Cambodia has experienced immense change over the past two decades, emerging from years of repression under the Khmer Rouge. Today it is a country transformed, welcoming visitors to the spectacular ancient ruins near Siem Reap and educating them about the past at a series of thoughtful sights around the capital Phnom Penh.
Internal flights follow the well-worn route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In the capital, rickshaws and motorbikes duke it out for tourists’ business, while long distance buses head north to the second city of Battambang. The boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, across Tonle Sap lake, is a wonderful way to see the country.
Cambodia’s biggest draw is unquestionably Siem Reap and the nearby temples of Angkor. Easily reached by bike or rickshaw from town, these ancient temples are arguably South East Asia’s greatest sight. Angkor Wat gets all the attention, especially at sunrise, but the beguiling design of Angkor Thom and the spectacular Preah Khan are not to be missed. Guides are easy to hire, either in town or at the temples themselves.
Outdoor types should be sure to hire bikes in Siem Reap and take a tour of the nearby villages, meeting locals and heading to some of the more out of the way temples that often get left off of many itineraries.
Visitors to Phnom Penh should steep themselves in Cambodia’s more recent past, visiting Tuol Sleng prison and taking a ride out to the Killing Fields. Both are stark reminders of what millions of Cambodians lived through during the 1970s, when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge loomed large. No one here is unaffected and the first hand testimony is essential to gaining a greater understanding of how modern Cambodia is trying to move on. The capital is also home to a stunning royal palace, while its riverfront is great for a beer at sunset.
Tonle Sap lake is a mecca for nature lovers. The excellent Prek Toal bird sanctuary is home to rare species and can be reached by charter boat from just outside Siem Reap. The trip is the ideal counterpoint to the hectic trails around Angkor.
Those with more time should make a beeline for Cambodia’s second city, Battambang, where the pace of life slows to a crawl. Book yourself onto a trip on the nearby bamboo train, a journey that’s likely to live long in the memory, its bumpy rails and flat–bed single carriages making this a truly unique experience.
Street food is part of everyday life in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh. Adventurous foodies should be certain to try any one of the stalls hiding away behind the main drag along the city’s riverfront, where you can pick up classic dishes such as Khmer Curry, fish amok and pork skewers.
Siem Reap has an impressive array of street food stalls in its central square, where fish from nearby Tonle Sap is grilled over huge open fires. Thanks to its French colonial past, the bread in Cambodia is a cut above, meaning you can easily grab a baguette for breakfast if you’re in a hurry.