“For those of us brought up to admire the Acropolis or Gothic cathedrals, Angkor Wat is a necessary pilgrimage – a new perspective on what we call civilization.”
I’ve travelled in Cambodia countless times, both on my own and accompanying guests on bespoke luxury vacations, and I never tire of exploring this fascinating country – including the legacy of its recent past, which remains one of Asia’s great enigmas. Indeed, everywhere I journey, from the edgy capital Phnom Penh to bustling Siem Reap, my mind constantly flits between two defining periods in Cambodian history.
On the one hand, it’s easy to revel in the country’s rich Khmer heritage. You could devote days to exploring the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. I’ve spent hours admiring the filigree perfection of the carvings at Banteay Srei and the River of Lingas. You can only marvel at the painstaking artistry in such extraordinary manifestations of human faith.
To ensure you’re free to focus on the holy site’s nuances, we can visit Angkor by helicopter and remork (a kind of moped trike), arranging a private tour when the buses are long gone. We can also create an exclusive private camp for your stay – or there’s the former guesthouse of King Sihanouk, which is now a rather lovely hotel.
The enduring mystery in Cambodia, of course, is how a country with such a grand and dignified history could surrender to the delusional promises of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge – while the rest of the world stood by, apparently helpless, watching the horror of the killing fields unfold. To get the current government’s perspective, we can meet over tea with the minister of home affairs and international cooperation.
What remains constant throughout Cambodia’s turbulent past is the resilient grace of its people. It’s a quality captured in eloquent carvings of 12th-century battles and everyday life. And it’s equally visible today among the farmers you meet selling their produce at lively village markets; the conservationists who work to protect the dolphins of the Irrawaddy; the fishermen on Lake Tonle Sap, who move their simple homes throughout the year to follow the rise and fall of the waters; the fieldworkers tending their crops by hand in emerald-green rice paddies, as they have for centuries; and even the city dwellers who work in the textile factories that thrive in today’s Cambodia.
My discoveries of Angkor, past and present, rank among my most inspiring travel experiences. It’s a journey I’d strongly recommend taking, whether you’re curious to know more of Southeast Asia or simply want to better understand the human spirit wherever it flourishes.
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