10 Days / 9 Nights
Day 1: Arrive Phnom Penh. Visit Royal Palace and National Museum.
Upon arrival check in to hotel.
In the afternoon, we explore the stunning Royal Palace complex, home to the Cambodian royal family and a symbol of the nation. We enter the Throne Hall where the royal receptions are held, see the Napoleon III Pavilion made from iron, a gift from the French emperor in the 19th century and continue to the Silver Pagoda, named after the 5000 silver tiles covering the floor, each weighing 1kg. Inside are some of the country's most cherished treasures, including a life-size gold Buddha studded with 9584 diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats. There is also a delicate emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal, which gives the temple its Khmer name of Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).
We leave the Royal Palace and continue to the nearby National Museum, home to the world's finest collection of sculpture from the Angkor period. The exquisite building was completed in 1920 and features collections from the pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor periods. We concentrate on the incredible sandstone sculpture from Angkor, as well as the intricate bronzes.
Day 2: Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields. Lunch at PSE. Visit Wat Phnom.
We come face to face with the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng was a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a centre for interrogation, torture and death. Today it is a museum of torture and serves to remind visitors of the terrible atrocities that came to pass in Cambodia. 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison and only seven lived to tell the tale. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing all the prisoners and many of these haunting black and white images are on display in the cells. Tuol Sleng is a profoundly moving experience and not everyone will want to visit. However, it is key to understanding the hell into which Cambodia descended and how far it has come in the years since.
We then travel out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng followed this same route to their fate. An old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was turned into an extermination camp for political prisoners. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed from mass graves and are kept in a memorial stupa here. Despite the horrors of the past, it is a peaceful place to go and a tranquil spot to reflect on the tragic events that engulfed Cambodia and its people.
We have lunch in the capital at PSE (a French NGO supporting children from the garbage dump) where their Lotus Blanc restaurant serves excellent international and Asian cuisine. The clients can then take a tour of the PSE facilities where both schooling and work/life skills are available to the children and youths as a way of escaping the poverty of their lives spent on the city’s main garbage dump.
We then make for Wat Phnom, a symbol of the city. Located on one of the few hills in this pancake-flat capital, the first pagoda was originally built in 1373 to house Buddha statues discovered in the Mekong by a woman named Penh. This gives us the modern name of the city, Phnom Penh or Hill of Penh. Cambodians come to the shrine to pray for luck in love and life, employment and exams, so there it is always a bustling place.
Day 3: Phnom Penh to Battambang via Kompong Luong.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel west towards Battambang province, the rice bowl of Cambodia. We pass through the busy riverside town of Kompong Chhnang and later turn off the main road to visit the floating town of Kompong Luong. The largest floating community on the Tonle Sap Lake, we explore by boat and experience life in a real floating community untouched by mass tourism. We head to the provincial capital of Pursat for lunch and arrive in Battambang late afternoon.
Day 4: Battambang Lifestyle.
After breakfast, we travel to Wat Koh district to visit a local village and learn about rural life in Cambodia. We learn about the rice harvest, fruit farming and how the sugar palm is used. After our village visit, we board the bamboo train to travel back towards Battambang. These 'local trains' are bamboo platforms with wheels and they fly along the rail tracks offering great views of the surrounding countryside.
After lunch in town, we travel to the hilltop temple of Wat Banan. The winding road follows the Sangker River and passes by many traditional wooden homes, offering an authentic glimpse of rural Cambodia. Arriving at the temple, we ascend to the summit and are rewarded with striking views of the surrounding plains. We continue to Phnom Sampeau, a sacred mountain dotted with interesting pagodas and stupas. There is also a moving memorial to Khmer Rouge victims who were thrown into one of the many caves that pepper this holy mountain. We then return to Battambang town for the night.
Day 5: Battambang to Banteay Chhmar Temple Safari.
We leave Battambang after breakfast and travel north towards the trading town of Svay Sisophon. We then head deeper into Banteay Meanchey province to the incredible jungle temple of Banteay Chhmar, famous for its signature faces of Jayavarman VII. We see the magnificent carvings of Lokesvara with 32 arms as well as the beautiful but ruined Hall of Dancers. After clambering about among this sleeping giant, we continue to explore the outer complex, including the outer gate of Ta Prohm, like a smaller cousin of the impressive Angkor Thom gates and protected by a moat, and the jungle-clad face-tower of Samnang Tasok. We spend the night in our safari style luxury tent.
Day 6: Banteay Chhmar to Siem Reap. Artisans d’Angkor.
After enjoying the sunrise at Banteay Chhmar, we leave some free time to explore more remote outer gates and temples around the main complex. We continue south to the enigmatic temple of Banteay Top. Here the central tower has collapsed, only to be rebuilt and resembles a precarious tower of building blocks. We then journey south to the provincial capital of Svay Sisophon before we then continue west to Siem Reap to the rural district of Puok, home to the Artisans d'Angkor silk weaving project. We visit a working silk farm where it is possible to learn about all aspects of the production process. Then, transfer to hotel for overnight.
Day 7: Roluos group. Preah Khan and Remote Temples.
We travel back in time to one of the earliest capitals in the Angkor area, Hariharilaya, now known as Roluos. We begin with a visit to the brick temple of Lolei, originally set on an island in the centre of the Indratataka baray (reservoir). We continue to Preah Ko (sacred cow), named in honour of Shiva’s mount, Nandin. Originally coated in stucco and painted, there is still some of the ancient plaster visible on the rear towers. Finally, we encounter Bakong, the earliest of the temple mountains, which later became the signature of Khmer kings. It is a giant pyramid, its cardinal points marked by giant elephants. For those that are interested, we can offer a short diversion to the small country town of Roluos, a world away from Siem Reap.
In the afternoon, we travel to the mighty temple of Preah Khan or 'Sacred Sword', built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Sister temple to Ta Prohm, the cruciform corridors here are impressive and there are some wonderful carvings adorning the walls, including the spectacular hall of dancers. We then continue on to the elegant curves of Neak Poan. This petite temple is the ultimate ornamental fountain, its series of elaborate spouts including the heads of lions and elephants. We finish by experiencing sunset over the rice fields from the royal crematorium of Pre Rup, a classic view of the Cambodian countryside.
Day 8: Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, Landmine Museum.
We journey north to Kbal Spean. The original ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle only discovered in 1969. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including thousands of lingams. A trip to Kbal Spean is one of the easiest ways to experience a short jungle trek in the Angkor area, as it is a steady but scenic climb to reach the river carvings.
We head to Banteay Srei, Angkor’s ultimate art gallery. This petite pink temple is the jewel in the crown of Angkor-era sculpture. The elaborate carvings here are the finest found in Cambodia and the name translates as ‘Fortress of the Women’, thanks to the intricate detail here, considered too fine for the hands of a man.
On the way back to Siem Reap, we visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum to learn more about the scourge of landmines and the shadow they cast over rural communities in Cambodia with a visit to this flagship museum promoting mine awareness and education.
Day 9: Ta Prohm Dawn. Walled City of Angkor Thom.
We rise early to travel to Ta Prohm in the dawn light. Ta Prohm has been abandoned to the elements, left as it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860, the tentacle-like tree roots here are slowly strangling the surviving stones. After soaking up the unique atmosphere of Ta Prohm, we continue to the giant pyramid of Takeo, one of the highest temples in the Angkor area. Built at the end of the 10th century, it was never completed.
We walk to the first great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, Banteay Kdei, built in 1186 by Jayavarman VII. We explore its extensive corridors and elegant sculptures. Although it is in a ruinous state, it often receives far fewer visitors than nearby Ta Prohm, giving it a serene atmosphere. We then visit the royal bathing pond of Sra Srang.
In the afternoon, we visit the immense walled city of Angkor Thom that was the masterpiece of King Jayavarman VII. The scale is simply staggering and we are immediately overwhelmed by the audacity of Jayavarman on arrival at the city’s gates. We begin our visit at the Terrace of the Leper King, continue along the Terrace of Elephants, and visit the Baphuon, once of the most beautiful temples at Angkor, dating from the 11th century. It has undergone a massive renovation by the French and is now once again open for viewing. Our climax is the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself. We unravel the mysteries of the temple’s bas-reliefs, with their intricate scenes of ancient battles against the Chams and their snapshot of daily life during the Angkor period.
Day 10: Angkor Wat Sunrise. Departure.
Rising at the crack of dawn, we journey out to the Mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. Believed to be the world's largest religious building, this temple is the perfect fusion of symbolism and symmetry and a source of pride and strength to all Khmers. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, this is most famous temple at Angkor. We stay at Angkor Wat to enjoy a picnic breakfast. As the crowds return to their hotels, we venture into Angkor Wat to enjoy its magnificence in peace and quiet, beginning at the bas-reliefs that tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire.
Afternoon is free at leisure until transfer to airport for departure flight.