Cambodia is known for its beauty and its complicated, devastating history in equal measure. In the past 20 years, it has opened up to tourism, a shining glimmer of hope for its citizens as they rebuild and re-energize their beloved home. Showing off the marvels of the Kingdom of Cambodia and telling its story are the means by which the Khmer people are healing after the Khmer Rouge.
The French Quarter of Phnom Penh is at the junction of the Bassac, Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. This busy capital city is festooned with a tangle of power lines on which monkeys occasionally swing. There don’t seem to be any traffic rules, and countless mopeds and tuk-tuks whiz by. This congestion is tempered by the beauty of the French Colonial architecture of Phnom Penh, once considered the Paris of the Far East.
The hustle of the city fades away once you arrive at Raffles Le Royal. Opened in 1929, this historic hotel has hosted countless diplomats, movie stars and more — perhaps most famously Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Cambodia in 1967. It is situated across the street from the U.S. embassy, so the staff is accustomed to accommodating world leaders.
The hotel’s iconic Elephant Bar is no ordinary gin joint. It features 50 different varieties, including Sipsmith, a Raffles exclusive. The crowd here is beautiful, sophisticated and well-dressed. You can find them imbibing while reflecting on an afternoon of adventures or decompressing from a day of diplomacy. This is the same bar where Jackie O. sipped the Femme Fatale, a Champagne cocktail specially created for her that is still served to this day.
An afternoon exploring the Royal Palace is a must. Built in 1866 by King Norodom, it is a feast for the eyes, with its classic Khmer rooftops, ornate, symmetrical ironwork and stunning gilding throughout. Within the compound sits the Silver Pagoda. Its grand entrance has giant marble staircases that open up to a floor lined with 5,000 glittering silver tiles. The life-size, solid-gold Emerald Buddha is covered in 2,086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats.
Nothing can prepare you for the heavy feeling that haunts you while visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, but to ignore this part of Cambodia’s history would be irresponsible. Once known as S-21 Prison, this is the site where 17,000 innocent people were tortured then murdered at the Killing Fields just outside the city. The pain is still palpable. You can almost hear it, see it. You can most certainly feel it. The museum puts the Khmer Rouge in indescribable, devastating context.
Laid-back Siem Reap has become a popular international destination, with thriving artisan-revival and social-responsibility scenes. It’s best known as the home of UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Archaeological Park. Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is an iconic Indochina hotel that’s conveniently located for adventures in Angkor. The luxe resort sits on 15 acres of gardens and proudly features Cambodia’s largest swimming pool, a massive teal-tiled focal point of the property.
The 400-square-mile park is as vast as it is breathtaking. Many temple ruins now merge with trees, their invasive roots twisting every which way. The capitals of the Khmer Empire from the ninth to the 15th centuries are the most famous sites here: the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon temples. Each boasts complex architecture and intricate details, with both Buddhist and Hindu symbolism beautifully woven throughout.
By some measures, Angkor Wat is considered the largest religious complex in the world. It is undoubtedly the prize achievement of Khmer art and architecture. According to inscriptions, its construction involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The structural integrity and the sheer magnitude of the design would make any modern-day architect marvel.
Known for its stone structures, Angkor Thom was the world’s largest city during the 12th century. It reflects the Khmer understanding of the vital importance of water and features a network of canals, dikes and reservoirs. A peaceful sunset boat ride through the moat offers the best view of this ancient system. King Jayavarman VII’s state temple of Bayon is at the center of town. It’s famous for its massive stone faces wearing content, slightly smug expressions with an upward curl of the lips. These smiles created in the 12th century have transcended time.
Less than two hours northwest of Siem Reap sits Koh Ker, the Angkorian capital from 928 AD to 944 AD. A trip to these temples reveals a glimpse into rural Cambodian life; villages, banana farms and rice paddies abound. Kor Ker has only been open to tourists since 1998. At its entrances, you discover why, as signs warn of the thousands of land mines that have been found here. These beautiful areas were also war-torn when the Khmer National Army barricaded itself against Vietnamese troops a mere 37 years ago.
Prasat Thom, Kor Ker’s main attraction, is a magnificent, moss-covered temple that leads to an immense sandstone pyramid in the middle of an open field known as Prasat Prang. You can climb to the top for unreal aerial views. Nearby, Prasat Bram is a collection of marvelous brick towers still standing after nearly a thousand years, almost entirely engulfed by strangler fig trees. The many archeological sites of Kor Ker are available to enjoy with few to no other tourists.