Dubbed the “Pearl of Asia” during its colonial heydey, Phnom Penh remains one of Southeast Asia’s most engaging capitals: big enough (and with sufficient anarchic traffic and urban edge) to get the pulse racing, but still retaining a distinct small-town charm, its tree-lined streets fringed with ramshackle old French-colonial buildings and dotted with rustic temples and bustling markets. The heart of the city is the beautiful riverfront, backdropped by the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda’s colourful stupas, while the nearby National Museum showcases a stunning collection of ancient Khmer art. Further afield, the contrastingly sombre Toul Sleng Genocide Museum provides harrowing reminders of the country’s tragic recent past.
The main reason that most people come to Cambodia, however, is to visit the world-famous temples of Angkor. Dozens of magnificent monuments dot the countryside here, rising out of the enveloping forest like the archetypal lost-in-the-jungle ancient ruins of every Hollywood filmmaker’s wildest dreams. Top of most visitors’ lists are the unforgettable Angkor Wat, with its five soaring corncob towers; the surreal Bayon, plastered with hundreds of superhuman faces; and the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, its crumbling ruins clamped in the grip of giant kapok trees. It’s also well worth heading further afield to escape the crowds and visit other Angkorian monuments, including beautiful Banteay Srei, covered in an extravagent flourish of carvings; the jungle-smothered ruins of Beng Mealea; the sprawling city-temple complex of Koh Ker; and, especially, the magnificant Preah Vihear, dramatically situated on top of a mountain above the Thai border. Gateway to the temples is vibrant Siem Reap – Cambodia’s principal tourist town, but retaining plenty of idiosyncratic charm, and well worth a visit in its own right. From Siem Reap, looping around the great Tonle Sap lake – an attraction in itself, home to dozens of remarkable floating villages – brings you to Battambang, one of the country’s most engaging cities.
Cambodia’s east retains something of a frontier atmosphere, with the majestic Mekong River bounding one side of the region and the remote highlands of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri to the west. All routes into the region pass through the atmospheric colonial-era Mekong-side town of Kompong Cham, beyond which the road continues north along the river to Kratie with a similarly languid riverside ambience and a small population of rare Irrawaddy dolphins just upstream. Getting out to the remote northeastern provincial capitals of Banlung and Sen Monorom takes more time and effort but is worth it for a sight of Cambodia’s remote forested uplands which (despite rampant logging) remain home to abundant wildlife and the nation’s ever-diminishing indigenous chunchiet communities.
A world away in scenery and atmosphere from pretty much everywhere else in the country, Cambodia’s rapidly developing coast offers an increasingly upbeat and hedonistic taste of tropical beach life. The biggest and busiest town here is Sihanoukville, looking increasingly like a miniature slice of Thailand, with beaches and bars aplenty. Just offshore lies a string of more tranquil (though also rapidly developing) islands, while just outside Sihanoukville are the idyllic bays, beaches and mangrove forests of the lush Ream National Park. Quieter coastal destinations include attractive Kampot, with its mixed French and Chinese influences, and the beguiling resort of Kep, with a minuscule beach and atmosphere of faded gentility. Backdropping the heavily touristed coast, the contrastingly remote and difficult-to-reach Cardamom Mountains, best accessed from the southwestern province of Koh Kong, provide unspoilt upland scenery and pockets of remarkable biodiversity.