Cambodia


Cambodia destinations

about There's a magic about this charming yet confounding kingdom that casts a spell on visitors. In Cambodia, ancient and modern worlds collide to create an authentic adventure.

An Empire of Temples

Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkorian period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.

The Urban Scene

Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples, and its urban areas can surprise with their sophistication. Chaotic yet charismatic capital Phnom Penh is a revitalised city earning plaudits for its sumptuous riverside setting, cultural renaissance, and world-class wining-and-dining scene. Second city Siem Reap, with cosmopolitan cafes and a diverse nightlife, is as much a destination as the nearby iconic temples. And up-and-coming Battambang, reminiscent of Siem Reap before the advent of mass tourism, charms with graceful French architecture and a thriving contemporary art scene.

Upcountry Adventures

Experience the rhythm of rural life and landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms in Cambodia's countryside. The South Coast is fringed by tropical islands dotted with the occasional fishing village. Inland lie the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness providing a home to elusive wildlife and a gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and hosts some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins. The northeast is a world unto itself, its wild and mountainous landscapes home to Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and an abundance of natural attractions and wildlife.

The Cambodian Spirit

Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.

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Phnom Penh (ភ្នំពេញ): the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. The glimmering spires of the Royal Palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong – this is the Asia many daydream about from afar. Cambodia’s capital can be an assault on the senses. Motorbikes whiz through laneways without a thought for pedestrians; markets exude pungent scents; and all the while the sounds of life – of commerce, of survival – reverberate through the streets. But this is all part of the enigma.

Once the ‘Pearl of Asia’, Phnom Penh’s shine was tarnished by the impact of war and revolution. But the city has since risen from the ashes to take its place among the hip capitals of the region, with an alluring cafe culture, bustling bars and a world-class food scene.

Sights

Phnom Penh, a relatively small city, is easy to navigate as it is laid out in a numbered grid. The most important cultural sights can be visited on foot and are located near the riverfront in the most attractive part of the city. Most other sights are also fairly central, just a short remork-moto (tuk tuk) ride from the riverfront.

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Sleeping

Accommodation in Phnom Penh, as in the rest of the country, is great value no matter your budget, with quite literally hundreds of guesthouses and hotels to choose from. There are some great boutique hotels around the city if you want to treat yourself after an upcountry adventure.

Eating

For foodies, Phnom Penh is the real deal, boasting a superb selection of restaurants that showcase the best in Khmer cooking, as well as the greatest hits from world cuisines such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican and more. Visitors to Phnom Penh are spoilt for choice these days.

Drinking & Nightlife

Phnom Penh has some great bars and clubs, so it’s definitely worth one big night out here. There are lots of late-night spots clustered around the intersection of Sts 51 and 172, appropriately nicknamed 'Area 51'. ‘Golden St’ (St 278) is also popular, and the riverfront has its share of bars as well. St 308 and Bassac Lane have emerged as the hipster area of town.

Entertainment

For news on what’s happening in town, AsiaLife is a free monthly with entertainment features and regular listings. The Friday edition of the Phnom Penh Post includes the '7 Days' supplement with listings information.

Shopping

There is some great shopping to be had in Phnom Penh, but don’t forget to bargain in the markets or you’ll have your ‘head shaved’ – local slang for being ripped off.

Activities

Aerobics (Line Dancing)

Every morning at the crack of dawn, and again at dusk, Cambodians gather in several pockets throughout the city to participate in quirky and colourful aerobics sessions. This quintessential Cambodian phenomenon sees a ringleader, equipped with boom box and microphone, whip protégés into shape with a mix of 1980s, Soviet-style calisthenics and Thriller-inspired line-dancing moves. It’s favoured by middle-aged Khmer women, but you’ll see both sexes and all ages participating, and tourists are more than welcome.

There are many places to join in the fun or just observe. Olympic Stadium is probably the best spot for the sheer volume of participants; several instructors compete for clients and the upper level of the grandstand becomes a cacophony of competing boom boxes.

The riverfront usually sees some action: the space opposite Blue Pumpkin at the terminus of St 144 is a good bet. Another popular place that usually sees several groups in action is Wat Botum Park, along Samdech Sothearos Blvd.

Boat Cruises

Boat trips on the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers are very popular with visitors. Sunset cruises are ideal, the burning sun sinking slowly behind the glistening spires of the Royal Palace. A slew of cruising boats are available for hire on the riverfront about 500m north of the tourist-boat dock. Just rock up and arrange one on the spot for around US$20 an hour, depending on negotiations and numbers. You can bring your own drinks or buy beer and soft drinks on the boat.

Public river cruises are another option. They leave every 30 minutes from 5pm to 7.30pm from the tourist-boat dock and last about 45 minutes (US$5 per head).

Cycling

It is easy enough to hire a bike and go it alone, although take some time to familiarise yourself with traffic conditions first. Koh Dach is a doable DIY trip, or venture across the Mekong River on a local ferry (1000r including bike), which departs from the riverfront just north of the eastern end of Sihanouk Blvd, and pick up bucolic back roads on the other side. Or opt for something more organised (with or without a guide). Vicious Cycle runs daily group tours to Udong or Koh Dach, departing before 8am.

Fitness Centres & Swimming

The fanciest hotels in Phnom Penh will let you use their gyms and pools for a fee. A few of the boutique hotels will let you swim if you buy a few bucks’ worth of food or cocktails. Keep in mind that the pools at most boutique hotels are pretty small, more for dipping and cooling off than for doing laps. Most other midrange boutiques charge US$5 for pool rights.

Travel with Children

With chaotic traffic, a lack of green spaces and sights that are predominantly morbid, Phnom Penh would not seem like the most child-friendly city. Think again, as there are plenty of little gems to help you pass the time with your children in the capital. Plus, most children love a remork-moto (tuk tuk) ride.

Some children also love Buddhist temples – especially colourful temples such as Wat Langka or Wat Ounalom, and hill temples like Wat Phnom or, beyond town, Udong. Shimmering gold Buddhas, shiny stupas, animal statues and the occasional monkey give children plenty of visual stimulation (hide little ones' eyes from potentially scary demons). The Royal Palace is similarly rich in Buddhist iconography.

Or consider renting bicycles and crossing the Mekong by ferry from the dock just north of the eastern end of Sihanouk Blvd. On the other side, smooth roads and trails lead 15km or so north to Smango, a guesthouse with decent food and a refreshing swimming pool. Best to check its website for exact directions. The Mekong island of Koh Dach is also a great place to explore by bicycle with very little traffic and some good refreshment stops.

Phnom Penh has decent public play spaces, including a playground northwest of the Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Memorial in Wat Botum Park, and another playground just south of Wat Phnom. Swimming pools are another popular option in a hot, hot city: many hotels with pools allow outside guests to swim for a fee or a minimum spend. Kingdom Resort is a great option for those willing to make a short excursion (6km) out of town; it has a huge pool and some slides.

Great for escaping the heat (or the rain), Kids City is a vast indoor play palace, with a world class Clip 'N' Climb climbing wall centre, an elaborate jungle gym, a science gallery and an ice rink. Younger children will enjoy Monkey Business, which offers slides, ball ponds and a small swimming pool, as well as wi-fi and a cafe for adults. Many of the restaurants and cafes in town are also notably child-friendly.

The most interesting attraction is beyond the city limits and makes a good day trip: Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, a rescue centre for Cambodia’s incredible wildlife.

LGBT Travellers

Phnom Penh is a cosmopolitan capital and very tolerant of homosexuality. There are several LGBT+ bars and clubs in the capital, as well as some smart gay-friendly boutique hotels in the BKK area of town. Check out the following websites for listings of LGBT+ events in town:

Gay Cambodia News (www.gaycambodianews.com)

Gay Cambodia Guide (cambodia-gay.com)

What to do in Phnom Penh

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The life-support system and gateway for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap (see-em ree-ep; សៀមរាប) was always destined for great things. Visitors come here to see the temples, of course, but there is plenty to do in and around the city when you're templed out. Siem Reap has reinvented itself as the epicentre of chic Cambodia, with everything from backpacker party pads to hip hotels, world-class wining and dining across a range of cuisines, sumptuous spas, great shopping, local tours to suit both foodies and adventurers, and a creative cultural scene that includes Cambodia's leading contemporary circus.

Angkor is a place to be savoured, not rushed, and this is the base from which to plan your adventures. Still think three days at the temples is enough? Think again with Siem Reap on the doorstep.

Sights

The sights in and around the town pale in comparison to Angkor, but they are a good diversion if you happen to get templed out after a few days. That said, some of the best sights are…yet more temples. The modern pagodas around Siem Reap offer an interesting contrast to the ancient sandstone structures of Angkor.

Outside town attractions include the up-and-coming Banteay Srei District and the stilted and floating villages of the Tonlé Sap lake, such as Kompong Khleang and Kompong Pluk. And don't forget to include a visit to the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity out near Kbal Spean, one of the more remote Angkorian sites.

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Sleeping

Siem Reap has the best range of accommodation in Cambodia. A vast number of family-run guesthouses (US$5 to US$20 per room) and a growing number of hostels cater for budget travellers. In the midrange, there's a dizzying array of good-value pool-equipped boutiques (US$30 to US$70) with something of a price war breaking out in low season. High-end options abound but don't always offer more than you'd get at the midrange.

Eating

Siem Reap's dining scene is something to savour, offering a superb selection of street food, Asian eateries and sophisticated international restaurants. The range encompasses something from every continent, with new temptations regularly opening up. Sample the subtleties of Khmer cuisine in town, or indulge in home comforts prior to – or after – hitting the remote provinces. Some of the very best restaurants also put something back into community projects or offer vocational training.

Drinking & Nightlife

The transformation from sleepy overgrown village to an international destination for the jet set has been dramatic and Siem Reap is now firmly on the nightlife map of Southeast Asia. For the morning after, there are lots of cafes and coffee shops, several of which operate as social enterprises to help local causes.

Entertainment

Several restaurants and hotels offer cultural performances during the evening, and for many visitors such shows offer the only opportunity to see Cambodian classical dance or traditional shadow puppetry. While they may be aimed at tourists and are nowhere near as sophisticated as a performance of the Royal Ballet in Phnom Penh, to the untrained eye they are nonetheless graceful and alluring. Prices usually include a buffet meal.

Shopping

Siem Reap is a hub for handicrafts with stone and wood carvings, lacquerware, silk and cotton weaving and a whole lot more. Be sure to bargain at the markets, as overcharging is pretty common. Kandal Village is an up-and-coming shopping destination with boutiques, galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Orientation

Siem Reap is still a small town at heart and is easy enough to navigate. The centre is around Psar Chaa (Old Market) and nearby Pub St, but accommodation is spread throughout town. National Hwy 6 (NH6) cuts across the northern part of town, passing Psar Leu (Main Market) in the east of town and the Royal Residence and the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in the centre, and then heads to the airport and beyond to the Thai border. The Siem Reap River (Stung Siem Reap) flows north–south through the centre of town, and has enough bridges that you won’t have to worry too much about being on the wrong side. Street numbering is haphazard to say the least, so take care when hunting down specific addresses.

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are only 6km and 8km north of town respectively.

Travel with Children

Siem Reap is a great city for children thanks to the range of activities on offer beyond the temples. A temple visit may appeal to older children, particularly the Indiana Jones atmosphere found at Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea, the sheer size and scale of Angkor Wat, and the weird faces at the Bayon.

Other activities include boat trips on the Tonlé Sap to visit otherworldly villages, swimming at a hotel or resort, ziplining in the jungle, exploring the countryside on horseback or quad bike, goofing around at the Cambodian Cultural Village, playing minigolf at Angkor Wat Putt, exploring the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre, or just enjoying the cafes and restaurants of Siem Reap at a leisurely pace. Ice-cream shops will be popular, while the local barbecue restaurants are always enjoyably interactive for older children.

Siem Reap is not necessarily that well geared up for travelling with infants and small children, but it's fine for parents willing to improvise. Dedicated baby-change facilities are rare, but many bathrooms are single sex, single cubicle. Child seats are not generally available unless requested through a travel agent. Supermarkets are well stocked with nappies (diapers), milk formula and more should you need supplies.

LGBT Travellers

Siem Reap is the epicentre of LGBT+ culture in Cambodia, although don't expect Thailand. There are plenty of gay-friendly hotels, as well as bars and nightclubs, and checking into hotels there is little consideration over how travelling foreigners are related. Cambodian culture in general is tolerant of homosexuality.

Still, it’s a low-key scene compared with some parts of Asia. As with heterosexual couples, passionate public displays of affection are considered a basic no-no, and it is prudent not to flaunt your sexuality.

Siem Reap Gay Guide (www.facebook.com/thesiemreapgayguide) produces a free printed guide.

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Sure, Sihanoukville (ក្រុងព្រះសីហនុ) would never win first prize in a pretty-town competition, and much of it is now dominated by casinos and tacky commercial centres. But despite the rapid and mostly unwanted development, it has remained the jumping-off point for the best of Cambodia's white-sand beaches and castaway-cool southern islands. The Serendipity Beach area is a decompression chamber for backpackers, who flock here to rest up between travels and party through the night.

Away from the hustle south of town is relaxed Otres Beach, where cheap bungalow joints and bohemian-flavoured guesthouses are now neighbours with rather swish boutique resorts. Although much of the beachfront will likely be cleared for large-scale development in the future, for now the mellow scene still allows for lazy days of sunbathing and whirlwind nights of bar-hopping.

Sights

Beaches

Sihanoukville’s beaches each have a wildly different character, offering something for just about everyone. For a more isolated sandy strip, the beaches of Ream National Park are only a short ride away.

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Sleeping

Location, location, location; each Sihanoukville district has its own distinct character and attracts a different type of clientele. We quote prices for the high season (approximately November to March). Rates drop between June and October, especially on Serendipity and Otres Beaches, but can skyrocket on Khmer holidays at some establishments.

Eating

If you've had your fill of noodles for awhile, Sihanoukville's globe-trotting mash-up menus should hit the right spot. The Serendipity area has the most dining choice, but the gritty commercial centre also holds a few culinary surprises, as well as cheap eats around the main market, Psar Leu. Otres is your best bet for atmospheric meals on the beach.

Serendipity & Ochheuteal

For ambience, check out the over-the-water resort restaurants at Serendipity Beach. Two blocks inland, Tola St was once developing into a restaurant zone, but many of its best spots are being replaced with casinos.

Drinking & Nightlife

There’s no shortage of venues in which to quaff locally brewed Angkor Beer, on draught for as little as US$0.25.

Serendipity Beach Rd hotels have lively bars; Big Easy hosts a Friday pub crawl, and the beach-shack bars on Ochheuteal Beach are a scene, albeit a sleazy one.

A few long-standing regular bars remain amid Victory Hill's trashy hostess bars.

Shopping

The NGO-run arts-and-crafts shops Starfish and Tapang are excellent places to buy souvenirs.

ravl with Children

Children can live it up in Cambodia, as they are always the centre of attention and almost everybody wants to play with them. This is great news when it comes to babes in arms and little toddlers, as everyone wants to entertain them for a time or babysit while you tuck into a plate of noodles. For the full picture on surviving and thriving on the road, check out Lonely Planet's Travel with Children, which contains useful advice on how to cope while travelling. There is also a rundown on health precautions for kids and advice on travel during pregnancy.

LGBT Travellers

While Cambodian culture is tolerant of homosexuality, the LGBT+ scene here is certainly nothing like that in Thailand. Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have a few gay-friendly bars, but it’s a low-key scene compared with some parts of Asia.

With the vast number of same-sex travel partners – gay or otherwise – checking into hotels across Cambodia, there is little consideration over how travelling foreigners are related. However, it is prudent not to announce your sexuality. As with heterosexual couples, passionate public displays of affection are considered a basic no-no.

What to do in Sihanoukville

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