Traditionally, most visitors spent a few days in Siem Reap, exploring Angkor Wat before continuing on to neighbouring countries. However, more people are catching onto the fact that there’s so much more to this country, and they’re right. Home to dense tropical jungle, go all Indiana Jones and head to the Cardamom Mountains, where waterfalls, wildlife, thick foliage and Mother Nature rule. There are several treks that take visitors into the heart of the area, with December to March the best time when the monsoon rains have abated.
What makes Cambodia the country that keeps people coming back is the people and their strong connections to the rich Khmer culture. Using the country as a pit stop won’t give you the chance to learn to love what makes Cambodia truly special. Extending your stay will enable you to forge more friendships with locals, understand the country more and delve deeper into its incredible nature.
Cambodia is home to a smattering of idyllic islands that are waiting to be explored. Sitting off the country’s southern coast is a series of untrodden and slightly more trodden islands that remain relatively undeveloped for now. Koh Rong is the largest and most developed of the islands and tends to be where the parties are for those looking for a livelier slice of the action. Neighbouring Koh Rong Samleom boasts long stretches of pristine beaches and plenty of spots to find solace.
If you’re looking for an adventure, then one is never far away in Cambodia. It may well be a small country, but it’s always easy to escape the mass tourist trail, if you stay a bit longer and don’t mind hours spent navigating dusty, pot-hole riddled roads at a snail’s pace. Emerging areas include Kratie, where Cambodian Rural Development Tours runs a series of trips into rural Cambodia visiting and staying with local communities, and Preah Vihear, home to an intriguing history, stunning countryside, and the ancient temple that sits close to the Thai border.
Fancy finding your zen or re-setting your mind? Well, Cambodia is the place to be because it’s home to a range of retreats and meditation programmes, stretching from a few days to a few months. Navutu Dreams Resort & Wellness Retreat in Siem Reap offers sessions to help reach the perfect mind-body balance with yoga, detoxes, traditional Chinese medicine and holistic treatments. The Vine Retreat is set in Kep’s tranquil countryside, meaning the setting in itself brings a sense of calm. Set on 35 acres of farmland, a saltwater swimming pool, accommodation and yoga centre, it hosts various retreats throughout the year.
Serving as the centre of the vast Khmer Empire – which ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries and called Angkor Wat its capital – the country’s rich history is hiding around every corner, from the crumbling temples that dot the country, to the art, song, dance and carvings. Then there is Cambodia’s recent painful past. The 1970s were plagued by civil war, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, under which 1.7 million people – 21 percent of the population – died. This can be explored at sites including the Killing Fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh, the Killing Caves in Battambang and at sites throughout remote Anlong Veng, the last Khmer Rouge stronghold and home to Pol Pot’s grave.
If you’re on a budget then it, literally, pays well to extend your stop-over in Cambodia, because it is home to a swathe of nice affordable accommodation, eateries and bars. Travelling across the country is also cheap, with a vast number of bus companies transporting people, goods and animals to all corners of the country.
Of course, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are the cream of Cambodia’s temple crop, but visitors too often forget Angkor Archaeological Park is spread across 400 square kilometres, taking in several capitals of the Khmer Empire and more than 300 temples and religious structures. Invest in a three- or seven-day pass and get well of the beaten track at some of the more remote temples – another bonus is there will hardly be any other foreigners in sight. These include Beng Mealea, Banteay Srei, and the Roluos group.
After extending your temple tripping, you’ll need a few more days just to see the plethora of other offerings Siem Reap has. Spend the day exploring sacred Kulen Mountain – take your bathers to enjoy the waterfalls – or get crafty at Artisan Angkor’s workshops, where you can see artisans at work. Visit Cambodia Landmine Museum and nearby butterfly centre, hit the smattering of boutiques and markets, and spend your evenings stuffing your face in the eclectic collection of restaurants.
Cambodia’s rugged landscape can be a biker’s dream, with several operators putting on motorbike tours of the country. Kickstart Dirtbike Adventures in Siem Reap run trips across the country, taking in Mondulkiri’s mountains, the Cardamom’s jungle trails and the coast. If you fancy going at a steadier pace, then Grasshopper Adventures run multi-day bike tours taking in sweeping rural landscapes.
Once you lie down in one of the hammocks set up at the handful of riverside hang-outs in Kampot, you’ll never get up – seriously. Nestled on the river away from the town are a few rustic riverside venues, offering accommodation – mostly in the form of wooden huts hidden in the forest that flanks the water – and food and drinks. Most also have jetties to dive into the water from, as well as kayaks and paddle-boards for hire. Sabay Beach, Naga House, GreenHouse and Champa Lodge come recommended.
You can’t come to Cambodia without heading to the coast, and the upmarket coastal resort of Kep is a must. Home to the country’s famous crab market, feasting on the national dish of stir-fried crab and Kampot pepper is another must. And once you land in Kep, you’ll find an abundance of reasons to stay a little longer.
It really doesn’t get any simpler than that. Cambodia’s unique quirks combined with its overwhelming charm means most visitors never want to leave.