Cambodia is a country that is firmly putting its past behind to embrace the 21st century. It is emerging as a vibrant, exciting tourist travel destination, offering an opportunity to step back into ancient history, get off the beaten track into a lush yet unpredictable rural countryside and to immerse in a kind and charming culture. It is a country where crumbling colonial buildings and tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) are juxtaposed with 5 star boutique hotels and trendy restaurants and spas.
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and in its turbulent past, was invaded by two of its neighbors several times. It shares the powerful Mekong River with Laos and Vietnam. The river enters the country from Laos in the North, and in its southbound journey almost divides Cambodia into halves.
The Mekong splits off into two at Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, before ending in Vietnam. One of its tributaries feeds Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, which lies south of Siem Reap, the town closest to the Angkor temple complex.
The Land of Smiles
At that stage, the Khmer kingdom included parts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. However, with the decline of the Khmer kings and in a slow weakening of power marked by incursions from the Thais, Vietnamese and later the French and Japanese, the country was slowly chipped away to its present size, which is one half of Germany.
Angkor Wat, a Megawatt Tourist Must
Tourists stream to the wondrous, megalithic temples of Angkor Wat, its intricately carved bas reliefs of gods and asparas, giant carved heads, sky-touching spires on giant temples and wide water moats. Mysterious and enigmatic, it is no surprise that Angelina Jolie's movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed on Ta Prohm, a temple still overrun by the jungle.
Ten years ago, Cambodia attracted only 300,000 tourists a year but the number went up to 2 million in 2008. Seeing Angkor Wat is a once in a lifetime dream trip for many and is such a prominent part of Cambodia that its image is on the national flag. Yet, there is a wide variety of experiences to be relished in Cambodia.
For the diehard shopper, Cambodia has home-grown silk and cotton, some still woven on traditional looms. The savvy shopper buys jewelry in Cambodia because it is significantly cheaper than those found in neighboring Thailand. There is also a movement to revive traditional Khmer ceramic and bronze art and to teach the skills of an almost lost art to younger Cambodian artisans.
Exuberant Water Festival
Travel is getting easier. There are two international airports, English is increasingly widely spoken, the roads are getting better and accommodation ranges from backpacker budget guest houses to unrivalled drop dead luxury.