Beautiful Cambodia is exotic and friendly – Daily News

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People tend to look at you funny when you say you’re going to Cambodia, as if maybe you’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

After all, it’s a small country that’s really, really far away and most of what people remember about it involves wars and other bad stuff like the murderous Khmer Rouge.

But I’m here to tell you that those days are long gone. The Khmer Rouge was only in power for four years in the 1970s, and, while its impacts can still be felt, today’s Cambodia is a fabulous place to visit. Trust me. I just went there.

Not only do you have mind-boggling ancient ruins to explore, great food to eat, beautiful white sand beaches, mountains, forests, cheap massages and kind and friendly people everywhere, but it’s really cheap for Americans, thanks to a strong exchange rate. Did I mention that it’s cheap?

Cambodia does have its own currency, which is called riels, but there’s 4,000 riels to the dollar, so most people just scratch their heads, give up and use dollars. So, yes, this is a country where you don’t have to stand there, trying to do math in your head to figure out how much that smoothie will cost.  And the answer is: Probably less than you’d expect.

Most people go to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat, which is the slightly inaccurate name for the largest religious complex ever built in the history of the world. It’s bigger than the Vatican. Crazy, right? Especially if you’ve never heard of it.

Because Angkor is so much more than just the “wat,” which means monastery and is the name of the largest structure there.

Angkor was an ancient city and the headquarters of the Khmer Empire, which dominated much of Southeast Asia for some 600 years.

I know, most people here have never even heard of it, but — trust me — if you like history, you’ll love this place. You can channel your interior Indiana Jones. If you saw the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” you’ve already seen Angkor, because the incredible Ta Prohm temple, which is being slowly overtaken by massive strangler fig trees, features prominently in it.

If you like Thai food, you’ll love this place, because Cambodian food has some of the same roots. If you like to save money, you’ll love it, because — remember — it’s cheap.

The remaining city of Ancient Angkor today includes 80 ancient stone temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. Yes, I said 80 temples. Whew. And we’re not even talking about the other structures.

Now, I admit that during our nine days there, we only made it to four of the temples, but they were spectacular to visit. Each was unique and unforgettable.

Angkor Wat temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Jan. 1, 2023. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG)
Angkor Wat temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Jan. 1, 2023. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG)

Angkor Wat is the most important tourist attraction in Cambodia and is even featured on the Cambodian flag. It’s what is known as a “temple mountain,” an architectural representation of Mt. Meru, which is sacred in the Hindu religion. So, yes, there are a lot of stairs.

I’m not great at climbing stairs, so I didn’t explore the interiors of all of them, but just getting up to the entrance alone is a spectacular feeling.

Most tourists stay in the attractive city of Siem Reap — just outside the archeological zone — and that’s where we based ourselves for nine days. I was worried that we’d be spending too much time in one place, but there were so many things to do in the area that we actually could have stayed longer happily.

By the way, Siem Reap is near the border with Thailand, so many people add it onto a trip to that fabulous country.

At one time, the Khmer Empire stretched far and wide, trading with India and China. The great temple complexes were originally Hindu, because that religion had found its way from India in the first century. Later, when most of the country became Buddhist, the temples were converted to Buddhist shrines.

So what if you want to visit?

Well, it’s possible to “do” the most famous sites in Angkor in one day, but that would be a very long, grueling day spent traipsing from one temple to the next.

These days, I prefer a much more leisurely pace. I’m less interested in seeing everything, and more interested in enjoying what I see.

That’s why on this trip we didn’t even visit the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Yes, there are plenty of attractions there, including a royal palace, boat cruises on the Mekong River and more. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t go to Phnom Penh. I’m just admitting that we didn’t make it. Because I’m lazy and I just wanted to loiter around Siem Reap.

The Khmer Empire fell around the 13th century, and eventually the country was invaded and then colonized by other lands. The French took over around 1884, in addition to their leadership role in neighboring Vietnam.

This means that, today, there are crumbling examples of French architecture around the country. Sadly, most of them are in poor shape. It also means that the French had an influence on Cambodian cooking, as it did in Vietnam.

Cambodian cuisine is much older than Thai cooking, dating back to before Europeans began bringing hot chiles over that originally were discovered in Latin America.

Unlike in Thai food, where the chiles are mixed into the dish, Cambodians give you the spicy condiments on the side, so you can mix in as much or as little as you like.

And many people love to spend time at the beach resorts, which have become more accessible in recent years. Cambodia has a beautiful coastline off the Gulf of Thailand.

The islands off the coast of Sihanoukville offer crystal clear waters and a laid-back vibe, still mostly developed only with small hotels and businesses. People come here to relax on the powdery white-sand beaches, snorkel and scuba dive, hike in the jungle and just generally decompress.

Kep is another popular beach resort, less developed that Sihanoukville. We managed to slothfully also miss these destinations, even though they have a great reputation.

Instead, we devoted ourselves to the temples, to our hotel’s beautiful swimming pool, to eating and to visiting sites on day trips from town.

I’d hired a private driver guide, Dara Lann, and he took us on an unforgettable trip to Kulen Mountain. This mountain is considered sacred and has a long history of worship, dating back to the animism that was practiced by the earliest humans.

It took about 90 minutes to get up the mountain — and cost us $20 each to enter the area. Dara stopped first to show us the spectacular gorge beneath us, and then we visited the sacred Kulen river.

Known as “The River of 1,000 Lingas,” this area is known for its unique carvings that can be seen underneath the flowing water. Ancient peoples diverted the waterway and carved unique symbols of male and female, known as lingas, into the riverbed. This meant that the water flowing down the mountain along the river was blessed as it passed over the lingas on its way to Angkor Wat.

Other attractions on the sacred mountain include a visit to a sacred waterfall and swimming hole, and to the very top, where a massive image of a reclining Buddha was carved into the peak. Pilgrims climb the steep stairs daily to see the Buddha and leave offerings.

We bought a bouquet of white lotus flowers for $1 to leave as an offering.

On the way home from the sacred mountain, we stopped at one of the best-known temples in the area. Carved from pink limestone, Bantay Srei is known as the “temple of women” because of the beautiful images carved into the stone.

One of the challenges facing today’s Cambodia is trying to recover the many temple carvings that have been looted and sold over the centuries. Headless statues and missing decorations attest to the looting that has taken place, particularly during the terrible years of the Khmer Rouge, when starving villagers would sell anything to stay alive. Nowadays, though, Cambodians want to see their patrimony restored.

Although it seems like an exotic adventure, travel to Cambodia is not hard or complicated. Nearly everyone involved in tourism speaks at least a bit of English. It’s easy and inexpensive to hire a taxi or tuk-tuk (a motorized conveyance powered by a motorcycle engine) to take you anywhere you want to go.

Your hotel can help you find a guide, or travel agencies around the Pub Street tourist district can supply.

Yes, it’s far away. We flew to Singapore and changed planes to Siem Reap. We spent 19 hours in the air. It was a party a minute. OK, I’m lying. But it was OK.

The Cambodian people might be the friendliest and most kind I’ve met in all my travels. When I would stand at the curb with my cane, evaluating what it would take to step down into the street, random strange guys would rush up to help me.

I’m not thinking that’s going to happen in Irvine, but if it does, let me know.

If you go

  • Fly from LAX and expect to stop at least once along the way. Fares range from $700 to $2,000.
  • A mid-range tourist hotel will cost $30-60 per night. We scored a half-price deal for $55 a night at the Golden Temple Hotel in Siem Reap, and enjoyed it. If you like luxury, this is a good place to blow it out for less than you’d pay elsewhere.
  • An English-speaking driver-guide for a day will cost $25-80, depending on number of hours and how fancy the vehicle.
  • A day pass to the Angkor archeological zone costs $30 or $72 for a week.
  • A simple restaurant meal of noodles will cost around $2 and up. We splurged one night and had a fancy eight-course tasting menu at the elegant Cuisine Wat Damnak for $45 per person.
  • In Siem Reap, don’t miss an Apsara dance show. We liked the elegant dinner show at Kanell Restaurant. Also make sure you see the Phare Cambodian Circus, which is an acrobatic show that benefits underprivileged kids.
  • Even though Cambodia is cheap, tip well, It’s one of the poorest countries in the world and your money will go far.

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