Day 1: Arrive in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh International Airport is about 45 minutes away from the city centre. If your hotel hasn’t arranged a pick-up, then fear not because a series of stands line the airport exit, offering transport to your hotel, guesthouse, or wherever it may be that you’re going in the city centre for a fixed fee. This comes in the form of tuk tuks ($10) and taxis ($15). Private minivans can also be arranged.
Depending on what time you arrive, shake off the jet lag with dinner at Romdeng Restaurant. Run by local NGO Friends International, the restaurant is run by former street kids and current students of the organisation’s hospitality training programme, which produces many of the country’s top chefs and hotel staff. The menu is full of Cambodian favourites, given a fresh spin, with the revered snack of tarantula putting in an appearance for those who dare.
Day 2: Explore the markets, temples and river
Head to Russian Market – Phsar Tuol Tom Poung – and explore the sprawling the narrow network of alleyways that are lined with stalls selling clothes, accessories, pirate DVDs, fruit, meat, fish, motorbike parts – anything and everything you could possibly want. The centre area of the market is full of food and drink stalls, with some super-refreshing smoothies in a variety of flavours highly recommended. Stop off at Vibe Café and refuel for lunch.
Get a tuk tuk to Wat Phnom and stroll around the recently renovated park, which doubles up as a large roundabout. The area is popular with Cambodians, who like to hang out in the dappled shade. Atop the small hill is a temple, which for $1 can be visited. Don’t forget to cover the shoulders and knees, and take your shoes off before entering. Watch out for the mischievous monkeys, don’t feed them and steer clear of them because they will bite.
From Wat Phnom, walk to nearby Sisowath Quay, commonly known as riverside. This area comes to life at dusk as locals flock there to enjoy golden hour looking out over the Tonle Sap River. Fitness classes, joggers, lovers and friends playing games fill the promenade. Take a sunset river cruise on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, with many operators offering trips. Kanika puts on a range of cruises, with dinner options available.
Day 3: Take a bus to Siem Reap
The bus to Siem Reap takes anywhere between six and eight hours, with a swathe of operators running buses on the route. It pays well to remember that health and safety in Cambodia can be dubious, and buses range from scary to safe. Giant Ibis comes with a good reputation, wifi, comfortable seats, water and even a snack. Tickets can also be booked online for a $1 fee.
After checking into your accommodation, head to the quaint network of pedestrianised streets of The Lane and surrounding area. Here, is a collection of cute boutiques selling art, souvenirs, clothes and accessories, as well as plenty of inviting bars, restaurants and cafes. If you’re in the mood to party, then Pub Street is just around the corner, with The Angkor What Bar? going on until the early hours.
Day 4: Sunrise at Angkor Wat and explore the temples
If you managed to get an early night, then wake up early and join the masses at Angkor Wat for sunrise. From the moment you step foot in Siem Reap, there will be tuk tuk drivers vying for your dollar with trips to the temples so there is no shortage of ways to get there. Hiring one for the day will cost anything between $20 and $30, depending on your haggling skills. Most leave at 5am in time to buy your pass (one-day $37/ three-day $62/ seven-day $72) and get you to the temple gates in time for 6am sunrise.
After a few hours exploring the ancient city and its glorious temple, head to Bayon temple and its famous faces. Grab a local lunch at one of the many makeshift restaurants that dot the area. Another must-see temple on the popular one-day circuit is, Ta Prohm, the temple that featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. Famed for its giant trees that engulf the ageing structures, an afternoon can easily be spent marvelling at the site.
Day 5: Phnom Kulen and the circus
Take a day trip to Phnom Kulen, considered to be Cambodia’s most sacred mountain. Sitting about 50km (30 miles) from Siem Reap town, entry to the national park is $20, with the tropical jungle dotted with religious and ancient sites, such as the River of a Thousand Lingas, etched with carvings of Hindu gods and symbols, believed to date back to the reign of King Udayadityavarman II and Wat Preah Ang Thom, a sacred temple that sits at Wat Phnom’s summit and is home to a giant, reclining Buddha. The area is also home to two waterfalls, where you can take a refreshing swim so don’t forget your bathers.
A trip to Siem Reap isn’t complete without a visit to Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Using graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, the award-winning shows uses jaw-dropping acrobatics, juggling, magic, contortion and other treats to re-tell Khmer folktales, given a modern twist.
Day 6: Meet Siem Reap’s artisans
Take a free tour round Artisans Angkor’s workshops and discover more about Khmer ancient arts and the success stories behind the organisation’s efforts to rekindle them. Artisans take in stone and wood carvers, lacquer painters, silversmiths and silk weavers. Artisans Angkor also offer free daily trips to its silk farm on the outskirts of the town, where visitors can see the intricate process, from silk worm through to scarf.
Spend the afternoon in hip Kandal village, home to a collection of quirky stores, coffee shops, eateries and spas. Stop off for a coffee at Little Red Fox Espresso café, enjoy a massage at one of the spas and take advantage of the cheap manicures and pedicures on offer.
Day 7: Fly to Sihanoukville and hit the islands
There are several daily flights from Siem Reap International Airport to Sihanoukville, taking about one hour. Once there, get a tuk tuk to the pier and jump on board one of the boats that will ferry you to the islands. Koh Rong is more lively, with a stretch of its main beach full of bars with a party vibe. Neighbouring Koh Rong Samleom is more peaceful, boasting kilometres of powder white sand lapped by clear turquoise water.
Day 8 & 9: Relax, relax and relax
Take advantage of some time away from the packed agenda and snorkel in the sea, laze on the sand or knock back a few beers at a beachside bar. Both of the islands’ inland can be explored, with some tracks cutting through the thick jungle. It is advisable to wear shoes that cover your toes because some of it is rough terrain. Boat trips can also be arranged to visit some of the smaller islands, such as Koh Ta Kiev and Koh Thmei.
Day 10: Get the bus to Kampot
Enjoy your last morning on the islands before getting the boat back to Sihanoukville and jumping on a bus to the laidback riverside town of Kampot (prices start from $5 and take about three hours). A quicker way is to get a taxi, which takes about two hours and costs $30.
Kampot is a really chilled-out town and its compact size means it’s easy to explore on foot so spend the remainder of the afternoon getting to know your surroundings. Take a stroll along the riverside and enjoy sunset cocktails at Rikitikitavi, which also serves great food.
Day 11: Hire a motorbike and head to Bokor Mountain
Motorbikes are available to hire at various guesthouses and bike shops throughout the town. If this doesn’t appeal, then you can book a prvate taxi for the day as no tuk tuks are allowed up Bokor, which sits about 40 kilometres away from the town. The road that winds up the mountain takes in waterfalls, Buddhist monuments, crumbling churches, a giant casino and at its peak the crumbling remnants of Bokor Hill Station – once a retreat for the country’s elite. Initially designed as a resort for the French during the early 20th-century, the once-glorious hotel is now an eerie shell of its heyday.
Anyone in the know, knows that Rusty Keyhole serves the best ribs in Cambodia – possibly the whole of Asia. Of course, this means getting there early – or reserving ahead – because by about 8pm they’ve almost always run out.
Day 12: Hit the pepper farms and get on your bike
Kampot pepper is famed across the world for its distinct bite and is used by many of the best chefs. Take a tour of Sothy’s Pepper Farm to find out more about the tasty vine and why Kampot’s unique climate makes it a prime spot for pepper.
Kampot is home to stunning countryside, easily accessible by bicycle, and thanks to the country’s flat landscape it’s easy to get about. Hire a bicycle and peddle along the dusty lanes that pass through small villages, paddies and farms.
Day 13: Paddleboarding and an afternoon on the river
Spend the morning stand-up paddleboarding on Kampot’s winding waterways. SUP Asia offers trips that take guests along peaceful tributaries that snake through mangroves, floating villages and small fishing communities.
Kampot’s charm lies in its beauty, and spending your last afternoon at Greenhouse is a must. Set on the river outside of town, wooden decks jut out into the water for guests to bath on or dive into the water from, with rubber rings and paddleboards available for hire. The food here also gets a big thumbs up.
Day 14: Wave goodbye to Cambodia
With your holiday drawing to an end, returning to the airport is on the cards. Get the bus back to Phnom Penh, which takes about four hours, or a taxi to the airport, which takes two to three hours and costs about $40.