In this two-part series, Annemarie O'Connor travels to South East Asia to experience Cambodia's unique culture...
Adventures by definition require bold undertakings of uncertain outcome. Travelling 24 hours and over 10,000 kilometers to South East Asia is hardly the stuff of Ferdinand Magellan (more like Emirates) but given this was my first trip to Cambodia; you could call it a risk. Prior to having boarded three planes: Dublin to Dubai, Dubai to Bangkok, Bangkok to Siem Reap, my knowledge of the ancient kingdom was limited to the historical scars of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; with cursory references to Angkor Wat and, of course, Angelina Jolie. Once there my limited expectations would create room for an ineffable experience.
Here are the highlights:
My travelling companion and I started our 10-day trip at Siem Reap: the gateway to Cambodia and home to its crowning temple, UNESCO World Heritage site and 7th Wonder of the World - Angkor Wat. Our digs, the French colonial Belmond La Residence d?Angkor, made a handy hub for sightseeing (2-minute tuk-tuk to the centre of town) and equally for relaxing (think 1-hour post flight Ylang Ylang massage.) The helpful staff was spot on with recommendations, such as guided temple tours (effective for the time-strapped) and local restaurant bookings (try the Chanrey Tree for Khmer cuisine like crispy sticky rice and Beef Lok Lak.) They also provided a traditional Cambodian water blessing from the monastery's resident monks - a ceremony to impart good luck, long life and happiness.
With only 48 hours in town, we opted for a two-pronged approach to tackling the vast network of temples, many of which are best viewed at sunrise or sunset and prone to heavy tourist traffic. A 45-minute helicopter tour targeted Angor Wat - a Khmer temple designed as a microcosm of the Hindu cosmological universe - without having to resurrect our jetlagged bodies at 4am. Bonus. Moreover, the pilot provided staggering evidence of reclining golden Buddhas carted by elephants to the top of the Kulen mountains. Keen to supplement this ariel overview, we took a guided tour of Ta Phrom, the ?Tree Temple? and film location for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; Bantey Kidei, famous for its female aspara (dancing deity) and devata (divine guardian) carvings; and climbed to the top of Pre Rup - a symbolic mountaintop residence of the gods.
The frisson of Pub Street with its overflowing bars and night markets may not be everyone's cup of green tea but it would be remiss not to experience it. Swathes of embroidered silks, food vendors selling fried tarantula (yes, that's right!) and artisan Buddha statues provide much of the nocturnal theatre. Warning: If buying a Buddha, opt for replicas as opposed to antiques or reliquaries, which are forbidden under Cambodian law. And as for that nightcap, head back to The Martini Lounge at La Residence for a lemon meringue basil libation and a promise to return.