The centre of Cambodia is a forgotten territory. Stretching north from Phnom Penh, through sparsely populated countryside right up to the Thai border, most of the soil is sandy and barren, and there’s practically no way for people to eke out even a basic living. Amazingly, communities do get by somehow, farming tiny plots and scant, scattered rice paddies, and foraging in what remains of the forest.
The region is hardly a popular tourist destination: all that most visitors see of it are the rice paddies that stretch either side of National Route 6, the major trunk road between the capital and Siem Reap, that cuts across the southern part of the area. But for those prepared to venture into obscure backwaters, central Cambodia has a few ancient temple sites worth visiting, although you’ll have to brave the area’s largely atrocious roads to reach most of them. The starting point is invariably Kompong Thom, the only town of any size hereabouts, and thus also your last taste of comfort for a few days if you’re planning a trip north. Thankfully, it’s no major expedition from here if you want to see either Phnom Suntuk, a revered though rather kitsch pagoda, or Sambor Prei Kuk, the country’s most significant pre-Angkorian site, comprising three groups of well-preserved brick-built temples.
Beyond here, however, travelling gets harder – even reaching the massive ruined temple of Preah Khan, only 50km northwest as the crow flies, is a tough trip. You’ll need to get right to the border to reach the area’s jewel, Preah Vihear, perched magnificently high on a cliff in the Dangkrek Mountains. Built in the ninth century and added to by a succession of kings, it boasts superb, soaring pediments unlike anything else you’ll see in Cambodia, and is well worth the effort of getting to (though access is easier from Siem Reap). Note, however, that the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office is currently advising against travel in the border area. If that situation changes, and you’re feeling intrepid, consider a side-trip to the remote Angkorian capital of Koh Ker, roughly midway between Preah Khan and Preah Vihear.
Given the state of the roads exploring Cambodia’s heartland is really only feasible in the dry season (Nov–May); when the rains come, every path and track turns to mud slurry, and deep fast-flowing rivers appear as if by magic, cutting off the main tracks and isolating such villages as there are. National Route 6 is the only sealed road in this part of the country, and to travel north of Kompong Thom requires plenty of patience and a strong constitution, as National Route 64 to Tbeng Meanchey takes it out of vehicles and passengers alike. From here, other than the new road north to Preah Vihear, most of north-central Cambodia is inaccessible; travel is along rough forest tracks which are frequently blocked by broken bridges and streams.