Cambodia: On the Cusp of Change
Having lived in east and Southeast Asia for a number of years, exploring the region widely both for work and pleasure, I like to think I know Cambodia well, but when development is so rapid, remaining a specialist is quite a task. At Ampersand, we put a great deal of importance on such research trips in order for us to remain the leading specialists in what we do.
Cambodia, like many developing countries is in a state of rapid change; money is flowing into Cambodia and development is following. Tourism is playing a big part of this, with the creation of employment and money entering the economy via the large numbers of foreign tourists that visit each year. In 1995, when the Khmer Rouge was still very much at large albeit in rural hideouts, Cambodia received 219,680 foreign tourists, which generated 100 million dollars for the economy. When I first visited in 2004, Cambodia received 1,055,202 foreign tourists, putting 578 million dollars into the economy. The most recent figures show that 2018 saw 6,201,077 international visitors to the country, generating 4 billion, 375 million for the local economy (source: Ministry of Tourism, Cambodia). These figures are really quite something, indicating as they do, the recent boom in tourism to Cambodia.
The increase in tourist numbers inevitably drives hotel bed demand, and new hotels are springing up each year. As a company, we value characterful accommodation that will enhance a stay, rather than simply a place to crash, and to that extent, we have to choose carefully. But our job is made easier when there is so much great accommodation on offer. On my recent visit, I was able to experience some of the newest and most exciting hotels in Cambodia.
What must be the most talked about lodge in the entire Southeast Asian region is the brainchild of Bill Bensley, an eccentric American designer based out of Bangkok. Bensley, known for his wacky hotel interiors, won a bid for a sizeable piece of land in the Cardamom Mountains, in a corridor that connects the Bokor National Park and Kirirom National Park. Cambodia has suffered from massive deforestation and loss of wildlife throughout the Khmer Rouge days and subsequent difficult years that the country has had. Bensley’s pitch to the vendors was to protect this land from further habitat loss and regenerate the native flora and fauna, all funded by proceeds from a luxury tented camp – Bensley Collection, Shinta Mani Wild. When he won the bid, he teamed up with Wildlife Alliance, an NGO that has set up numerous projects in various countries, and already had a project in Cambodia – in 2002 they established the Southern Cardamom Forest Protection Program. Shinta Mani Wild now works in close partnership with Wildlife Alliance and guests have the option to be directly involved in their patrols.
The ‘camp’ is an ambitious luxury tented jungle resort of fifteen ‘tents’ each situated over the river that runs through the camp’s land. I had heard so much about the camp prior to my visit that the excitement of visiting was building up to my stay in their tents, and particularly on the long but scenic drive from Phnom Penh. I was not disappointed, in fact, I was totally blown away by what I found in the middle of the Cambodian jungle.
At the gate, you’re met by the team and then driven by vintage Jeep into the compound. You’ll then be driven to a tower, where after climbing several flights of stairs, you’re strapped into a zip-wire harness, and zoom over the tops of the tallest trees, over the river, and into the Landing Zone Bar, the most thrilling entry to any accommodation you will ever have! This sets the pace of your stay and gives you a taste of the adventure that is to come... A tequila-based cocktail awaits to help you relax and take in the surrounds, the huge waterfall gushing through the lush jungle, over giant boulders and into a natural blue pool of water (where you will probably have a refreshing wild-swim later on!). In the background 1960s Cambodian surf-rock plays gently, the master mixologist at work with foraged ingredients behind a bar adorned with all kinds of interesting artifacts, from a Welsh carousal horse to a sculpture of a man with mushrooms, such is the randomness and quirkiness of the décor. You haven’t seen your tent yet - but to call them tents is to stretch the imagination, what they are truthfully is canvas covered villas, with every possibly luxury one could ever wish for in the middle of the jungle.
So you trek along the windy pathway through the steamy jungle to your tent, where you’ll discover a huge, very private, terrace with bathtub, full bar, dining area, and inside the large wood and canvas structure, every luxury will be found. But at the same time it will make you feel like an explorer back in the 1920s, if you ignore the Wi-fi, that is. Vintage books, many of which appear to be bought from Merthyr Tydfil library, sit on the shelves and could teach you every practical skill you could wish to learn.
The restaurant with its talented chefs serves up imaginative and infinitely delicious Khmer and fusion cuisine, and they make use of the natural environment by including foraged ingredients in many of the dishes. The team of staff and butlers go out of their way to make your stay as fascinating and exciting as possible, and this is also through a number of innovative excursions that you will not find elsewhere.
Take the option to go out on a Wildlife Alliance patrol: I went off with the officers on the back of one of their motorbikes, then on foot into the jungle looking for traps that had been set. We found one or two, before we came to a clearing in the jungle with nothing but a motorbike, a pile of empty drinks cans and a half-smoked pack of cigarettes. From the distance came the sound of saw-teeth grinding into a tree. Our lead officer with an automatic gun slung on his back for protection, signalled for us to be silent, trekked off to find the loggers. It turned out in this case, they were not doing anything illegal so were allowed to continue, but it was a tense moment. The regular patrols are undoubtedly doing a great deal to save and regenerate the rainforest.
Later my travel companions and I took a river cruise on the amazingly unconventionally designed Shinta Mani Wild boat, with drinks flowing, kayaking, birdwatching and wild-swimming to keep us occupied. As my trip was a flying visit, I only got to experience a small snapshot of the excursions possible, but the possibilities there seem endless. From my short visit, I know that Shinta Mani Wild is one of the most special places in the whole of Southeast Asia, so much so, I am confident it will become legendary and a talking point for years to come. Those who have stayed there will know what I mean.
Cambodia is not known for its beaches, often losing out to neighbouring Thailand, which has some of the most beautiful coastline in Southeast Asia. This has meant for many, after spending time at the temples of Angkor or in the bustle of Phnom Penh, hopping over the border for some Thai beach time.
These days, that is simply unnecessary as Cambodia has some new, stunning coastal hotels that should encourage visitors to keep their money in the country longer, good news of course, for the Cambodian economy. I stayed at two of these new resorts. The first place I visited was Alilia Villas, located on a peninsula of the small island of Koh Russey, shared with only one other small resort far away on the other side of the island, making it feel nicely private and secluded. The beautiful beach is long and sandy, the resort low-rise and stylish, the atmosphere one of calm and serenity. On the beach you can lie in a hammock listening to the soft sounds of the waves, or help yourself to a SUP, kayak, some snorkelling gear or a catamaran, if sailing is your thing. Try the spa, eat in one of their restaurants, enjoy the view from your room, or pool villa. After a busy travel itinerary around Cambodia, this is the perfect place to spend a few days.
From Koh Russey, I went on to another island, this one so tiny it doesn’t appear on Google Earth! Going by the name of Koh Krabey, Six Senses occupies the whole island, making it private. They have built villas all around the island, meaning that each look out to the ocean. I kayaked much of the island’s perimeter, so trust me on that one! Right from arrival, the sense of tranquility was all around, and clearly the emphasis is on the resort’s spa, and for those that want to take this a bit more seriously, they offer detox programs. Expect usual Six Senses service here: discreet and excellent. The villas themselves are spacious, and blend in with their environment, lots of natural materials, all adding to the peaceful atmosphere. I loved the attention to detail. Six Senses would be a welcome retreat for anyone after the fascinating but undeniably busy towns and cities of Cambodia. And, it is perfect for those looking to have somewhere very private to stay, each villa offering a high level of privacy. On top of this, if a spa and/or detox programme is desired, Six Senses Krabey Island is the perfect place. After all that Angkor Beer, this may be just what your body needs.
I combined Shinta Mani Wild with a stay on these islands, and would highly recommend you do too. It’s a fascinating and scenic drive through central Cambodia, and after a stay in the jungle, hitting the open ocean for a few days, complements Shinta Mani Wild perfectly.
Cambodia’s busy capital, Phnom Penh is developing quickly. I’ve been there many times since my first visit 15 years ago and each time I return, the skyline has evolved. Thankfully the characterful Sisowath Quay riverfront area remains largely unchanged, but behind this, the skyline gets higher each year. Presently, the tallest tower award goes to the Vattanac Capital Tower, at 187.3m, and the hotel, Rosewood occupies the top floors. In another city, 187.3m would not be remarkable but for a city that is still largely very low-rise, this is ground-breaking! It is about to be beaten by another soon-to-be-completed tower, such appears to be the thirst for building up.
The Rosewood, a stunning hotel with beautiful rooms and every luxury one could require, frankly, is not going to appeal to everyone. It is very much a sleek, modern city hotel, which in terms of character, cannot compete with Raffles Le Royal, the French colonial era hotel across the road. But one thing cannot be denied, the views are totally, totally mind-blowing, and in such a largely flat, low-rise city, they go on for miles. So, if you prefer the modernity of Rosewood, over the historical Raffles do stay here, but otherwise, go there for a drink – they have a rooftop cocktail bar with the most stunning views in every direction.
The Kingdom of Cambodia is very much on the cusp of change and development. If you have not yet been, now is the time to go. Give us a call, drop us an email: the team and I would be pleased to discuss how you can visit these places and more.
For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to Cambodia, please get in touch with us:
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