Ancient temples, empty beaches, mighty rivers, remote forests. Cambodia has emerged from decades of war and isolation and truly back on the southeast Asian travel map. Cambodia boasts a rich culture, a weathered French-era capital and impressive natural scenery. The peace is young but the country is slowly attracting the tourism currently sweeping Vietnam. Travelers to Cambodia should explore a selection of the fabulous Khmer temples there – Angkor Wat and many of Cambodia’s other ancient sites that highlight its long cultural history.
After exploring Cambodia’s past, make sure you visit the capital. Phnom Penh is a city revitalized, and the intriguing capital has enough of interest to hold visitors for several days. It is also an important business destination, and is becoming a popular port of call for Mekong River cruises. Sihanoukville, four hours south of Phnom Penh, offers decent beaches and a sleepy atmosphere. For the more adventurous, there are the remote and hilly provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, close to the borders with Laos and Vietnam.
There are many ancient temples outside the main area of the Angkor Archaeological Museum, located 3.4 mi/5.5 km from Siem Reap. Probably the best of these is Banteay Srei, also known as the Citadel of the Women. About 15 mi/24 km from Angkor Wat and surrounded by jungle, the pink-sandstone walls of Banteay Srei are covered with delicate bas-reliefs that are remarkably well-preserved. The sculptures at the site are replicas—the originals that were left after years of looting are on display at the Angkor National Museum in Phnom Penh. On the way back from Bantaey Srei, ask your driver to stop at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, started by former child-soldier Aki-Ra.
Another 3 mi/5 km north of Banteay Srei is Kbal Spean, the site of a riverbed carved with more than 1,000 lingas dating from the 11th century. From the parking lot, the site is a 1-mi/1.5-km walk along a trail through the woods, some of which is uphill, but it is not too taxing. Be sure to buy water at the parking lot, as there is none for sale along the well-marked path.
Cambodia has an extensive coastline with many excellent beaches and islands. Few, however, have been developed, and they are still waiting for the country’s tourism numbers to increase and the industry to mature. The beaches on Koh (island) Rong in the Gulf of Thailand are among the most popular. They are located a two hour boat ride off Sihanoukville. For a different experience, Ream National Park offers a classic demi-lunar beach, as well as mangrove forest and an island resort that can be reached by taxi, bike or motorbike from Sihanoukville. Most hotels will help you organize a day trip or an overnight stay in the park’s guesthouse.
The crowded beach of Ochheuteal in Beachin Sihanoukville is best visited for the restaurants, bars, resorts and guesthouses that border it. Serendipity Beach, however, has become the most popular place to hang out. New resort hotels are opening up all the time, and in the high season, several nearby bars throw beach parties and barbecues. Three roads run parallel to the beach and have many guesthouses and hotels.
The Riches of the Mekong River
Second to only the Amazon in biodiversity, the Mekong River’s name in Thai, Mae Nam Khong, literally translates to “Mother Water”. It’s no surprise that this essential river in Southeast Asia has also birthed one of the most prolific civilizations of the ancient world, the Khmer Empire. With modernized amenities up and down its wide banks, the Mekong demonstrates how ancient kings used to live and how modern travelers can live like one.
To begin, start in Siem Reap. This modern town is filled with five-star hotels and chic restaurants lining the streets of the Old French Quarter. But venture north, and you will see a life of royalty from a much different perspective.
The Angkor Complex, established in the 5th century, is considered the center of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Thom is the historic site of the 3.5 square mile capitol city, home to the Emperor’s throne. While the ancient city is impressive in it’s own right, it was constructed primarily for proximity to the majestic grand temple of Angkor Wat. The temple is considered to be the country’s most important historical asset, displayed on the center of the Cambodian flag since 1863.
Travel further down the Mekong to the intersection of the Tonlé Sap River, to the Khmer village of Cheung Kok. Using only local resources such as coconut, bamboo, and locally farmed silk, this village has carved a name for itself globally by using modern sustainable business practices in a traditional environment.
Phnom Penh, once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” still maintains its status as the most modern of all of Cambodian cities courtesy of its Royal Palace, a beautiful example of classic Khmer architecture. Inside stands the Silver Pagoda, named for the 5,000 silver tiles inlaid in its design. This opulent structure includes a life-size version of the Maitreya Buddha, a statue encrusted with almost 10,000 diamonds and dressed in royal clothes of silk wand gold.
Rudimentary transportation continues to limit visitors to the principal destinations of Phnom Penh, Angkor and Sihanoukville. We suggest the following minimum itinerary for a first-time traveler to Cambodia:
Day 1—Arrive Phnom Penh. Make time to visit the central market, which is stocked with unique souvenirs and fake designer goodies.
Day 2—Phnom Penh. Visit some of the city’s temples including Wat Phnom and the Silver Pagoda where the Emerald Buddha awaits. A day trip to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a must, despite being difficult to experience. Those with enough emotional moxie can make the short drive to the Killing Fields where a memorial stands today.
Day 3—Fly or boat upriver to Siem Reap to see Angkor. Depending upon the lake’s water levels, the lengthy road might be the only transport option.
Days 4 and 5—Angkor. Arise early to experience sunrise at Angkor Wat and explore the temples before it gets too hot. Spend the afternoon shopping or relaxing by your hotel’s pool.
Day 6—Depart Cambodia from Siem Reap.
Many travelers to Cambodia find the visit to Siem Reap to be so inspiring that two days is simply not enough. It is certainly possible to spend five or six days in the area and have plenty to see and do.
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[Cover Photo: Former Buddha Stupa in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © Can Stock Photo / master2]
[SOURCE: Pocket Travel Guide App]
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