Strike north from Phnom Penh along NR5, west of the Tonle Sap, and you’ll be following the route along which the Khmer Rouge retreated from Phnom Penh in 1979, ahead of the liberating Vietnamese forces. This is also the route that the invading Thai armies used in the opposite direction, as they repeatedly headed south to sack and pillage. Much of the northwest still shows clear Thai influence – not surprising, given that the area has been under Thai control for much of its modern history, and was only finally returned to Cambodia in 1946. These days the road is a busy corridor linking the capital to the Thai border and a trade route along which rice is transported from the sparsely populated but fertile plains to the more populous south.
The first two towns of any size along NR5 out of Phnom Penh are Kompong Chhnang and Pursat. A busy river fishing port, Kompong Chhnang takes its name from the terracotta pots (chhnang) that are produced throughout the district, while the major cottage industry in workaday Pursat is marble carving. Both towns are interesting mainly for the chance to visit the remarkable floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake.
North of Pursat is laidback Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, with a lazy riverside ambience and some of the country’s finest colonial architecture. The surrounding province once had more temples than Siem Reap, although none was on the scale of Angkor Wat and most have long disappeared. The couple that remain are worth a visit, however, especially the hilltop site of Wat Banan, while the nearby mountain and temple complex of Phnom Sampeu offers a fascinating, if chilling, reminder of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
In the far northwest, the unprepossessing border town of Poipet is the busiest crossing point into Thailand on the direct route between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Bangkok – and with an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation for scams and skullduggery. Most travellers arriving from Thailand plough straight on from here to Siem Reap, although it’s well worth breaking your journey en route at the crossroads town of Sisophon (Banteay Meanchey) to explore the massive, jungle-smothered Angkorian temple of Banteay Chhmar.