Wandering the Kingdom of Wonder

Seven years ago, I had a brief but enchanting visit to Cambodia, a small country in Southeast Asia tucked between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. I fell in love with the warm, joyful Khmer people during my time spent volunteering at New Futures Orphanage and visiting the awe-inspiring ancient temples of Angkor Wat. In the subsequent years, having seen the primal ruins and dreamy islands of the Kingdom of Wonder at the top of nearly every “must-see” list out there, I knew it would be a different experience—and likely, country—to revisit. 

We started our journey in Siem Reap, which I barely recognized thanks to astounding growth. According to the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, since I visited in 2010, the number of international tourists has more than doubled (so, too, had the cost of visiting the temples, I noticed). Enormous four and five star hotels, serving the hordes of teeming tour buses, lined the major thoroughfare that leads from the newly built international airport terminal to central Siem Reap. Tourism, which has catapulted this little kingdom to a major global travel player, can be equally inspiring and overwhelming to both the locals and its visitors. The one consistent element of the experience, however, was the remarkable wonderment of the ancient temples, which have remained for centuries.

Along with hundreds of other tourists, we rose before dawn one morning to make the trip to the main temple of Angkor Wat (so famous and meaningful to the Khmer people, its image is the very center of the country’s flag). We stood with the huddled masses waiting for the sun to rise, and as we all lined the large reflecting pools and faced the eastern horizon with one hand raised in the air grasping a smart phone or camera, we couldn’t help but feel a part of some new-age cult or modern tech-religion. After much anticipation, ageless, life-giving surya made its appearance, and despite the crowds, the pink and orange light that absorbed this monumental structure was truly breathtaking. Afterward, we spent the day exploring the rest of the massive Angkor Wat complex via tuk-tuk, visiting other sites of wonder, including Ta Prohm (made famous by Angelina Jolie) and the many carved faces of Bayon.

A couple of days later, we chose a car to make the 1.5-hour drive to lesser-known Bang Melea, which with its huge collapsed stone blocks and overgrown vegetation felt as if an earthquake had recently struck and the temple was being reclaimed by nature. While certainly more raw and untouched than Angkor, the authorities have recently built a raised walkway throughout the crumbling ruins, which you can also climb over and around as you take it all in.     

With our interest in how food and agriculture bring people together, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a positive aspect of the tourist boom in Siem Reap. As more and more workers are needed to support the hospitality and restaurant industries, a spurt of not-for-profit, pro-social enterprises have been founded in the area. Some of our favorites included Sister Srey Café, Haven, ARTillery and Spoons, which all support at-risk, local communities by empowering them with on-the-job training and living wages. While enjoying lunch at Spoons one afternoon, we were fortunate to eavesdrop on an EGBOK hospitality school class presenting their findings from recent internships in the housekeeping department of some of the local hotels. As if the beautiful, ancient landscape wasn’t enough, given our backgrounds, this side of booming Siem Reap left us curious and inspired.

After mixing with the throngs of tourists, we were glad to make our way south to Cambodia’s coast, where we were even happier to find the secluded Palm Beach Bungalows on Koh Rong island. We were given the first in a line of simple, stilted huts, just metres from the Gulf of Thailand’s warm, calm water. From our bungalow porch, we spent lazy mornings reading in the hammock overlooking the panoramic ocean view, and in the sun-filled afternoons, we often walked the shallow waters of low-tide in wonder of spiny sea urchin or busy crabs. The quiet, picturesque surrounds also offered a peaceful opportunity to pause, reflect and celebrate the life of my beloved 92-year-old grandmother, who had sadly passed away a few days prior.

After a week on Koh Rong, we found ourselves in dizzying Phnom Penh, the kingdom’s capital, where we continued to try Khmer cuisine (even learning to cook some ourselves!), toured the city’s important and historic sites, and attended a vinyasa class at Yoga! Phnom Penh, part of a daylong yogathon that benefited the Azahar Foundation.

As we left Cambodia on our way to Vietnam, we better understood and recognized that the continued success of this small kingdom is heartening, considering the harrowing atrocities that took place in recent history during the heartless reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Keep rising, inspiring and wonder-ing, Cambodia.