Cambodia and Laos - Temples and Treasures of Indochina
Indochina - the very name conjures up images of far-flung exoticism and adventure, a land of steamy jungles, lost, vine-covered temples and rickshaws trundling along the streets of sun-bleached colonial towns. At the heart of this captivating region are the small but diverse nations of Cambodia and Laos, often overlooked by tourists visiting their more popular neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, but these are extraordinary places which amply reward exploration. Cambodia is best known for the astonishing Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive man-made structures on Earth, while the mountainous, landlocked country of Laos is more enigmatic; one of the world’s few remaining communist states, and a land of dense jungle and countless Buddhist temples, now being discovered by a growing number of intrepid overseas visitors.
Cambodia and Laos are among the world’s poorest nations, and both have violent and tragic recent histories stretching back to the years of French colonial rule and the Vietnam War. During the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, it has been estimated that at least 1.7 million people were systematically murdered, or died of starvation, though the real number is doubtless far higher. The infamous Killing Fields, where countless thousands of Cambodians lost their lives, are now memorials to the dead, including the site at Choeung Ek, marked with a poignant Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5,000 human skulls recovered from the surrounding land. Laos suffered from heavy bombing during the Vietnam War, and the country is still peppered with unexploded landmines and bombs today.
Tourism is an increasingly important part of both countries’ economies. More than a million tourists a year visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world, and Cambodia’s most cherished symbol - it even features on the national flag. Built in phases between the 9th and 13th century, Angkor was originally a Hindu foundation, meant to symbolize the sacred Mount Meru, centre of the universe and home of the gods, although by the late 13th century its use had changed to a Theravada Buddhist temple. Famous for its exquisite bas reliefs, including over 3,000 images of apsaras - celestial nymphs or muses - as well as dynamic battle scenes, and depictions of Hindu myths, Angkor Wat lies at the heart of the vast Angkor Archaeological Park which covers an area of some 400km2 and includes a number of other temple sites. One of the most popular is the photogenic 12th century temple of Ta Prohm, where the ruins are wrapped in the sinuous, snake-like roots of strangler figs and silk cotton trees; the eerie ‘lost world’ atmosphere made it an ideal location for Angelina Jolie to clamber around in the Tomb Raider film.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is also worth pausing over, not least for the Royal Palace, which displays an interesting melange of traditional Khmer architecture and European features, and the glittering Silver Pagoda, which holds a venerated green crystal Buddha figure. Sihanoukville is the country’s busiest seaside resort, but there are quieter stretches of white sandy beaches, as well as more than a dozen idyllic islands, such as the thickly forested Koh Rong, fringed with 43km of fine sandy beaches, and smaller and less developed Koh Rong Samloem. The islands are still largely untouched by mass tourism, but ambitious plans for luxury resorts threaten to change some of these places forever.
To the north, Laos - officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic - is slowly opening up to tourism, and was named the World’s Best Tourist Destination by the European Council in 2013. The capital city, Vientiane, retains a certain French colonial air and the golden That Luang temple - the national symbol - is a dazzling sight. However, it’s the former royal capital, UNESCO listed Luang Prabang, which draws most visitors’ attention, with its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, and traditional wooden houses.
The elegant former royal palace, built in the French Beaux-Arts style, is now a museum, and home to the legendary gold Pha Bang Buddha, which is said to possess miraculous protective powers. Not far away, the mysterious Plain of Jars, an ancient megalithic landscape in northern Laos, continues to perplex archaeologists as much as tourists. Thousands of huge stone jars, thought to date back around 2,000 years or so, lie scattered across a vast area, their original purpose long forgotten. Sadly, there are millions of unexploded bombs buried here, dropped by the US during the Vietnam War, and still killing and maiming people today. Sightseeing is possible only on cleared pathways, but walking around this otherworldly place is a truly unforgettable experience.
And of course, sampling the local cuisine is a must. In Laos this means lots of sticky rice, and laap - a popular spicy soup with sliced meat, chillies, lime juice and vegetables.
Fragrant curries and freshwater fish dishes are on the menu in Cambodia; fish amok, a steamed coconut curry in banana leaves, is considered to be national dish. Braver visitors, meanwhile, might like to try some traditional street food, such as deep-fried tarantulas, barbecued snake or crunchy cockroaches! It’s all part of the Indochina adventure.
So, what do you think? Have we inspired your next Asian adventure?
Article published on: 1st September, 2014