Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and largest city. The city developed on the banks of the mighty Mekong River in part due to its ideal position for trade. It is the seat of government and the home of the Cambodian Royal Family. It is also a crazy mix of noise, movement and non-stop action.
It is an easy city to get around – whether you choose to hire a moped (very inexpensive although you may need nerves of steel to negotiate the crazy traffic), use a tuk-tuk or on foot. The city is not enormous and many of the sights can be reached on foot. Tuk-tuks are found everywhere and are inexpensive.
Other than simply sampling life in this vibrant city the following sights should not be missed:
The Royal Palace grounds on the banks of the Mekong River have a number of sights to see in one place. These include the Throne Room, the Chan Chhay Pavilion, the King’s official residence, the Napoleon Pavilion and the spectacular Silver Pagoda.
The National Museum, Wat Phnom, Toul Sleng – the notorious security prison S21 and Choeung Ek – the Killing Fields museum and memorial – are a must-see. Try to see Toul Sleng before the Killing Fields as it will make more sense for you.
Don’t miss out on the markets – the Central Market has a huge range of things to look at and buy – especially jewellery, watches and clothing at excellent prices. Toul Tom Poong or the Russian Market is also well worth a visit. Remember to negotiate and you will save yourself some money!!
Consider taking a sundowner cruise on the Mekong River. It is a great way to end the day and commence the evening’s activities.
Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor
There is not enough space to write about the wonders of the Angkor Temple complex suffice to say that no visit to Cambodia is complete without seeing these wonders of the world. The site stretches over 400 square kilometres and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Angkor era dates back to between 802 and 1432 and there is so much history around the many temples contained in the park that you will seriously miss out if you do not ensure that you have a guide with you to explain the history and the construction you will be encountering.
You can buy one, three and seven day passes for the complex and it is illegal to try to visit the temples without a valid ticket. You will land up being fined. Visiting hours are generally between 5am and 6pm although this does vary so check with your guide.
Remember that these places are exceptionally meaningful to Cambodians so ensure that you are dressed appropriately. Arms and shoulders need to be covered and pants to at least below the knee should be worn.
In the other direction lies the Tonlé Sap Lake which is also well worth a visit. There are communities who live permanently on the lake. There is also adventure activities to be discovered (see elsewhere on this website) and the water-bird life on the lake will appeal to bird watchers. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary on the lake is worth a visit.
Visiting Siem Reap itself is also wonderful and there is loads to see and do outside of the temple complex. The city has wonderful shady avenues and many beautiful colonial buildings. Make sure you try to stay in the old part of the town – where you can walk to many of the attractions – as opposed to the hotels on the main road in from the airport.
Siem Reap is also the centre of the adventure activities in Cambodia. Things to consider doing here include visiting a silkworm farm, zip-lining, quad biking, a Vespa food tour, cooking classes, mountain biking, visiting the night market and – if you like craft beer – a visit to the Siem Reap Brewpub (http://www.siemreapbrewpub.asia). Don’t forget to visit Pub Street if you want a night out on the town!
Sihanoukville and the Islands of Koh Rong & Koh Rong Samloem
Sihanoukville was constructed only 60 years ago and is the main port serving Cambodia. There is a small, though modern airport outside town that links to Siem Reap with regular flights and less regular ones to Phnom Penh. It is a four hour trip by road from Phnom Penh or a seven hour train trip – recently introduced on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (for the princely fee of US$7!)
It has a very laid-back atmosphere and is the place in Cambodia to really chill out – on one of its beautiful, tropical beaches and in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. As a result it is always full of back-packers and other holiday-makers relaxing and partying. It is impossible not to feel as though you are on holiday in Sihanoukville.
Accommodation ranges from cheap and cheerful dorms to the most upmarket of hotels and resorts and everything in-between. There are loads of pubs and restaurants that offer good inexpensive food (starting at US$3-4 for a meal) and beer (from 50c)! It helps that Cambodia’s biggest brewery – Angkor beer – is brewed in a large brewery on the hill overlooking the town.
There are loads of different types of restaurants to try and a speciality of the area is the abundance of seafood. Many restaurants set their tables out on the sand on Occheuteal Beach which is wonderful place to eat next to the lapping water. Pubs stay open until late and many of the hostels have their own bars that rock until the early hours.
Sihanoukville is also the launching point for ferries to the islands lying off the coast of Cambodia. The two main islands are Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem and ferries depart for the islands all through the day. Prices range from about US$12-17 for a one-way ticket to US$20-35 for a return ticket. As with most things in Cambodia, prices are reduced in the low season which stretches from about May to October.
Koh Rong is the bigger of the two islands and also the one with the loud, noisy and festive party scene. Much of this action takes place in the village of Koh Tuch which is full of back-packer lodges, bars and restaurants. The main activities on the island revolve around sun tanning, swimming, snorkelling, fishing and partying.
Long Beach is on the western side of the island and is a seven kilometre long stretch of sandy, pristine beach. There are a couple of simple resorts at each end of the beach and most people come by boat for the day before heading back to Koh Tuch.
Just off the northeast coast of Koh Rong lies the small private island of Song Saa that is a piece of heaven, if you are lucky enough to be able to afford to stay there.
South of Koh Rong you will find the smaller island of Koh Rong Samloem (also called Koh Rong Sanloem). The island is around five kilometres from north to south and 1,5 kilometres wide. On the eastern side there is a big bay called Saracen Bay on which most of the resorts lie.
Essentially you have sea, beach and jungle. Carved out of the jungle are about fifteen resorts that sit almost on the water. There are a couple of paths through the jungle to the western side of the island where there are two other resorts – one at Lazy Beach and one at Sunset Beach. Resorts in this context are typically a number of bungalows or chalets (usually five to about fifteen) set around a central kitchen/pub/lounge area.
There are no roads or vehicles and everything has to be brought to the island. It is the perfect getaway to relax and do nothing. It is a beautiful, postcard setting and one can wander along the beach stopping at pub after pub for a drink or a meal.
Koh Rong Samloem is much more peaceful than Koh Rong. One of its beach has been voted as one of the top 15 beaches in the world by National Geographic. There is no motorised activity in the bay and the island discourages loud music being played. There are also no hawkers to bug you with their merchandising!
It is the ideal place to suntan, swim, go for walks or scuba dive and snorkel. Sleeping and reading are other activities heavily indulged in here! The evening boat tour where you go snorkelling on the north side of the island, visit a local fishing village for supper and then swim amongst the phosphorescent plankton on the way home.
Kampot is not really about specific attractions like many other parts of Cambodia but it is very popular for its natural beauty and laid-back and chilled atmosphere. The capital of Kampot province is Kampot town and sits at the foot of the Elephant mountains. The area has lush jungles, beautiful beaches, a lazy river running through the town and alluring islands just off the coast.
Kampot is known around the world for its top quality pepper and in days gone by (before the ruinous Khmer Rouge years) Kampot pepper was found in many of the best restaurants around the world. The industry has recovered and there are opportunities to visit one of these pepper plantations.
The town has some wonderful restaurants and there are also some great examples of French colonial architecture – as well as many examples that have been dreadfully neglected! Day tours from Kampot include visiting cave temples in the nearby limestone caves, Kep Beach, Rabbit Island and Bokor Hill Station which is a luxury resort built for French colonial residents in the 1920s and 30s at the top of Bokor Mountain in the Preah Monivong National Park. It was first abandoned in the 1940s then added to in the 1960s before it was abandoned again in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge moved into the area.
Other attractions include pre-Angkorian ruins and caves, jungle trekking, cycling tours, river cruises, island trips, fishing trips and isolated beaches. For those wanting a kiteboarding holiday or wanting to learn to kiteboard, Kampot offers the opportunity to sail/fly in ideal conditions. Kampot is a little more than an hour by road from Sihanoukville so it is easy to combine these two areas on your travels.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city and lies in the north western part of the country – only about 80 kilometres from the Thailand border. It dates back to the 11th century and has some of the best preserved French colonial architecture in the country. The Thais ruled the area during the 1800s and again from 1941 – 1947.
The city is home to around 250 000 people and lies on either side of the sleepy Sangker River which has many laid-back cafes and restaurants on its banks. There are a number of wonderful attractions to see in this area and for the fit travellers you can cycle around Battambang as well as kayak up and down the Sangker River.
The internationally acclaimed circus Phare Ponleu Selpak is well worth seeing. It is a multi-arts centre that is more than just a circus – including training for musicians, visual artists and performing artists many of whom are drawn from the disadvantaged children in the area.
The Bamboo Train is another wonderfully unique attraction just outside town. It is a7km ride on a part of the remaining old Phnom Penh-Bangkok railway line. The tracks are warped and sometimes mis-aligned but this does not affect the fun experience where you sit on a small bamboo platform that is on two axles and is powered by a small lawnmower engine.
The trip out takes around twenty minutes and back the same time. The problem of two “platforms” coming towards each other on the same line is solved by the drivers of each lifting one of the platforms off the tracks, allowing the other to go past and then putting it back on the tracks so that you can continue your journey!
Phnom Sampeau lies 12km southwest of Battambang and is well worth a visit. It is home to a complex of temples and provides wonderful views from the top of the mountain. It is also home to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau which is an enormous cave which opponents of the Khmer Rouge were thrown through a skylight in the ceiling onto the rocks below. On the floor of the cave is a reclining Buddha and a stupa holding the skulls and bones of some of the victims.
If you visit in the late afternoon it is worth staying until dusk when you will be able to witness a truly amazing spectacle when one and half million bats pour out of a massive cave high up on a cliff face. This lasts for around 30 minutes as these creatures fly off into the night to feed on insects in the paddy fields and at nearby Tonlé Sap Lake.
Kratie is situated on the Mekong River and is famous for the Irrawaddy dolphins that are found here. These beautiful creatures’ numbers are under serious threat and while there is no consensus on how many still survive, they are believed to number significantly less than 100 animals.
Kratie is a very rural area with a small population and it will give you a wonderful insight into the rural way of life in Cambodia. The town suffered little damage during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime and consequently the French colonial architecture is relatively unspoilt. The area is known for its beautiful Mekong River sunsets.
Thirty-six kilometres north of the town is the beautiful 100 column pagoda – the largest pagoda in Cambodia. Local industry includes the growing of rubber plantations and farming – predominantly rice, cashew nuts and fruit – including durian, rambutans and lychees.