Into the preserved heart of Khmer culture

At Black Tomato, research is essential to everything we do. Long before we plan your bespoke trips, we send our team on in-depth research assignments so that each of our experiences and recommendations are tried, tested, and loved by us.

That’s why we sent Ronan and Alister from our London team on a trip to Cambodia. Between their delving, wading, cycling, scything, eating and zip-lining through this country, they sought to answer a question we’re often asked ourselves: is Cambodia a place that is best paired with a neighbouring country – say Thailand, or Vietnam or Laos – or is it more purposeful, more rewarding, to explore it in its own right?

Cameras in hand, this is their story. As told by Ronan.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh – tuk-tuks and sting-rays

I always enjoy arriving somewhere at night. Cloaked in darkness, it’s as if the first act of the following morning – the real ‘day one’ – is to lift the shroud and unveil the mystery.

This is how we began in Phnom Penh – a city that completely embodies Cambodia. At eye level there are ancient Khmer temples, guarded in perpetuity by stone-carved lions. A little higher up and you sight grand French mansions. Towards the sky, in increasing numbers – skyscrapers. It tells a story of a country on a literal upward trajectory.

Enlisting the knowledge of a local architecture student, we set out to make sense of it all. The most poignant insight from the tour? The stories of after the Khmer Rouge regime’s fall, with cities like Phnom Penh completely empty. After the regime’s collapse, survivors ventured back and were free to choose where to live. Many returned to their original homes. Others would take up entirely different residences. With two million people killed, housing was freely – and tragically – available. Trying to understand what life must have been like was beyond comprehension. That our guide throughout Phnom Penh was a survivor himself was humbling, particularly during our visit to S-21. My tip? A little bit of reading goes a long way. Pick up a copy of this book.

I mentioned Cambodia has upward momentum. As night fell, we were swept up in that pace as we met up with resident foodie Vannairth. We were in for a treat. Vannairth knows the city, and its food, like the back of his hand, and we embarked on a pulsating, palette-expanding food tour. Eight sittings and dessert? Sign us up.

Dashing through the streets in a tuk-tuk, Phnom Penh was a vibrant blur of lanterns and neon as we were given a crash-course in Cambodian food culture. Our first restaurant of the night (all of them, in fact) was completely void of tourists. We joined the locals in tucking into some local (and rather unusual) dishes, including deep-fried crickets. Surprisingly moreish. Vannairth orders beers, and teaches us how to cheers properly (a custom that involves doing so before every sip, followed by clinking glasses and shouts of ‘choul mouy!’) I stare curiously at a sting-ray being cooked on the grill. Vannairth notices – and promptly orders one for us to try. It’s firm, but light, and has a very slight chew – somewhere between scallops and lobster. I would order it again in a flash. Fresh chilli, cane sugar, and slices of lime elevate it further. So far, so good.

As we eat, Vannairth chats enthusiastically about Khmer cuisine and customs. Note to self, always look for the winning ring-pulls when pouring beer into cups filled with ice cubes. Sometimes you win a free beer, other times you get a dare. All part of the fun. Our guide asks if we are ready to try something else, gesturing to our tuk-tuk waiting outside. We nod enthusiastically. One restaurant down, seven to go. I told you Cambodia moves fast.

Cambodia
Cambodia

The Mekong – down by the riverside

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, we set off on a leisurely cruise along the winding canals of the Mekong River. Young palms droop over the banks and free-floating water hyacinths drift in lush clusters of green. Don’t let its beauty fool you. I’m told that it’s considered a weed. But it is also a species favoured for its soft, leather-like feel – perfect for weaving bags, a means of keeping the waters clear and providing a source of income for local women.

We pull up at the other side of the river, driving for a little way before we arrive at Chef Nak’s kitchen. Situated between colourful herb and vegetable gardens, we are welcomed into her home – a beautiful, traditional wooden house set on stilts overlooking peaceful, leafy surrounds. Chef Nak is incredibly welcoming and begins to give us a tour of her home as she enthusiastically explains the history behind the traditional dishes we would be preparing that day. After sourcing some fresh ingredients from the local ‘wet market’, we explore her garden as she teaches us about the importance of flavour combinations and the different uses of each ingredient. For example, in Cambodia chek (banana) isn’t just valued for its ripened fruit, but also for the leaves (used to wrap meat and fish to keep in the flavour), banana blossom, and ‘green’ bananas that are often used in soups or eaten raw in dipping dishes.

Now, for our cooking class. As we get to work, she tells us about her mission to restore recipes lost due to the Khmer Rouge – discovering and preserving the forgotten flavours, textures, and ingredients of Cambodian cuisine. Her openness, in-depth knowledge, excellent articulation, and clear love for her craft, leaves us endlessly entertained and inspired as we learn unique Cambodian cooking techniques to create the chosen dishes. Meang Nem (a traditional salad dish made with roasted rice powder, lime, and pickled scallion heads), chicken emerald soup (so-called for its jewel-like snow peas and Asian basil leaves), and sticky coconut cake prepared with ash from burned palm leaves. Each dish is as unusual as the last. And equally as delicious.

Chef Nak, Luxury vacations Cambodia
temple angkor wat in Cambodia

Siem Reap – lion guardians and lotus bud domes

An abandoned city smothered in jungle vines and carved from sandstone, Angkor Archaeological Park hosts spectacular remains of the once-thriving Khmer Empire. Extending over 400 square kilometres and strewn between thick foliage and narrow trails, temples and hydraulic structures form a breathtaking silhouette at sunrise – the tiered spires of Angkor Wat, the most famous of religious buildings, piercing the golden glow of sunlight. A scene that is reflected in the stock-still waters of the moat that surrounds it. Naturally, we go to see for ourselves.

We rise to darkness – and the rich scent of fresh coffee. Some much needed fuel for so early in the day. It is whilst we’re sipping on our morning brew that we meet our local guide, Dey. Having previously served as a monk for 17 years, his calm manner and in-depth knowledge of the temples and Khmer culture shines through in his thoughtful answers to our many questions. We’re in good (arguably the best) hands, I think.

Upon arriving at this popular site, we instantly spot the five central towers – a reflection of Mount Meru, the dwelling place of Hindu gods. The vast moat that surrounds the temple is dotted with water lilies; I ask if it was constructed as a means of protecting the religious site from harm. It’s because of the mountain, Dey tells us. The five-peaked Mount Meru was surrounded by an ocean according to Hindu mythology, and the Khmer king who designed the structure wished to replicate it here. The lions guard it, he says, pointing to carved stone statues of puffed-up chests and gaping mouths.

Heading away from the crowd waiting to capture the ‘classic’ shot, our guide takes us to find an alternative angle from which to enjoy the sunrise. As the light begins to seep into the jungle, blurred shadows transform into snaking roots and ancient cruciform terraces and lotus-like domes are bathed in golden light. We begin to explore. Due to his extensive role with the media (just one of his several career paths), Dey knows the exact spots where the lighting is most interesting for photos – and how to avoid the crowds. Starting at the back of Angkor Wat, a place completely deserted, it feels as if we have the site all to ourselves. A real triumph.

Cambodia
Shinta Mani Wild anti-poaching patrol in Cambodia

Cardamom National Park – spiked vines and anti-poaching patrols

Our journey begins with a bathtub encircled by rainforest. Trees grow up through the wooden decking of our spacious open-air veranda, and painted butterfly motifs decorate the walls – a reflection of our aptly named Butterfly Tent, so-called for the abundance of butterfly species spotted here by architect Khun Spot. This is Shinta Mani Wild. Seamlessly integrating into the natural environment, this luxurious tented camp lies tucked away between 865 acres of protected thick forest and waterfalls. It’s breathtaking.

The following morning, as the first rays of sunlight merge with the spray of the valley’s waterfall and project a spectrum of yellow, purple, and orange over smooth boulders and a gushing river, we set off to delve deeper into the jungle. And to see vital conservation work in action. We join the local rangers for an anti-poaching patrol, seeking out snares and poachers between spiked vines and dense forestation. Making our way – by motorbike, at first – down increasingly narrow jungle paths, we reach the end of the road. From here on in, the route is only navigable by foot. We dismount. Pointing out old snare locations, the patrol leaders show us how a snare works as well as how to construct (and deconstruct) one. As we journey deeper into the jungle, I feel a rush of adrenaline – pushing me onwards through the humidity, encouraging me to keep up with the brisk pace set by the rangers. Thrilling, eye-opening. Experiencing (and taking part in) the important work undertaken to protect this nature reserve is a memory I’ll not soon forget.

Angkor Cambodia
Cardamom National Park in Cambodia

Final thoughts

Our journey through Cambodia was a triumph. Between getting a hands-on, behind-the-scenes glimpse of vital anti-poaching work, discovering (and tasting) the ancient dishes used to spark a legacy for Khmer cuisine, and padding barefoot along private-island beaches, we accidentally embarked on a journey of self-discovery. Adventurers. Foodies. Historians. Culture-lovers. Overwater villa lovers. Spa enthusiasts. On this trip, I became all of these things, and became a better person for it.

Many people consider Cambodia as a complement to Vietnam. A place to explore in the company of another. This is a mistake. Truth be told, across our two weeks, we barely scratched the surface and left on that dizzy high of wanting more. We came home with stories to share for years to come. Go to Cambodia, and go only to Cambodia. I’m already planning my next trip, to scratch deeper still.

– Ronan

Shall we begin?

Whether you’re seeking jungles rich with ancient temples or tranquil riverside retreats, our Travel Experts can’t wait to show you around, from Phnom Penh to Cardamom National Park. Head below to find out more.

Take me to Cambodia