Now a modest player on the world stage, Cambodia was once the seat of one of Asia’s most magnificent early civilizations, the mighty Khmer empire of Angkor, whose legendary temples continue to provide a touchstone of national identity – as well as attracting millions of visitors every year. Away from the temples, much of the country remains refreshingly untouristed and, in many places, largely unexplored.
Cambodia's capital is the frenetic heartbeat of the nation; a city of chaotic streets abuzz with motorbikes and car horns that can frazzle at first glance. For visitors, this is Cambodia's most cosmopolitan destination, with a café and restaurant scene unrivaled in the rest of the country. It is also home to a scattering of important historic sites that help unravel both Cambodia's modern and ancient history.
The countryside of rice fields and tiny villages surrounding the northwest city of Battambang holds some of the most tranquil rural scenery in Cambodia, and the area is home to swags of historic riches as well. All of this has made the city itself a popular destination on traveler itineraries. For history fans, the temples of Phnom Sampeau, Phnom Banan, and Wat Ek Phnom are all within day-tripping distance, while the famed Bamboo - a single-line rail track where ‘carriages’ made from a platform of wood and bamboo travel between Battambang's east bank and the tiny village of O Srav - is one of the most popular activities for visitors.
The laidback riverine town of Kampot has oodles of old world ambience. The compact central district is a joy to ramble around; full of surviving shop-house architecture, some of which has been painstakingly restored. Kampot's charm lies in its exceedingly chilled out atmosphere, and many a travelers find themselves waylaid here longer than they expected, having succumbed to its easygoing pace.
Spread along the banks of the mighty Mekong, Kratie has become a major destination for travelers due to its dolphin-watching tours. The endangered Irrawaddy dolphins are endemic to the Mekong, and environmental measures have now been put in place to try and help their dwindling numbers. Tourism has played a good role in trying to protect the dolphins by offering an alternative economy to fishing. To see the dolphins head to Kampi, just north of Kratie, where there are plenty of boat tours available.
Koh Rong Samloem:
Just off Cambodia's south coast lie a scattering of islands just as beautiful as their Thai counterparts to the west, but much less visited. Compared to the now very developed islands of Koh Samui and Phuket, Cambodia's islands are a slice of laidback tropical bliss, where sun and sand take center stage, and the big resorts have yet to make their mark. Of all the islands, Koh Rong Samloem is one of the most beautiful with the long, sandy Saracen Bay home to a dozen beach hut resorts that offer a welcome respite from the world. It is really all about hammock-time here, but there is plenty of scuba diving activities on offer for the more active.
In Kompong Som Province, Sihanoukville is a tale of two halves, with a bustling but drab central district and its shoreline area home to a vibrant beach resort. The beaches here are Cambodia's top destination for sand and sun holidays and are popular with both local and foreign tourists. There is something for every kind of beach-goer here. Sokha Beach and Independence Beach boast the luxury hotels. Brash Ochheuteal Beach and the Serendipity Beach area are the most popular sandy strips and in recent years have emerged as one of Southeast Asia's backpacker party areas. For a much quieter scene, go to Otres Beach with beach huts huddled directly on the sand, a sprinkling of classy boutique hotels, and a number of up-and-coming restaurants.
Angkor Archaeological Park:
This temple city is Cambodia's number one draw card. Accessed from the town of Siem Reap, the temples of the Angkorian period are so ambitious in scale and in the majesty of their construction, that Angkor Wat is rated as one of the world's must-see ancient sites. The temple of Angkor Wat itself, the world's largest religious building, is only one sliver of the site in total, and the sprawling circuit of temples deserves three days to explore if you want to understand the scope of the Angkorian period's architectural achievements.
Sambor Prei Kuk:
This pre-Angkorian temple site dates from the early 7th century when it was the capital of the Upper Chenla Empire. More than 100 brick temples dedicated to various Hindu gods sit within the forest here, many half-swallowed by mammoth tree roots. Archaeologically, the site is extremely important, containing some of Cambodia's oldest surviving buildings. The most important temples in the area are found in Prasat Sambor, Prasat Tao, and Prasat Yeay Peau.
This mammoth temple complex sits consumed by surrounding jungle in Cambodia's lonely northwest, providing the perfect opportunity to discover the highlights without the crowds. It was built by the 12th-century Angkorian king Jayavarman VII, and the remarkable stone reliefs along its walls are some of the most intricately detailed you will see in the country. In particular, the spectacular bas reliefs depicting AvalokiteÅ›vara on the south wall and the dizzying array of battle scenes depicted on the eastern walls are prime examples of the Angkorian era's artistry.
National museum of Cambodia:
Located just north of the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built from 1917 to 1920), with an inviting courtyard garden. The museum is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture – a millennium’s worth and more of masterful Khmer design. The museum comprises four pavilions, facing a pretty garden.
Cuisine: Salty, sweet, spicy and sour, Cambodian cuisine has all bases covered. The nation is home to a bounty of seafood and fresh, fragrant produce, which features prominently in soups, curries, stir-fries and salads. The complex spice blend kroeung features in many Cambodian foods.
The culinary influence of Southeast Asia, along with China, India and France, can be seen in the country’s diverse array of foods. Popular dishes include chicken satay, stuffed kampot squid and the national dish seafood amok.