No visit to Cambodia is complete without a trip to catch a majestic sunrise at iconic 12th-century Angkor Wat. Yes, you may well have to battle with the tens of thousands of other visitors also wanting to capture this magical moment, but if you manage to catch a corker, it makes coping with the crowds well worth it.
The critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin can be spotted swimming in a short stretch of the Mekong River, from Kratie to the Laos-Cambodia border, with them commonly spotted in Kratie. Once home to several thousand dolphins in the 1960s, today WWF Cambodia estimate there are less than 85 remaining. Climb aboard a fishing boat at Kampi to see the dolphins for about $10 but good luck being quick enough to capture them on camera.
The remote northeastern province of Mondulkiri is home to thick jungle, rolling hills and plenty of elephants. So, if you fancy getting up close and personal with one of the giant beasts, then book yourself in for an incredible experience with Elephant Valley Project, However, if you’re thinking about elephant rides, then this isn’t the place for you as they strongly advocate against the practise. Instead, you can spend the day hanging out with the mammals in their natural habitat as they roam through the jungle and bathe in the river.
After a short hiatus and relocation to another area, Battambang’s famous bamboo train is back on track and welcoming guests once again. Called a norry in Khmer, the “train” consists of a small bamboo platform covered with a mat and a few thin cushions to sit on. This sits on two sets of bogies with a motor at the back. A wooden pole is used as both the brakes and accelerator, with the train hitting speeds of up to 50km/h. A truly hair-raising ride.
While in Battambang, a visit to the bat caves is a must. Every evening at dusk, a crowd gathers at the foot of Phnom Sampeou, which sits about 12km from Battambang centre, to watch the millions of bats that stream from the caves for a night of hunting. A true spectacle that lasts for up to 40 minutes.
Nature buffs will be in their element at Wildlife Alliance’s animal release stations in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains. The organisation works tirelessly to fight against the illegal logging and poaching carried out in the jungle, rescuing animals and rehabilitating them at its Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Those able to return to their natural habitat are then taken to the release stations, where visitors can watch them being given a new lease of life.
If you fancy seeing another UNESCO World Heritage site that comes without the crowds of Angkor, then head to Prasat Preah Vihear in Preah Vihear province. Having sat at the centre of conflict with neighbouring Thailand over rights to the ancient temple complex, which was built between the 9th and 12th centuries by several kings, the sacred site is now deemed safe, yet remains well and truly off the tourist trail for now and is a worthwhile trip for visitors.
Kampot may well be famous for its Kampot pepper, but top-class salt is also produced in the province. Sitting close to the sea, saltwater floods the fields, which are then blocked from the ocean. The water is left to evaporate, leaving behind beds of salt crystals. Raw salt is then collected and sent to salt factories, where it is cleaned, Iodine is added, and the salt is packaged ready for shipping. Setting your alarm early to watch the sun rise above the plains is something truly special.
Kampot’s idyllic network of waterways are what makes the town and surrounding area truly special. And what better way to explore them than stand-up paddleboarding (SUP)? SUP Asia offers a series of tours, ranging from half-day through to seven-day trips that take in mangroves, islands, fishing communities and the country’s vibrant river life.
Get off-the-beaten-track in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri and take a stroll around and swim in Yak Lom Lake. This volcanic crater filled with freshwater is believed to be about 4,000-years-old and is just under 50-metres deep. A trail circles the lake and takes about an hour to walk. Another 850-metre path takes visitors into the forest next to the lake.
Kampong Cham’s iconic bamboo bridge was shuttered late last year to the dismay of many, having served as the main connection between Kampong Cham town and Koh Paen island, capable of holding trucks, horse and carts, cars and motorbikes. The kilometre-long bridge is constructed annually to serve the island’s 1,000 families when the Mekong River becomes too shallow for the ferry to cross. When the monsoon rains come, it is swept away and rebuilt the next year. However, completion of a concrete bridge meant the end of its baby bamboo brother. However, province chiefs have decided to build a smaller version but have banned vehicles.
The coastal town of Kep is famous for its fresh crab, caught daily off the shores. Head to Kep Crab Market and watch the fishermen wade into the shallow waters to check their haul before hand-picking which one you want to eat. Stir-fried crab and Kampot pepper is the favoured dish of the day and can be found in the many crab shacks next to the market.
Boasting a bounty of untouched powder sands and clear turquoise waters, Koh Rong Samloem is the perfect spot for peace and quiet in paradise. While development is picking up pace, Koh Rong Samloem for now still serves up true tropical island life.
Of course, The Killing Fields and S-21 serve to educate Cambodians and the world about the atrocities that took place under the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime, who ruled from 1975 to 1979, but for those wanting to dig deeper, then Anlong Veng is the place to be. As the last Khmer Rouge stronghold, the district in the northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey was home to many Khmer Rouge leaders, including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and Khieu Samphan. Many residents are former Khmer Rouge soldiers or descendants. As part of its reconciliation work, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia runs tours in the area, taking in visits to Ta Mok’s house, Pol Pot’s grave and the recently constructed Anlong Veng Peace Centre. Visitors can also meet former Khmer Rouge soldiers to talk to them about their experiences.
Adventure lovers should sign up to a trek in the Cardamom Mountains to experience real jungle life. Home to a wealth of rare and endangered wildlife, the Cardamoms offer the opportunity to truly get into the wild. And there are some great community initiatives to introduce guests to the sprawling jungle and its inhabitants. Chi Phat is one great project that allows visitors to live with locals in the village, trek through the forest, swim in waterfalls and learn more about the way of life in this remote region.