Culture and Lifestyle Cambodia
12 Days / 11 Nights
Day 1: Arrive Phnom Penh. Visit Royal Palace and National Museum.
On arrival check into your hotel.
In the afternoon, we explore the stunning Royal Palace complex, home to the Cambodian royal family. We begin at the Throne Hall and Napoleon III Pavilion, a gift from the French emperor in the 19th century. We continue to the Silver Pagoda, named after the 5000 silver tiles covering the floor, each weighing 1kg. Inside is 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: Dance Class with Classical Dance Master Em Theay. Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields.
The glorious arts and cultural heritage of Cambodia is making a determined comeback after its virtual annihilation by the Khmer Rouge. And perhaps this revival and revitalization of the arts is best embodied in the iconic classical dance and ballet master, Em Theay. We have the opportunity to meet the lady known around the world as the Tenth Dancer (only one of every 10 dancers survived the Khmer Rouge regime) in person, find out more about her very special talents, her family dynasty and to hear first-hand of the hurdles she had to overcome to breathe new life into what had become a dying art form. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity that we believe will give you a unique window into the country’s cultural heritage.
In the afternoon, 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.
Day 3: Travel to Kratie, including Chhlong.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel northeast to the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham. En route, there is the chance to pause at Skuon, affectionately known as 'Spiderville', where it is possible to sample the local delicacy of deep fried tarantula. We arrive in Kompong Cham mid-morning and visit the sacred hills of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (man and woman hill). Later we see the 'fusion' temple of Wat Nokor, an 11th century sandstone temple with a colourful modern wat set in its central courtyard. We then enjoy a local lunch in Kompong Cham.
Our road journey continues on east bank, passing through the old river port of Chhlong, home to some of the best examples of French colonial architecture in the country. We then reach Kratie, a sleepy Mekong port and gateway to an encounter with the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin that inhabit the upper reaches of the Mekong in Cambodia. We check into our hotel and leave some time free to soak up the atmosphere of this charming town, with its well-preserved colonial-era architecture.
Day 4: Dolphin Watching. Travel to Mondulkiri.
After breakfast in Kratie, we travel to Kampi, one of the many deep pools where the rare river dolphins gather to feed. We board a local boat and cruise out into the mighty Mekong for a chance encounter with these gentle creatures. Viewing is commonplace, although it is easier to see the dolphins in the shallower waters of the dry season, than in the swollen river of the wet season. After enjoying an hour or more of dolphin viewing, we then travel south towards the small junction town of Snuol, our gateway to the wilds of Mondulkiri.
After a (very) local lunch in the small town of Snuol, we leave behind the surfaced roads of civilisation and take on the red earth roads of hill country. The first half of the journey from Snuol is flat, passing through patches of lush forest and areas of cultivation and plantations. After Khau Si Ma district, the road snakes up through the mountains that give Mondulkiri its name of 'where the mountains meet'. There is lush jungle hugging the road and locals claim to see tigers on this stretch at night. Nearing Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, the scenery changes again, jungle giving way to clusters of pine trees and rolling grasslands. The scenery is unique for Cambodia and dotted with traditional Pnong villages, the main minority group in Mondulkiri. On arrival in Sen Monorom, we check into a comfortable local hotel for the night.
Day 5: Visit Bou Sra Waterfall and Minority Villages.
We leave Sen Monorom after breakfast and head east towards the double drop waterfall of Bou Sraa, one of the most famous in Cambodia. Along the way, we stop at a Pnong minority village to learn a little about their way of life. We may be invited to drink some rice wine, as Pnong villagers are extremely hospitable and welcoming of outsiders.
We continue to Bou Sraa and explore the falls. It is possible to access both drops and there are swimming opportunities for those who want to take the plunge. We enjoy a picnic at the falls and then continue east to the village of Pichenda on the other side of the river. We will also seek out the honey-harvesters of the province, who farm wild bees for their sweet nectar before we head back to Sen Monorom.
Day 6: Day at Elephant Valley Project.
We leave Sen Monorom after breakfast and travel to the nearby Elephant Valley Project which, with the support of the Bunong villagers, rescues and treats domestic elephants who have suffered injury and abuse. Enjoy a unique ‘Walking with the Herd for a day’ experience. You will be introduced to the herd of elephants and get to know more about their history, character, behaviour and body language while walking alongside them in their natural environment. You will be able to feed the elephants buckets of bananas and bathe the elephants before watching them cover themselves in mud again. After lunch, you will undertake a walking trek with the elephants through the stunning Mondulkiri countryside to a waterfall for a refreshing swim and elephant bath. Later we return to Sen Monorom.
Day 7: Travel Mondulkiri to Kompong Thom.
We leave behind the wilds of Mondulkiri, dropping off the windswept, pine-clad hills through steaming jungle back to the lowlands of Cambodia. We are making for the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham, situated on the banks of the Mekong. We continue west to the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, our base for the night.
Day 8: Sambor Prei Kuk and Santuk Silk Farm. Drive Siem Reap. Angkor National Museum.
After breakfast in Kompong Thom, we explore the impressive pre-Angkorian capital of Isanapura, known today as Sambor Prei Kuk. The first major temple city in South-East Asia, the brick temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are a peaceful contrast to their more illustrious relatives at Angkor. We explore the main temples here, including Prasat Tao with its elaborately coiffured lions and Prasat Sambor, with its crumbling sanctuaries.
We then pay a visit to the Santuk Silk Farm, where you can see the silk production process from start to finish and the end product of high quality, hand-woven silk karmas fashioned by the small team of weavers. After a local lunch we continue northwest on National Highway 6. This was an old Angkor road and we stop in Kompong Kdei to see one of the ancient Angkor bridges that were built to span the rivers. Spean Praptos has more than 20 arches and is a spectacular sight, reinforcing the impression that the Khmers were like the Romans of Southeast Asia.
Once we reach Siem Reap we visit the Angkor National Museum to give some context to the story of Angkor before beginning our visit to the temples. The state of the art museum has touch-screen video, epic commentary and a panoramic sunrise at Angkor Wat as well as a series of impressive galleries containing Angkorian sculpture no longer on view at the temple complex.
Day 9: Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and Landmine Museum. Evening Classical Dance Show.
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 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. Later we visit the 12th century temple of Banteay Samre. Built by King Suryavarman II, the genius behind Angkor Wat, this temple has been extensively restored.
This evening we can enjoy a classical dance performance, where we will see many of the most popular Cambodian dances, including the graceful Apsara dance, scenes from the Ramayana (known as Reamker in Cambodia), the coconut dance and more. The classical dances include elaborate costume and date back to the time of Angkor, while the folk dances are connected to the harvest and the cycle of the seasons.
Day 10: Roluos Lifestyle and Kompong Pluk Floating Village.
We travel back in time to one of the earliest capitals in the Angkor area, Hariharilaya, now known as Roluos. 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. We then head for the market in the small country town of Roluos before heading out into the countryside to visit a working farm to find out more about farming techniques that bring the produce of the land to the dinner table.
Then, we travel to Kompong Pluk and board small wooden boats for the trip to visit Kompong Pluk. Cruising down a narrow waterway, we enter this medieval floating village, where the houses stand atop stilts as much as seven metres above the water. Everything lives on the water, pigs, dogs, crocodiles and people, all jockeying for space in this incredible floating town. We explore the local wat here, before boarding a bigger boat to take us through the flooded forest and across the Great Lake to Chong Kneas and the holy mountain of Phnom Krom. We climb Phnom Krom for a glorious sunset over the Tonle Sap before heading back to Siem Reap by road.
Day 11: Angkor Wat Sunrise. Pagodas of Siem Reap. Evening Shadow Puppets Show.
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 well as a good luck blessing from a senior monk. 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.
We spend the rest of the day visiting the historic pagodas of Siem Reap, a peaceful and charming alternative to the temples of Angkor. We begin with a visit to the modern pagoda of Wat Thmei where there is a moving memorial stupa to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. We continue to Wat Preah Inkosei which is built on the site of a 10th century temple. Two brick towers remain and one includes a superb lintel depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Next is the 19th century temple of Wat Bo, one of the most important pagodas in Siem Reap and its interior includes some of the finest religious murals in Cambodia, depicting the life of the Buddha.
We then visit the old royal palace compound of Wat Dam Nak, which has been converted to a place of learning for the Centre of Khmer Studies, before we travel to Wat Athvea to visit an interesting fusion temple which includes the impressive remains of an 12th century sandstone structure and an attractive old pagoda.
This evening we dine at La Noria Restaurant, which hosts an evening of Cambodian shadow puppetry. All the children performing have been trained by the NGO Krousar Thmey which helps deprived and disabled Cambodian children. We witness a puppet show, which blends traditional folklore with modern themes. We also see some popular Cambodian dances, including classical and folk, accompanied by traditional Khmer instruments.
Day 12: Free Morning. Afternoon Visit to Angkor Thom.
Morning is free at your leisure.
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.
Then, we transfer to the airport for departure flight.