October, a long-awaited modern airport will open at Siem Reap, allowing larger planes to land and creating new direct flights.
More good news: Last week, the family of the late billionaire George Lindemann agreed to return a horde of looted artifacts worth more than $20 million to Cambodia.
In February, Cambodia’s lost crown jewels were repatriated. Institutions from the Met to National Gallery of Australia are slowly refilling the temples of Siem Reap and the museums of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. Now, for the first time, if you want to see the masterworks of Southeast Asia’s most advanced civilization, you’ll need to visit the National Museum of Cambodia, not NYC.
For the Cambodia-curious all of this adds up to a golden hour, a time when Cambodia is offering more than ever to the world just before the weight of gentrification has warped the adventure. Beers can still be had for $1. Feasts for $10. Guides are affordable. Hotels are discounted — even compared to Vietnam. It’s the kind of authentic Southeast Asian experience that’s already vanishing from Thailand.
Eager to see the new Cambodia? Here’s a sample itinerary.
Despite improvements, from NYC you’ll still need to stop. Singapore is the obvious choice, but Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are all options. Or break things up further and spend a few days in Bangkok before flying in to Phnom Penh.
Most western tourists never make it to the capital. But this is where you should start. It’s clean and far less chaotic than Bangkok or Saigon. The city is filled with grand, gilt national monuments, gargantuan government buildings and of course, the Royal Palace of Cambodia, the residence of the king.
Visit the architecturally rich national museum established by the fascinatingly French archaeologist George Groslier and opened in 1920. The city’s Art Deco central market is another highlight. Pop by the royal palace and later the resplendent Wat Phnom temple, the legendary site of the city’s origin.
Where to stay
Affordable accommodations abound here. But commuters of caliber have two choices: the elegant and modern Rosewood Phnom Penh Hotel and the historic French colonial Raffles Le Royal. The Rosewood is a recently built skyscraper with 5-star food and a gracious spa. Raffles is full of old world splendor, dripping with 20th-century history. There is no wrong answer but we recommend starting with the Rosewood (rooms from $316 per night). Opened in 2018, it has the best views in the city from its sexy rooftop bar and it gives you a sense of where Cambodia is heading.
The drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is about 5 hours and with the improved highway and the lovely countryside you’ll want to do the road trip. Much of the journey is spent driving along Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia renowned for its biodiversity. Stop at one the numerous lakeside restaurants for a fresh fish lunch.
French explorer Henri Mouhot put the city on the world’s “to-do” list back in 1860 and they are still coming in droves today. The 400-acre temple of Angkor Wat is, of course, the primary draw. But this area is home to hundreds more temples, many of which boast superior carving and sculpture. Some, like Ta Prohm, are coiled in the serpentine roots of strangler figs to create a spectacle ripped from “Johnny Quest.” Hire a guide and spend at least three to four days temple hopping.
Where to Stay
Welcome to hotel heaven: There is Aman, Belmond, Park Hyatt and dozens more. But really, to get into the spirit of this ancient place there is just one choice: Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Opened in 1932, Charlie Chaplin, Princess Margaret, Jacqueline Kennedy, the Clintons and Michelle Obama have all slept here. More importantly, it’s been mercifully preserved. The original 1929 wooden-cage elevator still glides you up to your suite. The piano sets the tone in the lobby. The gently lit bar is the beautifully obsolescent kind of place where a dowager might still seduce a man in a questionable ascot. Rooms from $340.