Travelers who are bored with the beaches of Thailand or the natural sights of Vietnam may be up for more ancient ruins viewing. In this case, Cambodia can satisfy these urges. While the larger cities are rapidly modernizing, a visit to the famous site of Angkor offers a chance to see temples unrivaled in scale and grandeur in southeast Asia. Among the best places to visit in Cambodia are also some smaller towns and villages that provide a chance to experience a more traditional way of life, including treks into the jungle and to see even more fascinating ancient ruins.
Kep is a small sea-side resort that offers a variety of beach activities. Snorkelers can enjoy viewing the corals on the bottom of the shallow sea. Rabbit Island is a popular beach near Kep; conditions are rustic, however, with electricity being provided only a few hours in the evening. Most people visit the island on day trips. Kep was founded as a colonial retreat for the French elite in 1908 and the town is still full of ruined shells of old villas, destroyed in the Khmer Rouge days. Visitors can also take in panoramic ocean views at Kep National Park, visit a butterfly preserve or see how peppers are grown organically.
Banlung in northern Cambodia makes a great destination for travelers who enjoy being outdoors. Several tour companies overnight or multi-day trips into the jungles allowing adventuresome travelers to get up close and personal with nature. They offer visitors the opportunity to view a variety of monkeys and other wildlife, though some visitors don’t appreciate getting that close to leeches. A sorter trips to Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake offers the opportunity to see deep lakes as well as see Cambodian women doing traditional weaving.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second most populous city, and is especially popular with visitors interested in Cambodian history. Established as a trading center in the 18th century, Battambang later became part of French Indochina, with some colonial buildings still in existence. The town has many Angkor-style temples and Buddhist shrines. It is easy to get around by foot or bicycle. Statues, mostly of animals and gods, can be found in most public places, the most famous of which is an ancient Khmer king that is located on the road to Phnom Penh. The Central Market also is worth a visit.
Located on a river not too far from the Gulf of Thailand is more famous for its peppers than for tourists, though it is gaining more tourists all the time. Kampot’s black peppercorns are famous with gourmet cooks around the world because of their unique flavor. Kampot is the gateway to Bokor National Park, famed for its abandoned French hill station, pleasant climate and lush primary rainforest. Kampot also offers visitors the opportunity to go boating and rafting on the river that winds through town, as well as take in scenic waterfalls along the route. The Kampot Kompong Trach caves offer spelunkers the chance to see ancient ruins. Crab curry is a popular local dish.
Kratie is a small town located on the banks of the Mekong River and is dominated by a central marketplace surrounded by old, French colonial buildings. There’s no large scale tourism, but plenty of backpackers pour through here during the peak season. It is the place in Cambodia to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which live in the Mekong River in ever-diminishing numbers. It is estimated that there are between 66 and 86 dolphins left in the upper Cambodian Mekong area.
Named after a former king, Norodom Sihanouk, Sihanoukville is the most popular Cambodian beach resort on the Gulf of Thailand. Also known as Kompong Saom, Sihanoukville is where the United States fought its last battle in the Vietnam War. This southern Cambodia city offers both sandy and rocky beaches. Though none of Sihanoukville’s beaches would qualify as southeast Asia’s finest it is one of best places to visit in Cambodia after visiting all the Khmer and other attractions in the rest of the country. The beaches are popular with a variety of travelers from backpackers who stay in huts on the beach to those who prefer the luxury of five-star hotels. Snorkeling is popular on some of the offshore islands.
Siem Reap (literally “Siam Defeated”) is undoubtedly Cambodia’s fastest growing city and serves as a small charming gateway town to the world famous destination of the Angkor temples. Thanks to those Cambodia attractions, Siem Reap has transformed itself into a major tourist hub. It is laid-back and a pleasant place to stay while touring the temples. Siem Reap offers a wide range of hotels, ranging from several 5-star hotels to hundreds of budget guesthouses while a large selection of restaurants offer many kinds of food.
Koh Ker is a remote temple area about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Siem Reap. For a very brief period, from 928 to 944 AD, Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer empire. In this short time some very spectacular buildings and immense sculptures were constructed. The site is dominated by Prasat Thom, a 30 meter (98 ft) tall temple pyramid rising high above the surrounding jungle. Left to the jungle for nearly a millennium, Koh Ker was one of Cambodia’s most remote and inaccessible temple destinations. This has now changed thanks to recent de-mining and the opening of a new toll road.
Phnom Penh, the largest city is Cambodia, has been its capital since French colonial days. Once known as “the pearl of Asia,” Phnom Penh is considered one of the prettiest of the cities the French built in Indochina though the city is still recovering from war and revolution. French influence can still be found today. Located on the Mekong River, the city actually dates back to the 15th century. Top attractions include the Royal Palace and the National Museum, which contains a large collection of Khmer artifacts. The night market or Phsar Reatrey is a good place to pick up handcrafted items and souvenirs.
Angkor served as the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 14th centuries. As such, it is filled with historic treasures, making it one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Ruins of a thousand temples can be found scattered over farm lands and rice fields. These include the famous Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest single religious monument, the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom with its multitude of massive stone faces and Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple ruin entwined with towering trees. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, making the huge palace one of the wonders of the ancient world while offering an outstanding look of Khmer history.