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Angkor is the first thing that flashes in our minds when one thinks of Cambodia. However, though the splendid archeological remains of the Khmer Empire form the crux of Cambodian tourism, the county is much more than its temples and ancient ruins alone.
With some wonderful geographic terrains, such as, the Cardamom Mountains with its bustling wildlife, the South Coast islands with their delightful fishing villages, the Mekong River with its freshwater dolphins as well as the mountain landscapes of the north east that are home to the ethnic tribes of the region, the unending paddy fields and the urban centers and cities make Cambodia a heady mix of the ancient and modern.
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Though the most significant period in Cambodian history is the reign of the Khmer Empire, it is often said that Cambodia went through the dark ages after the fall of the empire. For the next 400 years Cambodia found itself threatened and suffocated by the surrounding empires of the Vietnamese and Siamese and found some sense of redemption only after the French colonization. More recently, the country was embroiled in civil conflicts, US bombing and it was not until 1993 that Cambodia found some approximation of normalcy with the UN sponsored elections.
However, in spite of a roller coaster history it is the people of Cambodia that remain the most prized possession of the country. With some wonderful geographic terrains, such as, the Cardamom Mountains with its bustling wildlife, the South Coast islands with their delightful fishing villages, the Mekong River with its freshwater dolphins as well as the mountain landscapes of the north east that are home to the ethnic tribes of the region, the unending paddy fields and the urban centers and cities make Cambodia a heady mix of the ancient and modern.
Angkor Archeological Park – Undoubtedly Cambodia’s most visited tourist destination, that awes and surprises even the most seasoned historians, the Angkor Archeological Park contains the remains of the Khmer Empire over generations. The temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple are the most famous destinations within the park.
The Angkor temples were earlier built as Hindu places of worship, with the mount style of building as well as the presence of the Shiva linga. However, Jayavarman VII converted to Buddhism and built the new capital city of Angkor Thom and many Buddhist structures, such as, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. Jayavarman VIII converted back to Hinduism and began an equally spirited construction of new Hindu structures, defacing and destroying the existing Buddhist strongholds. However, some of the Buddhist structures still remain till date.
The large baray or water reservoirs within the complex are massive though their significance is still shrouded in mystery.
The complex is huge with Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon as well as other interesting sites such as, the Five entrance gate, The Elephant Terrace, Little and Big Circuit, Roluos Group and outlaying temples.
Phnom Penh – The capital city of Cambodia is a busy destination and unlike the ancient famed ruins, the city finds itself in the middle of a bustling urban landscape. The Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers cut across the city which has been influenced by the Khmer dynasty as well as French colonization. The river side promenades, Buddhist temple at Wat Phnom, the Royal Palace, National Museum, Silver Pagoda as well as the Central and Russian Market are some of its main attractions. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge are reminded on visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields memorial. Cafes, restaurants and markets exist alongside beggars, tuk tuk and motorcycle drivers making the capital city though not perfect but a very real destination.
Siem Reap – The city of Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archeological Park and often crowded with tourists who want to make their way to it. Siem Reap thus is home to resorts, hotels, galleries and spas catering to the global tourist audience. The city attractions include the Angkor National Museum, the Old Market, Angkor night market selling books and artifacts as well as the Old French Quarter popular for its restaurants serving global cuisines.
Banlung – Banlung in eastern Cambodia is a small town that finds itself placed in a region that is forested and where plantations prosper. The eastern region is also home to a number of ethnic tribes giving Banlung a rather sleepy disposition. However, it is a gateway for some of the most beautiful surrounding landscapes, such as, the Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake considered sacred by the tribes, several waterfalls (Cha ong, Kan Chang, Ka Tieng), rubber plantations, Virachery National Park and the Wat Rahtanharahm.
Sihanoukville – This sea side town is slowly developing into a major beach destination. The different beaches to venture out into are the Victory Beach, Independence Beach, Sokha beach, Otres Beach and more.
Tonle Sap Lake – This magnificent lake with its unique ecology and birding haven is every nature and bird watcher’s delight. The level of the lake changes drastically with seasons and this is manifested in the resounding marine, reptile and bird wildlife that call it home.
Visit the old French hill resort the Bokor National Park, pass through the villages of Kampong Cham, Krek or Poipet to interact with the ethnic tribes and real people of Cambodia, or visit Kratie along the Mekong for a better look at the dolphins.
The delicious and ubiquitous amok, the famous rice noodle soup kuyteav, the bobor rice porridge or Bai Sai Chrouk for breakfast or the favorite seasoning of prahok in different foods, Cambodian cuisine holds its own despite being surrounded by the food capitals of Vietnam and Thailand.
Cambodia is a land of so many mixes, varied topography and a tumultuous recent past. However, in all of its past glories and gory, Cambodia comes across as a genuine nation, trying to fit the pieces, rise above the injustices and meet a bright future. For all of this and much more, Cambodia thus happens to be the place to be in.