1. SIEM REAP AND THE TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap was always destined for great things. It has reinvented itself as the epicentre of chic Cambodia, with everything from backpacker party pads to hip hotels, world-class wining and dining, and sumptuous spas.
The temples of Angkor are a source of inspiration and national pride to all Khmers as they struggle to rebuild their lives after years of terror and trauma. Today, the temples are a point of pilgrimage for all Cambodians, and no traveller to the region will want to miss their extravagant beauty.
2. PHNOM PENH
The Cambodian capital is a chaotic yet charming city that has thrown off the shadows of the past to embrace a brighter future. Boasting one of the most beautiful riverfronts in the region, Phnom Penh is in the midst of a boom, with hotels, restaurants and bars ready to welcome urban explorers. Experience emotional extremes at the inspiring National Museum and the depressing Tuol Sleng prison, showcasing the best and worst of Cambodian history. Once the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh is fast regaining its shine.
Despite a reputation for backpacker hedonism, Sihanoukville’s real appeal lies in its beaches. On nearby islands like Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, resorts are creating a laid-back beach-bungalow vibe. On the mainland, it’s only 5km from Sihanoukville’s grittier central beach, Occheuteal, to Otres Beach, mellow and sublime despite the long-looming threat of development. More central Victory Beach, Independence Beach, Sokha Beach, and even Occheuteal and backpacker favourite Serendipity Beach all have their charms.
The real Cambodia, far from the jetset destinations of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Unfurling along the banks of the Sangker River, Battambang is one of the country’s best-preserved colonial-era towns. Shophouses host everything from fair-trade cafes to bike excursions. Beyond the town lie the Cambodian countryside and a cluster of ancient temples – while they’re not exactly Angkor Wat, they lack the crowds. Further afield is Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, a world-class bird sanctuary.
5. KAMPOT AND KEP
Kampot Province has emerged as one of Cambodia’s most alluring destinations thanks to a hard-to-beat combination of old colonial architecture, abundant natural attractions and easy intra-regional transport. Enchanted visitors often end up staying in the sleepy, atmospheric provincial capital of Kampot rather longer than planned. Nearby Kep is but a hop away and the province is riddled with honeycombed limestone caves, some providing shelter to centuries-old brick temples from the pre-Angkorian period.
Eventually the endless rice fields and sugar palms that characterise the Cambodian landscape give way to rolling hills. Mondulkiri is the wild east, home to the hardy Bunong people, who still practise animism and ancestor worship. Elephants are used here, but better than riding them is visiting them at the Elephant Valley Project, where you can experience “walking with the herd”. Add thunderous waterfalls, jungle treks and spotting endangered black-shanked douc (a primate) to the mix and you have the right recipe for adventure.
The setting for Colonel Kurtz’s jungle camp in Apocalypse Now, Ratanakiri is one of Cambodia’s most remote and pretty provinces. Home to Virachey National Park, one of the largest protected areas in the country, this is serious trekking country. Possible animal encounters here include elephants and gibbons. Swimming is popular too, with jungle waterfalls and a beautiful crater lake within striking distance of provincial capital Ban Lung. Home to a diverse mosaic of ethnic-minority people, Ratanakiri is a world away from lowland Cambodia.
Gateway to the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong River, Kratie is emerging as a crossroads on the overland route between Phnom Penh and northeastern Cambodia or southern Laos. The town has a decaying colonial grandeur and some of the country’s best Mekong sunsets. Nearby Koh Trong island is a relaxing place to experience a homestay or explore on two wheels. North of Kratie, the Mekong Discovery Trail has adventures themed around the river, including community-based homestays, bicycle rides and boat trips.
9. PRASAT PREAH VIHEAR
The mother of all mountain temples, Prasat Preah Vihear stands majestically atop the Dangkrek Mountains, forming a controversial border post between Cambodia and Thailand. The foundation stones of the temple stretch to the edge of the cliff as it falls away to the plains below, and the views across northern Cambodia are incredible. The 300-year chronology of its construction offers an insight into the metamorphosis of carving and sculpture in the Angkorian period.
10. KHMER CUISINE
Everyone has tried Thai and Vietnamese specialities before they hit the region, but Khmer cuisine remains under the culinary radar. Amok (baked fish with lemongrass, chilli and coconut) is the national dish, but sumptuous seafood and fresh fish dishes are plentiful, including Kep crab infused with Kampot pepper. It wouldn’t be Asia without street snacks and Cambodia delivers everything from noodles (mee) and congee (bobor or rice porridge) to deep-fried tarantulas and roasted crickets. With subtle spices and delicate herbs, the food in Cambodia is an unexpected epicurean experience.
WHEN TO GO
High Season (Nov–Mar)
– Cool and windy, with almost Mediterranean temperatures; the best all-round time to be here.
– Book accommodation in advance during the peak Christmas and New Year period.
– Wet in most parts of Cambodia, with high humidity, but the landscapes are a beautiful emerald green.
– South Coast can be busy as Western visitors escape for summer holidays while school is out.
Low Season (Apr–Jun, Sep–Oct)
– April and May spells the hot season, when the mercury hits 40C and visitors melt.
– September and October can be wet, but awesome storms and cloud formations accompany the deluge.