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wherever you look, teak wood is omnipresent and breathes a colonial spirit from the moment you enter, somewhat outdated, bur utterly charming.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.


Purifying water

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. 

Novembre 2010

My opinion:
This touching country deserves a stay of at least 5 to 7 days. With a minimum stay of 3 days in Siem Reap so you can visit the temples and then go to Phnom Pen. This country is more savage than Laos and less touristic than Thailand.
The Victoria Hotel perfectly blends into this atmosphere with its colonial character somewhat antiquated charm. A comfortable place to stay. If go you with your family, ask for a suite; they are spacious and pleasant. The dinner at the hotel restaurant “L’Escale” is cheap (between 5 and $10). The town itself is not interesting. You can go to the night market where you will find silk and handicrafts (Buddha, raffia, using) at a good price. I advise you to take a guide, because without the knowledge of the language, it is hard to find your way.

Call Wam Tours and ask Gérard Thevenet or his daughter Flavie, they will know how to organise your tour based on their expertise, avoiding waiting lines and other pitfalls. Beware of the small kiosks, because here, contrary to Hanoi, the street food hygiene is not respected, and therefore you can easily get food poisoning. Do not drink tap water or buy raw unpeeled fruits and vegetables. Go to restaurants adapted to tourists or held by French people. The hotel will be able to inform you. The food is very cheap, count 5 to 8 $ per person maximum.
Plan to stay at least a week, if possible 15 days, because the country really deserves an extensive visit including an elephant ride, trekking in the mountainous areas, visit of the lost temples of the North-West, the islands on the coast, the national park of Kiri Ron, the pine forest populated by black bears and Sihanouk city, the first Cambodian sea-side resort…
Take dollars with you, because here, all prices are calculated in dollars. Please note that you must pay a $25 entry fee and the same amount when you leave.

Hôtel Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa
Siem Reap Town
T: +855 63 -760 428 

Tour operator on location
WAM Tour - General Manager
skype: gerardangkor
Tél.Fax 855 (0) 63966040
Mobile 855 (0) 99604618/ 855 (0) 17582332

Airline flying to Vietnam: Vietnam Airlines
Vietnam Airlines connects the finest sites of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Classified World Heritage of Unesco: Bay of Ha Long, Luang Prabang and Angkor
As from June 2010 Vietnam airlines is part of the SkyTeam, with 8 direct nonstop flights on the Boeing 777. An intermediate class between the economy and business called "classe Eco-de-Luxe" with personal service (video, video games, computer connection), featuring 54 seats, separated 1 m. from passenger in front and 135° angle chair inclination. The Business class, with 25 seats, 175° chair inclination, offers even more space and service. Prices are interesting: ranging from €2340 TTC for business class, from €1246 TTC for the Eco-de-Luxe class and from €824 TTC for economy class.

Vietnam Airlines
51/53 av des Champs-Elysées
75008 Paris
T: +33 1 44 55 39 90 

For booking trips to Cambodia: Compagnie du Monde, Asia

Recommended restaurants:
Le Malraux
David Martin,
son of Jacques Martin recently joined this restaurant, which serves Khmer specialities such as "amok" and a delicious green mango with shrimps salad.
The restaurant has a pleasant terrace, with tropical vegetation and an indoor restaurant area with a rather contemporary decoration.
Here, the hygiene is highly respected and foreigners can eat all the food on the menu without any risk. The local beer is light and cheap. Count $5 per person for a meal.

Le Viroth's
This French restaurant features the Khmer cuisine in a contemporary atmosphere. Essentially visited by Europeans. You can have full confidence in the food and hygiene.
This restaurant also has a small charming hotel Le Viroth. Very affordable rates: count $ 5 per meal.

246 Wat Bo st. (behind the residence of Angkor)
T °: + 855 (0) 12 826 346

Tailor-made silk garments:
Within 24 hours this shop produces your tailor-made silk garment. You will also find a few on the hanger models, but nothing extraordinary and prices are not Asian. You have to count $139 for a dress and $49 for a top, which is expensive for this destination.
Located not far from the night market, you can take a tuk tuk ($2)
PO BOX 93 160
Siem Reap

-Banteay Srei, created in 967, was not commissioned by King but by a Brahmin.
-Phnom Kulen is the most sacred mountain in the country and has played an important role in Khmer history because it is here that the King, Jayavarman II, announced the independence of the Kingdom of Java and thus gave birth to Cambodia.
-Angkor was discovered by the French in 1860 and had a global impact.
-Angkor was the capital of Cambodia from 802 to 1431, then in 1433 it was installed in Phnom Penh due to         changes of climatic conditions and major diseases.
-Before the 1st century the ruling religion was the animism, from the 1st century and onwards the Indians brought the Hinduism and Buddhism to Cambodia.
-Cambodia has 14 million inhabitants.
- 200 000 inhabitants live in Siem Reap
- The surface of Cambodia is a third of the French territory.
-The site of Angkor is 400 km². In 1992 it was classified world heritage.
- There are 4000 pagodas and 1080 temples, from which already over 300 temples are locoated on the site of Angkor.
-French protectorate from 1863 to 1953
-The Tonlé Sap Lake: 150 km X 32 km. It’s surface is 12000 km² during the monsoon season and only 3000 km2 in the dry period.
-Best seasons to go to Cambodia from November to February or even in summer. Because during the rainy season, the rain showers do not last long and the temperature is very pleasant.
- Avoid March and April, these are the hottest months (35 ° and 40 °)
-Do not forget to bring dollars in billets of 1$ to give to children or guides.
-The local currency is the Riel €1 = 5000 r (April 2010)

To do:
-Visit the site of Angkor and its different temples (take 3 days at least and leave early morning to avoid the afternoon heat)
-Sail on Lake Tonlé Sap
-Visit Phnom Penh
-The big market (at 2 km from Siem Reap)
-The night market (many crafts for tourists)
-The floating village of Chong Khneas
-Ornithological reserve

Cambodia by Lonely Planet (6th Edition)