A travel guide to Cambodia with independent reviews and recommendations. No sponsored content, no advertorial.

Best of Cambodia

Cambodia

Last updated 31 Jan 2011

Cambodia's days in the tourism spotlight began in the new millenium with just one trick - Angkor. These days though, travellers are discovering that there is loads of life beyond the incredible temples.

Temples done slowly

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Photo: Mark BowyerThe Bayon, Angkor
The temples of Angkor spark most people's initial interest in Cambodia. And for good reason. You don't have to be a history or sculpture buff to be captivated by the beauty and scale of the these monumental creations. Angkor is every bit as breathtaking as the National Geographic says. But this relationship takes time. Spend three or four days milling and meandering. Break up your stay in one of Siem Reap's lovely boutique hotels doing the temples in the stunning light of early morning and late afternoon and spending the heat of the day by the pool, having a spa treatment or shopping.    


Phnom Penh - the capital


Then there's the capital Phnom Penh. It can be a bit of a shock dragging the consciousness from the delicate stone carvings of Angkor to the bustling reality of Cambodia's capital. But it's a shock worth having. Phnom Penh is a dose of the real Cambodia - and while poverty is there for all to see, there's plenty of positive energy, atmosphere and charm as well.

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Photo: Mark BowyerNational Museum, Phnom Penh
There's no visiting Phnom Penh without confronting the misery of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. A visit to the genocide museum of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are profound experiences. But it's the city's painful relentless recovery that leaves the deepest impression on the visitor.

The new Phnom Penh is also a city of striking Khmer and French colonial architecture, groovy hotels both large and small and a rapidly developing culinary scene. It's an interesting place to spend two or three nights.



The southern coast

Just a few hours drive out of Phnom Penh, the southern coast offers another complete change of pace and atmosphere. It also sports an impressive array of small hotels and guest houses adding to the charm of a visit.

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Photo: Mark BowyerKep, Cambodia
Sihanoukville is the largest of the southern coastal towns and while the beaches are enticing, it seems to be following a model of sleaze that failed Pattaya in Thailand a decade ago. It's OK for a night or two but make sure you make time to head further east.

Kampot is one of the best preserved colonial towns in all of Indochina. Once the country's major port, there's not a lot happening these days but that's not a bad thing. It's a good base for visits to nearby Bokor National Park, the ruined hillstation and surrounding cave temples.

Kep, a short drive on from Kampot, was the sea resort of choice in the 50s and early 60s as Cambodia's nouveau riche celebrated the opportunities of their newly independent nation. By the late sixties, the war in Vietnam was enveloping Cambodia. Kep's modern, ambitious architectural creations were abandoned.  Today, Kep is a ghost town and museum of sorts. In a setting of forest and coast, it displays Cambodia's other ruins - of a hopeful post independence period lost to war.


Cycle

Cambodia is made for cycling. Its relatively small population means most of its roads are not too chaotic. Bicycles are a great way to get around the temples of Angkor as well as the towns of the southern coast.


Stay boutique in style

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Photo: Mark BowyerBoddhi Aram Hotel, Phnom Penh
Cambodia sports a remarkably rich array of atmospheric accommodations and one of the most exciting things for travellers is the flourishing of a genuine boutique accommodation scene across the country. While the Raffles properties in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are popular for their luxury and grand French colonial architecture, travellers are spoiled by boutique options that are a delight. Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kep and Battambang all have well priced boutique owner operated hotels that are wonderful complements to travel - from as little as 35USD per night. Siem Reap also sports an impressive array of luxury hotels and resorts for all tastes.


And the not so good.....
 
Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest countries. Poverty and deprivation are visible throughout. Young children, the victims of well organised gangs, wander filthy through riverside restaurants in Phnom Penh asking for money. Older limbless victims of landmines drag themselves haplessly along roads melting in the heat in pursuit of tourists.

Sex tourism and paedophilia remain a major problem though one that is now very much under the spotlight.

Safety for travellers has improved markedly over the past decade but caution - especially at night and especially in Phnom Penh - is definitely advised. Opportunistic crime such as bag and camera snatching is common. Assaults against foreigners, including some with weapons have been reported. A number of foreign visitors have died in recent years from overdoses on lethal drug cocktails.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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