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1. Angkor Wat
Believe the photographs. Sunrise over Angkor Wat is as startling as they depict, regardless of filters and fancy photography skills, it’s as beautiful in the raw as it is in any shiny magazine.
Arrive around 5.30am, when the sun begins its ascent and the stonework subtly glows; an intricate 154-square mile lattice of temples, shrines and carvings, all shimmering in the sunlight. The temperature is cool and the biggest hoards are yet to appear. Play it right and you’ll have pockets of Angkor Wat all to yourself.
For the next few hours you’re a guest in the former home of King Suryavarman, as well as the world’s largest religious construction and shrine to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Each temple boasts its own allure, every carving tells a story. Get momentarily lost amidst the crumbling towers and decrepit ruins, stand beneath enormous tree roots clambering over the masonry and stand before the moat; its glass-like surface reflects every temple like a mirror. Angkor Wat took a full 30-years in the 12th century to complete and has been standing quite magnificently ever since. Is there anything in the world quite as photogenic? Probably not.
2. The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek
Nothing can prepare you for the horror of genocide, nor the enormous scale of systematic cruelty that the Cambodians were subjected to in the mid-to-late 1970s. But to understand modern Cambodia it helps to visit the chilling Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here lies the former site of mass killings; an extermination of 17,000 men, women and children and the shallow graves where their remains were crudely buried, Choeung Ek is the result of communist party, Khmer Rouge, a barbaric regime and the monstrosities that their ideologies brought upon the country.
Today, visitors can take a poignant audio tour of the former extermination camp - past the Buddhist memorial, untouched communal graves and a small museum, as well as 8000 skulls visible behind the glass panels of the Memorial Stupa. It stuns visitors into silence, but it’s the solemn peacefulness that’s particularly sobering.
Tittering on the verge of UNESCO heritage status, 2016 is going to be a big year for Battambang; best discover its cultural charms before every Tom, Dick and Harry cottons-on. Boasting an eclectic fusion of east meets west, Battambang’s replete with both Cambodian statues and 20th century colonial French architecture; on any one day you could be enjoying a French-style baguette swiftly followed by a beetle fried in soy sauce.
Modern yet untainted by tourism, Cambodia’s second most populous city impresses visitors with its sleepy vibes and friendly hospitality, as well as ancient temples, Buddhist shrines and the bamboo railway (which is more miner’s rail track than The Ghan, prepare yourself for a wooden board on runners). Then there’s the thriving art scene, including the impressive Studio Art Battambang which features bamboo creations and artists’ canvases, and the twice weekly circus troupe that always draws a crowd. Nothing short of poetic, discover Battambang before the masses do – this cat’s soon to be let out of the bag.
4. Kompong Phluk Floating Village
A sense of adventure and an inquisitive spirit will lead you to the floating villages of Kompong Phluk, outside of Siem Reap. Essentially a village that sits on over-water stilts, the buildings are crafted from thatch and wood, balancing almost treehouse-like atop spindly bamboo branches. Rising from the water like twisted creations from a forgotten land, resources are primitive; the villager’s livelihood depends solely on the constant flow of Tonle Sap Lake. Children weave their boats across the river ‘roads’, men plough the fields that fringe its embankments and the robes of local monks cast colour amidst the entwined bamboo structures.
To arrive at Kompong Phluk, prepare yourself for a relatively gruelling 90 minute tuk-tuk ride, but fear not, once you reach this incredible part of Cambodia, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that will stay with you forever. A total removal from modern culture, where children are happy playing marbles on a dusty floor and technology is a completely foreign concept, you’ll leave feeling learned, but also incredibly humbled.
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