Jungle ruins, ancient temples, floating markets: Cambodia is otherworldly. Begin this 13-day adventure in Phnom Penh, where you can take in the French colonial-inspired boulevards and parks. See the pagodas, palaces and museums, then have the somber experience of visiting the notorious Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge executed hundreds of thousands. Aboard the stylish Aqua Mekong you'll sail down the Mekong Delta visiting villages and temples along the way. After a visit to the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve, you'll experience the 2016 Hideaway of the Year, Song Saa, and relax for three days or enjoy forest tours, snorkeling or kayaking. No trip to Cambodia would be complete without an exploration of the unforgettable Angkor Wat. After your temple excursions, enjoy shopping in Siem Riep's Central Market, where you can find handicrafts to take home with you.
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Arrive in Phnom Penh late in the evening. Cambodia’s capital can be reached from several major U.S. airports, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago and New York, with just one change of airplanes.
Check into Mr. Harper’s recommended hotel in the city, the Raffles Hotel le Royal, a renowned historic property with 175 guest quarters divided among an Old World main building and low-profile wings overlooking a tree-lined courtyard and an 80-foot swimming pool.
Quite small when compared to other Asian capitals, mellow Phnom Penh still retains its French colonial boulevards and parks.
Take a day with a guide to visit the top attractions, including the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum of Arts (housing one of the finest collections of statuary from the Angkorian period). Shop for local crafts and artwork in the Central Market.
Those with the time and inclination can take an additional day in Phnom Penh to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was where 20,000 people were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge when it was the Security Prison 21. Forty minutes south of the city are the notorious Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge executed more than 1 million people. The 17-story Choeung Ek memorial there contains the skulls and bones of genocide victims.
Board Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Mekong, which Mr. Harper named as the 2016 Best Cruise Grand Award winner. (In the Grand Awards issue, he also cited the Aqua Mekong as having the “Staff Who Made Us Feel Most at Home.”)
The third and newest member of the Aqua fleet, the Mekong carries 40 passengers in 20 stylishly appointed suites, each of which is a spacious 320 square feet. Most have walls of windows, and eight have private balconies. For even more space, two suites can be interconnected into a 640-square-foot accommodation, with one suite serving as a living room.
Celebrate the start of your cruise with a Khmer “Apsara” dance performance, an indigenous tradition that is memorialized on the temple walls at Angkor Wat.
“Much of the pleasure of a Mekong cruise comes from lounging on deck as Southeast Asia slides gracefully past,” Mr. Harper shares, “observing the painted storks and pied kingfishers, the rice barges and the huge drifting rafts of purple water hyacinth.”
Note: The following cruise itinerary can be undertaken in the high-water season, between July and November. Late October and November have the most favorable weather during this period. Four- and seven-day itineraries also are available, and routings vary depending on the season.
Visit Koh Chen, a silversmith village known for its fine craftsmanship. Cambodia’s king regularly chooses Koh Chen's silver bowls as gifts for visiting dignitaries, and guests can watch the artisans at work.
Mr. Harper describes where he went next: “Later, we stopped at a small Buddhist temple with graceful lines, bright saffron-orange wooden supports and impressive gilding. Several of the young monks had gathered under a tree for lunch. Although shy, they were nonetheless extremely welcoming. Nearby, we spotted two intricately carved and painted dragon boats.”
Explore two picturesque floating villages around the rim of Tonle Sap lake. In Chhnok Tru, the schools, churches, pagodas and even the police station all float. Also visit Moat Khla, accessible only by water, to attend a Buddhist blessing ceremony.
Enjoy a farewell dinner back on the ship. The cuisine aboard the Mekong is under the supervision of Michelin-star chef David Thompson. “Under his guidance,” Mr. Harper relates, “the kitchen turned out a series of superb meals with dishes such as Cambodian rice noodles with chicken and wild ginger sauce, a green curry of catfish with a lemon-basil-cashew nut pudding and coconut cream, and prawns braised with white wine and herbs accompanied by pea and prosciutto risotto.”
Before you disembark, there’s time for one more excursion. Set off by skiff into the 54,000-acre Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve, one of the largest freshwater bodies in Asia and the last refuge in Southeast Asia for large waterfowl such as spot-billed pelican, milky stork, black-headed ibis and the elusive masked finfoot.
Transfer to Siem Reap’s airport and fly to Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s coast. In the port, board the luxury Song Saa speedboat, which takes 35 minutes to reach the private-island resort in the unspoiled Koh Rong archipelago.
Mr. Harper named Song Saa his 2016 Hideaway of the Year because, quite simply, he “loved everything [he] saw and experienced” at this “blissfully relaxing and otherworldly” retreat. All 27 villas have spectacular sea views, and eight of them are overwater accommodations.
Spend three days relaxing at Song Saa. Activities include kayaking in the surrounding archipelago, rain forest tours guided by a member of the resort’s conservation team, and snorkeling trips through nearby coral gardens led by a marine biologist.
Although there is no centralized spa facility, outdoor salas and treatment villas are scattered through the rain forest and along the ocean shore. The tempting treatments combine traditional Khmer techniques with Ayurvedic principles.
Return to Sihanoukville and fly back to Siem Reap, the base for exploring Angkor Wat and numerous other extraordinary Khmer temples.
Mr. Harper recommends three contrasting properties here: the midcentury modern-styled Amansara, a tranquil villa enclave in the grounds of a grand guesthouse that once belonged to King Norodom Sihanouk; the nearby Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, a restored landmark French Colonial-styled hotel surrounded by a 15-acre park; and the new Park Hyatt (the former Hotel de la Paix), a contemporary property in a downtown location close to the Old French Quarter, a short walk from Siem Reap’s covered market and various restaurants.
Spend these days exploring the ruins of the sophisticated and enigmatic Khmer civilization that flourished here hundreds of years ago. The most famous temple, Angkor Wat, can become terribly crowded, but we can arrange an entry just before dawn, when the light is soft and you have the magnificent monument to yourself. It’s unforgettable.
Also visit Angkor Thom, an abandoned city that housed as many as 150,000 people at its height. The only remaining structures are its walls, gates and, at its center, the Bayon. This immense stone temple has numerous huge faces carved into its towers.
Just a bit farther from Siem Reap is Ta Prohm, a sprawling and atmospheric temple complex partially overtaken by strangler figs and sprung trees. It looks straight out of an “Indiana Jones” film.
Those with time also should visit the similarly spectacular but lesser-known Beng Mealea temple complex, which sees far fewer visitors than Ta Prohm. It has more of the feeling of an undiscovered temple in the jungle.
Take the morning and afternoon to relax and perhaps do some shopping in Siem Reap’s Central Market, where you can find reasonably priced fabrics, carvings and other handicrafts.
In the evening, board your flight out of Siem Reap. Connect to your flight home, arriving the morning of the following day.
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