As Cambodia’s top tourist attraction, avoiding the crowds that flock to the main temples at Angkor Wat Archaeological Park – Angkor Wat itself, Bayon and Ta Prohm – is now impossible. And the over-crowding issue looks set to continue to hurtle towards breaking point as the UNESCO World Heritage site welcomes more visitors each year.
For a truly off-the-beaten track experience, swap Angkor for Koh Ker. Located about 120km from Siem Reap – home to Angkor Wat – visitors, if they’re lucky, can have the temple complex to themselves. At worst, there will be a handful of Cambodian families roaming the remote site.
Sitting as the capital of the Angkor Empire from 928 to 944, it comprises of a series of temples and monuments dotted throughout 81sqk of jungle. Only a few temples are open to visitors, with Prasat Krahom and Prasat Thom being the most visited.
Prasat Thom is the main monument, with visitors able to climb to the top of the seven-tiered structure. However, this comes with a warning to those who harbour a fear of heights. For those who can brave it, the views are certainly rewarding.
Prasat Krahom is Koh Ker’s second largest structure. The series of crumbling, jungle-engulfed buildings feature stone archways, dilapidated galleries, libraries and sanctuaries that live on as a still-impressive shadow of their former glory.
Being home to Angkor Wat means Siem Reap town has quickly become a tourist trap, over-run with bars, restaurants, hotels and stores catering to the foreign crowds. If it’s temples that you’re seeking while experiencing the real Cambodia then ditch Siem Reap from your itinerary and add Preah Vihear instead.
Steering away from the well-trodden trail comes with a warning, as amenities in Preah Vihear, for now, remain sparse when it comes to catering to the Western crowd. Apart from a handful of hotels, the rest of the accommodation and food options are geared towards the local crowd. However, this is all part of the experience and an overnight stay in Preah Vihear brings a bounty of rewards.
The remote northern province, which borders Thailand, is home to another of Cambodia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, Prasat Preah Vihear. This site has also been at the centre of recent conflict with Thailand, adding to its intrigue.
While peace has been in place for several years, the slopes of the Dangrek Mountains, which house the temple, are dotted with soldiers and outposts, all keeping a close eye on their neighbours.
Visitors can also walk down to the base of the mountain, where Cambodian soldiers closely guard the border, which is marked by mesh netting topped with gnarls of barbed wire. They’re happy to pose for pictures and pass over their weapons as props to friendly faces, and a couple of bucks.
The temple itself is pretty impressive and spread across several levels, each built by kings wanting to out-do the structure below, between the 9th and 12th centuries. Again, this site comes with very few foreign faces and instead has mainly locals taking the trek to the temple’s peak, which boasts truly spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
If your agenda is too tight and you can’t fit in a trip to Preah Vihear but can’t stand the thought of battling the clammy crowds that increasingly swamp Siem Reap town, then why not head to neighbouring Banteay Srei for the day?
Although famous for the 10th century temple of the same name, Banteay Srei district has much more to offer than just a temple.
With sprawling countryside, a national park, waterfalls, community projects, farms and a taste of authentic living, it’s well worth hailing down a tuk tuk and heading about 20km out of Siem Reap to get exploring.
The Visit Banteay Srei initiative launched a couple of years ago with the aim of showcasing the district’s natural beauty and authentic way of living.
As well as a network of community homestays for those wanting to spend the night, visitors can take leisurely boat rides along the river, an ox-cart jaunt through paddies, visit dragon fruit farms, go trekking in the forest, visit the butterfly museum or take a cooking class with a Khmer family.
While a visit to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh can be an exciting experience for first-timers, with its vibrant street scenes, cacophony of chaos and contrast between traditional and modern Cambodia, its mounting amount of construction and traffic clogging the road can quickly become tiresome.
To easily escape the humdrum of capital life while experiencing a slice of rural Cambodia, then catch a tuk tuk and short ferry ride to Koh Dach, commonly known as Silk Island. While it’s becoming increasingly common for visitors to take day trips to the small island, most head back to city life in the evening.
However, there are a couple of cute spots to spend the night in complete tranquillity, just a stone’s throw away from Phnom Penh.
Le Kroma Villa comes highly recommended, with a few bright, modern villas perched over the banks of the Mekong River. An infinity pool also looks over the water, and there is a restaurant serving Khmer food and oven-fired pizzas.
Hire a bike from one of several places that dot the only road that circles the island and explore. Here, you’ll find farmers working the land, kids playing in the paddies and women weaving in the dappled shade of their stilted wooden homes.
Koh Rong has built itself a reputation as Cambodia’s party island in recent years, with most visitors heading to its often-packed shores. Luckily, the country is home to a swathe of other pickings, with many still boasting basic tropical island living.
Koh Ta Kiev is an alternative for those seeking some solace and simple life. Home to only a handful of budget resorts in the form of beach huts and bungalows, there is also the option to hire a hammock for the night, or sleep under canvas.
Again, escaping the masses comes with a warning that amenities are limited on this island. There are certainly no ATMs so don’t forget to bring cash and stock up on sunscreen and insect repellent as there are mosquitos aplenty.
The smattering of resorts serve up a variety of Western and Asian meals, so you won’t go hungry. But remember to pack a torch and jumper as it ca get nippy at night.
There is no electricity grid on the island so the majority of the power is sourced from solar panels and generators. This often means electricity is switched off at about 9pm, with designated times given for guests to charge phones and other electrical items. Packing a fully charged power bank is a good idea.
Wi-Fi is a no-no so if you can’t cope with the idea of being switched off from the world, buy a local SIM card and data package and you may – if you’re lucky – get a faint signal to post that dream beach snap on Instagram.
With market life forming an integral part of Cambodians’ daily living, there’s no shortage of markets throughout the country, or Phnom Penh. However, most tourists visiting the capital tend to head straight for Russian and Central markets.
While still used by locals, mostly for groceries, household items and vehicle repairs, these markets are today geared towards tourists. That means you’ll find inflated prices, while losing out on the real market experience – absolute chaos.
Instead, head to Boeung Keng Kang Market between Street 380 and 392. Inside, you’ll find all the same goods you can at Russian and Central markets, but at a fraction of the cost. Think food, homeware, beauty parlours, fortune tellers, clothes, shoes, accessories, electrical goods, art and everything else.
In fact, this market is proving popular among Cambodian youth looking to snap up affordable fashion, and is full of stalls selling vintage gear. If you want to get in the midst of real market chaos, then head there early in the morning when locals are out buying up the freshest fruit and veg and best cuts of meat for the day ahead.
OK OK, Kratie is hardly on the tourist trail so those venturing to the eastern province are unlikely to come across too many foreign faces, even in the sleepy capital town of the same name.
Regardless, the tourists are lazily starting to trickle in and a smattering of guesthouses and accommodations are opening up to cater to the gradually swelling crowds.
To truly escape, sign up to stay at one of the many community homestays that litter the province. Locally-run Cambodian Rural Development Tours operates a series of homestays along the province, where guests can spend as many nights as they like living like a local at a series of rural villages along the Mekong River.
Options include Koh Pdao, a large river island about 40km north of Kratie where guests get the chance to take a boat out to view the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit this stretch of the river, a trip to the nearby turtle conservation centre, cycling through the island and meeting village members.
Koh Preah village, about 35km from Stung Treng, offers the opportunity to cycle along the Mekong, sample traditional food, visit the local dolphin pool and chat with village elders.
Again, visitors need to remember this is going back to basics. Wi-Fi is a no-no, even phone signal is scarce for mobile data. Some of the homes have a generator for electricity but often they will not run through the night so keep electrical items charged.
Don’t forget to bring something to keep you warm at night as the temperature can drop, and something to keep you dry during rainy season.
The typical Cambodian way to wash is to scoop water from a giant ceramic pit using a bucket and pouring it over yourself. So, don’t expect a hot shower – in fact, a shower in any form should be considered a luxury.
While Phnom Penh is a cacophony of noise, pollution, dust and construction, not so far away sit the Cardamom Mountains.
Not so recently, the lush tropical forest that sits in the southwest of the country were off limits to visitors. However, improved roads coupled with the introduction of more community-based activities have made it quicker and easier for visitors to dive into real jungle life.
Sitting a world away from the capital’s urban jungle, the Cardamoms offer the perfect trekking terrain, with several tour operators offering trips, ranging from half- to multi-day excursions.
These include camping, kayaking, mountain biking and walking through jungle that is home to a variety of endangered flora and fauna.
Chi Phat is one option, with the village welcoming visitors at one of the many homestays. You can go for guided walks through the forest, take cooking classes, go on bird-watching walks, or try kayaking and other river adventures.
Or try out the recently opened Cardamom Tented Camp, which offers glamping in an isolated patch of the jungle. Here, money is pumped back into conserving a section of the forest, which is plagued by illegal poaching and logging.
Leave the capital’s hustle and bustle behind and instead of lunching alongside the masses, opt for DIY dining and do something a little different.
Cambodians love to picnic and where there’s water you’ll find wooden structures straddling the banks, kitted out with hammocks. This is where local families love to laze away their days, packing a picnic and heading out of town for some down time.
Stock up on goodies at one of the supermarkets – try Lucky on Sihanouk Boulevard or Thai Hout on Street 63 – or for some upmarket deli products, hit Digby’s on Street 63 or MU Gourmet on Street 51 for a range of luxury eats.
With the picnic packed, get a tuk tuk and go to Tonle Bati Lake, about 30km from Phnom Penh.
As a popular picnic spot with locals, the lake is surrounded by bamboo structures that can be hired for the day for a few bucks – settle on a price before you settle down. Tonle Bati is also home to Ta Prohm – different to Angkor’s Ta Prohm – and Yeay Peov and Wat Tonle Bati pagoda, which dates back to 1576.
Kien Svay, about 1.5 hours away in tuk tuk, is another option, with plenty of picnic spots surrounding the large lake there.
Despite recent efforts to shake off its raucous reputation, the coastal town of Sihanoukville seemingly becomes rowdier by the day. A great alternative to the party town is the relaxed river town of Kampot, and while it is becoming more popular with travellers, for now, a visit retains what Kampot is renowned for – being able to chill.
Bursting with charm, the town centre is home to a growing collection of guesthouses and boutique hotels. And the town is cementing its reputation as a foodie hub, with some great additions to food and drink offerings opening all the time.
However, to truly appreciate Kampot, you need to head out of town and along Kampot River. Here you’ll find a handful of delightful accommodation offerings perched over the river. A variety of bungalows and huts, ranging from budget to luxury, look out over the calm waters and rolling hills on the horizon.
From here, there’s the option to kick back and do nothing, swim in the river, kayak, paddle-board or take a fishing boat through the spider’s web of slender waterways that pass by fishing villages, temples and rural life. Pure bliss.