From Buddhist temples to mine-clearing rats and a range of arts, Cambodia and Laos have plenty to keep adventurous travellers busy
Most visitors to Cambodia head for the temple complex at Angkor Wat in the north-west, staying in Siem Reap, the modern city that has grown up nearby. The first thing that struck me about Siem Reap was how there are virtually no traffic lights and yet the traffic flows smoothly in all directions.
I stayed at Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor, set among lush tropical gardens with a saltwater swimming pool at its centre. Belmond has teamed up with Cox & Kings to create a tour of Cambodia and Laos which focuses on arts and crafts.
Following breakfast on day one of my visit, I rode pillion on a Vespa scooter for a tour into the countryside. Our first stop, however, was inside the city, at the Apopo information centre. Apopo Mine Action Cambodia is an NGO which engages in mine clearance. Between 1975 and 1988, millions of mines were planted on both sides of the borders with Vietnam and Thailand, where they have claimed the lives of cattle and water buffalo as well as human victims.
It was sobering to be told that Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. Apopo uses trained ‘hero rats’ as mine detectors – African giant pouched rats that can smell explosives from around a metre away. These rats come from Angola and Mozambique and each one costs €6,000.
Only 29 of them have been trained for this task, and they work three hours a day, for five years, before they are retired. We stopped at a temple, where a Buddhist monk performed a blessing for us, then returned to the hotel for a honey-themed tasting menu lunch prepared with honey from the hotel’s own hives. In the afternoon I enjoyed the hotel spa’s signature Khmer Herbal Massage, in which hot muslin parcels of herbs and spices are applied to different parts of the body.
That evening we were taken on the ‘Mystery Dine Around’ adventure.
After a cocktail in the hotel’s martini bar, we travelled by private tuk-tuk to one restaurant for our starter, another for our main course and dessert, and finally a cocktail bar. The next day we rose at 4.45am and were driven to the Angkor Archaeological Park tourist pass centre, where hundreds of bleary-eyed tourists were already queuing to buy their passes for the three-temple complex.
Our guide took us to the eastern entrance, so that we approached Angkor Wat from behind. By the time the sun rose, the area in front of the temple was thronged with vast crowds waiting to take photos and selfies. Despite the beauty of the sunrise, I found it a strangely dispiriting experience.
The other two temples of Angkor Thom were more enchanting, but still the swarm of Japanese and Chinese tourists with their selfie sticks was hardly conducive to an appreciation of this extraordinary Khmer civilisation.
In search of peace
I don’t blame Belmond for including Angkor Wat in its programme. I suppose everyone who comes to Siem Reap feels obliged to tick off this site of interest. But it left me yearning for something more authentic and less frantic.
My wish was answered that evening, when we embarked in the sidecars of classic motorbikes to a nearby working lotus farm, where we were shown how the fibre of the lotus plant is harvested and spun into a lightweight fabric that is valued for its softness and breathability.
Around 30kg of stems are needed to produce 250m of thread, which is a day’s work for a spinner. An alfresco dinner was served overlooking the paddies where the lotus flowers are cultivated.
The next day was all about unearthing local art. Our first stop was a new gallery, Batia Sarem, which was displaying art works by two Cambodian contemporary artists: Yim Maline’s colour drawings of circles of flowers and Svay Sareth’s giant flowers made from stuffed colour fabrics.
Sareth’s work also included Cambodian goddess heads, a seated woman made from stuffed camouflage fabric (symbolising his refugee mother and her urge to survive), and a video of him eating plastic sandals of the sort dispensed in refugee camps. We moved on to Theam’s House, an atelier and gallery where they make everything from decorative sculpture and furniture to small items of homeware using traditional methods and materials.
Finally, we were taken to the Suralaya Residence, the home and studio of Christian Develter, a Belgian artist and designer whose paintings hang in the Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor’s martini bar. As well as his Pop Art-style portraits of Western cultural icons, I particularly liked his Chin Series, portraits of tattooed women of the Chin tribe in Myanmar.
On to Laos
A one-and-a-half-hour flight took us to Luang Prabang, ancient capital of the Lan Xang kingdom in Laos and a Unesco World Heritage site. Certainly Luang Prabang is a more peaceful and cleaner city than Siem Reap. We stayed at the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao, which is located on a hill and looks towards Mount Phousi and the mountains of central Laos and yet is mere five minutes by tuk-tuk from the city centre.
Designed with traditional Lao materials, its 34 suites are surrounded by exquisite gardens. The next day we took a journey along the Mekong river in the hotel’s traditional narrow boat, disembarked, and walked through a typical Laotian village to the rendezvous for our ride to the Kuang Si waterfalls, a series of precipitous cascades into pools that are perfect for wild swimming or paddling.
We took along our swimwear and enjoyed a refreshing dip. Even the Buddhist monks among the tourists were keen to take selfies with the falls as a backdrop. In the market at the entrance I bought some edible crickets, which we sampled over cocktails that evening. Although I found them palatable and while they are certainly nutritious, I would not recommend them as a delicacy.
In the afternoon we were given a private viewing of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Collection by manager Khamchanh Souvannalith, who explained how their precious objects, such as a Lanten celestial crown, antique Hmong textiles and fragile paper masks are preserved and displayed.
Within the grounds of the hotel is a rice field which is looked after by farmers and their water buffalo. Dressed in blue two-piece farmers’ suits, conical paddy hats and gum boots, we were taught how to replant rice plants in the sucking mud and to de-husk rice using a traditional foot-operated rice mill. This was followed by a breakfast to celebrate our rather unimpressive efforts.
Later we visited Ock Pop Tok (meaning East meets West), a local collective of traditional weavers, for a textile dyeing class and lunch in their treehouse. Founded in 2000 by Englishwoman Joanna Smith and Laotian Veo Douangdala, OPT is a sustainable, fair-trade business.
An afternoon massage using Laotian therapeutic techniques and local botanicals in the hotel’s Mekong spa was followed by a 500-candle dinner in the hotel’s gardens, rounding off a packed visit.
While I lingered in bed, my hearty companions rose at first light the following morning to attend the daily alms-giving ceremony known as Tak Bat (5.30am in the summer, 6.30 in the winter), in which Buddhist monks in their orange robes proceed through the city, receiving rice and other foodstuffs in their bowls from kneeling Laotians.
Some claim that this ritual, which goes back to the 14th century, has been corrupted by the vulgarity of modern tourism – a good reason for me to sleep through to breakfast before our flight to Singapore and points west.