I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to a total of 24 countries prior to 2013 and was ecstatic to add Cambodia as my 25th this past April! There is a very particular charm about Southeast Asia and the level of hospitality is unmatched anywhere else in the world (that I have been to).
I spent two weeks traveling with a friend, having time to both drink Angkor beers in a hammock on the beach and to experience sunrise at Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure in the world. In between, I was able to meet with various property owners to better understand the Cambodian travel industry – one that is in its relative infancy due to the country’s horrific recent history.
Arriving in the capital of Phnom Penh, I found the city relatively quiet as it was in the middle of the Khmer New Year. Finding transportation to the coast proved difficult due to the holiday, but we ended up in the beach town of Sihanoukville shortly before midnight. The Cambodian travel industry is growing rapidly, with small beach towns turning into lucrative tourist destinations. The backpacker friendly Mushroom Point, even in the off season, was the temporary home to travelers from North America, Europe and Australia. Our time in Sihanoukville was spent mingling with said travelers, laying on the beach and eating copious amounts of fresh seafood.
Wanting to escape to even more remote beaches, we traveled south to the island of Koh Russei. The beachfront bungalows of Koh Ru are all there is to find on the island, providing an immaculate private beach to guests. Once we arrived, we could not have asked for a more relaxing ambiance, yet the journey was far from relaxing as our boat ride was during a storm that left us both terrified and drenched upon arrival. The week that we were at Koh Ru marked beginning of the one month countdown to when the property was going to be closed, as a result of the entire island being bought by a Russian company. Soon enough, the island will be scattered with larger resorts – a sign of a growing Cambodian economy, but bittersweet to those like myself who have been lucky enough to enjoy the rustic quaint setting. Much of the conversation around the restaurant in the evenings was about the changing landscape of the country. We heard stories of other nearby islands were also being purchased by foreign companies, eager to take advantage of the growing popularity of Cambodia as a travel destination.
Not quite ready to leave the beach, we headed to Koh Rong Samloem for two more days of crystal clear waters, striking sunsets, morning coffees with sweet milk (guilty pleasure) in the hammock and jumbo shrimp feasts in the evenings. We stayed at Lazy Beach, which felt nearly private as again, it was low season and sighting another guest was infrequent. The kitchen at the property allows you to request any seafood you want and will deliver it fresh the next day – hence the jumbo shrimp dinners.
Eager to learn more about Cambodian culture and to spoil ourselves a bit after some hot nights without air conditioning (in 100+ degree weather), we flew north to Siem Reap, most well known for its proximity to Angkor Wat. Siem Reap reminded me of other small cities in Thailand and Vietnam and it was a wonderfully familiar feeling. We stayed at the luxurious Tara Angkor Hotel (a buuteeq customer!) where we were pampered with an extensive buffet breakfast, massages at the spa, warm showers(!), and fresh fruit smoothies by the pool. Hands down one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed at, the staff at Tara Angkor offered the epitome of excellent service.
Apart from being treated like royalty at Tara Angkor, we spent plenty of time riding through the city on tuk-tuks and perusing the street markets – buying souvenirs while passing by stands of snails and crickets (which we chose not to indulge in). The sun and heat wore us out fairly quickly and we had a 4:30am wake up call to explore Angkor Wat the following morning.
Angkor Wat at sunrise has been on my bucket list for many years and it was even more spectacular than I had imagined. The architecture is mind-blowing as is the sheer size of the now-abandoned city. The early rise was well worth it.
We spent our final day in Cambodia back in the capital of Phnom Penh, spending a somber day at the “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge regime executed prisoners in the 1970s. Although being faced with the reality of a terrible time in Cambodian history was difficult, it was important to my understanding of the country and its people. I am excited to see how Cambodia continues to grow and change over the next decade, but am grateful that I was able to experience such a gracious, dynamic, inspiring country at this point in time.
I consider myself so lucky to be part of a company like buuteeq that values travel in such a special way. The most defining moments of my life have been associated with travel and like other countries I have been to, Cambodia left me feeling enlightened, challenged and motivated.