The national museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh

The national museum of Cambodia houses one of world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including and not limited to the period of the Khmer Empire, which at its height stretched from Thailand to southern Vietnam. Abandoned during the Khmer Rouge regime and with most of its staff murdered, the museum reopened quickly at its fall and is paramount to promote Cambodian identity and pride.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of a few must-see and pointers that will also help you understand the history of Cambodia and decrypt its art better especially if you are planning on visiting some temples such as Angkor Wat. Keep travelling!

An adventure to Cambodia’s most secret & remote temple: Preah Khan

Preah Khan may very well be Cambodia’s most atmospheric temple, hidden in the thick jungle of the Preah Vihear province. Royal palace and worship place dating back to the 9th century, it recalls the Bayon and Ta Prohm temples in Angkor. If one makes the effort to reach it, one will be rewarded by majestic ruins with hardly any other visitors, far from the crowds of Siem Reap.

Keep travelling!

Conquering Preah Vihear, Cambodia’s pride

“You are going to Preah Vihear?!” All by yourselves? The temple bordering neighbouring Thailand, all the way up in the Dângrêk Mountains?? Wow!… Do you know the road?” With a grin on our faces and small backpacks ready, we nod in reply to the young friendly Cambodian lady who looks slightly concerned on the small parking lot of our hotel in Siem Reap. She takes another look at us and studies the 120cc scooter we have just rented. With a frown she adds: “Whatever you do once you arrive at its foot, do not drive your scooter up there by yourselves; it is way too steep there!! Be safe and enjoy!”
Indeed, exploring Preah Vihear is a true challenge: it is remote, not connected to any form of efficient public transport, it is hardly visited by tourists nor locals. Due to military tensions between the Cambodian and Thai armies in 2008 who both claimed its grounds, people are still cautious as whether or not to roam these splendid temple grounds. Still, Preah Vihear is settled in the most dramatic setting of all temples built by the powerful Khmers, on top of a majestic cliff dominating the plains of Northern Cambodia by more than 500 metres. All the more reasons for us to explore the ancient stairways, courtyards and sanctuaries organised along an 800-metre long axis defining the off the beaten path temple complex. Keep traveling!

Cambodia’s floating villages

The narrow straight road reminds me of one of the Dutch roads being laid out on a narrow dyke not far from where I was born. It prevents the water from flowing from one field to the next. Just the hordes of cyclists are missing. Around me, the landscape is as flat as the one I grew up in, and a smile appears on my face when I observe a familiar bird, the Common Snipe (gallinago gallinago) wading through the muddy shallows of water parallel to the road, searching for food. This bird used to be printed on the former Dutch notes of 100 Guilders, a wader I haven’t seen in a while. It is not the only one searching for food. Bare chested, tanned fishermen make their way through the murky waters, ready to throw their nets while a kingfisher strikes from the air. The road is rebuilt every year when the water of the massive Tonlé Sap Lake resides several kilometres in the dry season. It ends in a dusty parking lot bordering the stream that is connected to the lake. We are about ten thousand kilometres away from the Netherlands when the captain of a characteristic wooden boat welcomes us on board to explore his floating village, Kampong Phluk, in the heart of Cambodia. Keep traveling

Reviving Cambodia’s pride: Khmer golden silk

Born and raised in Paris, I am familiar with the haute couture stores of Avenue Montaigne or Rue Saint Honoré where the highest end luxury shops in the world can be found. The finest silk pieces I have ever seen are sliding through my fingers and I feel their soft and delicate textures. The shiny fabrics reflect the light delicately. The relief of the silk gives it an unexpected depth. However, I am not in the upscale heart of Paris, I am in rural Cambodia a stone’s throw from the temples of Angkor where this rare Khmer silk was made just for the king: “It took more than 10 years of research, and trial and error to revive the century-old forgotten techniques of silk weaving of the Khmers!” says Sophea Peach, the founder of Golden Silk, and it all started with the devata‘s sculpture of Angkor… Let me show you…” Keep travelling

Angkor off the beaten path & on the single track!

The majestic temples of Angkor are victim of their own success: with 4 million visitors a year mostly during the dry season focusing mainly on three temples, the atmosphere can be lost. Still, it is possible to experience the Angkor temple complex off the beaten path for a fantastic and authentic discovery, unravelling the splendour of the great Khmer civilisation.

I skilfully steer my mountain bike along a few pointy rocks on a narrow single track through the jungle of Cambodia. In front of me appears a desolated ruin, half swallowed by tree roots of strangler fig trees. Birds sing, butterflies flutter around reflecting the strong sun rays peeping through the dense vegetation on their brightly-coloured wings, and a cat yawns while stretching its front paws on the step of the almost-millennium old Khmer temple of Preah Khan in the temple complex of Angkor.

Keep travelling!

Phare the Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A mind blowing blend of drama, dance, modern circus techniques and real-time painting on live music tells the true story of how art could empower a generation marked by the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide.

Sokha, an elderly bent woman slowly walks towards me. Her legs are shaky, her pace slow. Once close, she carefully sits down, opens a thick book and cautiously blows the dust from the pages that have not been opened for a long time. Our eyes meet. Keep reading

From refugee kid to Cirque du Soleil star

Battambang was a flourishing city before the horrific Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, dramatically jeopardized the lives of its inhabitants. Many of them ended up slaughtered in the killing fields or neighbouring killing caves for no reason, whilst others were luckier and made it to close-by Thailand. Most of them spent years in refugee camps under harsh conditions. Kids grew up traumatised with hardly any access to proper education. In 1986, Véronique Decrop, a French art teacher, volunteered at the Site Two Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. She used drawings as a therapy to help traumatised children express themselves. That was the spark to what will become Phare Ponleu Selpak (Cambodian for the brightness of the arts), a non-profit organization improving the lives of Cambodians through arts and education, its highlight being one of the best circus schools in the world. Keep reading

Kick start Muay Thai

He comes back from his 40-minute run in 33 degrees Celcius. He is given a rope and starts rope skipping for a full 10 minutes in a row, focussed and with a straight face. The veins on his temples start showing and when he is done he gets rid of the jacket that must feel extremely suffocating. Pearls of sweat start dripping from his muscled body which he shyly reveals in the burning sun. Without hesitation he starts doing his push-ups. He is breathing heavily when he sits down to tightly wrap some cotton bandages between his fingers and around his hand. He knows the drill. He puts in his mouth guard, slips his hands into some gloves and enters the boxing ring where his trainer is awaiting him. He is ready to start the training from a former Muay Lao champion and also olympic boxing champion, Khampanath Kounlavong, in the backstreets of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Keep reading

An off-track motorbiking adventure to Beng Mealea, Cambodia

I decide to stop my motorbike in front of the narrow improvised bridge. I feel relieved and worried at the same time. Relieved, as the previous river crossing did not offer the luxury of a bridge. I had to launch my semi-automatic 125 cc Honda Dream motorbike into the murky stream and use all of my skills to extract it from the water in which it was immerged wheel-deep. Worried, as this wooden bridge is no more than 50-centimetre wide, with no rails to prevent a potential fall into the water, and for good measure a missing plank in the centre leaving a gap just the right size to sink the front wheel in.

I am looking at my partner with envy as she has already crossed. When she turns her head, I capture her smile and instantly come up with a genius plan Keep reading

Traditional crafts of Cambodia (5/7): fish paste, Battambang

“Smell like the hell, eat like the heaven”, Mr. Ola tells us with a mesmerizing smile while explaining his mother’s signature recipe for the traditional prahok, a Cambodian fish paste dish. I uncomfortably move from one leg to the other trying to carefully listen to his story but holding my breath at the same time, avoiding the offending foul smell. We are about to discover how the unmissable and key ingredient for many Asian dishes is made on the fish paste market of Battambang, Cambodia. Keep reading

Traditional crafts of Cambodia (3/7): Rice noodles, Battambang

Rice noodles are a favourite in many Asian countries. A pho for breakfast or rice noodles as a base for lunch or dinner are common. To serve this high demand, most noodles are produced in factories. However, it is still possible to buy them fresh and hand-made. In Battambang, a few families living in the rice noodle district have been passing on this know-how for many generations.

Keep reading

The killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The traffic is hectic. I am manoeuvring our 125cc scooter to avoid pedestrians randomly crossing the street, scooters coming from all sides, including in front of me and against traffic, and tuk-tuk drivers slaloming between trucks, buses and cars. Driving in these conditions requires an intense focus. Still, my mind is lingering at S-21 we have just left. The depiction of the atrocities committed in this prison under the Khmer Rouge regime has left such a deep impression that we can hardly utter a word to each other. As we are heading South, the traffic gets slightly lighter, and potholes get me out of my thoughts. These victims who survived the tortures of S-21 may have felt the same potholes while being driven to the village of Chhoeung Ek, about half an hour away from Phnom Penh, today known as the killing fields. Keep reading

Cambodia’s most horrific history class: The S-21 prison in Phnom Penh

It is a group of rather ugly three-story buildings with the typical architecture from the 1960’s surrounding a central yard. Chao Ponhea Yat high school was built in 1962 in the south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But on April 17th, 1975, when he marched on Phnom Penh with his Khmer Rouge troops, Pol Pot turned this high school into the S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, the biggest in Kampuchea Democratic where about 20 000 people were jailed and tortured before being exterminated in the nearby killing fields. Keep reading

Horseback swimming Otres Beach, Cambodia

Sihanoukville is the hub to reach tropical Cambodian islands such as Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, famous for their warm waters and laid-back atmosphere. Sihanoukville itself lacks charm, but a few kilometres south of the centre, the beautiful beach of Otres makes up for it, and is easily accessible by tuk-tuk. Being quite touristy, horseback riding it is an off the beaten path way of exploring the countryside and the beach, leaving the crowds behind. Keep reading