New women-led tour in Cambodia puts women in the spotlight | Travel

I nervously sipping my glass of champagne, unsure of protocol when meeting Cambodian royalty. But the princess quickly puts me at ease, her jewelry tinkling to the music as we shake hands. This chatty lunch at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh is one of many surprising stops on my tour of the country. Graceful property among century-old trees dotted with toucans, this throwback to 1920s Indochina has been home to Jackie O, Charlie Chaplin, and Barack Obama, among others.

Princess Norodom Chansita is Raffles’ ambassador – and she’s beautifully indiscreet about his extraordinary life. Having fled Cambodia with her family at the age of 11, she lived in exile in Beijing as a guest of Chairman Mao, then in Belgrade, Paris and, more incongruously, Muswell Hill. Her stories are by turns intriguing and shocking: she tells me about games of hide and seek in a palace, encounters with Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, who is 85 – and the loss of 40% of her family under the regime. of the Khmer Rouge.

The Killing Fields naturally loom large in visitors’ perception of Cambodia, along with the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. But there’s so much more to it, and with the country finally reopening to tourists, there’s never been a better time to see it. Slower-paced than neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, this traumatized nation is full of enterprise and energy, continually rediscovering what it means to be Cambodian.

The female experience is at the heart of a new tour from Wix Squared on which guests of both sexes meet personalities such as the princess, as well as tour guides and drivers. Alex Wix, the company’s founder, explains that the idea came from her solo adventures. “As a traveler, I felt incredibly safe here,” she says. “I enjoyed meeting other women and understanding what life was like for them.”

Chef Nak, Cambodia's first famous female cook

Chef Nak, Cambodia’s first famous female cook

Phnom Penh has been transformed since my visit 20 years ago, its unpaved streets and low-rise buildings replaced by roads and skyscrapers. I’m staying at the five-star Rosewood, and from my room in the glass tower, I can see the flashing lights of the Chinese-run NagaWorld casino complex in the distance, hinting at the capital’s future.

In the restaurant on the 38th floor of the Rosewood, slices of beef hang in glass boxes, à la Damien Hirst. Chanel women glisten like schools of fish and diners eat rare steaks washed down with 250 bottles of red. Wine consumption is booming in the upper echelons of Cambodian society, and svelte Eden Gnean, the country’s only female sommelier, guides me through her glass-walled tasting room, where more than 3,200 labels compete attention overlooking the Mekong River.

A man sells balloons in Phnom Penh

A man sells balloons in Phnom Penh

ALAMY

Then I cross by ferry to the sleepy side of Phnom Penh, where life remains village-like. I pass preparations for a wedding celebration, with elaborate chairs for the happy couple and a Buddhist pagoda the color of a ripe peach. Tucked away in an alley, a garden ablaze with pink flowers, fruit-laden papaya trees and hundreds of herbs.

Amid the greenery bursts the life force that is Rotanak Ros, better known as Chef Nak, Cambodia’s first famous female cook. Ros and her husband had two life-changing years moving their two traditional teak stilt houses from the countryside to the city. They built a bridge between them, added a swimming pool, and now offer homestays for those who want to learn more about Khmer cuisine. “We wanted more than a house,” she says. “We wanted stories.

I join Ros in her kitchen, which is lined with vintage pots and century-old pestles and mortars, rescued on her travels across the country. As a child, Ros helped out at her mother’s vegetable stand, but in recent years she has devoted herself to archiving a culinary heritage that was all but lost under the Khmer Rouge. Talking to seniors and recording their recipes, she created her cookbook Nhum (rhymes with “yum” and translates to “eat”).

Although similar to Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian dishes are more delicate and subtle. Ros shows me how to make light and crunchy freshwater prawn fritters, served with lime and fragrant pepper. I serve as sous chef while she frys fish, which we eat wrapped in leaves from her garden, dipping the packets in a tangy tamarind sauce.

Later in the day, I sample even more delights, taking a street tour of the capital with Nop Varanith, who grew up in an orphanage and brushed up his English by watching Marvel movies. He introduces me to jackfruit and mangosteen, spinach soy milk (which tastes as healthy as it sounds) and fragrant duck broth, which we eat in an alleyway where saffron-clad monks are exchanging blessings for snacks.

My adventures don’t end there. Other excursions in Phnom Penh include a motorcycle tour led by women to visit women’s cooperatives selling soap and beaten silver boxes, and dinner at Samsara, a polished teak boat inspired by the Orient Express where the elegant restaurateur Chan Suryhat tells me how she overcame a youth ruined by the Khmer Rouge. Back on deck, a warm breeze on my face, I gaze at the Royal Palace, emblematic of an even earlier period in the country’s history and shimmering in the dark.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

My nights in Siem Reap, in the north of the country, are dark and starless. I get up before dawn to visit Angkor Wat with my guide, Truy Silen. In prosperous times there can be thousands of people here to watch the sunrise, but today we are the first and find the best spot, in front of the mirror pond. A small crowd gathers behind us and, as the sky turns royal blue, the beehive towers – symbolizing Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in Hindu mythology – come into focus.

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The darkness reminds Silen of his home; in her remote village, there was no electricity, she told me. It was there that a neighbor taught him English, giving him a tool to find work away from his parents’ rice paddy, where it was once his job to scare birds away. “I thought, ‘I want out of this life,'” she said softly. And she did. His tour takes us far beyond the temples to an underground NGO, where we meet the huge African rats trained to detect mines in the countryside – another legacy of war.

Next, head to Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a floating village that few visitors can see. The lake expands to 4,000 square miles during the rainy season, swelling to the point that the flow of the adjacent river temporarily reverses. Reaching it requires a tuk-tuk ride along an unpaved track that resembles a vigorous spin cycle of a washing machine. “We call it the dance road,” Silen says with a smile.

Abigail on the flat bottom boat

Abigail on the flat bottom boat

ABIGAIL BLAZI

When we switch to a flat-bottomed boat, its slow breath sounds like nirvana. Reed-lined canals open out to a sea-like expanse where families stand shoulder-deep picking up seashells from the lake bed. Children wave from houseboats as their mothers chop vegetables – it’s 9am, but they’re already getting ready for an early lunch; the day’s schedule is dictated by available daylight. Each veranda has a hammock and an old oil can filled with flowers, while egrets perch on any spare wooden stick.

In a weaving cooperative, a woman shows me her work. Before Covid, she tells me, her business employed nine families, but with Siem Reap almost tourist-free, the ripples of the pandemic have flowed back to the lake. There’s no hard sell, and she’s thrilled when I buy a basket; beaming, she says she hopes Silen will bring more tourists soon.

I hope so too – I want others to hear these stories first hand, whether of a princess at lunch or shared on roaring traffic while driving around Phnom Penh. It’s these pinball joys of chance that make a trip feel less like a vacation and more like an authentic experience.

Abigail Blasi was a guest on Wix Squared and Singapore Airlines. Five nights B&B from £3,500 pp, including two nights at Jaya House River Park, Siem Reap and three nights at Rosewood, Phnom Penh, flights, some meals, transfers and guides (wixsquared.com)

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