Cambodia is an amazing country surrounded by amazing countries. But what makes it our favourite?
Simply, it’s the balance of tourism, temples, history, beaches, exploration and pure unspoiled natural beauty.
It has something to offer for a lot of people, with Siem Reap and Phnom Penh drawing in huge crowds for the epic temples and incredible history, the southern beaches offering late nights and lazy days for the party crowd and islands, mountains, rivers and more to be explored, the variety satisfies all tastes and allows longer term visitors enough variation to stay interested.
Siem Reap is an obvious stop, home to the impressive ruined temples of Angkor, the most popular being Angkor Wat and the sunrise over the towers and spires of one of the largest temples in South East Asia. Along with the main complex, there’s plenty more to see. The total area covers more than 9 square km, with more temples and gardens to see. Angkor Thom is another popular stop along with Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider temple) with its recognisable walls buried in tree roots.
Siem Reap has more than just the temples on offer however, being an infamous party town, with Cambodias answer to Khao San Road in Bangkok. ‘Pub Street‘ offers plenty of westernised food and late night bars, with two in particular battling for the younger crowd by blaring the music out into the street until the early hours. There’s no worries about drinking on the street and with prices so low it’s easy to pick up a drink in any bar and wander along to the street/dance floor. It’s easy to see which bar is playing the best song at any time by the drunken sway of the crowd across the road
Phnom Penh is a rather more sombre affair, although it still offers plenty of friendly backpacker stops and a bit of nightlife if you’re willing to look around. The food here is a lot more authentic, and you get the feeling that you’re only a small part of a real Asian city instead of the focus. As such getting around isn’t so simple but much more adventurous, and there’s plenty of motodops and taxis around if you need them. The main draw to Phnom Penh is the harrowing S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Both sites dedicated to the horrendous treatment of the Khmer people during the war. It’s a rather sobering place especially when you remember how recent these events are. There’s more to Phnom Penh though, with the Royal Palace and the waterfront offering stunning view and pleasant walks.
To the South West is the coast, and with it the beautiful beaches in the Gulf of Thailand. Sihnoukville is certainly the most popular of these destinations, again featuring plenty of bars for the party types. Late nights and hungover days working on the sunburn are common if you stay in the main town, along with western food and sky TV. However if you venture further down the beach you’ll come across the gems that are Otres I and Otres II. A single row of bars/hostels/restaurants spread down the beach offering easy drinks and chilled out vibes through the day and night. The lack of infrastructure means there’s a lack of cheap trinkets being hawked at you and the locals are much friendlier, creating a truly wonderful place to just be. (and we’re not the only ones that think so)
From ‘Sin-ville‘ it’s possible to visit a few of the most beautiful islands in SE Asia. Koh Rong is a mix of local and westernised bars and food vendors, but it all feels very cobbled together, because it all is. The boat isn’t very frequent so getting building supplies is tricky, so hostels are built on stilts, with driftwood walls and not much luxury. The island isn’t on the national grid either, and electricity is supplied by a large generator hidden in the woods somewhere, it burns through a tank of fuel each day, so when it’s all gone, the lights go out. It’s a haven for those that like a smoke, but there’s plenty for the more active people as well. The forest is barely pathed, so exploring is a real adventure and there’s some incredible finds including a huge and entirely undeveloped beach on the far side of the island. You’ll also find the luminescent algae that means the water shimmers with light as you walk in the water at night.
Nearby islands offer chilled out full-moon parties and some of the nicest looking beachside cabins especially for those couple looking for a romantic getaway from the party lifestyle. All such pleasant and peaceful places to be anytime of year and probably our favourite area.
Kampot a little further down the coast is a riverside town that hasn’t been spoiled by tourists yet. There’s a rich ex-pat scene, with their own newsletter (worth picking up as the backpacker jokes are in abundance) Most of the hostels are a little out of town, so a moped is useful, but chilling with good food and a cold drink listening to the water flow by is a real treat. There’s a few nice bits and pieces to do, but a highlight for us was exploring the nearby Bokor Mountain. It’s been bought up by the Chinese to develop but hasn’t really got going yet, so it’s possible to access the top and explore the waterfalls, half-finished hotels and insane views down to the coast. With the variety of sights up on top, it’s rather surreal
We didn’t investigate much further inland, but incredible home stays and mountain trails can be found in the North East of the country.
What really made the country special was the friendliness of the locals and their welcoming nature. From Tuk-tuk drivers to beach sellers, they were happy to stop and chat any time of day. There was never a feeling of them trying to rip you off as much as Thailand, so we felt much more comfortable paying higher prices, although still incredibly cheap by western standards.
So, to put it in list format (as is so popular online these days) Our top ten reasons why Cambodia is the best of SE Asia
1) The people are just lovely
2) Angkor Wat is more impressive than almost anything
3) Pub street is more fun than Khao San
4) The beaches are cleaner, quieter and less spoilt
5) You’ll actually learn something while you’re there
6) The food (especially the pumpkin soup)
7) Ex-pats with a sense of humour
8) Days spent chilling, anywhere in the country
9) Forest island adventures
10) The perfect blend of local and western makes it authentic but comfortable