We’re seeking shade under a tree at the largest religious temple in the world. Built around 1113-1150, now more than 900 years old, its scale spans nearly 200ha, the size of four football fields. I’m marvelling at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but gradually becoming a Buddhist temple from the late 13th century, Angkor Wat is the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia. Somehow, our guide Nhean Samban (Sam), one of the guides for luxury tour operators Abercrombie & Kent, manages to find secluded locations and curious nooks in which to share his knowledge about the temple which, with 10,000 visitors a day, is not always easy.
We see the temple pools where, as a boy, Sam and his friends would plunge into the waters after they were filled by the rains. Sam points out the Apsara (beautiful ladies) engraved on the walls as we arrive via the eastern entrance. “It’s the better entrance in the morning because you have the sun behind you,” explains Sam. He leads us to one of the few remaining Buddha statues (most of the 1,000 Buddhas once found here have been removed). We see Japanese graffiti dating back to 1632, and the world’s longest bas-relief, the Churning Sea of Milk.
After our temple expedition, we drink coconut juice direct from the coconut while Sam explains he has been through Angkor Wat about 5,000 times. “But I’m still finding new things,” he beams with the enthusiasm of an explorer. With the help of Abercrombie & Kent’s philanthropic program, Sam set up the Sam’s Brothers Clean Water Project in 2005. So far it has sponsored more than 300 wells, bringing clean water to local communities, more than 6,000 people.
Tan Chau Markets | Katrina Holden
“Would you like to be blessed by a monk?” Sam asks as we’re driving towards our next temple. Sure, why not? Who couldn’t do with more divinity and good karma in their life? Sam makes the arrangements and, within minutes, we are led to the pagoda where a Buddhist monk, the picture of health, serenity and peace in a brilliant-orange robe, presents us with a corded bracelet in the hue of our choosing as he blesses us with safety during our travels, happiness and longevity.
Back at our hotel, the luxurious Park Hyatt Siem Reap, we rest and refresh in the pink-themed Living Room bar, beautifully decorated, like the rest of the hotel, by renowned architect and interior designer Bill Bensley in an “art deco meets Khmer” style.
Approximately 4.8 million tourists visited Cambodia in 2014. After the bloody and devastating wars (invasion by Vietnam followed by civil war) that finally ended in 1998, it’s astounding to see the resilience and resourcefulness of the Cambodian people. While the journey with Abercrombie & Kent sees you sleep and travel in luxury, there’s every opportunity to learn first-hand about Cambodian history, people and culture, and all requests to go off the beaten track are seemingly possible.
One morning, we visit the Artisans of Angkor where 100 local student craftspeople, typically aged 18-25, continue traditional arts of lacquering, wood and stone carving, weaving, gilding and silk painting – ensuring these crafts continue to thrive. Many students go on to open their own shops. On the way to a traditional Khmer cuisine cooking class in a private home on the banks of the river, especially set up for our group, our guide Sam stops at Sam Orn Silver Handicraft. Silver is a traditional craft and the quality of the work here is impressive – everything from Buddha figurines and cuffs to salad servers, bowls and even pineapples. All the items are priced according to their silver weight.
The Abercrombie & Kent philosophy is to employ the best local guides in their worldwide destinations. In the capital Phnom Penh, a couple of us opt to visit the former Tuol Sleng S21 prison, now a Genocide Museum where our guide Sok Channak, was unbelievably gracious and giving throughout the tour, despite his own terrible memories of the Khmer Rouge regime. At the age of six, Channak was removed from his home and forced to work in a labour camp in the country for two years. His father, a civil engineer, lied about his own education, destroying his university papers, so he miraculously escaped death. Two million of his countrymen and women were not so fortunate. Between 1975 and 1979 at Tuol Seng, some 17,000 prisoners were tortured and killed. Only seven survived. One of them, Chum Mey, visits most days with his book to ensure the world remembers what happened during those bloody years when there were 167 prisons in operation across the country; at least 343 killing fields, and 19,440 mass graves. Chum Mey smiles at us and sits peacefully in the courtyard, a symbol of the optimism and resilience of the Cambodian people and the determination of his and younger generations to embrace the now.
Sok Channak admits he used to have nightmares for the first 10 years after he began taking groups through the prison, but says he’s found some healing through the process. His own children are interested in travelling. “My daughter wants to study in Australia,” he says. “She likes kangaroos! I say to her ‘you work hard and it’s possible’.”
Back at the romantic and historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal, first opened in 1929, the corridors that Charlie Chaplin, Barack Obama and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have once walked are in themselves a history lesson. The hotel was home to a Red Cross hospital during the last days of Phnom Penh before it fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, which promptly took it over until its demise in 1979. At the Elephant Bar, you can order a Femme Fatale champagne cocktail created for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1967. And for arguably the most refined dinner in town, Restaurant Le Royal serves exquisite French cuisine.
Departing Phnom Penh, we board the Aqua Mekong – a brand-new luxury river cruise vessel built in 2014 for Aqua Expeditions, which also operates vessels on the Amazon. Stepping aboard, I’m greeted by a chirpy New Yorker, cruise director Molly McBride. Handed a cool towel and given a welcome drink, my bags are taken automatically to my cabin. Within minutes of the briefing session starting, the staff know all our names.
It’s all sleek interiors and minimalist style on board. The brief to Ho Chi Minh-based architects Noor Design was to replicate the aesthetic of a luxury five-star hotel. The 62.4-metre vessel accommodates a maximum 40 guests and 40 crew. It’s intimate, but there are plenty of spaces to find solitude as we cruise the Mekong ? including the lounge, outdoor deck, plunge pool, media room, reading room or Aqua Mekong Spa.
Our onboard guides prove incredibly passionate about their country. Man Duc Tuyen takes us on a number of daily excursions. Guests can choose to join in or remain aboard. I disembark and ride on a rickshaw to a temple; visit the colourful Tan Chau markets; meet a local family where after a welcoming shot of vodka rice wine, an elderly couple play the bau (a one-string zither-like instrument), sing and perform a traditional unicorn dance with their extended family in the backyard; cruise past the Cai Be floating markets of some 400 sampans; visit a coconut candy factory; and meander through local villages where boys catapult from the bridges into the river for fun and ladies cycle or scoot past in their conical hats.
After each excursion, upon return to the Aqua Mekong, I’m greeted with another cool, refreshing towel and my shoes are removed, cleaned and returned to my room. Happy hour begins at 6:30pm. Drinks are delivered with a personal greeting from the barmen and a bowl of nuts, while Man Duc Tuyen shows us on a large screen via Google Maps where the Aqua Mekong has sailed that day.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, we leave the ship with a friendly send-off from captain and crew. It’s tempting to stay – the food is excellent and the toughest decision each day is what to order for breakfast.
Our latest Abercrombie & Kent guide, Nguyen Luc is proving a bit of a character. He admits his hobby is to familiarise himself with idioms and is only too happy to use as many as he can over our three-day stay. “We’ll play it by ear,” he chuckles – although he’s not really making a joke. He has an intimate knowledge of the city and, depending on a person’s particular interests, can tailor your stay to take in the best art, history, fashion, culinary or natural experiences.
I like this flexibility on the A&K tour. There’s enough group time, but plenty of opportunities to diversify your itinerary and be supported in getting where you want to go, with an expert guide or two thrown in.
We take in Sophie’s Art Tour at the Fine Arts Museum, an excellent guide to changes in 20th- and 21st-century Vietnam through the eyes of its artists.
I enjoy Tim Doling’s Historic Vietnam walking tour, which starts with a most interesting stroll down Dong Khoi street, past the Continental Hotel where author Graham Greene started writing The Quiet American; and also past the Caravelle Hotel, which was home to foreign correspondents – and the Australian Embassy – during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
By night, we get to see the city as the locals do – sitting on the back of a scooter with Vietnam Vespa Adventures. It is certainly an exhilarating yet completely safe ride through the streets, stopping at a number of eateries to try Vietnamese specialties and enjoy local entertainment.
Back at our hotel, the newly opened The Reverie Saigon in the historical district, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, I introduce our guide to another idiom to punch into his smartphone – OTT (over the top).
Reverie Saigon | Katrina Holden
The hotel is so overwhelmingly opulent, it takes a while to absorb all the visual stimuli. Only the first 100 rooms were open during my visit, with the remainder set to open in September. Every corner of the hotel, its interiors created by four leading Italian interior designers, is a feast for the senses. Even the lift doors as they open, with a backlit amber wall, scream for your attention.
Somehow it all works – from the beautiful stationary and amenities in the rooms to the plush bed linen, the grand couch at check-in, and the two Rolls-Royce Phantom Dragons to transport guests sitting in the driveway.
At The Royal Pavilion restaurant, Michelin-starred executive chef Tsang Pik Keung is serving up arguably the finest Cantonese cuisine in the city, with some of the best Peking duck pancakes I’ve ever tasted. In homage to the traditional, the beautiful female staff wear Ao dai (Vietnamese dress).
Vietnam’s cities are rapidly changing. Skyscrapers are going up regularly in Ho Chi Minh City, but the contrasts between old and new are everywhere. It is not unusual to see an elderly lady pushing or cycling a street-food cart past the grand windows of a Louis Vuitton store. The French architectural facades that give the city much of its character are not as heavily heritage-protected as one would hope.
The time to visit is now.