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Cambodia is a nation in Southeast Asia of extraordinary beauty

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Angkor Wat Temples Discovery - My First Cambodia Tour Trip

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There is a wonder about Cambodia that casts a spell on many who visit this wonderful yet confounding kingdom. Rise to the realm of the gods at the mom of all temples, Angkor Wat, a spectacular combination of meaning, balance and spirituality. Descend into the hell of Tuol Sleng and come face to face with the Khmer Rouge and its killing machine. Welcome to the dilemma that's Cambodia: a state with a history both inspiring and gloomy, an intoxicating area where the future is waiting to be formed.

Just like Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples. The severe yet charming capital of Phnom Penh is a hub of political intrigue, economic vitality and intellectual argument. All too often overlooked by hit-and-run travelers ticking off Angkor on a regional tour, the revitalised area of Siem Reap is finally earning plaudits in its right because of a gorgeous riverside area, a cultural renaissance, and a food and drinking scene to rival the best in the area. And don't ignore the remaining portion of the country: unwind in the sleepy seaside village of Kampot and trek the nearby Bokor National Park take an elephant ride in the woodlands of Mondulkiri Province ogle the Mekong sharks at Kratie or just pick a beach near Sihanoukville.

The years of dread and loathing are finally around and Angkor is yet again the symbol of the land, drawing pilgrims from around the world. Peace has come to this wonderful yet blighted land after three years of conflict, and the Cambodian folks have opened their arms to the world. Tourist has well and truly flourished, yet a holiday as a trip here remains an adventure as much.

Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the great Khmer empire, which, through the Angkor time, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire could be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unmatched in grandeur and scale in Southeast Asia. The traveller's first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the supreme expression of Khmer genius, is just astonishing and is matched by just a few select spots on the planet, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.

This is the spot to go through the flow of rural life and classic landscapes of stunning rice paddies and swaying sugar palms. Spend time in the srok (provinces), as Cambodians call them, experiencing a dar leng (walkabout) to uncover the true flavour of the state.

The south coast is fringed by tropical countries, with hardly a beach hut in sight. The next Ko Samui or Gili Trawangan awaits discovery and, for the time being, readers can play Robinson Crusoe. Inland from the coast lay the Cardamom Mountains, section of a huge tropical wilderness providing you with a home to elusive wildlife and is the entry to rising ecotourism adventures. The great Mekong River cuts through the land and is home to some of the region's last remaining freshwater sharks individuals or dirt bikers can follow the river's size as it meanders through traditional communities. The northeast is a world unto itself, its wild and hilly areas a house for Cambodia's national minorities and a variety of natural attractions, including thundering waterfalls and excellent crater lakes.

Despite this wonderful background, life is no picnic for the normal Cambodian. It remains one of the poorest nations in Asia and it is a rough living for much of the populace, as they fight it out from the vagaries of nature and, occasionally, of their politicians. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP www.undp.org), Cambodia remains poorer than Mongolia and El Salvador, only scraping in ahead of Mauritania, while Transparency International (www.transparency.org), the anticorruption watchdog, charges the country a lowly 151 from the 163 countries ranked. Income remains desperately low for many Khmers, with annual incomes in the countless bucks, not thousands, and public servants such as teachers struggling to eke out a living on their meagre earnings.

Cambodia's pristine setting can be a major draw, but much of it's currently under threat. Ancient forests are being razed to make means for farms, waters are being measured up for major hydroelectric power plants and the south coast is being investigated by leading oil companies. All this can help add up to an ever-stronger economy, which is increasing at an incredible 10% a year, nonetheless it is impossible to promote the ecotourism that is just beginning to create.

Cambodia is like the teenager babe who has only been found by an adoring public: anyone wants something from her although not everyone wants what is best for her. The government, long shunned by global big business, is willing to benefit from every one of these increased opportunities. Deals are being closed off like autographs and you will find concerns for the long-term interests of the nation.

Tourism has produced advantages to Cambodia: it provides opportunity and work for a new era of Khmers, has served to spark a restoration of the traditional arts, and has provided the nation a renewed sense of satisfaction and confidence as it recovers from the dark years of war and genocide. However, not all tourism has been good for the country and there's the dark side of sex tourism, human exploitation and a casino culture. Cambodia is in a great position to follow an ecological path to tourism development and take advantage of the problems of other countries in the area. However, it might be that the government is more dedicated to the short-term gain that megabucks investments provides. May Cambodia be everything to all guests? Up to now, so great, but a new period is planning to start and the beaches will be the next battleground.

There are two faces to Cambodia: happy and one gleaming, the other dark and complicated. For each illegal eviction of city dwellers or land grab by way of a general, you will see a new NGO school providing greater education, or a new clean-water effort to increase the lives of the common villager. Such is the yin and yang of Cambodia, a country that inspires and confounds. Like an onion, the more layers you unravel, the more it enables you to wish to cry, but these are natural tears, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of pleasure.

Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia's best value is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, fighting through decades of bloodshed, poverty and political uncertainty. Thanks to infectious optimism and an unbreakable heart, they have won using their smiles whole no customer comes away from Cambodia without a measure of respect and affection for the people of this enigmatic kingdom.

Cambodia: beaches as beautiful as Thailand but without the tourist wave forests as remote as Laos but even less explored cooking as refined as Vietnam but yet to be discovered and temples that leave Burma and Indonesia in the shade. This is the heart of Southeast Asia, with everything the area has to offer packed into one bite-sized nation. If you were only planning to spend a week in Cambodia, it is time and energy to reconsider.

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Cambodia is a state in Southeast Asia of extraordinary beauty
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