Imagine the French explorer Henri Mouhout’s awe at his first sight of Angkor in 1860 and his fascination with Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. Mouhout was not the first European to set eyes on the immense and majestic ruins of Angkor, but the first after a long period of time of it being unseen by Western eyes… a fitting contemporary analogy!
We experienced that awe in 2002 when we hosted Smiling Albino’s first guests in Cambodia. Two decades later, we can confidently say NOW is the best time in 20 years to visit Angkor.
Cambodia is open again to (vaccinated) visitors and it could not be soon enough for the 140,000 residents of Siem Reap who almost entirely rely on tourism. The suffering and sacrifices made over the last two years have been great, but so also has their determination to build back better! The Cambodian vaccination effort has been massive and 83% of the population are now fully vaccinated, the eighth most vaccinated country in the world.
Our friend and hotelier Christian De Boer pointed out that instead of jostling amongst the crowds to get that perfect sunrise photo at Angkor Wat, you now have some of the world’s most spectacular ancient sacred sites virtually to yourself. For a short period, there will be a magical time to visit Angkor before the crowds return, one of the rare blessings that a pandemic such as COVID-19 has gifted to intrepid early travelers.
And not just Angkor, for those who have visited Siem Reap before the pandemic, you will hardly recognise the town. In the two years the country was closed, new roads and drainage systems were completed and others improved. There are new sidewalks and brightly painted bicycle lanes around town that extend all the way out to the temple sites, and freshly planted trees, grass and flowers now cheer up the previously dusty streets.
Our longtime Smiling Albino Siem Reap guide, Mr Barang, happily says “the town looks great and we now have good roads around the temples, even a beautiful garden in front of Angkor Wat!”
The relatively high-end restaurants that have survived are doing their best to impress and you no longer need reservations weeks or in some cases months in advance. Artists and artisans have had time to hone their skills and expand their collections and wares.
And not just Angkor and Siem Reap! Cambodia itself has become a destination rather than a three-day temple tour add-on to a Thailand holiday. Besides the ever-improving selection of hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap, the capital, Phnom Penh, has developed into the unsung, somewhat funky cousin to Bangkok and Saigon, with several new five-star hotels opening in the last few years such as the Rosewood. There are new, fabulous island resorts in the clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand, most notably Six Senses, Song Saa, the upcoming Jati Private Island Resort, and world-class eco-resorts in the national parks of Southern Cambodia.
David Steyn, the General Manager of Shinta Mani Wild , a boldly luxurious and remote adventure and conservation experience in the Cardamoms, gaged the mood of recent guests who he said came away with the realization that Cambodia truly has so much more to offer than just Ankgor and that it really can stand alone as a one stop destination.
Illustrating this, one of our favorite trips out of Siem Reap is our three-day ‘Slow Boat to Battambang’ which is an adventurous boat trip across the Tonle Sap and up the Sangker River to Battambang. You get to experience the riverside village life at Prek Toal and visit Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater bird colony, the Core Bird Reserve, on the way to explore one of Cambodia’s most charming and historic towns. There really are enough exciting and unique experiences for all types of travelers available in Cambodia now to make a diverse and encompassing two-week holiday.
Imagine yourself as the French explorer Henri Mouhout, exploring a land that has been out of view for a while for most international travelers and enjoying the sights ahead of the inevitable returning crowds. What a truly magical time to travel to such a welcoming and friendly country. The time to visit Cambodia is now, not next year, not next month, but now!
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