Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia seems relatively small.
Looking at a map of Cambodia, we immediately realize its size compared to its massive neighbors. With less than 200,000 square kilometers of land surface, which is roughly the same size as northern Italy, Cambodia requires less investment than other Southeast Asian countries in terms of effort, travel time and, finally, money.
Having said that, there are plenty of archaeological destinations to visit in Cambodia, many of which are still unknown to Western tourists. Starting from the impressive cruises on the Mekong along the most famous and photogenic river in Southeast Asia; to the islands of Cambodia, tropical gems easily reachable from the seaside city of Sihanoukville; and finally, to its remote provinces, to get a glimpse of the most authentic and unspoiled Cambodia and its cities.
Cities of Cambodia: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and so much more!
When planning a trip to Cambodia, the first impression is that the main attractions are Siem Reap and its famous Angkor Wat, followed by the capital, Phnom Penh. However, as said before, this is only a first impression. As we dig deeper, we realize that Cambodia offers to who has enough patience and curiosity to visit it, exotic charming towns with advanced modernity yet still preserving their ancient traditions and the rhythm of rural life.
A glimpse of Siem Reap
The city of Siem Reap is not only a gateway to one of the world’s largest archaeological complexes, but also the place to get your first taste of the country. Evening strolls along the riverfront, after spending the day emulating the adventures of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, give us a taste of the country’s typical scents and flavors. Enjoy French-influenced cuisine (if you like baguettes, go for it), seafood dishes, and a vibrant nightlife featuring locals and fun-loving tourists. Markets are everywhere, so if Siem Reap is your first stop in Cambodia, take a deep breath and make sure you hold off on buying the many local handicrafts you’ll find at the stalls in the city center or along the riverfront. There will be time for that too.
Kampong Cham and its laid-back lifestyle
In the south, along the western bank of the great Mekong, we come across the small town of Kampong Cham, with its fragile balance between contemporary tourism and ancient traditions. Often seen only through the windows of the bus, Kampong Cham offers an incomparable view of the Mekong as well as the view of traditional houses on stilts surrounded by countless floating lotus flowers. Towards the west, if you are interested in archaeological sites, you could opt for a few hours trip to Wat Nokor, a few kilometers from the center. Make sure to get back to your accommodation in time to witness a magical sunset in this lovely location.
Battambang and Kratie
Located in the northwest of the country, the city of Battambang is where the past is intertwined with the present in such a tangible way that you can experience it firsthand while visiting the nearby ruins of Ek Phnom or while enjoying a dish of amok fish on the large terraces of the many outdoor cafes.
Further east, the country is divided in two by the Mekong. This part of the country is less touristy thus you can find smaller towns and experience the real rural life. Just like Kratie, where it is possible to take boat trips to see the famous Irrawaddy dolphins or simply ride a bike along the banks of the river to visit the traditional villages where the famous woven baskets are made. Here, more than anywhere else, it is possible to get a glimpse of the pace of life, changing with the seasons and the traditions, making the trip unique. However, this is not always the case, as the streets of Kratie, as well as those of Stung Treng further north, are filled with locals, markets, stores and restaurants. All you have to do is get away from the guesthouses or hotels to savor the magic of this place, perhaps a little unsettling at times, yet part of the genuine experience of any trip.
The cities of eastern Cambodia
This kind of experience is the standard in the cities of Cambodia located in the remote provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. Both provincial capitals, Banlung and Sen Monorom ,are gateways to visit tribal villages in the Cambodian forest and the many natural attractions. The waterfalls of Bou Sra close to Sen Monorom are considered one of the most beautiful in Cambodia. The same goes for the volcanic lake Yeak Laom, which is included in an outstanding itinerary in the remote provinces of Cambodia with the chance to swim in its transparent waters, which is particularly appreciated given the heat.
Phnom Penh, the capital city
I had almost forgotten about the capital city of Phnom Penh, a key destination to learn about the history of the country. The Tuol Sleng Museum, once known as Security Office 21, is evidence of a dramatic and tragic past. Tuol Sleng Museum, once known as Security Office 21, is evidence of a dramatic and tragic past. Walking through the rooms and corridors of the building, seeing photos hanging on the walls, is a powerful and intense experience which allows you to gain a greater and deeper awareness of Cambodian history.
The National Museum, on the other hand, offers an impressive array of archaeological artifacts from pre-Angkorian and Angkorian times.
Cambodia: the 5 must-see archaeological sites
When looking for what to see in Cambodia, a series of images of the archaeological complex of Angkor Wat is the most common result of your research. Angkor Wat is the country’s greatest symbol and Cambodia identifies itself with it, so much that it appears on the national flag, on beer cans, posters, photos, T-shirts, tea and coffee packaging. In short, Angkor Wat, as you may have guessed, is one of Cambodia’s must-see destinations.
That said, let’s move on with a top-five list drawn up by In Asia Travel, listing the many archaeological sites nestled in the jungle, set on plateaus or along rivers that are a must on a well-planned trip to the authentic Cambodia.
Technical building tests. If you want to build a complex of temples like Angkor Wat, you’d better do some tests first. Not to mention that it was extremely successful. The archaeological complex of Beng Mealea is one of the last Hindu temples before the advent of Buddhism in the region and dates to the 12th century.
A charming archaeological site located on a plateau in the Dangrek mountain range; the view from here is truly spectacular. The temple of Preah Vihear is still used as a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims climb the steep hill every day to leave offerings, light incense or simply have a picnic away from the heat of the plains.
One of the most spectacular forest temples in all of Cambodia. The main structure has not undergone major renovations; hence it probably appears as it was when the first explorers found it. The temple of Banteay Chhmar, approximately a 2-hour drive from Siem Reap, dates to the late 12th century and was built by King Jayavarman VII, the same ruler of the well-known Bayon temple at the Angkor archaeological site.
Sambor Prei Kuk
One of the country’s most ancient historical remains; the Sambor Prei Kuk site was part of the ancient city of Isanapura, which was the capital of the Cenla Kingdom between the 7th and 8th centuries. Located along the stream, Stung Sen (the temple complex nestled in the forest) offers a unique experience of the origin of the Khmer kingdom.
You cannot and should not miss the archaeological complex of Angkor. The photos, the tales of friends, the precious stories and sketches of the explorer entomologist Henri Mouhot are just the surface of the deep emotions you will experience in Angkor. Awe, wonder, emotion, exhaustion, heat, thirst, and more are just some of the many things you will experience when visiting Angkor and its main temples.
Cambodia Islands: beaches, sea and snorkeling
If you think that the cultural and historical aspects of a vacation are essential, yet you also believe that a vacation should include an extension to the sea, have no fear. Seaside tourism in Cambodia offers, like popular destinations such as Thailand, enchanting locations where:
- snorkeling with tropical fish
- read a book lying in a hammock ….
To enjoy a few days at the beach in Cambodia without rushing to somewhere else.
Every day, weather permitting, boats are departing from Ochheuteal Beach to Cambodia’s islands for snorkeling and other underwater activities. There are two options: the slow boat or the fast boat. While the first option is slow and cheap, the second is faster but slightly more expensive.
Among the islands of Cambodia that are worth a visit we recommend the enchanting Koh Rong together with the nearby Koh Rong Samloem, perfect for snorkeling and diving. The islands are less than an hour away by speed boat from Sihanoukville. The latter particularly, is still off the beaten track and perfect for those seeking peace, quiet and wild nature. However, there are a few minor “drawbacks” that are worth mentioning. Apart from a few class facilities, accommodations are rather basic, and electricity is only available for a few hours a day.
The islands of Koh Russey and Koh Tmei can be reached easily from Ream National Park, located about 30 kilometers south of Sihanoukville. Mangrove forests and lots of wilderness with crystal clear waters and semi-deserted beaches can be found.
Cambodia Tours: From Floating Villages to Remote Provinces
When planning your vacation, relying on bespoke Cambodia itineraries enables you to discover locations that would otherwise be difficult to reach. Thanks to the knowledge of the local guides, who are fluent in the local language or dialect, travelers can experience a deeper and closer relationship with the tribal populations, or just satisfy curiosities or doubts, since English is not always spoken, especially by the elderly.
The floating villages of Cambodia
Out of all the possible itineraries, one of the most fascinating is the one to the floating villages of Cambodia, located along the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake, listed as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1997. A perfect example of human adaptation to changing environmental conditions are the floating villages of Chong Khneas, Kompong Phluk and Kompong Khleang. During the dry season, the absence of water brings to light the marvelous wooden structures below the houses on stilts, making you wonder where the lake has gone and why the houses are perched on so many wooden stilts.
These questions are answered in the summer months when Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater basin in Southeast Asia, goes from an area of 3,000 square kilometers to 10,000 square kilometers and a depth from 2 to 14 meters, radically and temporarily changing the surrounding landscape. This of course applies to the outermost villages, as many others are constantly surrounded by the waters of the lake with a system of houses built on boats and stilts, along with stores, restaurants and workshops that can only be reached by boat.
The most remote Cambodia
There is still un unspoiled and off the beaten track part of Cambodia that is worth the visit: Cambodia’s remote provinces, in the far east of the country close to the border with Vietnam. As we have mentioned at the beginning when talking about the cities of Cambodia, these are the regions of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri. Astonishing experiences through an authentic journey to discover remote locations such as the small village of Pu Lung inhabited by the Bunong ethnic group. Or perhaps the remarkable itinerary taking you to the villages of the Kachok minority and their tribal cemeteries.
In such cases, a customized itinerary along with an expert guide, is the key to make connections with cultures and traditions that would be impossible to understand without the help of a guide.