Cambodia: land of smiles and kindness
Infinite landscapes of raw beauty, Cambodia is like a garden of Eden in South-East Asia. Cambodia, the country where nature, the divine and light seem to join. The Khmer ground, reviviing after a difficult past, embraces the future with harmony and lightness and is re-emerging as “the country of smiles” because of the kindness and patience of its people. With this renaissance, thanks to the temple of Angkor, Siem Reap, has plenty to offer the tourists and the Victoria Hotel seems a perfect starting point for discovering these Cambodian delights. Zoom with Luxe Magazine on a smiling and welcoming destination.
The arrival by plane to the town of Siem Reap, is like a dream come true. Finally, the possibility to discover this country. A challenge for us Europeans to see how these people after so many years of suffering, welcome us without hard feelings with an extreme kindness, a smile on their lips. This is also the favorite country of Marguerite Duras, so well described in her book "Un barrage contre le Pacifique", an autobiographical novel. At the airport a vintage convertible Citroën from 1930, patiently awaits us and brings us to the Victoria Hotel in Siem Reap.
A colonial spirit
In the Hotel Victoria, wherever you look, teak wood is omnipresent and breathes a colonial spirit from the moment you enter, somewhat outdated, bur utterly charming. Teak furniture and rattan ventilators recall an end of century atmosphere. In the lobby, designed as an open-air patio, several areas have been created for moments of relaxation, essential, given the elevated temperatures. Because of its openness, air can circulate and offers a welcome refreshing breeze in the dampness of the day. At the other end of the lobby, a staircase leads to a tropical garden with luscious vegetation and a huge pool that reflects the clouds in the sky drifting by. On both sides of the lobby there are large rectangular tanks crossed by a stone bridge symbolising the crossing from human to the divine, from which emerge trees of life, passing along the doors to the rooms and suites.
Individual atmospheres for rooms and suites
The rooms and suites are dispersed on 3 levels and are accessible by an antique wrought iron elevator and via large dark wooden staircases. The suites, each dedicated to a personality and have an individual atmosphere. Memories of days gone by still cling to the furniture, tables, sofas and sculpted screens. From one room to another, you’re surrounded by history. The admiral suite is decorated in a marine style including old travel cases; a bed head in the form of a boat and marine prints on the wall.
The suite dedicated to Pierre Loti, who made a trip in 1910 to Cambodia, reflects a more Oriental atmosphere, with its beautiful carved doors between lounge and bedroom, Moroccan prints, its glossy parquet floor connecting the bedroom with bathroom and the bed with mosquito net, all completing this tropical ambiance. Each suite has windows opening on to a long balcony, the ultimate retreat at the end of the day, overlooking the garden. In the rooms you find the same colonial atmosphere in perfect harmony with nature. Oiled parquet flooring with its chestnut reflections, silk throws and taffeta curtains; everything here breathes a well preserved place, where you feel at home, without fuss in all simplicity.
No resentment or sadness
The next day in a tropical dampness and temperatures flirting the 35 °C we are set out to discover this small but touching country. Our guide, Ram, with a huge smile on his lips, tells his story. His father and mother, survived the terrible extermination of the great helmsman Pol Pot, his brothers, uncles, and her sister were all killed. Yet no sadness or resentment can be heard in his voice. Speaking French as he learned in school and, his "speech" is very good, even if the 'r' turnover is difficult.
First of all we drive in the direction of Phnom Kulen, the sacred mountain where a large Buddha carved out of sand rock, is lying on his side in a small cave. It attracts many Cambodians, especially during the period of the New Year. To ensure ourselves of god’s protection we also delicately touch this impressive stone statue. This is also the place of Hindu Lingas on the riverbed, (stone sculptures, representing Buddha and his deities). The water here purifies, nourishes and leads the way to the gods. This water floods to the Angkor temples, but also towards the Tonlé Sap Lake, that irrigates Cambodia and beyond, in the direction Gulf of Thailand. A unique eco-system, with the status of a protected biosphere. It represents the largest freshwater lake of Southeast Asia, providing fish and irrigation water to half of the Cambodian population. The floating villages are almost exclusively illegal Vietnamese people living from fishing in these waters. During the dry period, when the water level of the Mekong river begins to drop, the population works in the rice fields and lives in houses on stilts on the river banks. A trip on a junk boat allows us to approach these floating villages governed by monsoons and the decrease of the Mekong River.
Banteay Srei, a mythical temple
After a stopover in the shade of palm trees, we head direction Banteay Srei, to discover a jewel of Angkorian art, a pink sandstone Hindu temple named “Citadel of Women” dedicated to the goddess of beauty, Shiva. The temple was discovered only in 1914, and was subject of a celebrated case of art theft when André Malraux stole four devatas in 1923. He was soon arrested and the figures returned. Remarkably preserved, it is said that the relief carvings are so delicate that they could only have been carved by the hand of a woman. When the golden evening light caresses these relief carvings we see what is meant; the unequaled beauty of the tiny dimensions of these sculptural works.
Spa or dip in the pool?
After a long hot day we are happy to return to the hotel and we appreciate the calm and its refreshing pool. Another option is the spa. Nestled in the garden, with its small private entry, the spa remains very confidential, and offers a warm welcome to the guest in search of relaxation. Massages with essential oils, four hands massage or feet massage (divine), allow us to restore and enables us to regain our energy for the next day. But before that, we enjoy our dinner at the “L’Escale” restaurant. An open-air restaurant, overlooking the beautiful stone pool, offering a variety of subtle and pleasant flavours. Taste the Khmer beef salad or the mango and shrimp salad, without forgetting their specialty, Amok, curry chicken or fish cooked in coconut milk and lemon grass.
The next day, we get up at 6 am to enjoy the morning freshness. The site of Angkor, with the largest temples in the world, is only a 5 km drive away from Siem Reap. It was discovered by a French explorer, Charles-Emile Bouillevaux in the 1960s. Along the way, we see several handicraft villages and half naked children running in the fields, while women are cooking coconut juice on their log fire to make palm sugar.
The site of Angkor, the wonder of wonders
Finally, the promise of admiring these beautiful temples became reality and we see Angkor Vat (1130-1150) in all of its splendour, an alliance of spirituality and symmetry, the largest temple on this site, majestic and surreal. The temple was dedicated to the Vishnu cosmology, the three Hindu deities. Partly destroyed by the climate, the wearing effect of the Khmer Rouge, it is through international aid (France, Switzerland Italy, Japan) that these temples were able to be restored, and again, show their past splendour. You need a full week to visit everything. For the time we have, we decide to visit Ta Phrom "called Bayon" (CA. 1180), it extends over an area of 70 hectares. It’s the only Buddhist temple on the site and at the same time the most romantic one, embodying the creative genius of the legendary King of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman VII. Unlike the other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when protective hands of humans are withdrawn.The site of Angkor Thom has five monumental gates; each gate is flanked with statues of 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. This is a theme from the Hindu myth of the “Churning of the Milk Ocean”, the look-out posts of a lost paradise.
Still today, driving on those bumpy roads, this sensation of exploring and discovering the wonders and splendours of Cambodia remains intact.