Far From The Madding Crowd
By Aatika H Jain
It is not definite for how long the lands of Cambodia have been inhabited. Carbon-dating suggests the presence of stone-tools-using men as early as 4000 BC and the practice of rice cultivation way earlier than 1 AD. On this ancient land stands the world’s biggest religious monument—Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People across the globe identify Cambodia with this magnificent, sprawling temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, which was built during the reign of the great Khmer Empire in the early 12th century. It adorns the Cambodian flag too, but Cambodia is so much more than Angkor Wat.
Look beyond the tourist hotspots of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and you will be mesmerized by the lesser-known side of this beautiful South Asian country. Meet gentle people living in their simple, age-old ways in forgotten, sleepy coastal villages while you take in the unexplored sights and sounds.
Kep-sur-Mer is a slumberous little town on the southern coast of Cambodia. Back in the 50s, it was the famous retreat for Khmer royalty which saw some fierce struggles between the Khmer Rouge and government forces in later years. There are crumbling old houses, some of which have been revived, lining wide streets and reminding one of the grandeur of the old French colonial resort town. Kep is mostly used by tourists as a gateway to Vietnam but is now gaining spotlight as several five-star hotels have come up on the numerous islands off the coastline.
Take a stroll around the tiny town and bask in the splendor of the old buildings, which emanate grace even in their dilapidated moss-eaten state. Unwind, read a book or take a dip in the ocean on the quiet, golden beach, which is in stark contrast to the bustling energy of Sihanoukville beaches. Take a 20-minute boat ride to the famed Koh Tonsay or Rabbit Island to lounge in a hammock and snack on fresh seafood and drinks. Walk around in the salt fields and rambling family-owned pepper plantations surrounding the town.
Also read about
Spot tiger-striped lizards lazing in the sunlight on sandy rocks while you hike through the dense, green Kep National Park, the air ringing with exotic bird calls, and catch the breathtaking sunset view at the top of Sunset Rock. Another place to be during sunset is the Crab Market teeming with fishermen outbidding each other for their freshly caught crabs. Richly flavored smoke will hit your nostrils, wafting from the makeshift grills plied with fish and squids. Head out to the restaurants next to the market to sink your teeth into some local delicacies like crab amok or banana blossom salad. Kep will leave you spellbound for certain.
Koh Kong and the Cardamom Mountains
Koh Kong in southwest Cambodia boasts endless, untouched stretches of coastline and includes parts of the thick rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains, southeast Asia’s biggest rainforest. Plenty of scenic waterfalls abound the island. Situated in the center of the Cardamom Mountains, Chi Phat is the biggest remaining rainforest region in southeast Asia. Chi Phat village is pretty remote and can be reached only through a sandy trail. Wildlife Alliance train and help the people in Chi Phat area to earn their living from tourism instead of animal trafficking. The village has collaborated with neighboring villages for a wonderful community-based ecotourism project with some basic homestays and guesthouses. You can trek through the Cardamom Mountains or cycle, kayak or ride a boat. Go on a hike through the rainforest with guides who will lead you to marvelous waterfalls and mountains.
The mangrove-estuary system of Koh Kong is the largest estuary in southeast Asia, many of which are protected. Nature lovers have ample reason to be enthralled. Largely unexplored until recently, the estuaries house varied exotic wildlife comprising rare Irrawaddy Dolphins, two species of otters, Asia’s smallest and rarest deer, macaques, Asia’s most elusive fishing cats, finless porpoise and a wide range of endangered shorebirds. In addition, Koh Kong offers seven stunning tropical white sandy beaches with turquoise seas stretching into nothing. While away time lying in a hammock as the time comes to a standstill. Munch on freshly caught and cooked seafood. Swim. Snorkel. Let the world go by.
Not on the itinerary of regular tourists, the remote place, on the edge of the Cardamom Mountains, will prove to be a pleasant surprise. An hour away from the Thai border, you can trek to the densely forested Blue Mountain flanked by the Otaveo waterfall. Taste simple, local fare at small eateries near the waterfall, trudge to the intriguing Wat Phnom Yat temple at the top of a nearby hill and soak in the untouched natural beauty of the area.
Banteay Chhmar and Ta Prohm
If you didn’t much relish the tourist crowd at Angkor, Banteay Chhmar (the citadel of the cat) will make up for the disappointment. The temple has remained mostly undiscovered for over 800 years. Two hours from Siem Reap, hidden amongst thick trees now, it was once one of the most important Khmer temples. Called ‘the second Angkor Wat’, it is the fourth biggest Angkorian temple in the country. A huge moat surrounds the eight-temple complex. Nature has had an upper hand here, with vines penetrating crevices, and thick roots of enormous trees winding into the crumbling walls that have stunning elaborate bas-relief inscriptions depicting war and religion.
The collapsed missing pieces in the carved walls have left behind mysteries to keep archeologists puzzled. Stone-faced towers, Avalokiteshvara or Buddhist Gods, look down upon you with inscrutable smiles. The startling silence is the high point, broken only by the sounds of insects and birds. Walk for some 12km more and you reach the temple of Prasat Samnang Tasok. One of the satellite temples to Banteay Chhmar with its own stonefaced towers, it has been completely overtaken by the jungle. Despite its ruinous state, it has a unique charm of its own. When you go into the forest foliage hiding the ruins of the Angkorian temples, you step away from the modern-day world into an ancient era that fills you with the excitement of some potential adventure into the past.
A part of Angkor Wat, Ta Promh is where the Hollywood adventure-movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed. Silk cotton and strangler fig trees took over where humans left it, taking deep root among the mortar-less stone walls of the temple. Don’t miss the small carving of a dinosaur, a stegosaurus, in a quiet corner of the temple. Its presence amongst the ancient Khmer carvings has given rise to all kinds of theories of its origin.
Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, the lesser-known Khmer cuisine is just as delectable as its neighbors’. Rice is a staple Cambodian food and often appears as either an accompaniment to the main dish or as an ingredient. A common Cambodian greeting is ‘Nyam bai howie nov?’, which means ‘have you eaten rice yet?’. This ought to give you an idea of how frequently and fondly rice is eaten in the country. Prahok, a sharp fermented fish paste is used in many dishes; kroeung, a spice paste of lemongrass and galangal, is used as a base in many others. Pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and greens, fermented pastes, kaffir lime leaves, and varied spices are an integral part of Khmer cuisine. Freshwater fish from Mekong and Tonle Sap is extensively used, either dried or cooked into prahok. Fish Amok is the most popular Khmer dish; freshwater fish, usually snakehead, is steamed with coconut cream and kroeung in banana leaves. Moist and distinctively flavored, it is served as a side dish with rice.
Nom Banh chok or Khmer noodles is a well-loved breakfast dish made up of noodles, fish curry in the green gravy of lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime, topped with fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flowers, and cucumber. The red version of it is a popular ceremonial dish. Kdam chaa or fried crab is a well-known specialty of Kep town crab market where freshly caught crabs are cooked with raw, green aromatic Kampot pepper. Beef Lok lak, Khmer mango salad, and draymen or grilled squid, cha houy teuk or jelly dessert and bai such chrouk or pork and rice are just a few of the several scrumptious Khmer dishes which are bound to tickle your taste buds.
And if you are one of those intrepid inquisitive tourists, you might want to try your hand at the plethora of fried or seasoned bugs and insects available throughout the country. Cambodia’s rich heritage, kind welcoming people and serene unexplored countryside will leave you captivated. Fly out to this land of legends and gods for a calming experience and rejuvenation