Until relatively recently Cambodia’s inclusion on any list of global hot-spots wasn’t in recognition of its beach holiday potential. The 1970’s reign of the Khmer Rouge put the country on the world map, leaving 3 million Cambodian’s dead and a large swathe of the country littered with the landmines that continue to claim innocent victims among the population today. My first visit in 1998 coincided with the emergence from 20 years of hiding in the jungle of one of the Khmer top dogs, the infamous Brother No2. Instead of being slapped in handcuffs for his crimes against his people he was controversially offered a government sponsored tour of the country. He and I happened to visit Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction, Angkor Wat at the same time. Despite this 100-year-old temple complex being a contender as a wonder of the world, visitors back then were few and far between. I found myself alone on the ancient causeway into the main temple with one of the biggest mass murderers of all time, an icy chill coursing down my back.
Returning with my family fifteen years later the scene at Angkor Wat couldn’t be more different. Everywhere we look there is building and expansion with Chinese money flowing faster than the Mekong. Coaches abound, spewing out hordes of South Korean and Chinese visitors who swarm; like camera wielding worker bees under the hive like rooftops of the iconic temple. The jewel in the crown of the short-lived Khmer Dynasty, that thrived briefly between 800 and 1200AD, this fearsome looking complex of places of worship, tucked deep into the jungle on the border with Vietnam must have been a terrifying sight when stumbled upon by unwitting early travellers. This forbidding pinnacled manifestation of heaven on earth, a representation of the Hindu’s mythical Mt Meru, is the centerpiece of a unique but increasingly dilapidated collection of temples built by Khmer god kings to honour the gods. These magnificent, crumbling edifices to a mysterious civilsation, scattered across 12 miles of verdant, monkey dwelling jungle definitely have the gasp factor. Whether it’s the kid’s favourite, overgrown Ta Prohm, the site that inspired Tomb raider, with it’s gigantic tree roots literally growing out of the crumbling walls or the new kid on the block, 1000 year old Bayon, with myriad towers and 216 carved representations of Avalokiteshvara, looking suspiciously like the egotistical King who commissioned him. The dawn pilgrimage to see the rising sun illuminate each carved stone face in turn is well worth the sleep deprivation.
The nearby town of Siam Rep, is positively buzzing and a destination in itself. There are bars and restaurants, a bustling market, boutiques selling anything you can think of made of crocodile skin, along with glorious textiles, plastic shoes from China and a host of other treasures, either gaudy, gorgeous or ghastly. I’d love to say we picked up some beautiful handcrafts but it was a pair of wedge heeled shoes, made in Shanghai for tiny Asian women’s feet and so a perfect fit for a hulking great Western nine year old, that caught Molly’s eye and were the trophy of our visit.
Cambodia today is clearly on fast forward. In the 90s the idea of an Aman Hotel setting up business in what was then a forgotten market town was unthinkable, yet here we were lazing by it’s bamboo bordered pool, enjoying all the signatures of this luxury hotel brand, from fluffy pillows to crispy linen and a level of pampering that seems directly linked to your desires, not the room service button. It was a far cry from the accommodation on my previous trip, the best of a handful of guesthouse’s where the only pillow on offer was an A4 sized hardened lump that could have doubled as a doorstop! These days as well as personal guides to the temples there are other excursions on offer at the Aman. Our favourite was a cruise on the hotels’ customized boat, with an entire top-deck made of cushions, on the Tonle Sap Lake, where surreal floating villages provide homes for the local fishing familes with schools, shops and places of worship, all bobbing gently on the eerily still waters of this vast expanse.
After two days of diligent sightseeing we were ready for some seaside R&R and headed for the coast. A recently introduced forty minute flight took us to the seaside town of Sihanoukville, off bounds 16 years ago as the last stronghold of Khmer Rouge stragglers but today a bustling port, dotted with giant cranes and big ships. It’s gateway to a collection of islands that are as much a natural wonder in this over trammeled world as the man made miracle of Angkor Wat. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, the two main islands that lie offshore to the north of the port have had a reprieve from planned development, thanks mainly to the financial meltdown. Their future destiny I fear is as Koh Samui’s for the next generation but at present there’s only a scattering of backpacker-frequented guesthouses catering for miles of pristine beach and jungle. For a glimpse of paradise before it’s fashioned into a ‘holiday experience’ you need look no further. Along with this scattering of backpacker idylls, Lonely Beach particularly captured my imagination, on a minuscule neighbour lies an impressive addition to the private island experience.
10 years ago a pioneering Australian couple Rory and Melita Hunter, stumbled on Koh Oun and Koh Bong, two closely coupled islands appropriately nicknamed ‘the sweethearts’. They leased them, linked them with a wooden bridge, fought a long tough battle to bring environmentally friendly resources to the spot and finally opened two years ago. Their creation, Song Saa is a remote oasis that gives the top spots in the Maldives and Seychelles a run for their money.
These days escaping the hurly burly, unless you are an adventurer with no heed for creature comforts is an increasingly expensive business. The more barefoot the experience the higher the price as more and more of us covet total escape from the modern world during the rare periods of down time we can secure. Private island resorts are definitely in vogue, from Soneva Fushi in the Maldives to Mnemba off Zanzibar and if you are lucky enough to have the budget there are few better places to unwind and relax than these oasis of luxury with only a few fellow humans sharing your experience of paradise.
Song Saa is an idyll with a ridiculously high spec offering the final world in Robinson Crusoe style pampering. Completely isolated, with no pressure to dress up or even get up, on Song Saa nothing is too much trouble. Whether it’s relaxation or yoga practice, purifying or retoxing there’s little you won’t find on the menu. The spa offers wonderful massages on a stilted, muslin-curtained pagoda over the sea; in a tree house in the jungle couple’s can experience a Khmer wedding ritual where you’re pampered in oils and poultices to within an inch of your pleasure peak. The accommodation is simply, beautiful. We marvelled at our stilted wooden villa, perched above the sea, with portholes in the living room floor from which to view the plentiful fish, four poster bedrooms with baths big enough to fit the whole family and outside showers disguised in hollowed driftwood where you felt positively Jesus like, on a deck with the ocean inches below. Standing in the dappled morning sunshine, cunningly screened by wooden planks, under a stream of warm water as local fishing boats in shades of emerald and cobalt wound their weary way home after a night at sea was just one of the highlights of our stay.
Thanks to Melita Hunter’s brilliant gift for reclamation almost everything in Song Saa has history, whether it’s beaten out panels from rusty metal barrels used to create an arresting cubist chandelier, chairs and table legs made from the bow planks of abandoned fishing boats, old clapboard wall panels, the aforementioned shower heads from hollowed driftwood and stools honed from tree stumps. In five days at the resort not a day passed without stumbling across some new interior detail to feast on.
That said we lived outside for most of our time. The only noise pollution is from fish leaping about in the jade tinted sea beyond our private pool and the evidence of oceanic bounty compelled the kids to try their hands at Scuba diving. As with every suggestion at this ‘can do’ resort it was embraced with enthusiasm by the staff. In a mere three days Molly (9) and Dan (8) went from novices to marine explorers, on the resort’s ‘Bubble master’ course, which comes with a much-coveted certificate! Ruth, the general manager (and dive instructor) took them wreck diving on the Blue Elephant (a kayak dropped to the bottom of the swimming pool), swimming through Hoola Hoops in tank and fins like Disneyworld dolphins and playing Noughts and Crosses on a waterproof board. On their final day they ventured into open sea, or at least the shallow channel dividing ‘the sweethearts’. Their shrieks of excitement could be heard from the Driftwood Bar where Jason imprisoned me to prevent me from leaping in after our little minnows as they hit the big sea.
With no sights to see, restaurants to visit, or shops and markets to frequent and only one walk, through virgin rainforest to the exposed rocks on the undeveloped ‘sweetheart’ we embraced a Sloth style level of inactivity. The children were busy on their scuba course and we lazed around, reading, chatting, choosing favourite tunes on Spotify, (internet in such a wilderness location is still a surprise) choosing from the islands three different food menu’s (including tasty Pacific Rim cuisine) and availing, perhaps too enthusiastically, of the daily replenished homemade ‘lemongrass’ vodka which was left in our villa along with limes and sugar syrup so we could make our own Mojito’s. Morning and evening yoga on the wooden deck outside our water villa proved the perfect bookend to each day of blessed inertia.
The speedy pace of the world today is clearly in evidence in a nation that’s experienced arrested development; my return to Cambodia after a sixteen-year absence is met by a dizzying degree of change. I loved it the first time I visited and my affection for this once traumatised country, now zooming into the 21st century was further rekindled on this recent trip. Far less trammeled than it’s neighbours, with welcoming people and cuisine that gives Thailand a run for it’s money there are many reasons to visit. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge is still visible; the notorious torture centre in Phnom Penh, SS21, now and a museum offers a terrifying example of how low human beings can stoop, as are the Killing Fields, where birdsong can’t erase the sense of desolation in a spot where so many innocents died. Heaven and Hell may be co-dependent but few countries offer more than one earthly paradise. Cambodia can make that claim. The man made wonder that is the Angkor temple complex definitely lives up to the ambitions of the god-kings who created it. I can only hope that the politico’s ruling the country today appreciate the other paradise they have responsibility for; in the unspoilt, utterly seductive crop of islands which Song Saa lies among. Preserving such natural wonders with the same vigour that they’ve recently begun to apply to their first millennium temples would ensure this one time hot spot for all the wrong reasons takes a place among this centuries irresistible world class destinations.