Despite being a compact country, Cambodia has it all, from beaches to jungles, flat plains to rolling hills, and bustling city to calm countryside. Here are the 10 best destinations in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Kampot may be quickly gaining traction with the tourist crowd, who are drawn by its enchanting chilled-out charm, but the quaint riverside town has managed to retain its characteristic Cambodian laid-back vibe. The town is home to a growing number of hipster spots, with wine bars, coffee shops and boutiques mushrooming, and despite its small size, it boasts a swathe of top-quality food spots. The surrounding countryside is also some of the country’s finest, with the fertile lands making it ripe to grow world-renowned Kampot pepper. Bokor Mountain makes an intriguing day trip, with plenty of tours taking visitors into the heart of rural Kampot. And the sprawling network of waterways make this province the perfect place to kayak, stand-up paddleboard or take a boat trip.
Famous across the country for its crab – perfect when stir-fried with Kampot pepper – and seafood, the boutique coastal town of Kep was once reserved for the country’s elite. Known as Kep-sur-Mer during French colonial times, the resort was a weekend seaside retreat for the rich and famous, until Khmer Rouge times. Peace and quiet perfectly sum up this destination so don’t come here expecting to find any rowdy parties until the early hours – you may well find yourself hard pushed to catch a tuk tuk after 10pm. Highlights include a day trip to nearby Rabbit Island, horse-riding through the pristine countryside, relaxing on the short stretch of sand, visiting the Crab Market and taking a short hike through the national park.
This central province is slowly starting to gain popularity with tourists searching for an eco-adventure. A host of community-based tourism projects have sprung up in the area, which is home to a swathe of rare wildlife. The endangered Irrawaddy dolphin calls a short stretch of the Mekong River, which slices through the province, home, while the close-to-extinct Cantor’s giant softshell turtle also lives there. Kratie town – the provincial capital – is a good base to explore the surrounding area, with a smattering of tour operators offering day and multiple-day trips, or bicycles and motorbikes to hire for those who want to go solo.
This remote, mountainous province lies in eastern Cambodia and stands worlds apart from the rest of Cambodia. Home to rolling hills, thick jungle and lowland plains, the climate is cooler, the scenery expansive and there are very few people about – a population of four per square kilometre. The indigenous bunong tribe live in the area, with many eco-initiatives being rolled out to introduce tourists to their way of life, as well as the wildlife that populates Mondullkiri. The province is most popular for its handful of elephant camps, where retired, overworked and rescued beasts are given a new lease of life in their natural habitat.
There’s no denying that development is picking up pace on this Cambodian island. However, for now, tranquility remains well and truly on its shores. Located about 45 minutes by ferry from Sihanoukville on the mainland, this island is still dripping with Insta-worthy snaps of turquoise waters lapping isolated white sands. Apart from lazing on the beach, activities are mainly water-based, ranging from snorkelling and kayaking to boat trips.
Spanning more than 4.4 million hectares of rainforest in southwestern Cambodia, the Cardamom Mountains remain Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest. Inhabited by a swathe of endangered wildlife, the expansive woodland is also home to about 25,000 people, many of whom are ethnic minorities. While the area’s rich flora and fauna remain under threat from deforestation, and illegal logging and wildlife trafficking, several organisations are working tirelessly to conserve the area, which is becoming famous for trekking and the several community-based initiatives that include homestays, nature trails, kayaking and mountain biking.
Relatively untouched by tourism for now, Preah Vihear is Cambodia’s ultimate get-away-from-it-all destinantion. As well as being home to pristine vistas, the northern province, which borders Thailand, is home to Prasat Preah Vihear (temple of the sacred mountain). Standing at the centre of decades of conflict, ferocious fighting between the two countries over ownership of the sacred site continued until recent years. In 2015, the destination was deemed safe and taken off many foreign offices’ watch lists. While military presence remains strong, the temple is well worth a visit. With none of the crowds that plague Angkor, Prasat Preah Vihear is a series of impressive structures, built between the 9th and 12th century by several kings. It features on the 2,000 riel note.
Beach bums are skipping Sihanoukville and heading for Otres, a more chilled-out lengthy stretch of sand about 15 minutes away. Development is stepping up here, with more modern accommodation and amenities cropping up seemingly daily. However, it has retained its hippy charm and relaxed vibe, and is a top spot for those without the time to hit the islands.
Home to iconic Angkor Wat, Siem Reap can’t be missed off the list. While the city centre today is a bustling tourist trap, it takes little more than 10 minutes to escape to the open countryside that surrounds the city – something that is definitely worth spending a few more days in Siem Reap for after visiting the temples. Phnom Kulen national park is home to waterfalls, ancient religious monuments, wildlife and superb views, Banteay Srei has an abundance of nature-related adventures and there are plenty of tours to introduce visitors to rural life in Siem Reap province.
It is rare visitors stay more than a couple of days in the bustling capital of Phnom Penh, but there’s plenty to pack in. The rapidly modernising city captures a different side to the Cambodia most first-time visitors imagine. The vibrant urban hub resembles the direction the country is headed in and is an exciting, developing city that has high hopes on its horizon. Foodies are in heaven here because cuisines from all corners of the globe are served at the plethora of restaurants, with plenty of drinking options available. The capital is dotted with small galleries, artisan stores, markets and museums.