Many visit Cambodia to ogle at its temples...but there's so much more to ogle. Here are some of our favourite spots and three travel itinerary ideas
A pilgrimage to Angkor inspires most journeys to Cambodia. Undoubtedly the temples are in a class of their own: the soaring symmetry of Angkor Wat’s five towers, the gargantuan faces of the Bayon and the monstrous trees overwhelming Ta Prohm – all of these are iconic images of Asia.
But Cambodia is so much more than its temples. Beach fiends will appreciate its coastline of uninhabited islands, white sands and warm waters; nature lovers can seek solace in the quiet national parks or observe the freshwater dolphins in the Mekong; and cultural tourists will find a millennium of history and more to keep them occupied. For those that want temples and adventure, forgotten structures are emerging from the forests of the north as life returns to normal after the war. Tracking these down can make an explorer of anyone.
Most visitors still focus on the majestic temples of Angkor and the stimulating capital Phnom Penh. Organised tours usually stick to these centres, but some travel companies offer visits to the south coast and charming Mekong towns.
Anyone considering a group tour should pay careful attention to the Angkor programme, as to rush it is folly indeed. It should be savoured, but many companies simply don’t allow the time.
The up-and-coming destination is the north east: both Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces are famed for their cooler climes and minority groups. The remote temples of Prasat Preah Vihear, Banteay Chhmar and Sambor Prei Kuk are also picking up in popularity, as more visitors want to capture the Angkor experience of old with few tourists.
This fascinating city is an older Asia before the invasion of skyscrapers and McCulture. The riverfront is perhaps the most alluring in the region, where three great riversconverge. There are plenty of attractions, including the superb National Museum and the elegant Silver Pagoda. For those that enjoy the night as much as the day, it is a fine city for dining and drinking. Don’t miss it – it’s the contemporary heartbeat of Cambodia.
So much ink has been spilled over Angkor already, it is simply beyond words. Nothing can quite prepare visitors for a dawn walk along the causeway at Angkor Wat, as the spine begins to tingle in the presence of greatness. It is hard to know where to start at Angkor with such an abundance of inspirational temples. The key is to pace yourself, as rushing such riches will only end in fatigue and blurred memories at best, heatstroke and delirium at worst. Try to avoid the crowds at the most frequented places by visiting at less popular times of day.
Palm-fringed turquoise waters are not the first images usually associated with Cambodia, but the south coast can compete with the best when it comes to the tropical idyll. Its resorts can’t yet crow when it comes to facilities, but for many this is reason enough to put in some time down at the beach. Sihanoukville has several squeaky sand beaches around its extensive headland, but Occheuteal and Otres are the best. Off the coast are islands waiting to become the next Koh Samui or Koh Pha-Ngan but for now there is not yet a beach hut in sight. Excellent, empty beaches also line Ream National Park, Cambodia’s only maritime protected area.
Try to save Angkor until the end of the trip as, once you have confronted perfection, nothing else will quite measure up.
It is best to concentrate on Angkor and Phnom Penh in a week-long trip – to try and cram in other destinations will just dilute the experience. Phnom Penh requires a couple of days to fully explore the palace and the museums, and to soak up the riverside ambience. Don’t forget to allow some time for shopping – the Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong) sucks people in for longer than expected.
Head up to Angkor by boat and take a few days to explore the central temples, starting at Roluos and working through chronologically to the climax: Angkor Wat and the walled city of Angkor Thom. Spend a day venturing further afield to take in some remote, less-visited sites such as Beng Mealea and Kbal Spean. Finally have a lazy day for revisiting your favourite temples, cruising through floating villages on the Tonlé Sap or exploring the local markets.
As well as Angkor and Phnom Penh, it is possible to spend another week doing a loop of the south coast, visiting the 7th century temple of Phnom Da near Takeo on the way to the sleepy riverside town of Kampot. After some side trips to Kep and the abandoned hill station of Bokor, make for Sihanoukville. Sample the sun and sands before getting a taste of community tourism in Kirirom National Park on the road back to the capital.
Allergic to beaches? Head instead up the Mekong to Kratie and see the freshwater dolphins, before swinging east to Mondulkiri to hitch a ride with an elephant and encounter minority cultures.
Time to get serious about exploring. Think about a Tonlé Sap loop that takes in the pre-Angkorian temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, near Kompong Thom, and the charms of Battambang, Cambodia’s second city. Fans of nature can head north east to Ratanakiri and meander along rivers to isolated villages with unique beliefs. Those who just can’t get enough temples might make for the isolated sanctuaries of Prasat Preah Vihear, Koh Ker and Preah Khan in the north – be prepared for anything.