Cambodia’s cities are gateways for adventures into this captivating country: it’s through them that the magic of Cambodia and the kindness of its people is unveiled. Spend a few days shopping in local markets, drinking in neighborhood bars and lounging along the banks of the Mekong and the layers of this charming country start to reveal themselves. So, here are the best cities in Cambodia for you to visit, get stuck into and fall in love with.
This Cambodian transit hub close to the Thai border has boomed in recent years with the arrival of Thai tourists to its casinos. What was once an underdeveloped city has seen an influx of cash streaming in through the burgeoning gambling industry that entices big-city rollers from Bangkok. Poipet’s hardly an enjoyable or pretty city: travelers who visit are often simply on visa runs and there has been a fair few a warnings about border control scams. To really understand how locals live, make sure to check out the old train station which is a crumbling bastion of the city’s past – now edged by slums.
With the Mekong’s orange waters meandering their way through the city, Kampong Cham is a centre for trade in the area. The friendly little city is lacking in development and tourism, but this doesn’t mean it should be passed by; its charm lies in the friendliness of the local people. There isn’t too much to do here other than stroll along its buzzing boulevard and rambling riversides. One of the top attractions here is the bamboo bridge that’s rebuilt every year after the Mekong floods – the bridge connects to an island community that is also interesting to explore.
Kep is a seaside city that lures tourists with delicious food, a sandy beach and a national park. The city was created as a seaside resort for French socialites in the early 1900s when they built huge Western-style villas. Many of the villas are now derelict and have have been sucked up by the encroaching jungle making for some fantastic photo opportunities. A variety of tourists come to this family-friendly city for its sleepy sunsets and succulent seafood, as well as the excellent hiking routes in Kep National Park.
Halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom is sometimes overlooked but there’s much more to this city than a quick stop-off point. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy spending time in Kampong Thom’s surrounding wildlife. Small farms and picturesque rice fields create the perfect environment for birds and wildlife. Sambor Prei Kuk, the intriguing remains of the Chenla Kingdom also lie on the outskirts of town – this ancient city unbelievably predates Angkor by 400 years!
Koh Kong city is still is very much developing, but that doesn’t mean the urban area aren’t worth your time. More tourists are beginning to arrive and the city’s burgeoning adventure tourism trade has also led to a rise of ecotourism in the surrounding countryside. Spend a couple of nights in the city and take a tour to the nearby beaches and gushing waterfalls located deep in the jungle.
Far-flung Banlung is located on the remote borders with both Vietnam and Laos, comprising dusty red roads and charming countryside. The area has been affected by logging and illegal trade and tourism in the town is still very new. Brave the busy marketplace and then take a day trip out to experience the city’s surrounding natural gems; just outside the city, Boeng Yeak Lom is a huge crater filled with gleaming turquoise water amidst the depths of the jungle.
Kampot is a city by name but not in nature. The sleepy hedonism of the city seduces travelers who plan to stay for a couple of nights but stay much longer. The quiet streets are ideal for cycling around on a push bike, past locals who are busy with their daily chores and children who are heading to school. The city has a friendly, family feel and people here are welcoming. Like a hippie enclave, travelers often stop here and stay long term, deciding to set up small businesses. Mingle with other visitors in the cafes and sleep in one of the many great guest houses.
Kratie is a small city that’s shaped by the bends of the majestic Mekong. Travelers stop off in the town to enjoy its local life and for the chance to spot the Irrawaddy dolphins that live in this part of the river. Sitting in one of the markerside cafes reveals the hard and impoverished lives of many of the locals – children without clothes beg while travelers snap pictures of them on their SLRs. However, the people of Kratie are amazingly welcoming to tourists. Take the fun ferry boat across the Mekong and spend a day pedaling around Koh Trong island to see the small island community that live in the middle of the river.
The city of Battambang, with its crumbling colonial architecture and stunning surrounding countryside, is proving to be somewhat of an artistic hub. Battambang isn’t only a space for Cambodia’s future artistic talents, but also a place to take in ancient temples and pagodas. The dreamily dozy city is the perfect antidote to the swirling city streets of Cambodia’s bigger cities. There is a threat from big business to tear down the town’s center beautiful old buildings so make sure to visit here before it’s too late and concrete replaces history.
Sleepy and secluded, Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s premier seaside resort city. The little fishing port has become a magnet for tourists who want to kick back and relax along Cambodia’s coastline. The city is a resort destination that still remains under the radar in terms of mass tourism, but big business and development is on its way. The white sand beach is edged by small shacks and bars where you can find people reclining with a drink, while they spend days gazing out to sea. Hotels here are numerous and often very affordable, and although there is often a seedy feeling around the town, with many lingerers and single older men traveling alone, the city is a jumping off point to Cambodia’s tropical islands.
Siem Reap is a dusty, fun and energetic city. Most visitors to Southeast Asia will find themselves in Siem Reap at some point, if not particularly for the city itself but for its world famous temples of Angkor. A speedy tuk-tuk ride out of the city center and the jungle-enshrined temple complex appears like something from the pages of a book. The city of Siem Reap itself is a place for tourists to let their hair down, enjoy dinner and drinks with friends and dance the night away, if this isn’t your scene then maybe you can spend time unwinding at one of the many massage parlours.
Cambodia’s capital city has seen – and still does see – its fair share of hard times and struggle, but with the city’s checkered past comes a strength and resilience that is infectious. The Killing Fields are a short journey away from the busy city streets, but continue to serve as a humbling reminder of the atrocities and victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in an old school, also works as a sobering reminder of the horrors the people of Cambodia have faced in recent living memory.
Cambodia, however, isn’t all about its dark past. Walking the streets of the Phnom Penh yields smiles from locals who are going about their daily business, browsing the markets or just hanging out along the banks of the Ton Le Sap River. Make sure to visit the Wat Phnom temple, after which the city is named, for some space and time to reflect on this amazing city.