Cambodia - Temples, villages, beaches and the Mekong

From ancient archaeological sites to remote wilderness adventures and idyllic tropical beaches, Cambodia offers a little bit of everything within its borders. Its cities combine atmospheric French colonial architecture with traditional temples, while ethnic tribal villages dot the country, together with sombre reminders of its 1970s genocide. While many visitors come solely to explore the UNESCO-listed Khmer Empire temple complex at Angkor, this ‘country of lost temples’ boasts so many more little-visited ancient sites, just waiting for adventurous travellers to uncover.

North Cambodia

Phnom Penh traffic, Cambodia
Phnom Penh is an ideal stop to enjoy many city creature-comforts after a rough journey across the Cambodian jungle.

Phnom Penh - Colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and Khmer Rouge memorials

Located at the meeting of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh is the vibrant capital of Cambodia and for many their first introduction to the country. Its tree-lined boulevards are lined with French-inspired buildings from its years as a colonial outpost, and dotted with elegant examples of religious and traditional Cambodian architecture that include Wat Phnom Daun Penh, the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace. Uncover the country’s ancient cultural history at the National Museum and pay your respects to victims of the more recent Khmer Rouge horror at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Or head just south of the city centre to the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where mass graves of Khmer Rouge victims are poignantly remembered on the site of a former orchard.

Village on stilts, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
It's possible to explore the Tonle Sap lake in-depth for several days, spending the night at some stilt villages.

Tonle Sap - Floating stilt villages, bird watching and boat cruises

To the north of Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap River winds towards the lake of the same name where floating stilt villages house a diverse mix of Khmer, Muslim and Vietnamese residents. Take a boat cruise to explore the unique lifestyle of these fishing communities and spot rare bird species at the Prek Toal bird sanctuary on the Sangker River in its far northwest.

Wat Kampheng, Battambang, Cambodia
Dubbed as "the new Chiang Mai", Battambang is one of the most genuine yet tourist-friendly destinations in Cambodia.

Battambang - French colonial architecture, Angkor-era temples, bamboo trains

The Sangker River meanders west to the picturesque city of Battambang, renowned for its beautifully-preserved French colonial architecture, the Angkorian Wat Ek Phnom and the 11th-century mountain temple of Phnom Banon. Battambang is fast becoming Cambodia’s hippest destination for those in-the-know, with laid-back cafes, a vibrant artistic scene, and charming villages in its surrounds. ‘Norry’ bamboo trains offer a bumpy ride through its scenic rural landscapes to O Sra Lav in the southeast, or travel southwest to the caves of Phnom Sampeau to discover the atrocities carried out here during the Khmer Rouge reign. Battambang also makes a good base for exploring a couple of Cambodia’s lesser-known Angkor-era temples, including Wat Banan which offers fantastic 360 degree views from its hilltop location, as well as Wat Baydamram, renowned for its thousands of fruit bats.

Novices at Bayon Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
Virtually all visitors claim that the mighty Angkor Temples are the unherladed eighth Wonder of the World.

Siem Reap - UNESCO-listed Angkor temples, cultural villages and markets

To the north of Tonle Sap lies the vibrant city of Siem Reap which has flourished with its tourist trade as the gateway to Angkor Wat. It’s home to the Cambodian Cultural Village where many of the country’s traditional handicrafts are demonstrated by local artisans, as well as some of the country’s best souvenir shopping in its Old Market and Night Market.

But the major attraction of Siem Reap is undoubtedly the ancient Khmer Empire temple complex at Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Southeast Asia’s most impressive archaeological landmarks. Its highlights include the vast ‘City Temple’ complex of Angkor Wat, the elaborate stone carvings of Bayon Temple within the city of Angkor Thom to the north, and the tree-enveloped ruins of Ta Phrohm which can all be visited in a day on its ‘Small Circuit’. Or take the time to explore further afield on the ‘Big Circuit’ tour, including the impressive red sandstone temple of Banteay Srei and the early 12th century Banteay Samre. Don’t miss the unforgettable experience of watching sunrise over Angkor Wat’s reflective pond as the sun’s first rays illuminate is elaborate carvings.

Siem Reap also makes a good base for visiting the floating stilt villages of Tonle Sap and two of Cambodia’s lesser-known temple complexes along the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay. Wander the Hindu temple ruins of Beng Mealea, built at the same time as Angkor and exhibiting numerous Buddhist motifs, then venture into the jungle enveloped archaeological site of Koh Ker to explore its sanctuaries.

Preah Vihar Temple enclosure, Cambodia
Preah Vihar is said to be the most scenic temple of all the Angkorian perdiod ruins.

Preah Vihear - Hindu temples and spectacular views

In the far north of the country along the border with Thailand, the 9th-century temple of Prasat Preah Vihear boasts spectacular views from its position on an escarpment in the Dangkrek Mountains. It was built to represent the sacred five-peaked Mount Meru and dedicated to Shiva, with its elaborate carvings reflecting the architectural preferences of successive Khmer Empire kings.

South Cambodia

Sihanoukville tropical beaches, Cambodia
Sihakoukville is the perfect base to explore beaches along the coastline and a handful of tropical islands.

Sihanoukville - Beaches, snorkelling, idyllic islands

Continue west and you’ll arrive at the popular beach resort of Sihanoukville, overlooked by the Buddhist temple of Wat Leu. While the town itself may not be the most charming, it’s the coconut palm-backed beaches such as Otres and Serendipity that are its biggest draw, together with the idyllic offshore islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. Whether you want to laze away your days on the beach, go snorkelling and scuba diving in its coral reefs or party until the early hours on Ochheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville offers each in abundance.

Kampot - Rural landscapes, French colonial resorts, eco-adventures

To the southwest of Phnom Penh are the picturesque towns, beaches and islands along the Gulf of Thailand. Kampot has an atmospheric setting on the banks of the Tuk Chhou River, surrounded by pepper and durian farms, together with salt fields, which can be visited to gain an insight into the local economy, while to the east is the tiny coastal province of Kep. This former French colonial resort has a run-down charm, with idyllic offshore islands and seafood restaurants renowned for their crab dishes.

Nestled into the hills to the west of Kampot is the French ghost town of Bokor Hill Station where you can explore the old buildings, tea plantations and nearby waterfalls, or continue around Veal Rinh Bay to the protected mangroves, beaches and coral reefs of Ream National Park. Eco-adventure tours take visitors on treks through the forest to spot endangered birds and rhesus monkeys, while the offshore waters are home to dolphins, dugongs and turtles amidst a myriad of tropical fish species.

Koh Kong - Mountains treks, wildlife sanctuaries, river ecolodges

Across the bay to the north lies the largely undeveloped province of Koh Kong where you can embark on remote jungle treks into the rugged Cardamom Mountains and wildlife spotting adventures through the mangroves of the Pream Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary. This is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the Cambodian wilderness and relax in one of the ecolodges along the banks of its pristine rivers.

East Cambodia

Mekong River at Kampong Cham, Cambodia
The picturesque riverine villages of the Mekong can be accessed from Kampong Cham.

Kampong Cham - Angkor-era temples, French colonial towns, Irrawaddy dolphins

Just to the east of Phnom Penh is the provincial capital of Kampong Cham, with a laid-back colonial charm and a scattering of archaeological sights. The 11th-century Angkorian temple ruins of Nokor Wat are a highlight, with elaborate wall paintings depicting religious torture and executions, as well as bones from victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The hilltop temple of Phnom Hanchey to the north of Kampong Cham is also worth a visit, offering stunning views across the rural surrounds and unforgettable sunrises over the Mekong River.

The Mekong continues northeast to the town of Kratie which boasts a beautiful waterfront setting and well-preserved French colonial architecture. Most visitors come to spot Irrawaddy dolphins on boat cruises from the town, but it’s also a good base for birdwatching expeditions and visits to the basket weaver villages along the river banks.

Tribal hut, Mondulkiri countryside, Cambodia
Mondulkiri is the springboard to multi-day trekking routes across lush jungles and minority villages.

Mondulkiri - Tribal villages, eco-adventures, elephant experiences

The remote province of Mondulkiri stretches to the east, with its rugged mountains and dense forests home to cascading waterfalls and ethnic tribal villages. Sen Monorom is the main base for eco adventure tours and jungle treks, visiting Phnong and Bunong communities and staying within tranquil nature lodges. Bathe, feed and groom elephants at the Mondulkiri Wildlife Sanctuary Park, spot wild water buffalo and jungle cats, and take an early morning trek to witness a vast array of bird species.

Rainforest in Ratanakiri, Cambodia
The Ratanakiri region is home to most of Cambodia's flora and fauna.

Ratanakiri - Jungle trekking, ethnic minority villages, volcanic landscapes

The province of Ratanakiri sprawls to the north, another remote area of Cambodia where eco-tourism is making its mark. It’s home to the largest protected area in the country, Virachey National Park, where jungle treks and boat safaris offer the chance to spot clouded leopard cats, gibbons and sun bear. Ethnic minority groups collectively known as Khmer Loeu can be visited in their highland villages along the edges of the park, while the sacred volcanic crater lake of Yeak Lom nestles in lush rainforest in Ratanakiri’s south. Hike to visit the picturesque Cha Ong and Ka Tieng waterfalls and explore the fascinating Veal Rum Plan stone field, a cooled lava flow in the midst of lush forest.

Discovering the lesser-known gems of Cambodia

With its rich Angkor-era and French colonial history on display in charismatic towns and cities, Cambodia offers an endless array of little-known sights amidst its world-renowned tourist destinations. Its remote provinces allow adventurous travellers to get well off-the-beaten track on jungle and ethnic village treks, while a mushrooming of boutique and eco-resorts mean you don’t have to go without your creature comforts. While touring the UNESCO-listed temples of Angkor should be high on everyone’s ‘must do’ list for Cambodia, spend a little more time and you will discover enchanting riverside towns, idyllic offshore islands and unique wildlife encounters.