Asia's new hot spot: Cambodia

Anirban Mahapatra
Travel Plus

Just as Angkor is more than its wat, this country is more than its temples. Lose yourself in its charming cities as well as its magical landscapes

Day 1: Touch down at Siem Reap. A former French colonial outpost, this quaint and laidback town in Western Cambodia is the gateway to the magnificent temples of Angkor, and thereby your first port of call. Check into the Golden Temple Hotel (Angkor High School Road), a stylish and centrally-located address.

Spend a lazy evening in the Psar Chaa area, a vibrant marketplace stuffed with ethnic handicraft stores, designer boutiques and numerous al fresco cafes and restaurants serving a delectable range of local and Continental staples paired with fresh draught. Psar Chaa is a five-minute walk from the Golden Temple Hotel, via a footbridge across the river.

Day 2: Embark on a daylong tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park at the crack of dawn. The park is home to hundreds of magnificent Khmer ruins dating back between the 9th and 13th centuries. Your first stop past the park gates (4 km north of town) is the jaw-dropping Angkor Wat, a 12th-century architectural behemoth originally consecrated to Lord Vishnu, which also happens to be the largest religious monument in the world. Watch its tapered spires catch the first rays of the sun and explore its gigantic hallways and sprawling courtyards.

Then proceed to the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom. Visit the Bayon temple, its spires adorned with giant rock-cut faces of the Buddha, and the ruined Baphuon temple nearby. After a picnic-style lunch, exit Angkor Thom by the north gate and visit Preah Khan, a derelict but hauntingly beautiful temple.

Your last stop for the day is the Ta Prohm temple, hidden in a tropical forest, where you're treated to the eerie spectacle of crumbling colonnades and pavilions slowly being strangulated by python-esque roots of ageless trees. Before returning to town, pamper yourself to a rejuvenating massage at Krousar Thmey, a non-profit organisation that works for the betterment of the visually impaired.

Day 3: Go on a half-day tour of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. Located 15 km south of Siem Reap, the lake is bordered by mangrove forests which can be explored by rowboat. Then take a motorboat and cruise to the picturesque floating villages of Kampong Phluk and Kampong Khleang. Return to Siem Reap for lunch.

In the afternoon, go for a final jaunt amid the Angkor ruins, touching by atmospheric Buddhist monasteries within the complex, and smaller (but equally fascinating) temples such as Banteay Srei, Ta Keo and the Terrace of Elephants. Finally, climb the Bakheng Hill to witness a dramatic sunset over the forested terrain. In the evening, grab an entry into one of Siem Reap's many lounges that stage a Khmer Apsara dance recital, followed by dinner.

Day 4: Take a luxury bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, about five hours by road from Siem Reap. You can also try hustling a ride on a steamer plying on the Tonle Sap (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are on extreme ends of the lake). While it's a fabulous experience overall, you'd do well to remember that this service has been dubbed 'vomit comet' by travellers in the past!

Once in Phnom Penh, check into the pleasant Hotel Indochine 2 (Khan Daun Penh), located on Sisowath Quay overlooking the Tonle Sap River. Take a walk down the scenic waterfront in the evening, and settle down in the vintage terrace bar of the Foreign Correspondent's Club  for the evening, and nurse your poison while admiring the views all around.

Day 5: Start the day's sightseeing at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The pagoda is a dazzling affair, inlaid with silver flooring and centred by gold and crystal statues of the Buddha. Next, visit the National Museum to see some fine sculptural relics dating back to the Khmer era. Post lunch, make the 14 km excursion out of town to the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek, a pasture that was used as  a mass execution and burial site by the Khmer Rouge militia during the civil war in the 1970s.

Today, the site is poignantly marked by a graceful pagoda erected in memory of the thousands who were killed here. Upon returning to Phnom Penh, go shopping at NCDP Handicrafts on Norodom Boulevard, and pick up Cambodian souvenirs such as kramas (chequered cotton scarves either in classic black and white or other chic combinations) and knee-length cotton Khmer pants.

Getting there: Fly to Bangkok from Delhi/Mumbai. From Bangkok, take a Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap.

Fare for Delhi-Bangkok-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh-Bangkok-Delhi: Rs. 23,000 approx. on a low-cost carrier. Visa on arrival.

One Indian rupee works out to about 90 Cambodian riel.

Must do: Angkor Night Market in Siem Reap, 10 minutes west of Psar Chaa, for that definitive Southeast Asian shopping experience.

Food tip: There is a wide variety of vegetarian dishes in Cambodian cuisine. However, note that fish stock is often used in vegetarian dishes. If you like to play safe, Kama Sutra along Bar Street in Psar Chaa has a decent selection of Indian dishes.

Travel tip: The riel and US dollars are both legal tender in Cambodia, with riel notes often filling in as loose change. There are no coins in use.