At its apogee in the 12th century, the Khmer Empire that gave birth to Cambodia stretched from modern-day Vietnam in the east to Myanmar in the northwest. In the region of Angkor alone (around the modern-day city of Siem Reap), modern digital analysis has recently revealed to us a city of up to a million inhabitants that would just fit within London’s M25 motorway.
Here and elsewhere the Empire’s kings and craftsmen built temple complexes that count among the most sophisticated and impressive in world history. The best known, Angkor Wat, attracts millions of visitors each year. Yet lying off the beaten track are a great number of temples that arguably rival Angkor Wat in atmosphere and significance. Many of these are on our itinerary.
The extraordinary Khmer civilisation broke up in later centuries, and power in Indochina shifted to Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia was a French protectorate from the mid-19th century until independence in 1953. Its late-20th-century history is one of tragedy and horror, from the covert bombing by the US during the Vietnam War to the emergence of the Khmer Rouge which, under its genocidal leader Pol Pot, was responsible for the deaths of at least two million people. Scarcely a single family was untouched by this nightmare. Yet the Cambodian people remain strikingly friendly and good-humoured.
The contrast between the enduring simplicity of life in the countryside and the mystery and grandeur of the ancient temples – many of them jungle-shrouded and little-visited – distils the distinct character of Cambodia. From the capital city Phnom Penh in the south to the remote northern border with Thailand we experience its many facets past and present, and explore three of southeast Asia’s most congenial cities. Phnom Penh has undergone a miraculous recovery from the Khmer Rouge era, when it was forcibly evacuated and left to ruin. Scars remain, but overall the city is booming, and despite rapid development much historic architecture remains. Siem Reap and Battambang meanwhile have completely resisted the blight of high-rise development and preserved their charm and vitality.
In Phnom Penh the National Museum houses an extraordinary collection of ancient Cambodian statuary. It has recently strengthened its floors to accommodate the sculptures recently returned from US museums which had been looted from the Koh Ker temple complex north of Angkor.
Phnom Penh. Rooms are available from 2.00pm on 13th March, allowing for early check-in today (flights from London are not included – see Practicalities). The tour begins with lunch in the hotel. A cyclo-tour in the afternoon familiarises us with the city and its architecture, a blend of Khmer and French colonial. First of two nights in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh. Located at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh has been the capital city since 1865. Explore the Royal Palace complex, including the Silver Pagoda: 19th-century, cast-iron with 5,329 silver floor tiles. The Khmer Rouge left a shadow over the city for may years; visit Tuol Sleng, a high school turned interrogation prison known as S-21 and now a genocide museum; and Choeung Ek, the harrowing memorial at the Killing Fields to the 17,000 people who died there under Pol Pot.
Phnom Penh, Siem Reap. The National Museum of Cambodia houses artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the present. It was looted when the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge but subsequently restored and re-filled – four galleries surround a peaceful courtyard. Fly to Siem Reap, where in the 16th century the Khmer empire returned to its former capital having defeated (‘reap) the Thais (‘Siam’). It is a busy tourist hub but retains its small-town charm. First of four nights in Siem Reap.
Roluos, Angkor Thom. The Roluos group consists of some of the earliest structures of the Angkor period (ninth century). Visit three of the brick-and-sandstone temples: Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko. In the afternoon enter the 12th-century walled city of Angkor Thom. The Bayon state temple features the supreme tantric Buddha’s face on 59 towers, and another massive pyramidal temple was erected to the glory of Shiva over several decades (Baphuon). The Terrace of the Elephants, with a staggering bas-relief frieze, supported the royal reception hall.
Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm. Dominated by its quincunx of corncob-shaped towers, Angkor Wat is exceptional for both its huge scale and astounding detail. Visit after the sunrise backpackers have left but before most other tourists arrive. Visits include Ta Prohm, once an administrative hub for a chain of hospitals (famous for the strangler figs that straddle the walls); Pre Rup, the archetypal ancient Khmer temple mountain (brick); and Neak Pean, unlike anything else at Angkor, a single tower rising from a reservoir.
Beng Mealea, Banteay Srei. Travel northeast of Angkor to the atmospheric jungle temple of Beng Mealea, made accessible by wooden walkways raised above the crumbling ruins, of grand and elegant architectural design. Loop west to Banteay Srei (‘citadel of women’), a small and exquisite pink sandstone temple covered in pristine carved reliefs. Return to Siem Reap late afternoon.
Siem Reap, Battambang. Free morning in Siem Reap; the Angkor National Museum is worth a visit. Then drive west to Battambang (c. 3 hours), a provincial town on the banks of the Stung Sangke river. Established in the 11th century, it was beloved by the French and has perhaps the finest pocket of colonial-era architecture in the country as well as a vibrant modern art scene. Visit the village of Wat Kor to see traditional wooden stilt houses. First of two nights in Battambang.
Battambang. The excellently restored museum houses the second-finest collection in the country. Optional visit to the 12th-century Prasat Banan Temple (358 steps) and wine tasting at the only vineyard in Cambodia. Otherwise, the afternoon is free in the small but bustling town centre, which has many contemporary art galleries, cafés and traditional shophouses. In the evening, visit Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts organisation that supports children and young people in local communities and is home to the Cambodian circus (performance subject to confirmation).
Banteay Chhmar, Preah Vihear. Drive north to Banteay Chhmar Temple (c. 3 hours), the last great ancient temple to be rescued from the obscurity of a tropical forest. The scale of its construction, the hydraulic engineering required to sustain it and its long gallery of exquisite relief carvings suggest that it was the twin hub of the empire. Continue the drive to Preah Vihear (c. 3 hours), through wonderful landscapes across the north of Cambodia. Overnight near Preah Vihear.
Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Siem Reap. Reached by jeep, Preah Vihear Temple is perched on a 500m promontory with panoramic views of Cambodia and Thailand (only 200m from the border and previously of disputed ownership). Drive south to Koh Ker, briefly capital of the Khmer empire 20 years after Angkor was founded, a vast site with many temples. The highlight is a stepped seven-tier pyramid, seemingly more Mayan than Angkorian. Two more nights in Siem Reap.
Siem Reap, Angkor Wat. Optional morning visit to see the floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake. Return to Angkor Wat to study in detail the sandstone carvings enclosing the central sanctuaries. See areas usually not open to the public: an expert from the Apsara Conservation Project explains their conservation work (subject to confirmation). Continue to Prasat Kravan, a brown-yellow sandstone temple built AD 921. The small and elegant Vishnu sanctuary has rare bas-relief brick carvings. Private farewell dinner here (subject to confirmation).
Siem Reap. The tour ends after breakfast. (Flights to London are not included, but we arrange an airport transfer for the recommended flight to London – see Practicalities).
Dr Peter Sharrock
Art historian and Senior Teaching Fellow at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He teaches the spread of Buddhist and Hindu art across medieval Maritime Asia. His interest in the cultures of Southeast Asia took root when he reported the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for Reuters.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £6,070. Single occupancy: £7,550.
International flights are not included.
Domestic flight (economy class) with Cambodia Angkor Air (A320); transport by private air-conditioned coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 5 lunches and 7 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Flights from London to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to London are not included in the price of the tour.
The recommended flights are as follows:
Outbound: Thai Airways TG911 departing London Heathrow 11.50 on 13th March, arriving Bangkok 06.15 on 14th March; TG2586 departing Bangkok 07.40, arriving Phnom Penh 08.50.
Inbound: Thai Airways TG2589 departing Siem Reap 09.15 on 25th March, arriving Bangkok 10.20; TG916 departing Bankok 13.20, arriving London Heathrow 19.35.
The cost of an economy seat at the time of tour launch is £575.
Additional nights and airport transfers
It is possible to arrange additional nights at the hotels before or after the tour.
The night of 13th March 2020 is included in the price of the tour to allow for early check-in on Day 1.
We provide airport transfers to meet the recommended return flights from London. For those not taking the recommended flights, airport transfers can be arranged for an additional cost.
Visas are required for most foreign nationals and are not included in the price. They can be issued on arrival at all international airports and international land borders; alternatively you can apply in advance for an e-visa (online). We will advise on the process.
Rosewood, Phnom Penh: stunning and extremely comfortable 5-star hotel occupying the top 14 floors of the Vattanac Capital Tower. Hotel Raffles Le Royal is currently undergoing extensive restoration – if this is finished before the tour, the Raffles is our first-choice hotel. La Residence d’Angkor, Siem Reap: 5-star boutique hotel with a tropical garden courtyard – all rooms are junior suites. Bambu Hotel, Battambang: relatively basic but charming 4-star spread across a colonial villa and 3 traditional wooden buildings. Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel:basic but comfortable and friendly, the only hotel in striking distance from the temple. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking on archaeological sites. Uneven ground, irregular paving, steps and hills are standard. An excellent level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are very sure-footed, this tour is not for you. Cambodia is hot and humid in March. There are some long coach journeys during which facilities are limited and may be of poor quality. Average distance by coach per day: 53 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.