Cheap beers, low-cost accommodation, meals for a couple of bucks and a sense of adventure are all factors that helped plant Cambodia on the backpackers’ map after it opened up to tourists in the mid-1990s, following decades of civil war and conflict.
However, it wasn’t always that way, with the Kingdom being one of the region’s most desired destinations across Asia in the early- to mid-20th century.
In the 1920s, the capital of Phnom Penh was dubbed the Pearl of Asia and considered one of Indochina’s finest cities. Charlie Chaplin visited Angkor Wat in the late 1930s, when travel was reserved for the rich and famous, and during Cambodia’s Golden Age of the 1950s and ’60s, the coastal town of Kep was French Indochina’s top seaside resort.
Years of civil war and turmoil ravaged the country and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after the first post-Khmer Rouge elections, that the Kingdom opened up to tourism again. The slow trickle of brave backpackers wanting to get way off-the-beaten-track started to enter Cambodia a few years later.
However, it was the entry of luxury brand Raffles in Cambodia in 1997, followed by Sofitel in Siem Reap three years later, that helped restore international confidence in the country and paved the way for the tourism boom that kick-started around 2005 and continues today.
And in recent years, the country has started to shed its reputation as a budget haunt, with the luxury offerings opening on the rise – a trend that looks set to continue in coming years as more five-star international brands unveil grand plans to plant their feet firmly in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Small pockets of luxury have been long-term players in Cambodia’s relatively short modern tourism life. Think Sofitel, Raffles, Park Hyatt and Aman group’s Amansara Siem Reap.
But a real game-changer landed in 2012, when the country welcomed its first luxury private island in the form of Song Saa. Here, 27 sumptuous villas are dotted across two tropical islands off the coast of Sihanoukville.
In December, Koh Rong – which has gained a reputation as a party island – stepped up its game with the opening of Royal Sands Koh Rong. This luxurious getaway – the island’s first five-star spot – and its crisp white sands lapped by warm translucent waters is located on the untouched Long Beach on the west coast, well away from the party crowds.
While the coastal town of Sihanoukville has been dogged with recent reports of a Chinese invasion, with swathes of land earmarked for casino, condos and Chinese-orientated hotels, several major international chains have recently announced plans.
The 476-room luxury InterContinental Hotels & Resorts is nearing completion, while Marriott International recently announced plans to build a 388-room, five-star Le Meridien hotel. Construction is set to start in January 2019, with opening planned three years later.
In February, the capital welcomed its first super-luxury hotel in the form of Rosewood Phnom Penh, once again raising Cambodia’s luxury game.
Spread across the top 14 floors of the 39-storey Vattanac Capital Tower, the 37th floor Sora sky bar, which perches above the city, boasts undoubtedly the finest views of the capital and is a new contender for best sunset spot in Phnom Penh. Just make sure you dress for the occasion as they don’t allow sportswear, flip flops or vest tops – we are talking luxury here after all.
Setting the pace for other major luxury players, Shangri-La is gearing up to open a property at The Peak when it opens in 2020, Courtyard by Marriott is set to open in 2021 and Hyatt Regency will start welcoming guests in 2020.
The country’s luxury offerings aren’t isolated to cities, with glamping recently being introduced to the Cardamom Mountains.
Cardamom Tented Camp means jungle trekkers no longer have to slum it in flimsy tents or sleeping in a hammock beneath the stars, because this initiative is an eco-camp that boasts nine comfortable safari-style tents in the heart of Botum Sakor National Park.
Shinta Mani Wild is another exciting project that is slated to open in the Cardamoms later this year, bringing with it a truly special adventure into the heart of the jungle.
This luxury camping experience, designed by Bill Bensley, fuses world-class design and hospitality with conservation. A series of luxury experiences have also been designed for visitors to indulge in.
Being able to sleep soundly at night is one thing, but luxury travellers demand more when they leave their hotel – and, thankfully, Cambodia’s offerings are also on the up.
If you fancy seeing Angkor’s temples from above, then hot air balloons and private helicopter rides are available – although they are not able to fly directly over Angkor Wat.
Helistar Cambodia offers a 48-minute helicopter ride above Angkor Archaeological Park and across to Phnom Bok and the Roluos Group also takes in Tonle Sap Floating Village, Siem Reap town and hilltop temple Phnom Krom, which is rarely seen by visitors.
Trade in a tuk tuk for a private limo. Royal Cambodian Limousine offers a range of packages across the country: a 10-hour hire tour of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap in a 2012 BMW 7 Series starts from $500, with a professional driver.
And if you really want to splurge, then several tour companies offer luxury trips of the country. AboutAsia puts on curated local experiences – at a cost of up to $20,000 – which includes a stay at Song Saa Private Island, fine-dining by candlelight amid Siem Reap’s bounty of paddies and an ox-cart ride through remote villages.
With all this in mind, it looks like Cambodia is well and truly shedding its image as a paradise reserved for the budget crowd.