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Pchum Ben: Five top travel spots


Fancy a trip for the public holiday, but bored of the coast and don’t fancy going abroad? Five people share their favourite Cambodian holiday spots, away from the crowds and the usual spots.

Banteay Chhmar, Banteay Meanchey

Saul March

Archaeologists believe the Banteay Chhmar temple was built by King Jayavarman VII during the Angkorian period in the 12th century. For this reason it is often referred to as the second Angkor Wat, though there is nothing second-rate about it.

Most visitors to the temple grounds, about an hour’s ride from Sisophon town in Banteay Meanchey province, are struck by its stillness, its remoteness from the tourist crowd, and the enduring beauty of its ruins. The temple, which is the site of a massive restoration project, retains ornate bas-reliefs carved into walls that depict battles between Khmer soldiers and Cham armies. The chaos captured in stone contrasts with the tranquility of the town, where local residents manage a tourism project that is compellingly laid back without being disorganised.

Informative tours of the temple, home cooked meals and comfortable home stays with families are all available in reasonably priced packages that range between $55 and $99, depending on the length of stay.

There are discounts for group rates, or, if you are feeling more adventurous, as the French historian George Groslier was when he visited in 1937, you can take the trip solo. Several bus companies have services from Phnom Penh to Sisophon town, where the Botoum Hotel is a decent place to spend an evening, rent a motorbike, and buzz down the bumpy but scenic 69 kilometre stretch to the temple. Avoid travelling the distance during heavy rains or at night. The trip is best enjoyed with the sun beating down on the dusty old road.

Anyone seeking isolation from the rest of the world will find the journey soothing. “Villages become increasingly rare, finally disappearing completely,” Groslier wrote after his visit. Not much has changed.

Tours of Banteay Chhmar from Sisophon can be organised through info@visitbanteaychhmar.org  

Koh Rong Samloem, Preah Sihanouk

Julius Thiemann

Sometimes it’s best to reduce one’s existence to beach, bar and bed – or hammock – and get away from the rush. There is one spot better than most at sparking the tranquility of inner peace. On Koh Rong Samloem, an island two and a half hours by boat from Sihanoukville, people arrive and find themselves instantly relaxed.

Koh Rong’s Lazy Beach resort features 13 wooden bungalows set around white sands and a spacious bay. Electricity for light is only produced for a few hours at night. You won’t find internet or telephone services, and you won’t miss them.

With only a few people on the island it feels as if the beach is your exclusive domain. The calm bay is ideal for both swimming and snorkelling at the same time. At dawn you can see macaques scampering around the rocks at one edge of the bay, feeding on oysters. Watch the sunrise from a rock plateau in the jungle mountain – if you manage to be up at a reasonable hour. The only traces of civilisation comes in the form of ice-cold Beer Lao and a wide selection of Asian and Western dishes. At night the bar becomes the centre of the island with the English owners creating a raucous party atmosphere.

At the moment, the island is almost entirely covered with thick jungle, largely unexplored, and undeveloped. Visit soon, because it won’t be long before plans to develop a small airport, casinos and a golf course come to fruition.

More inquiries and bookings can be made at http://www.lazybeachcambodia.com

Chi Phat, Koh Kong

Rosa Ellen

Smack in the middle of the steamy southern Cardamom Mountains, there is only way to relax after a humid day of outdoor activities in tiny Chi Pat – sailing down  the Preak Piphot river in the dark, watching the exquisite light show staged by the fireflies. Beer and lychee drinks thoughtfully placed in an ice bucket by the hull.

After six years, the tiny riverside village has the ecotourism experience perfected. Activities and meals are organised from an open bamboo office in the main street and beds are taken care of by 17 local families. We slept in traditional rooms under diaphanous pink mosquito nets and fans When the electricity goes off, so do the village dogs.

Walks and bike rides to nearby waterfalls and lookouts are off-track and can require local guides, who know the grassy trails and makeshift bridges like the back of their hands.

Along the way you’ll encounter chatty kids, quiet swimming spots and muddy buffalo – but be back for dinner at seven sharp.

Down-at-home delights can be found in hardworking Sre Ambel, which can be visited on the way to Chi Phat. The town of 4000 on has virtually no tourism to speak of at present, but with at least one warm and welcoming guesthouse, peaceful views onto the Kampong Som River and lush countryside, the town is well worth a visit. English isn’t spoken so foreigners should make sure they have a few Khmer phrases up their sleeves. Walk along the wide red dirt roads to one of the town’s outlying restaurants and eat barbecued chicken while the sun sinks down into shimmering rice fields.

For more information on local ecotourism at Chi Phat, visit ecoadventurecambodia.com

Battambang

Poppy McPherson

It’s often said that Cambodia’s second city is laid back to the point of sleepiness. But can you spend five days there without a mind-numbing case of Battam-bore setting in? Here’s how.

Battambang is a great city for downtime, so stay in a comfortable hotel. There are a handful of decent ones in town: Khemera I is a solid option, central with a pool. But the best are a little further afield. Battambang Resort, a nine-month old boutique hotel about 15 minutes drive from the city centre, describes itself as “a little slice of paradise”. Set amongst tropical gardens that teem with butterflies and beside a lilipad-covered lake, it certainly comes close. One of the chic double rooms will set you back US $55 while a lakeside villa costs US $75 and comes with those all-important touches of luxury.

Motorbike into town to see the sights. Much of the pleasure is in the journey: wander down dirt backstreets to stumble upon a splendid gold pagoda. The local museum houses a fascinating assortment of relics but is so unorganised you could probably stroll off with a Bayon-era Buddha. A cluster of art galleries on the charmingly named Street 2 and half are a hub for the city’s interesting inhabitants, and good shopping fodder. A dedicated group of cyclists meet there every Saturday morning to explore the local area.

Sloths, don’t panic. Café culture is king in Battambang. Riverside Café Eden is understandably lauded but why not break the mould and try Green Mango Café and Bakery? The wide-eyed group of young women who work there will melt your heart almost as much as the banana and chocolate brownies.

For a truly unmissable meal head back to 2 and a half. Pomme d’Amour, the Apple of Love, serves French food with an Asian twist. Beefsteak is succulent and blood-red, pork comes smothered in blue cheese and peppers while Indian cabbage with mashed jackfruit is a rich and spicy sidedish. Round it off with a ‘grandpa’s coffee’: an espresso with a generous helping of honey rum and a shot of cognac.

Things dry up very quickly after sunset in Battambang. Top tip? Bring a buddy – and make it someone of the opposite sex.

Banlung, Ratanakkiri

Dagmarah Mackos

Last call to witness Ratanakkiri province as its indigenous minorities know it – with its customs, forest spirits and giants who dug up the Yeah Laom lake. As the local legend has it, the 80-metre deep basin, one of the province’s many attractions, is the work of a giant king who went looking underground for his fugitive daughter.

Either way, the provincial capital Banlung is an excellent base for exploring of Cambodia’s disappearing ethnic folklore.

Popular among tourists seeking peace and comfort is Terres Rouges Lodge – a hotel with a complex of bungalows that host those willing to spend between $40 and $110 a night. Many cheaper alternatives exist, starting with rooms for $10 a night, as the area becomes increasingly tourist-conscious.

For full list of places to discover (from waterfalls, jungle treks to overnight stay at ethnic minority villages), a visit to the regional Tourism Office is advisable. You will be presented with a carefully complied catalogue, offering day trips to remote areas for a closer encounter with tribal culture and tropical nature. The town’s hotel receptionists tend to be just as informative as official tour guides.

A choice of local restaurants rule out any fear of starvation amongst the canopy of tropical forests: A’dam Restaurant and Gecko House, both centrally located, are usually brimming with pleased clients.

Bus operators Sorya and Rithmony cover the Phnom Penh-Banlung route daily and the 10-hour ride costs roughly $12 each way.

It’s well worth a trip, before the chainsaws of wood loggers and rubber farmers strip Ratanakkiri’s hills of its jungles and foreign faces become a more common sight.

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