Siem Reap. It's a name that Thai visitors prefer not to think too much about. The gateway city to Cambodia's ancient temples at Angkor Wat celebrates a resounding victory by a Khmer army over the neighbouring Siamese in a 16th century battle that obviously went well for the Khmers. Siem Reap emphatically means "Siam Defeated".
There's much more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. Travel the country by bus, tuktuk, cruise boat, car or plane - probably all of them - and you find clean beaches, good accommodation and growing prosperity. Considering how brutalised they were just a few decades ago, it's a pleasure to discover the courtesy of the Cambodian people and their complete lack of self-pity.
Many visitors to Cambodia fly directly into Siem Reap International Airport. Just 7km from Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap is your base for visits to the huge historic site. Serious temple fans should allow up to three days to see the vast ruins at a sane pace and to minimise NABT - Not Another Bloody Temple - syndrome.
Siem Reap has quality accommodation, restaurants and massages to soothe you after a long, hot day of temple raiding. The best antidotes to NABT symptoms are found in Siem Reap's nightlife strip, Pub Street and the Old Market area, where there is a wide choice of eateries and bars.
The main event for visitors is Angkor Wat, a world superstar in the temple stakes that was built between AD1113 and AD1150 - it took some 40,000 elephants and 800,000 labourers to get the job done. Surrounded by a 1.5km moat on each side, its lower walls feature bas-reliefs up to 800m long that depict similarly long, shaggy-dog religious myths with titles like Churning the Ocean of Milk.
This very well preserved "ruin" is so vast I suspect Angkor Wat's builders aspired to a horizontal equivalent of the Tower of Babel that might be seen from Hindu heaven.
Elsewhere in Angkor Archaeological Park you can find structures from different eras, such as the beautiful, creeper-entangled Buddhist chapels of Taphrom monastery, Angkor Thom and the giant Baphuon temple mountain.
Other wonders are Banteay Sreay (discovered only in 1914) and little Prasat Kravan, where the Lakshimi grotto shouldn't be missed.
Cambodia has equally impressive Khmer ruins at Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey Province and the Preah Vihear temple. The latter, perched astride the disputed Thai- Cambodian border, periodically drives armies of both nations into modern artillery rematches of their earlier disputes.
After decades of war, invasion and Khmer Rouge madness, Phnom Penh, the capital and biggest city in Cambodia, is back with the best kind of vengeance - success. Now a boomtown, this former "Paris of the East" which sits at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers is again a destination in its own right and not just a stepping- stone to Angkor Wat.
Along its restored riverfront boulevard, Sisowath Quay, you can observe Cambodia's recent history compressed.
French colonial apartments and shops face the river. In front of them you'll encounter occasional beggars, some of whom are landmine amputees. (Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's number one madman, described landmines as "my perfect soldiers".)
The quay's dense traffic stream consists of new, up-market sedans interspersed with cyclo rickshaws and tuktuks. The restaurant fare along here ranges from Asian and French to McDonald's to backpackers to Irish pub grub. An enormous, box-ugly, new hotel rising on the far bank of the river is a symbol of the controversial and rapacious development that is also part of Phnom Penh's re-emergence.
The ideological "purity" of the Khmer Rouge that resulted in the death of millions of Cambodians from 1975 to 1979 ought to serve as a warning against fundamentalism, of a religious, political, or any kind.
I'm here to see today's positive, recuperated Cambodia rather than its default "ghoul tourism" icons, the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and S-21 torture museum. When I refuse to visit either of these voyeuristic sites, my guide seems at a loss as to what else there is to see.
In fact, there's plenty. We start with a Cyclo Project tour, where a green- coated cyclo driver takes us around the city's main monuments, temples, parks and the Royal Palace. Then comes a delicious lunch at the charity-run Friends Restaurant, followed by a massage by a blind masseuse at the Seeing Hands Centre and a sunset cocktail cruise on the Tonle Sap waterway. Dinner at the Foreign Correspondents' Club restaurant - though it's not a club and there are no correspondents - is the perfect way to end the day: good food, French wine and the river flowing silently by.
It's time to head south, to the beach at Sihanoukville. But en route I sample a homestay in Chambok, some 100km from Phnom Penh. Chambok is a cluster of villages bordering Kirirom National Park where the community established a grassroots homestay and eco-tourism project that now, a decade on, like much else in Cambodia, is going from strength to strength.
Since 2003 Chambok's villagers have protected more than 1000ha of their adjacent national park from illegal logging and hunting - formerly their principal means of income. All revenues from tourism have stayed in the community and given the villagers a sustainable cash economy. I find an impeccably clean private room with a host family.
After overnighting with them I spend the day in the national park, hiking to a waterfall, lunching at the community Eco-Education Centre (established by AusAID) and at night watching a delicate, traditional Khmer dance performance by local school kids.
"Open your heart, open your wallet," joke beach vendors at Sihanoukville. Sunny, snoozy "Snookyville", 190km south-west of the capital on the Gulf of Thailand has a combination of white sand beaches, boozers for backpackers, casinos for the bored, resorts for an ever-anticipated Russian invasion, and time-warp prices on food and drink. There's music, dance, absinthe, island trips and scuba diving, or doing nothing, with good accommodation from $25 a night.
The 2012 Australian movie Wish You Were Here, starring Joel Edgerton, was set partly in Sihanoukville but your stay will surely be far less sinister.
Snookyville, aka Snooky, has Cambodia's top beaches, though the best one, Sokha, is dominated by a private hotel. Ochheuteal beach is the most popular and developed shore, with its long stretch of sand lined with pine trees and ever more bars and restaurants. Otres beach, an inexpensive tuktuk ride south of Ochheuteal, has 4km of empty, clean, white sands, though even here the beach bars and guesthouses are proliferating. Time to visit - now.
While there are no direct flights from Perth to Cambodia, Thai Airways has six flights a week to Bangkok with connections to Phnom Penh, thaiairways.com.au. Bangkok Airways has multiple daily flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. bangkokair.com.
Go online for your Cambodian electronic visa, which is far easier than the "visa on arrival" procedure. mfaic.gov.kh/evisa. Credit cards are accepted and ATMs dispense US dollars, Cambodia's de facto currency. Bring spare passport pictures for your Angkor Wat visitor pass.Cambodia specialist Footsteps in Asia arranges individual or group excursions to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Chambok and Sihanoukville. footstepsinasia.com.
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