Dubbed the “Pearl of Asia” during its colonial heydey, Phnom Penh remains one of Southeast Asia’s most engaging capitals: big enough (and with sufficient anarchic traffic and urban edge) to get the pulse racing, but still retaining a distinct small-town charm, its tree-lined streets fringed with ramshackle old French-colonial buildings and dotted with rustic temples and bustling markets. The heart of the city is the beautiful riverfront, backdropped by the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda’s colourful stupas, while the nearby National Museum showcases a stunning collection of ancient Khmer art. Further afield, the contrastingly sombre Toul Sleng Genocide Museum provides harrowing reminders of the country’s tragic recent past.
The main reason that most people come to Cambodia, however, is to visit the world-famous temples of Angkor. Dozens of magnificent monuments dot the countryside here, rising out of the enveloping forest like the archetypal lost-in-the-jungle ancient ruins of every Hollywood filmmaker’s wildest dreams. Top of most visitors’ lists are the unforgettable Angkor Wat, with its five soaring corncob towers; the surreal Bayon, plastered with hundreds of superhuman faces; and the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, its crumbling ruins clamped in the grip of giant kapok trees. It’s also well worth heading further afield to escape the crowds and visit other Angkorian monuments, including beautiful Banteay Srei, covered in an extravagent flourish of carvings; the jungle-smothered ruins of Beng Mealea; the sprawling city-temple complex of Koh Ker; and, especially, the magnificant Preah Vihear, dramatically situated on top of a mountain above the Thai border. Gateway to the temples is vibrant Siem Reap – Cambodia’s principal tourist town, but retaining plenty of idiosyncratic charm, and well worth a visit in its own right. From Siem Reap, looping around the great Tonle Sap lake – an attraction in itself, home to dozens of remarkable floating villages – brings you to Battambang, one of the country’s most engaging cities.