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CRUISE PLUS: CAMBODIA
CRUISE PLUS: CAMBODIA
Cambodia has cast aside its grim past to become a hip and
happening destination. Peter Lynch reports.
Cambodians appear charmingly inept.
Try making an offer of 50 per cent or less
on a ticket price in Hong Kong, China or
Vietnam and you will be met with an icy
glare and a bout of pouting histrionics. But
in Cambodia, despite the poverty, bargaining
is an altogether good-natured process.
Every time we approach a tuk tuk driver,
we are told the price is US$5. We already
know it is US$1 per person (a price that
seems to pertain however far we travel). After
a vain attempt at a US$3 compromise, every
driver settles cheerily for the going rate.
It’s the same in the markets and even
at the famed Angkor Wat temple, where
guidebook prices start at a bullish US$10
but end the day at US$1. Oil on canvas
depictions of the famous temple sunrise
similarly plunge from US$30 to just US$5.
We are visiting Siem Reap and Phnom
Penh during the peak season between
November and March. While high season
elsewhere seems to bring on a fit of the
grumps, it’s different story here – the
people’s sunny disposition is a joy.
Despite the Khmer’s ancient civilisation
and the country’s sad recent history,
Cambodia today is a hip and happening
place. Everywhere, there is a newfound
pride in local culture. Nowhere is this more
apparent than restaurants where young
chefs have reinstated pure Khmer cuisine
and created modern, fresh establishments in
which to sample it.
And the world is responding – Siem Reap’s
tourist visitor numbers have soared in the last
decade from 200,000 to 4.5 million a year.
Australian visitor numbers are on the rise
thanks to tour groups like Insider Journeys
(formerly Travel Indochina) and the
popularity of Mekong River cruising. We are
here to check it out.
While staying in Siem Reap, we take a
boat trip to Tonle Sap, the largest inland
lake in Cambodia and home to an eclectic
mix of Vietnamese boat people, fishing
families, floating churches and fish farms.
The boat journey shows the massive changes
in Cambodia. The once thronging riverbanks
are now stripped bare – the houseboats
have moved on as the government begins
to develop a huge fish market, our Insider
Journeys guide tells us.
In Siem Reap we are staying at the
Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor – a stately
colonial building overlooking the Royal
Gardens, where a procession of
brides have their wedding photos
taken. It’s an amazing slice of life
that would have anyone from the
fashion industry reeling in horror;
it seems there is no dress code for
At the heart of the hotel is a 35-metre
pool, the perfect haven from temperatures
that soar past 30 degrees.
Of course, Siem Reap has a global rock
star on its list of must-sees
The best time to see it is at sunrise and we
are not alone as we jump into a tuk tuk for
the 10-minute pre-dawn ride there. The trek
is a little like a trip up Sydney’s Parramatta
Road. There are coaches and cars. Cycles and
motorbikes. And literally hundreds of tuk
tuks. But as with everything in Cambodia, it
is all conducted with civilised good humour.
There is a brief stop on the way to have a
one-day US$20 temple pass created complete
with photo – be prepared for every guard to
say the picture looks nothing like you; it is the
tourism ministry’s joke of the month.
Suddenly, we are excitedly standing in
front of a lake waiting for the sun to rise in
front of the legendary temple of Angkor
Wat. There are about 300 people standing
alongside us, armed with everything from
mobile phones and iPads to the kind of
camera kit that commands respect. The selfie
stick is particularly prevalent.
There is an air of expectancy. Slowly, a
familiar shape emerges from the shadows,
as it has done for centuries. The cameras,
phones and selfie sticks go into hyper-drive.
Sun up and pictures taken, we roam the
monument and marvel at how the Khmer
culture created one of the world’s greatest
empires that spanned 600 years between the
ninth and 15th centuries.
To my shame, I had no idea that Angkor,
the city where the temples were built and
the former capital of the Khmer Empire,
was once the largest city in the world with a
population of 1 million.
While there, we also visit the Bayon
temple, renowned for its 216 immense
stone faces, and Ta Prohm temple, where
A bridal party poses
for photos in Siem
Reap. Top left:
Tourists snap a selfie
in front of Angkor
Wat. Below right:
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