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Monday, 27 May 2013 23:41

Beyond Angkor, Highlights of the Undiscovered Cambodia

Written by  Sierra Gladfelter

With neighbors overdeveloped or flattened by Communism, Cambodia remains the hidden gem of Southeast Asia. Though most visitors stick to narrow itineraries between the pulsing capital of Phnom Penh and the ruined temples of Angkor, much of Cambodia’s treasure is tucked off the beaten track. The experiences below highlight the diversity and unique flavor Cambodia offers its guests.

On the Wild Side of the Cardamoms
For those allured by jungle, the fabled Cardamom Mountains remain the largest wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia - home to 60 critically threatened species. Tucked within this forest is the ecotourism village of Chi Phat, offering visitors the chance to learn more about the rainforest ecosystem while providing alternative livelihoods for residents who would otherwise be illegal loggers and wildlife traffickers. Ex-poachers act as guides, and the community has a two-inch binder of adventures, including trekking and mountain bike tours ranging from one to seven-days.
During our stay, my boyfriend and I cycle a 30-mile loop through the Cardamoms and picnic at a waterfall. Soon after we leave the stilted homes of Chi Phat, the trail ducks into a dim tunnel. Butterflies descend on us like confetti, and we hear the haunting calls of gibbons chanting across the canopy. Reasonably priced, our trip costs $35 per person, which includes high-quality mountain bikes, guide, and packed lunches. Even more impressive: 80% of the fee goes directly to the guides and village families.

Sanctuary on the Southern Coast
After a couple days of roughing it, we head to Koh Kong’s archipelago of islands where pristine beaches buffered by mangroves offer shelter from the chaos of life at home. The interior of the 260-sq-km Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary can be penetrated on an intimate boat tour arranged by Blue Moon Guesthouse This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Calmly plying through the straight, we spot a pod of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Our boat docks briefly at a stilted fishing village, and we wander the ‘sidewalk’ between homes - a patchwork of boards with water flashing beneath. When we reach our island, the boat anchors offshore, and we swim to land to wander the abandoned beaches and eat fish grilled over coconut shells.
Covered in salt and sand, we catch the boat to 4 Rivers Floating Lodge ( tucked up the Tatai River a 30-minute ride from Koh Kong. The exquisite 4 Rivers is a one-of-a-kind, floating resort of twelve, 45-sq-meter luxury tents tethered to the riverbank. A fisherman employed by the resort ferries us upstream where we dine among fireflies on a five-course dinner and fall to sleep lulled by the river’s current. The next morning we schedule a guided walk around the island just a stone’s throw away and learn about 4 Rivers’ sustainable relationship with its community.

Explore the Home of Gods in the Temples of Angkor
A trip to Cambodia is not complete without the iconic Angkor temple complex - an archaeological wonder-of-the-world on the same level as the pyramids. Angkor’s 1,000 plus temples were built between the 9th and 15th centuries by kings outdoing each other and the expectations of their gods. The structures are scattered throughout a 150-sq-mile park, many swallowed by the encroaching jungle, with muscular roots oozing through crevices in the stones. Visitors explore the sacred chambers without barriers, ducking through passageways where intricately carved blocks have fallen into mountains of rubble. The narrow roads cutting between rice paddies make for a pleasant bike ride or a tuktuk can be hired for $20 per day.
Hotel Shinta Mani allows guests to stay in a palace without the guilt of extravagance. Architect Bill Bensley spent months sketching the temples so each room reflects a unique corner of Angkor. With a business mantra of ‘open doors, open hearts,’ Shinta Mani runs an in-house tourism training school for underprivileged students from nearby villages. While your dollars do good work, spend your days in Angkor like royalty with a dip in the infinity pool or a drink on one of the luxurious, outdoor swings.

Biking the Banks of the Mekong
As much as Angkor’s temples, Cambodia owes its identity to the Mekong River. Travel upstream to the fishing hub of Kratie, a quaint village with a lingering air of French colonialism. Relax on the banks or begin a bike journey of a few (or a few hundred) miles along the Mekong Discovery Trail.
A guided map available from CRDTours This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. highlights the route and sites. With ferries every few miles, it is possible to hop from bank-to-bank, crossing the Mekong with local fishermen and cycling paths through villages that rarely see visitors. Linger as long as you like in the brightly painted wats (Theravada Buddhist temples), villages specializing in local cuisines, and must-sees like the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.
CRDTours arranges home-stays on Koh Phdao Island in the Mekong. At dawn we took our family’s fishing boat out in search of the elusive Irrawady River dolphin. Though only 70 exist on the Mekong, 25 live in the currents just off this island. We found ourselves surrounded by the animals, captured by the sound of their breathing, which broke the silence even before their bodies.

Where the Hills Meet and Elephants Roam
Finish a Cambodian circuit with one last safari in the hills of Mondulkiri. Spend two days at the Elephant Valley Project This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., an initiative to rescue overworked animals from mahouts who can no longer provide for the elephants. Turned loose on reforested jungle, they are allowed to romp free in an ‘elephant retirement home.’ Visitors stay in bungalows out in the preserve and ‘walk with the herd’ while observing elephants in their natural habitat. Expert guides teach guests about elephant behavior, and the significance of the species to indigenous Bunong people who have respected elephants in their religious ceremonies for centuries.
Though Cambodia faces many challenges, it is a nation that has managed to grow without spoiling its communities and environment - the core of what makes it an attractive destination. Tour operators and visitors can support ecotourism initiatives like Chi Phat and choose hotels that support the next generation of Cambodians. The beauty of Cambodia is that even as visitors rise as the nation is ‘discovered,’ so long as travelers seek destinations that are built sensitively, Cambodia’s treasures will remain for everyone.
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