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13 Nov 2017

Kampuchea - you took my breath away

My first educational trip with Reho! You can imagine how excited I was to head to Cambodia courtesy of Enticing Asia, Insider Journeys & Air Tickets.

Arriving at Tullamarine, I met our small group of seven at Thai International’s service counter. Some familiar faces, big smiles, I knew we were off on a great experience together!

We had 6 flights in total with Thai International & Bassakar Air in the A320 which was comfortable and the crew extremely polite and friendly. We were lucky enough to experience Thai’s new 787 Dreamliner from Bangkok to Melbourne. What a beautiful and comfortable aircraft, I can certainly see how its design will minimise jetlag. Unfortunately, though our midnight flight from Melbourne to Bangkok was on a very old 777-200. The seats were extremely uncomfortable as the seat padding was almost non-existent, a sentiment shared by my colleagues, we all agreed that it was difficult to endure for nine hours. The other two flights Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Bangkok with Thai International were fine on the A330 aircraft.

Then my Cambodian experience began …….

We arrived at Phnon Penh and obtained our visa on arrival. Very speedy service if you have your USD30 cash, passport photo and completed application form, which was given out on the flight. Passport stamped and off we went to be greeted by our Insider Journeys guide and make our way to the Frangipani Royal Palace & Spa. A boutique hotel, in a perfect location, right next to the Tonle Sap river.

The rooms are decorated in a contemporary Cambodian style and from the balcony I could look down to the river and the street to watch the locals going about their day. The city of Phnom Penh, or PP as the locals call it, had an exciting feel with cyclos, bikes and cars all somehow carefully weaving through the busy city streets together. PP has so many beautiful French colonial buildings set along the Tonle Sap river, the highlight being the amazing Royal Palace and famous Silver Pagoda! I couldn’t believe my eyes as inside the Pagoda was a life-sized gold Buddha adorned with diamonds, one of them weighing 25 carats!! Now that’s some engagement ring ladies!! The floor was covered in gleaming silver with the ornate stairs leading inside made from Italian marble, all this and then a group of monks walked by in their orange robes, making it a very special moment.

The timing of our trip could not have been any better as it was the last day of their three-day Water and Moon festival; a celebration of the beginning of the fishing season and end of the rainy season. From our vista at the roof top bar and pool area of the Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel, we could watch the boat races between each local village. Winning these races is believed to bring good fortune for the entire village. It also coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month which is a good omen for their harvests. There were thousands of people gathering all the way along the river with music, food, dancing and fireworks….it was such a memorable experience and great to be a part of.

Our next stop was Siem Reap. We were met by a new Insider Journeys guide who was a real character, mimicking the Aussie sayings with a few ‘dad’ jokes thrown in. Accommodation in Siem Reap was the stunning Shinta Mani Angkor Hotel, what a gorgeous contemporary boutique hotel designed by the famous architect Bill Bensley. The attention to detail is incredible!

My room was so spacious with a gorgeous balcony where I sat and enjoyed a morning coffee from the Nespresso machine. Our hosted pre-dinner drinks at the Bensley bar followed by dinner was superb. The hotel is in a great location, right near the night market where you can pick up some terrific little bargains. I purchased a ring the locals make from empty bullet cartridges – what a great re-cycling effort and of course income for them. Highly recommend ending your evening with a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor!

At the crack of dawn with, torch in hand, off we went to Angkor Wat – one of the world’s greatest temples. This was something I had always wanted to see, but little did I know what a spiritual and moving experience it would be. We began walking around and through these temples that were built by the Khmer Rouge from sandstone blocks which took around 30 years finish. It truly was awe inspiring and a memory I will have forever.

We then went onto the Ta Prohm ruins which was so very different. There are massive tree roots growing through and around the temples, it seriously gives you an idea into what life must have been like during the Khmer Rouge empire.

After a short flight back to Phnom Penh we took a three-hour drive to our final stop – Kep. From 1908 Kep-sur-Mur was a French seaside town on the southern coast where expatriates would retreat to. Once again, our timing was perfect as we arrived in time to settle into a comfy lounge chair by the bar and take in a magnificent sunset! The Knai Bang Chatt Hotel for our final two nights was a highlight! This property has an amazing story......as it started off with three villas that were rundown Khmer Rouge fishing homes.
They have been totally restored but kept in the traditional rustic style with recycled timber and stone. With only 18 rooms, set in beautiful gardens and overlooking the water it was so relaxing and a perfect way to end our Cambodian journey. The owner of the property, Jeff Moons, told us his story and vision for the property to make it not only sustainable but to help the local community. So, with fundraising from friends and colleagues, he set up the Hand in Hand Cambodia Project. This enables families in the neighbourhood have access to running water, health & education. Jeff took us on a back of house tour, we saw a purpose-built area to house his employees and train them in hospitality, laundry etc. Water tanks had to be built underneath the building as there was no fresh water, also, there is no grey water...all the water is recycled. The last part of the tour was the organic garden and bottle recycling area, Jeff has trained two employees to make drinking glasses out of those bottles for the bar and restaurant areas.

Our last destination was Kampot. It was hard to believe that in 1980 the Khmer Rouge and the government were at war! There are many buildings damaged and uninhabitable on the streets as we walked and took it all in. Then along the beach road there were huge villas that would have been so beautiful but sadly now empty and overrun with garden. We visited an organic peppercorn farm – Sothy’s in Kampot. The food throughout the two towns was absolutely beautiful and so tasty and fresh. Amok being one of their best and most popular curry dishes, the other being Beef Lah Lok. Of course, along the way I had to purchase the spices and recipes to test at home!

Cambodians are so incredibly friendly and always smiling. Given only 30 years ago Pol Pot wiped out 21% of the population they now look to the future and welcome tourists. Their gorgeous smiles and friendly ways was so refreshing, my time there will always be a special memory.