Once considered the ‘gem’ of Asia, Phnom Penh has overcome the dark years of civil war and sprung back to life. Located on the banks of the Mekong River (and accessible by speedboat from Vietnam), the nation’s energetic capital is noted for its beautiful colonial architecture and historic sites. Despite the usual hustle and bustle of a capital city, Phnom Penh retains an old world charm and tranquil atmosphere, with stilted villages lining the river front and local markets. Prominent city landmarks include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Wat Phnom, whilst the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the infamous Killing Fields provide an insight into the country’s tragic history, during Pol Pots reign of terror.
Siem Reap is the gateway to Cambodia’s vast and spectacular Angkor Temple Complex, which is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest archaeological sites. Within the legendary 'lost city of the Khmers' there are over a thousand temples ranging from piles of rubble to the magnificent and iconic Angkor Wat - the world's largest religious building. Other key sites in the complex include jungle submerged Ta Prohm Temple which features in the film ‘Tomb Raider’ and the Bayon Temple with its giant stone carved faces. A minimum of 2-3 full days is needed to visit the main ruins of the fabled Angkor complex. With its picturesque riverside location, colonial and Chinese-style architecture and leafy tree lined boulevards, Siem Reap is an ideal base for exploration. Embracing its ever growing number of visitors, new hotels, restaurants and spas are springing up all over town. Just outside town, other attractions include lush countryside, a silk farm, bird sanctuary and Tonle Sap Lake which offers relaxing boat trips.
The largest lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap provides fish and irrigation water for over half of Cambodia’s population and is well-known for its floating villages and flooded forests. 90,000 people, most of which are ethnic Vietnamese, live in 170 villages on the lake. Chong Kneas, just outside of Siem Reap, is one of the most famous floating villages in the area. It is a particularly scenic village, best enjoyed in the light of early morning or late afternoon. Like many floating villages, Chong Kneas moves depending on the season. The friendly village of Kompong Pluk is another popular place to visit. Houses are built on stilts 6 to 7 metres tall and the flooded forest, whose petrified trees are exposed when the water levels drop, gives the village an other-worldly atmosphere. Tonle Sap Lake is just a short drive from Siem Reap, making it an ideal day trip.
The provinces of Kompong Thom and Preah Vihear in northwestern Cambodia offer a number of unique temples to visit. The provincial capital of Kompong Thom is an easy stopover between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and is the ideal base for visits to the unique sites of pre-Angkorian temples. Sambor Prei Kuk is an impressive complex of 100, mainly brick, temples scattered throughout the forest and are some of the oldest sculptures in the country. Further north near the border with Thailand is Prasat Preah Vihear, an 800m long temple complex perched high atop an escarpment in the Dangkrek Mountains offering breathtaking views of the valley below. The complex was built between 889 and 1152 by seven successive monarchs and dedicated to the Hindu deity of Shiva.
The charming riverside town of Kampot is home to some of the finest examples of French colonial architecture in Cambodia. It’s a sleepy place with a relaxed atmosphere, best enjoyed strolling along the streets of crumbling colonial shop-houses and dining along the riverfront promenade. West of Kampot, and an easy day trip, is the Bokor National Park, home to a variety of rare and threatened animals including tigers, leopards and black bears. The abandoned French hill station here sits in lush evergreen forests with spectacular views of the coastal plain. Kampot also serves as an ideal base for trips to the languid seaside resort of Kep. Once a retreat for the French elite, Kep is famed for its stunning sunsets and splendid food, with hammocks and popular eateries lining the sandy shoreline.
The province of Kratie is a remote and wild region that sits astride the Mekong River in Cambodia. It attracts few outside visitors yet its charming provincial capital is a thriving travel hub. The lively riverside town of Kratie is rich in French-architecture having been spared from wartime bombing, and its sizeable riverfront affords views of some of the greatest Mekong sunsets in the country. The main draw of Kratie though is the chance to spot the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin, a species endangered throughout Asia. Rarely seen in the sea, this riverine mammal is recognised by its bulging forehead and small dorsal fins. Motorboats from Kampi, about 15km north of Kratie, take visitors out to the middle of the river to view the dolphins at close quarters.
White sand beaches, undeveloped tropical islands and a laid-back traveller vibe make Sihanoukville Cambodia’s most happening beach destination. Named after the king at the time, Sihanoukville was hacked from the jungle in the 1950s to create the country’s first and only deep water port though the beaches are definitely the main attraction. Occheuteal Beach is a 4km long strip of sand with ramshackle restaurants where you can enjoy a beer and a grilled meal watching the sun set while the waves lap at the shoreline. Serendipity Beach is a rocky outstrip with atmospheric bar-restaurants while Victory Beach is perfect for families. Excursions to the nearby islands are popular day trips with opportunities for snorkelling, diving and kayaking while Koh Rung Samloem, with its amazing wildlife, is ideal for trekking.
The charming and urban-sophisticated town of Battambang combines the resources of a modern city with some of Cambodia’s best preserved French colonial architecture. Situated on the banks of the Stung Sangker River, the small-town friendliness, timeless hilltop temples and rustic villages make it the perfect place to enjoy at leisure by bicycle or on the infamous bamboo train. There are a number of Buddhist temples within Battambang itself as well as a number of Hindu representations, namely roundabout statues. Outside of town, the temple complex of Phnom Sampeau sits at the summit of a limestone outcrop with a golden stupa and gorgeous views. The five towers of Phnom Banan south of Battambang are reminiscent of Angkor Wat while Wat Kor Village is known for its Khmer heritage houses.