If part of the point of travel is to be moved and touched, then there is scarcely a country I can think of that stirs the soul as much as Cambodia. Much of its recent history has been deeply harrowing, yet the country projects a certain sense of youthful optimism; the roughly 65 per cent of the population that is under 30 seems to be looking to a more vibrant present and future, which is part of what gives a journey through Cambodia some of its singular charm.
While it has always had its magnificent temple complex at Angkor as a huge draw, few tourists did more than fly into Siem Reap for two or three days of temple-viewing before journeying onward to Thailand or Vietnam. The rare one would, as George Morgan-Grenville of tour operator Red Savannah puts it, “occasionally make it to Phnom Penh to put themselves through the harrowing S21 Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields experience before retreating to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for a calming sundowner – the lack of infrastructure made further exploration fairly futile except for the most intrepid”.
What is happening now, though, is that Cambodia is opening itself up to those who would like to discover more. Up in the impenetrable jungle-clad Cardamom Mountains where Khmer Rouge fighters used to hide out, there is a wonderful new lodge generating a great deal of buzz; and down on the Gulf of Thailand off the southern coast, two new island resorts have arrived, each offering a different sort of experience to the traveller wanting to rest up after the rigours of days of temple-viewing.
But start at Siem Reap – still as good a place as any, as no visitor to Cambodia should miss out on what remains one of southeast Asia’s most magnificent sights. Though Angkor Wat is the most famous, there are many other great temples to see; allow three days, if you can, to experience as much as possible without overdoing it. Getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over the great lotus-bud towers and stupas is the perennial advice; follow it and you will not be disappointed. Then repair for breakfast (or lunch, if you haven’t made it at dawn) to Sala Kdei, a beautiful traditional Cambodian wooden house set in a verdant garden, for traditional Khmer fare and a foot massage. But also listen to the stories of its people so you begin to get a feel for the country and what it has been through. The father of Ohm, my guide in the temple complex, was a professor of fine art who was shot when Ohm was just five years old; the owner of the wooden house’s husband, too, was killed by the Khmer Rouge, and she was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge fighter. Today she is an entrepreneur with a flourishing clutch of small businesses to her name.
From the temples and buzz of Siem Reap it’s just an hour’s flight to Sihanoukville on the south coast, where two major new resorts, each only around 30 minutes from the airport by car and boat, have been created on small islands. Six Senses Krabey Island has 40 large and spacious villas, each with its own pool. It’s all hills and curves, and I found walking there enchanting. Some of the villas are set on the hillsides amid the jungle, and others are dotted around the edge of the island, lapped by the sea. These all have decks leading down to the water, on which you could practise yoga, have private picnics or moonlit meals. The downside is that there is just a small beach beside the Tree restaurant, but I loved the lush, green setting. As for things to do, general manager Alistair Anderson will lead swimming all around the island, and there’s also kayaking and surf‑skiing, while at night an astrologer will illuminate the goings-on in the sky. And since it is Six Senses, there is a serious spa, with the option of a wellness-screening programme that will tell you all the things you rather hoped not to know – such as how many kilos you need to lose, your cholesterol and insulin levels, oxygen levels, lung function and a great deal more. (It also gave me one of the best pedicures I’ve ever had.)
A mere five minutes away by speedboat is the new Alila Villas Koh Russey. Entirely different in character to Six Senses Krabey Island, Alila takes a restrained and austere approach to architecture and interior design, and its main claim to fame is its 1.2km-long sandy beach, from which you can kayak, paddleboard and swim in safety. Its beachfront villas have their own pools, while those in the suites in the main building can use the large communal pool, partly formed in the shape of the Angkor Wat temple. Alila will take guests to have a blessing at a newish pagoda on the mainland – its wonderful sculptures and carvings, though not in the Angkor Wat league, harbour a charm and a beauty of their own. Both islands will lay on day trips to nearby old French colonial-style towns such as Kampot and Kep; both have Khmer food on the menu and are staffed mostly by Khmer people.
Two-and-a-half hours away by car is Bill Bensley’s Shinta Mani Wild, about which there is huge excitement in the whole of southeast Asia. Bensley, a Harvard-trained architect, designer, landscape architect and hotelier, is renowned for creating magical settings in the numerous hotels and gardens he has been responsible for in the area (he made his name with the game-changing Four Seasons tented camp in Chiang Rai). But above and beyond that, Shinta Mani Wild offers the visitor to Cambodia the chance to venture deep into the Cardamom Mountains – a part of the country that until now has only been open to the most intrepid and resourceful of travellers. Instead of rice paddies and pagodas, temples and street stalls, there is a kaleidoscope of waterfalls, rushing rivers and tropical rainforest in which lurks wildlife such as elephants, leopard cats, gibbons and pangolins. The camp lies on a corridor between Bokor National Park and Kirirom National Park, which is critical to the conservation of what is the largest rainforest left in southeast Asia. Shinta Mani Wild is funding rangers to protect the habitat from poachers and loggers and is also working with the Wildlife Alliance to protect the wildlife and educate the local population about conservation, providing many of them with employment.
There are 15 tents – each is vast, with a huge balcony on which there are sofas and chairs and an open-air bath, and each has views of a tumbling waterfall or the rushing river. Bensley has tried to recreate the glamour of the old colonial-style tented safari camp; he explains that he had in mind the sort of hospitality that King Sihanouk offered Jackie Kennedy when she visited Cambodia in 1967. Shinta Mani Wild is glamorous – there is nothing of the austere or minimalist about it. Huge trucks filled with antique treasures that Bensley has collected over the years drove from Bangkok, and as I left they were all being deployed about the campsite.
The intrepid traveller on arrival can, if they choose, descend from the jeep at a judicious point and land in camp via two zip-lines that reach over the Tmor Rung river and waterfall. Every guest has an “Adventure Butler” who will organise the day, whether it be going out with a Mongolian fly-fishing expert to learn tenkara, a meditative Japanese way to fish, or with Wildlife Alliance in its endless quest to keep poachers and loggers at bay, or exploring the estuary on one of two expedition boats. Kayaking, mountain-biking, picnics on the river, birdwatching and orchid-hunting are just some of the vast array of experiences to be had.
Shinta Mani Wild is truly magical. And as it is halfway between the island resorts of the south coast and Phnom Penh, it is brilliantly placed to create a new sort of circuit connecting the centre of the country to its southern reaches, through less explored parts. There is now every reason for the visitor to Cambodia to dally awhile, and to realise that it has many riches to offer beyond Angkor Wat – and that, as a great bonus, they come without the crowds.