Cambodia and Laos
Cambodia has returned to the tourist’s radar screens, and is alive and kicking. Tourism is moving so fast, it is now in the top three money-earners for the nation. Emerging from the brutal years of the Khmer Rouge rule and two decades of Cold War, the country is on the positive road to recovery.
Most know Cambodia for its iconic Angkor Wat temple complex, the world’s largest religious monument. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat Temple, was a sleepy, dusty town in the 1990’s with only 2 guesthouses for foreigners; however with tourist numbers growing in leaps and bounds, so too has the infrastructure.
In town, five star hotels such as Sofitel, Le Meridien, Amansari and Raffles are there to pamper you.
The new terminal at Siem Reap, Angkor International Airport, opened in August 2006 and is serviced by 12 international carriers. With low-cost budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar now flying here, more families are visiting and the backpacker market is growing as rapidly as the high-end market. Visitor numbers hit 2.3 million in 2010,according to a Work Bank report published in 2012.
Cambodia’s currency, the riel, is virtually worthless. Everything is exchanged in US dollars or Thai baht. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that under the Pol Pot regime, the country had no currency at all: The Khmer Rouge blew up the National Bank in Phnom Penh and abolished money.
Siem Reap is where most people start their Cambodian adventure. It’s a charming, small town, full of energy and vitality. Tuk-tuks are plentiful and it will cost you US$1 to get to most places. If you want the convenience of an air-conditioned car and driver this will set you back US$25 for a full day.
Angkor Wat temple is a quick, 15-minute trip from Siem Reap. It is worth the effort to get up early. The sun rises at 5.30am and it’s a memorable sight watching the grand temple emerge from the darkness.
As the temple slowly reveals its reflection in the mirrored pond in front, you are simply left spellbound: It’s an experience that’s up there with Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal.
FROM RUINS TO RESORTS
A minimum of three days will allow you to take in the main temple highlights. You can hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day for around US$15 and because everything is so close, if you like the open-air and the experience of breathing and smelling the jungle that lies at the feet of these temples, you won’t be disappointed.
The mysterious ruins of Ta Prohm have been completely overtaken by the jungle. Gigantic roots systems cover many parts of the temple and knarled twisted knobs envelope the doorways. Locals love to tell you how they met Angelina Jolie when Tomb Raider was being filmed here.
A visit to the Bayon temple reveals 216 giant faces etched from stone and beautifully preserved – a spellbinding moment that leaves you momentarily lost in another time, another world.
It is fascinating to discover the wonders of the ancient kingdom, allowing yourself to get a sense of the magnificence of the former Khmer empire and the inspiration behind the creative and spiritual forces which honored the gods of those times.
When you are all “templed-out”, there is plenty of relaxation on offer at the numerous day spas in town (for around US$5). A wander down Pub Street in the old town, will dazzle you with it’s variety of eateries from street noodles to pizza to American steak houses.
At night, Pub Street comes alive, with chic nightclubs, live music, packed restaurants and plenty of atmosphere.
LAND OF A MILLION ELEPHANTS
Just a short hop away on the northern border is another country, a little slower in it’s pace of life and a flavor all of its own – Laos. Once known as the backwater of Southeast Asia, this nation is coming into it’s own and tourism here has seen a major upturn in the last decade.
Voted number 1 of 53 of the world’s top tourist destinations by the New York Times in 2008, people are beginning to wonder what the fascination is all about.
Laos is known as the land of a million elephants; it is a country rich in culture, beauty, jungles and mountains. Because of its turbulent past, including a long civil war and a communist take over in 1975, the country was simply closed to tourism for a long while.
The recovery has been slow. However, since the late 1990s with economic reforms in place including rapid business licensing plus major foreign investment, there is a feeling in Laos of prosperity returning.
The Lao Government has recognized that tourism is growing rapidly into a primary source of income and you will now find most of the modern conveniences in the country. There are two major points of entry into this landlocked country in the heart of Indochina.
The capital, Vientiane, is serviced by an international airport and now, hot on the list, is Luang Prabang which recently upgraded its international airport, with four international carriers flying in direct from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap.
Luang Prabang is positioned at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers. This UNESCO World Heritage Listed ancient royal city sits ringed by mountains, coconut palms and dense jungle. Strict building codes have helped protect and preserve the flavor and charm of this historic town, which blends French colonial architecture, timeless timber shop-fronts, grand royal palaces and residences, and 14th century temples.
Life slows down to the pace of the local tuk-tuk and 50cc motorbikes and a weeklong (certainly no less than three days at a minimum) is highly recommended in this delightful little town.
Buddhism is the main religion of Laos and every morning the 800 resident monks of Luang Prabang walk the royal mile, which links the palace with Wat Xieng Thong, an impressive Buddhist complex of ornate temples decorated in rich, intricate gold stencil work.
The morning alms giving is an honor to participate in and tourists are welcome and allowed to kneel next to locals along the street and give alms (rice, cookies, fruit, eggs) to each passing monk. It is a humbling and memorable experience.
There are over 30 temples to visit, in and around the town, plus a lively market (day and night), full of Lao silks, quilts, jewelery and handicrafts. The range of accommodation is complete from the Villa Santi, a former royal residence, at five-star prices, to small guest lodges that will set you back around US$10 a night.
Trips on the Mekong River will take you to villages where the local moonshine whiskey is made, to ancient Buddha caves and, if tramping through rivers on elephants appeals, then elephant safaris are available.
Most of all though Laos is place that will touch your heart through it’s soft and gentle people. In Asia they say, “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow”. There is no better place to experience this for yourself than to fall under the spell of Luang Prabang.
One thing you definitely have in Laos is time – especially if you allow yourself to slow to the pace of listening to the rice grow.
Photos by David Metcalf
Siem Reap, Cambodia
FLY: International flights operate from Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul-Incheon, Vientiane and Luang Prabang to Siem Reap International Airport.
VISA: In order to visit Cambodia, a visa is required for most nationalities. You can now apply for an e-Visa in advance for USD$25 http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/web/ or alternatively visa on arrival is available. You will need US$25 in cash on arrival and one 4 X 6 photo.
STAY: Top End – Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor http://www.raffles.com is a grand luxurious hotel with opulent surroundings. Beautifully presented in true raffles style. Charlie Chaplin stayed here, as did Jackie Kennedy US$310/360
Mid Range – FCC Angkor http://www.fcccambodia.com/angkor is an elegant colonial style hotel with a gorgeous outdoor bar and dining area next to the reflective pool US$140/160
Budget – Earthwalkers (www.earthwalkers.no) has dorms and private rooms. Meticulously clean with a great downstairs bar. Set up by a group of Norwegians who fell in love with Cambodia US$15/35
EAT: The Sugar Palm Restaurant and Bar located on Taphul Rd Tel (063) 964 838 email: firstname.lastname@example.org is owned by a New Zealand and Cambodian couple Bruce and Kethana. Best food in town. Authentic Khmer food – try the fish curry served in coconut shell and the papaya salad is to die for. Meals US$3/8
Red Piano Restaurant & Bar located 50m Northwest of the Old Market Siem Reap, Cambodia Tel (063) 963 240 http://www.igougo.com/dining-reviews-b150560-Siem_Reap-The_Red_Piano_Bar.html has a good selection of Asian dishes and western food. There’s a huge balcony overlooking the happening nightlife scene of Siem Reap. Famous for their `Tomb Raider’ cocktail. Meals US$3/10
Luang Prabang, Laos
FLY: International flights operate from Bangkok, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai and Hanoi to Luang Prabang International Airport.
VISA: A visa is required for most nationalities. Visa on arrival is available. You will need US$35-$42 (depending on your nationality) and one 4 X 6 photo.
STAY: Top End – Villa Santi Resort & Spa (www.villasantihotel.com) is an elegant and tasteful boutique hotel. Rooms and suites elegantly decorated in Royal Laotian style including Lao rosewood furnishings and local Lao silk textiles. Writing desk and stationery in each room US$150/250
Mid Range – The Apsara (www.theapsara.com) is located on the banks of the Nam Khan River and only 1 block from the main hub of town. Fantastic restaurant serving European and Asian food. Beautifully designed rooms US$95
Budget – Ammata Guesthouse www.worldreviewer.com/experiences/village/luang-prabang/53518/ Tel (071) 212175 or 020-7607304 (mobile) is a lovely guesthouse, family run and conveniently located in the centre of town US$15/40
EAT: Tamarind Restaurant (www.tamarindlaos.com) on Ban Wat Nong Road (opposite the Wat Nong Temple) is an experience. The wait staff take great pride in explaining the traditional Lao menu and also how to eat the dips and dishes Lao-style. The food is fresh, organic and a total taste sensation. The platters combine authentic bamboo dips, salads and chilli pastes. Cooking classes are run here too. Meals US$3/8
Restaurant Brasserie L’Elephant http://www.elephant-restau.com/ on Ban Wat Nong Road is just a few doors down from Tamarind. Elegant restaurant with polished wooden floors, soft lighting and beautifully furnished with Lao antiques. Mostly French food served here, but also New Zealand rib eye and wonderful seafood dishes available. Meals $8/20