An Aesthetic And Spiritual Sweet Spot


As in many warm-weather destinations, November through April is prime travel season in Cambodia. Not because those months are warm — Cambodia is always warm — but because the Southeast Asian country is driest during the winter respite from monsoons.

In travel terms, however, Cambodia is sizzling hot. I put the country on this year’s must-see list primarily due to a newly designated UNESCO World Heritage Site — the archaeological temple complex at Sambor Prei Kuk — but as growing visitor numbers attest, Cambodia is in that tourism sweet spot.

It’s global enough for foreigners to easily navigate: U.S. dollars are widely accepted and English is common in tourist centers. A beguiling rusticity still permeates the jungle-like landscapes, ramshackle fishing enclaves and open-air markets, but the cities — and the well-trodden hot spots — are cosmopolitan enough that you can unwind in wine bars and sleep in boutique-chic hotels, if that’s your speed.

You can even mingle over Shabbat dinner at the eight-story Chabad center in Phnom Penh, where more than a hundred area Jews now gather for holidays and support Cambodia’s first Jewish preschool.

Cambodia is a favorite of the Israeli backpacking set, despite the country’s near-total lack of Jewish presence before about 10 years ago — or perhaps because of it. Jewish travelers frequently tell me that in contrast to Europe, where a complex, fraught Jewish heritage is ever-present, Asian destinations are refreshing for their absence of historical anti-Semitism.

Religion, however, is central to Cambodian tourism. The country’s premier attraction, Angkor Wat, is a self-contained world of spires and altars dating to the 12th-century Khmer Empire, when Hinduism was dominant. It is the largest such site in the world; the sheer vastness of this monument to deity is breathtaking.

Sambor Prei Kuk, which recently joined Angkor Wat on the UNESCO list, gives visitors the opportunity to contemplate these ancient places of worship without (for now) the crowds. Mossy and mystical, Sambor Prei Kuk predates its better-known counterpart by several centuries; to reach the spot, you travel through miles of subtropical jungle, passing the odd village along the way.

Eventually you come to a clearing, where daylight breaks through the forest canopy to illuminates a series of vaguely pyramidal, picturesquely crumbling temples from the late first millennium. Like Angkor Wat, this site was built by an early Hindu culture, highlighting the complex roots of what is today a predominantly Buddhist society.

For travelers more accustomed to Europe, Cambodian temples offer an intriguing perspective — aesthetic as well as spiritual — on religious architecture.

How many important churches and synagogues are in the middle of the woods? Whether in Italy, Peru or New England, the former are nearly always the focal point of a plaza or town green; the latter, of course, are within shouting distance of a community.

Also, non-Western aesthetic treasures are often difficult to appreciate outside of their natural environments — whether those milieus are physical, ceremonial, societal or all of the above. A Monet painting loses nothing when hung on a wall, because it was meant to be hung on a wall, but three-dimensional dragons, Buddhas and elaborate temple friezes are vastly more compelling in context.

Fortunately, while future crowds are probably inevitable, the UNESCO designation has already yielded greater options for Sambor Prei Kuk visitors, from tours and transport to a richer Cambodia itinerary.

The site is located in largely rural Kampong Thom province, which lies between Angor Wat to the north and the capital to the south. Lodging options abound in the pleasant towns east of Tonlé Sap, the central lake that defines Cambodian geography. Most travelers will also spend time in Siem Reap, the colonial-era town whose proximity to Angkor Wat, glittering nightlife and expat community make it a popular tourist destination.

Increasingly, Cambodia visitors are combining this cultural itinerary — theoretically a weekend’s drive — with a sojourn on the country’s Gulf of Thailand beaches.

There are more flights than ever into Sihanoukville, the rather tacky, overdeveloped hub of the Cambodian coast. Unappealing as the city may be, its position — at the tip of a central peninsula — is convenient to a string of lovely beaches, along with several islands offshore.

The resorts of neighboring Thailand are still far more popular; for now, the low-slung villages along Cambodia’s turquoise shoreline remain, like the rest of the country, a relative bargain. But with fresh fish, tropical fruits and cheap beer aplenty, it’s unlikely to remain a secret for long