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11 Things to do in Cambodia

Author: David Pettitt

Cambodia, located in the centre of Southeast Asia, surrounded by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand, is blessed with a rich historical and cultural diversity. Best known for its association with the iconic Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the northern province of Siem Reap and the largest religious monument in the world, Cambodia has plenty more to offer the traveller. One of the unexpected joys of visiting Cambodia is the discovery of a wealth of lesser-known places – sights, landscapes, towns and villages all within easy reach of the main tourist destinations. This blog focuses on a selection of the best things to do in Cambodia whilst on a tailor-made holiday – some more mainstream, others a little off the beaten track, suggestions for combining Cambodia with Vietnam or Laos, tips on the best temples away from Angkor, a bamboo railway and ideas for explorations of the nation’s remoter areas.

UNESCO protected Preah Vihear

Cambodia’s only other UNESCO World Heritage Site besides Angkor, Preah Vihear located in the far north of Cambodia is one of the country’s less visited but most beautiful temple complexes. Dating back to the 10th century, this grandiose Hindu temple sits on the edge of a plateau and overlooks both the Dangrek Mountains and the rolling Cambodian countryside. Dedicated to Shiva, Preah Vihear is rightly considered the pinnacle of Khmer temple design with intricately carved lintels and beautifully considered sculptural designs.

Battambang and the Bamboo Railway

Sleepy Battambang is Cambodia's second city, has a fine historic centre and serves a good base from which to visit a number of interesting Angkorian sites. Battambang is renowned for its well-preserved French colonial architecture – the grand French Governor's residence and 1930s Central Market are particular highlights – whilst the temples of Wat Ek Phnom, Wat Banan and Wat Tahm Rai are also well worth visiting. The main highlight of Battambang, however, is a ride on the unique 'Bamboo Train' – a simple wooden platform on wheels which travels through the beautiful Cambodia countryside.

Discover Kep, Cambodia’s finest beach resort

Few travellers to South East Asia realise that Cambodia has a long and relatively underdeveloped coastline of sandy beaches and pretty coastal towns. One of the best is Kep which is located due south of Phnom Penh, close to Kampot and with views of the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Developed during colonial rule and formerly known as Kep-sur-Mer, it is hard to believe that this laid-back town was once a favourite holiday destination for the Cambodian and French elite. Kep is famous for its seafood and particularly locally caught crab.

Cruise the lower reaches of the Mekong River to Vietnam

Dominated by the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and the mighty Mekong River which slices through the centre of the country, it is little wonder that one of the best ways to experience Cambodia is to take to the water on a river cruise. Journeys vary in length from a couple of days to week-long explorations, link Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor to capital Phnom Penh and encompass floating markets, riverside villages and remote religious complexes. Longer cruises continue to Vietnam and the watery landscapes of the Mekong Delta.

Angkorian remains of Koh Ker

Located in the jungles of northern Cambodia, the impressive temples of Koh Ker are rightly considered to be some of the finest Angkorian remains in Cambodia. Established during the 10th century and briefly serving as capital of the Khmer Empire, this important archaeological site is part of a large complex of 42 important structures including richly adorned temples, beautifully carved shrines and other significant religious buildings including Prasat Thom – a 40 metre high seven-tiered pyramid.

Kratie and the Irrawaddy dolphin

Kratie is a river port on the Mekong located midway between Laos and Phnom Penh. Historically Kratie was an important administrative centre for the Angkorian Empire and was positioned at the heart of a number of ancient trade routes bringing great wealth to the town. A quintessential provincial town and a popular stopping point on the overland road to north east Cambodia, Kratie is one of the best places in South East Asia to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin in its natural habitat.

Lesser known temples at Angkor – Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei

Angkor Wat is rightly lauded, however, what few travellers realise is that this temple complex forms just a small part of a much wider ancient landscape. Beyond Angkor there are a whole host of lesser-known temples ready to discover – many within easy reach of Siem Reap and nearly all equally as beguiling and with considerably fewer visitors. Two of these lesser-known temples are Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm, the former with elaborate floral carvings and the latter still atmospherically concealed by thick jungle and twisting creepers.

Kampot pepper

A limited number of people stop in the pretty little town of Kampot but it makes for an interesting diversion for those travelling between Phnom Penh and the Cambodian coast. The centre of Kampot is a charming place to explore with quaint streets, white-washed colonial-era homes and pretty French villas. However Kampot’s main draw, and the commodity it is best known for, is its pepper – grown in local plantations, sought after by chefs around the world and which can be bought in the town’s central market.

Travel overland to Laos and 4000 Islands

Cambodia’s northern border with neighbouring Laos is one of the least developed regions in South East Asia with a limited infrastructure and few accommodation options. Yet, for the more intrepid traveller, the area represents an opportunity to see an area of exceptional natural beauty – the 'Four Thousand Islands'. Actually located at the southern tip of Laos close to the Cambodian border, this inland archipelago, created by the many channels of the Mekong River, is the setting for rural villages, waterfalls and a diverse range of flora and fauna.

Angkor Borei and Phnom Da

Recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important archaeological sites in Cambodia, it has long been accepted that this ancient city is the setting for the earliest known Khmer inscriptions. Recent excavations have also suggested that humans have been associated with the site in excess of 3000 years. Like many ancient complexes in South East Asia, the site was heavily influenced by early Hindu and Buddhist practices brought to the region by subcontinental traders whilst nearby Phnom Da is the setting for Cambodia’s oldest standing Khmer stone temple.

Cambodia's remote North East

Remote Rattanakiri Province in Cambodia's far flung north-east is rarely visited by foreign travellers. The region is centred on the town of Ban Lung which serves as a base from which to explore this predominately rural area. Once a place of great wealth due to mineral and gemstone deposits, the province also holds significant cultural importance for its many minority communities. Large swathes of Rattanakiri is forested and there are plenty of opportunities to experience the jungle and its unique flora and fauna.

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