The Kingdom of Cambodia sits at the heart of the Southeast Asia loop, boasting a thread of pristine white coastline and an interior of elephant trodden trails, straw hut villages and emerald jungles – all of which can be explored for a very reasonable price.
Most famous for being the backdrop for a scantily clad Angelina Jolie in ‘Tomb Raider’, the ancient city of Angkor is an essential highlight, but it’s merely one of many treasures the country has on offer.
Cambodia is a country where motorbikes rule the roads, where women are adorned in pyjamas at all hours and where you can buy a crispy pork baguette through a bus window when stopped in traffic. It’s equipped with vibrant markets, a quirky charm, a history that will move you and people that will ensure you leave with the biggest grin on your face. This is the ultimate guide to make every moment in Cambodia count.
1. Start exploring in Phnom Penh
For many, the capital is the introduction or point of arrival, but it’s usually as a quick stopover before moving onwards to exploring northern or southern treasures. It’s a shame, because Phnom Penh is crucial to understanding how history has shaped Cambodia and how the culture and people have evolved in the last few decades.
Time in the capital should be spent seeking out interesting gems in the crowded Central Market Dome (think live tarantulas or life size ‘Gangnam Style’ puppets), joining a group on plastic chairs for cheap, fresh grilled seafood at the colourful tents lining most roads, or simply soaking in the colour and chaos of the capital. At the river waterfront outside the Royal Palace, early risers can join synchronized Phnom Penh residents as they move handheld fans to the rhythm of a Tai Chi class. By evening, the waterfront is an ideal spot for lying on the grass with a beer, as young couples walk hand in hand, street vendors sell sticks of barbequed meat and kids invite you to play football or chase flocks of seagulls. For a capital city, it’s relaxed, affordable and easy to navigate (with the help of a smiling face pointing you in the right direction).
2. See Angkor, but see it smart
Siem Reap is easily the most visited city in Cambodia, and for good reason. It is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage temples of Angkor and one more step on the road to becoming Angelina Jolie. Unfortunately this region is the warmest part of the country during wet and dry season, so its highly unlikely you’ll be as flawless and sweat-free as Angelina whilst exploring a labyrinth of ancient temples. Many people do not realize how large the Angkor city is, and I would recommend paying a little extra for the 3-day pass ($40) to take it slow. Depending on how you are travelling and how you wish to see the temples, you can travel from Siem Reap by moto-taxi, on the back of a motorbike or by renting a bicycle and riding into the park from Siem Reap.