The mysterious temples at Angkor Wat form the world’s largest religious monument and are without doubt the main draw to this fascinating country. Spend at least three days here before heading to the colonial delights of Battambang. Chill out by the beach in Sihanoukville before taking on the chaos of the capital, Phnom Penh, and learning about Cambodia’s tragic 20th-century history
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
The importance of Angkor Wat to Cambodians is demonstrated by its presence in the centre of the country’s flag. Once the heart of the powerful Khmer civilisation, the ruins of Angkor spread for many miles in the jungle north of Siem Reap. Hire a tuk-tuk for the day and start early to beat the crowds and the energy-sapping heat. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are the most substantial sites, while Ta Prohm, with carved doorways strangled by ancient tree roots, is particularly enchanting. Avoid the sunrise scrum at Angkor Wat and head out to the beautiful Banteay Srei temple; you’ll probably have the magical place all to yourself.
The gentle pace of life in Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, offers a respite from the tourist-filled streets of Siem Reap. The city centre is a mix of French colonial buildings, Chinese shop fronts and modernist Khmer designs. Take a ride on a bamboo train trundling through rice fields, or relax on the riverside and watch life pass at a gentle pace. Battambang has a thriving cultural scene, with much of the activity being organised as social enterprises; visit Phare Ponleu Selpak, a visual arts school offering disadvantaged young people the chance to learn circus skills.
Beach time in Sihanoukville
The beach resorts of Cambodia are generally laid-back, with Sihanoukville being by far the most popular and most developed. The area around Serendipity Beach has long catered to the backpacker party crowd, while the Otres Beach area has a growing number of boutique guesthouses and stylish restaurants. You can indulge in a range of watersports including sailing, kitesurfing and paddleboarding, but by far the most popular activity is lazing on the beach and waiting for the sunset. Nearby is Ream National Park, an area of protected forest that’s popular for boat trips, dolphin-spotting and bird-watching.
The capital is a chaotic mix of ancient and modern, of pleasure and tragedy. Start at the Royal Palace, a grand complex of pagodas and pavilions. Enjoy sunset with a cocktail in hand on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, looking down on the riverside below. Visit two of the sombre reminders of the terror unleashed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum is a former school that was converted in into a brutal prison, and on the outskirts of the city is the heartbreaking Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial site.
SECOND TIME AROUND
To experience Cambodia’s wildlife, head north of the capital. The Elephant Valley Project is an initiative encouraging local mahouts to retire working elephants from their heavy duties. Visitors don’t ride the elephants, but walk with them through the jungle, and learn about their social behaviour. Trek through the nearby Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, home to elephants, tigers and vultures; finish in Kratie on the Mekong River for a chance to spot the shy Irrawaddy dolphins.