For many adventurous travellers the allure of an unspoilt and little-explored country is irresistible. Emerging from a violent past of human rights atrocities, war, and political instability, Cambodia is steadily recovering and slowly emerging as a top destination on the Southeast Asian travel trail. The magnificent 'Lost City' of Angkor is undoubtedly one of the most magical tourist attractions in the world and a bucket-list destination for many, drawing hordes of travellers to Cambodia single-handedly.
Modern day Cambodia is the successor kingdom of the powerful Khmer Empire which ruled most of what is today Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 9th to 14th centuries. Although the country does not have the same volume of famous attractions as some of its neighbours, the Cambodian people are incredibly friendly, providing a warm welcome for travellers and authentic glimpses into their culture. This friendliness is amazing in and of itself, given the suffering that Cambodians had to endure during the three-and-a-half year reign of Pol Pot, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, altered the face of the country. Overnight, cities were emptied and property destroyed, the economy was left in tatters, and so were the lives of countless families. This period between 1975 and 1979 represents a particularly dark one in the nation's history.
The horrors of the Khmer Rouge are commemorated by fascinating museums and sites that are an important part of the Cambodian itinerary. However, those who shy away from exploring the infamous Killing Fields, will find that the country offers many more peaceful and cheerful diversions. Beautiful moments can be had in the snatches of friendly conversations, in the tranquillity ushered in by Buddhist prayer, or in the sounds of workers in the rice paddies. One can also search out the charms of the French-flavoured capital city Phnom Penh, drift past sleepy riverside locations on a traditional boat and best of all, explore the illustrious ancient history of the region at sites like Angkor Wat.
The scenery is breath-taking, shaped by landscapes of lush green forests and jungles, banana plantations, agricultural fields, and mighty rivers. People here live modest and simple lifestyles and the populace is largely rural. It is not a place of fast and efficient transport or luxurious hotels and resort pleasures. Infrastructure is basic and travelling between destinations can be quite an experience - fun for some and frustrating for others. The country's world-class attractions and less-explored reaches, golden beaches, and islands beckon the enterprising traveller, and make Cambodia a unique travel destination.
Cambodian attractions are unique, moulded by the country's culture and history, making sightseeing a real Khmer experience. The fact that Cambodia has only recently emerged as a popular tourist destination has ensured that visitors can still get an authentic experience of this ancient culture. Most people who holiday in Cambodia are enticed by the impressive ancient temple city of Angkor in Siem Riep. Once hooked by the ancient attractions however, tourists will discover that the more recent history of the Khmer Rouge, though tragic and frightening, is intriguing in its own way. The more sombre Phnom Penh attractions, such as the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng Prison Museum, are contrasted to the vibrant Central Market and to the peacefulness of the river front and lake side, not to mention the habitually friendly local population. For even more relaxation, the beach towns of Kep and Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast are well worth a visits, if only to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins of the northeast.
Getting around Cambodia can be challenging. Visitors should bear in mind that in monsoon season - June to October - the roads can get really muddy, making travel outside of the main centres more difficult. The rest of the year travel can be dusty but is more manageable.
The Royal Palace is one of the principal attractions of Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer architecture in the city. The palace has remained the official residence of the kings of Cambodia since 1860. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance.
Although much of the palace complex is off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda is open to visitors. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, a tribute to the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha that sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds.
Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are frowned upon within the complex.
The National Museum is a striking and famous example of the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art, and tools covering history from the prehistoric, the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of Cambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological order and the already impressive collection continues to grow as new treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered. The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the temples of Angkor, making a visit a natural accompaniment to exploring the temples.
The museum was built in 1917 but has expanded over the years to include a beautiful central garden with fountains and greenery, a serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extra but they are worthwhile as the printed information in the museum is minimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building. The gift shop sells books, souvenirs, and replica sculptures.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The building appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation.
It is a tremendously moving experience. The photographs, instruments of torture, and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), to be killed. There are some first person accounts on display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known survivors.
A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without a visit to Central Market. Phnom Penh's most obvious landmark looks like a Star Wars trading post and its quirky architecture is part of the appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls. Psah Thmey contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000 merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years of serious renovation with the newly improved Central Market reopening in 2011.
Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques, and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stock the same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find the real value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almost anywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roads but, if necessary, all taxis know Central Market.
A pleasant way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is on the wide balcony of the Foreign Correspondent's Club. This well-located bar, restaurant, and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riverside overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap. The spectacular view is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides with the FCC's happy hour. The FCC can be more expensive than its neighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the place gives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in the heart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popular nightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era French villa and is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes, famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists covering the last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most Foreign Correspondent's Clubs it is not private but members from other clubs do get a discount.
Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnal pleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic rifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are on offer. The city is known for availability of weapon that are probably deemed unsuitable at home. There are about four well-known shooting ranges in Phnom Penh that are generally run by the military. While there are safety measures in place, it is a remarkably casual and free environment. This comes at a cost, at more than a dollar a bullet, ensuring that Rambo instincts are kept in check.
Upon arrival you should be able to see all the weapons on display and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how much handling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that you visit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites like the Killing Fields, as experiencing Cambodia's violent past has been known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range. Most guesthouses and taxi drivers can recommend a good shooting range, but it is best to check online reviews to ensure you are going to a respected establishment. The Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range is a favourite with travellers and has been awarded certificates of excellence by review sites like TripAdvisor in recent years.
The magnificent Temples of Angkor are a must-see on any trip to Cambodia, taking the visitor into the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 100 temples have been uncovered as evidence of this impressive ancient civilisation and one of the biggest cities of its time. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument ever built, an impressive Hindu temple surrounded by a moat, and acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world. The walled Royal City of Angkor Thom is home to the Bayon Temple and its huge stone faces, another fascinating attraction. Khmer architecture is unique and although it evolved from that of the Indian subcontinent, and borrowed from neighbouring traditions, Angkor Wat stands as testament to the power and individuality of the Khmer's ancient oriental art form.
The complex includes ancient ruins, well-preserved temples, religious sites, monuments and lots of stone work and will take you a few days to explore in entirety. If your budget allows, you can see Angkor from the air in a hot air balloon or helicopter. It is particularly special to see the temple complex at sunrise and sunset, and it is best to avoid going during the midday heat. Don't forget hats and drinking water and wear comfortable walking shoes. Also note that visitors are expected to dress respectfully and ticket vendors may refuse entry to those showing too much skin.
The Aki Ra Museum, often simply called the Cambodian Landmine Museum, provides a jarring counterpoint to the ancient Khmer glories on display at Angkor Wat by showcasing the more recent horrors of Cambodia's political and social upheavals. This museum, founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, provides a clear and compelling account of this troubled time, and the appalling legacy of landmines and unexploded ordinance that are still a blight on the lives of Cambodian people today.
Despite ongoing efforts to find and defuse these sleeping weapons, it is estimated that about five million still remain. Aki Ra himself deactivated over 50,000 of them, many using his own homemade tools. The museum contains hundreds of these landmines, and many other weapons, providing a useful service by teaching visitors and locals how to recognise these devices and what to do should they encounter them. The museum exists primarily to tell Aki Ra's fascinating story, and to gain exposure for the Cambodian struggle with landmines. It is also home to a number of children supported by the museum, who are all victims either of landmines, disease, or simply poverty.
Psar Chaa, the Old Market, is Siem Reap's most popular shopping experience for visitors. The outside stalls sell every kind of souvenirs including silk, carvings, stoneware, faux vintage items, clothes, paintings, and photos of Angkor Wat temples. You can even get very reasonably priced haircuts at the market. Further inside are fresh produce and seafood stalls. The food stalls are an excellent opportunity to sample authentic Khmer food, invariably served with the distinctive local prahok, a type of fermented fish paste. A good accompaniment is coconut milk drunk directly from the fruit. The ubiquity of baguettes and frog legs is a clear and delicious legacy of the French colonial era.
Be aware that some merchants have learnt to exploit naive tourists; you are expected to bargain and can get up to 75 percent off the asking price if you do so well. Be patient and good-natured and maintain your sense of humour and you can get wonderful deals. The Old Market is very central and conveniently located close to the river and the popular Pub Street.
This museum is an archaeological museum dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the Angkorian articles. It convenient and useful stop-over en route to the temples of Angkor, allowing visitors insight into the centuries of history, culture, rich symbolism, and myth associated with the temple complex which often remains hidden when viewing the Angkor temples without a guide. The museum's main attractions are its archaeological treasures, including the lion and demon heads missing from the temple statues, Khmer artefacts predating the Angkor period, and a fascinating collection of ancient Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions on stone tablets. There is a striking gallery dedicated solely to images of Buddha and a gallery featuring the ancient costume of the Angkor period, including jewellery and headdresses.
The museum uses multimedia displays and various artefacts to evoke the golden age of Khmer culture. Displays are colourful and vibrant and the information is informative and accessible. The building itself is fairly recent, with a modern, lavishly air-conditioned, and enormous 20,000 square metres of floor space and some dramatic fountains. There is also a museum gift shop for souvenirs. Allow at least an hour for a visit. In addition to the entrance fee, and the optional extra cost for taking in a camera, visitors can pay for an educational headset.
It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home, and Cambodian cooking classes are one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweet, to salty, sour, and spicy.
Favourites include the Cambodia Cooking Class operated from Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, which prides itself on 'small classes, maximum attention', as space is limited to 16 participants per day. During the full day lesson visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as getting some useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price is transportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market to buy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in a beautiful riverside setting.
Not to be confused with the Central Market (Psah Thmay), the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is located south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range of bargains. The market is home to an impressive array of silk scarves, silk hammock, and motorbike parts. Apart from these treasures, it is easy to find curios, souvenirs, jewellery, and almost anything else that may take your fancy. There are some very good tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits and shirts for very reasonable prices, although you will have to wait about three days to collect them. There is also wonderful local food on offer and the fish soup is particularly appetizing.
Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you get tired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining the market for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains the city's most popular market for tourists.
Cambodia's climate is tropical with seasonal monsoons. There are two distinct seasons, the rainy and dry. Temperatures during the rainy season, between May and October, average 81°F to 95°F (27°C to 35°C). The dry season can be divided into cool months, from November till February, with temperatures averaging 63°F to 81°F (17°C to 27°C); and hot months, from March till May, with temperatures averaging 84°F to 100°F (29°C to 38°C). The cooler, dry months of November to February are a pleasant time to visit Cambodia, but the best time to visit does vary depending on desired activities.
Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency can be difficult to exchange, with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash but credit card use is on the rise, especially in tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in larger cities and towns. US Dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in Riel. A torn US Dollar note is useless. There are ATMs in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money.
Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken, but English is fast becoming popular with the younger generation.
Local electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. The European round two-pin plug is standard. Travellers should be aware that power cuts are frequent and, outside the capital, electricity is generally only available in the evenings.
US travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, US nationals can obtain an e-visa before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
UK travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively a visa can be obtained online before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
Canadian travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, a visa can obtained online before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
Australian travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively an e-visa can be obtained online before departure at /www.evisa.gov.kh
South African travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors can obtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
Irish travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors can obtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
US travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, US nationals can obtain an e-visa before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
New Zealand travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors can obtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
All visitors must have sufficient funds to cover their stay and documentation for onward travel. A visa can be issued on arrival for 30 days. For a visa to be issued on arrival one passport photo is required and an empty page in the passport is required, along with US$30 for a tourist visa or US$35 for a business visa. E-visas can be obtained before departure at https://www.evisa.gov.kh/. Extensions of visas are usually possible.
Malaria is common in Cambodia and malaria prophylaxis is recommended for all areas except Phnom Penh and around Lake Tonle Sap. Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is also prevalent, especially in the heavily populated areas. Insect protection measures should be taken throughout the day. Travellers staying long-term, or for more than one month, and those who may engage in extensive outdoor activities, should be vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis. Vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are recommended for all travellers. If you come from a yellow-fever-infected area then a yellow fever vaccination is required. Avoid swimming or paddling in fresh water as Bilharzia is present. Tap water is not suitable for drinking but bottled water is widely available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads and food sold by street vendors, and don't drink beverages containing ice. Medical facilities are very limited in most of Cambodia, except for a few expensive private clinics in Phnom Penh. Treatment must be paid for with cash and health insurance is essential.
Tips are not necessarily expected, but are welcomed in restaurants and hotels. Hotels often add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, but small amounts for personal services are appreciated, as salaries in the country are low. Tour guides should be tipped.
Cambodia remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. When hiking or visiting rural areas, travel with a local guide and never stray off the main paths. It is not advisable to travel in rural areas at night.
Caution should be taken in the capital, Phnom Penh, especially at night, as street crime is a problem, and popular tourist nightspots may be targeted. After dark there is also a risk of crime in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Visitors should be aware that bag snatching is becoming an increasing problem on tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis, and while walking in the main towns. Due to the large numbers of tourists involved in road accidents on motorcycles, police in Siem Reap and other tourist centres have in the past banned rental outlets from hiring motorcycles to tourists - these bans are sporadic and may happen at any time.
There is political tension, tourists should avoid large gatherings, demonstrations, and political meetings. Travellers are also advised to avoid the Cambodian-Thai border areas because of ongoing border disputes; the Preah Vihear temple area has become particularly dangerous.
Permission should be sought before taking pictures of people, particularly monks. Avoid touching someone on the head as it is considered the most sacred part of a person's body. When visiting religious sites, shoes should be removed, and shorts avoided; women in particular should dress modestly. A traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow, bringing together the hands at chest level (similar to hand position for prayer). With foreigners Cambodians sometimes convert to the handshake. The simple rule is to respond with the same greeting you were given.
Developing a personal relationship in Cambodia is important before any business can be discussed, a process which might include shared meals and plenty of socialising. It is considered rude to cause any business associate to 'lose face' publically, so tact and politeness are important.
On introduction, the most senior in the group will be introduced first, and visitors are advised to do likewise so that the hosts understand the hierarchy of the group; the highest-ranking person on both sides should greet each other first and perform the introductions. A light handshake is appropriate on introduction, after which business cards can be exchanged using both hands; it is considered impolite to put the card away without making a show of studying it for a short while. If men are dealing with women they should wait and see if they extend a hand before doing so. Eye contact should be kept to a minimum.
In Cambodia people are addressed with the honorific title 'Lok' for a man and 'Lok Srey' for a woman followed with the first name or both the first and surname. Dress is conservative, but formal business suits will be out of place in the tropical heat; lightweight suits can be worn for formal meetings. Business hours are generally 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday, often with a long lunch from about 12pm till 2pm.
The international access code for Cambodia is +855. The outgoing code is 001 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 00144 for the United Kingdom). Phnom Penh's area code is (0)23; the code for Siem Reap is (0)63. Internet cafes provide a fast and inexpensive service in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and other main towns. Free wifi is available at restaurants, cafes, and hotels in most tourist centred areas. Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased for a reasonable price to avoid expensive international roaming fees.
Travellers to Cambodia are allowed to enter the country with a reasonable amount of tobacco products and spirits for personal use: 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 200g of tobacco; about 350ml of perfume; and two litres of alcohol. Cambodian customs authorities may enforce strict regulations on the import or export of drugs, firearms, antiquities, and ivory.
Ministry of Tourism, Phnom Penh +855 (0)23 884 974 or www.tourismcambodia.org.
Embassy of Cambodia, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Canada): +1 206 726 7742.
Embassy of Cambodia, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 20 8451 7850.
United States Embassy, Phnom Penh: +855 (0)23 728 000.
British Embassy, Phnom Penh: +855 (0)23 427 124.
Canadian Embassy, Bangkok (also responsible for Cambodia): (66) 0 2646 4300.
South African Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Cambodia): + 66 (0)2 659 2900
Australian Embassy, Phnom Penh: +855 (0)23 213 470.
Irish Embassy, Hanoi, Vietnam (also responsible for Cambodia): +84 (0)4 974 3291.
New Zealand Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Cambodia): +66 (0)2 254 2530.
The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated 1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of starvation in the communal fields. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were executed. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, this football-field-sized area contains the mass graves of about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before being executed.
A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead with more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy, human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is harrowing - and not suitable for young children - but it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.
Ratanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the Wild West. Situated in the northeast of the country, along the border with Vietnam, it is slightly inaccessible. This does not deter the more intrepid travellers for whom the extra effort is worthwhile for the stunning natural beauty of the region. Visitors travelling to Ratanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests, volcanic lakes, pristine waterfalls, and abundant wildlife including Asian elephants, monkeys, guar, and many endangered bird species. The province has slightly cooler weather than most of the country. One of the key tourist attractions is Yak Loum, a perfectly round crater lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense jungle foliage. The lake is great to swim in and a relatively short distance from the town of Banlung. Also close by is a protected area in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. There are interesting villages to visit which allow for authentic cultural experiences.
Be aware that the roads in this region are not great; they are very muddy during the wet season and covered in thick red dust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats are a popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination for the eco-tourist or adventure seeker Ratanakiri is a paradise.
Most tuk-tuk and moto drivers in Siem Reap will be only too happy to take you on a tour of one of the area's famous 'villages on stilts'. Many of the houses lining Tonle Sap Lake are built on ten foot (3m) poles, so that when the water rises - as it does every year during the monsoon - the homes are not flooded or washed away. There are three main floating villages around Siem Reap located around the Tonle Sap Lank. The closest floating village is situated in Chong Khneas, just an hour's drive from Siem Reap. Villages closer to Siem Reap tend to be touristy, while those further away are far more picturesque and authentic.
A two-hour boat trip through Chong Khneas village costs about $8 per person or around $20 for a boatload. While the stilted homes are at their most practical during the wet season, the villages are most visually spectacular during the dry season, when their long stilts rise up eerily out of the mud or shallow water. Be aware that there have been tourist scams in the villages and that the poverty witnessed can be disturbing.
While this beach town isn't nearly as famous as those found along Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great tourist getaway. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port, making much of the town industrial and unattractive to tourists. But the coastal city is surrounded on three sides by the Bay of Thailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with all the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses, and smiling hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the extra money to stay in the quaint beachside accommodation.
Daytime activities include swimming, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the nearby islands. There are also several Buddhist temples to be explored in the area and the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Most hotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visiting the National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which may well ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three to four hour journey to and from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.
From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerly lavish resort town of Krong Kep. Once a famous high-society destination, called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of a rustic fishing village; a peaceful and charming destination for those who like to travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this town, but the ruined villas of the rich now add to Kep's crumbling mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers of beaches, jungled mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island ensures that Krong Kep continues to draw visitors to its shores.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118-mile (190km) stretch of the Mekong River. These odd but delightful creatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins were killed illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the Khmer Rouge for sport. The dolphins are now protected and have become a symbol of hope for the sleepy north-eastern town of Kratie and the money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the conservation of the dolphins.
The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimes spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
Boeung Tonlé Sap (Tonlé Sap Lake) is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, containing a rich and diverse eco-system. Inhabitants include multiple bird and fish species, crocodiles, turtles, macaques, and otters, as well as villagers living in stilted or floating houses. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve is home to ibis, stork, pelicans, and fish eagles; the best time to view these birds is in the dry season. There is also a Tonlé Sap Exhibition in Siem Reap, showcasing Khmer heritage through a display of the local people's culture and environment.
Boat tours on the lake are popular and an enthralling way to see the riverside villages and interact with the locals. Be aware that while the majority of guides are friendly and competent, there have been reports of some trying to scam tourists and charge ridiculous rates for boat trips. It usually costs well under $20 to hire a boat and you can share it between a few people. Tips for the guides are also expected.
For those visitors especially charmed by Tah Prom's jungle-clad stones within the Angkor Wat complex, it is well worth making the five-hour round trip to visit Beng Mealea. Its name meaning lotus pond, this little-visited sandstone temple, has now almost completely fused with the surrounding jungle. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple, and long since abandoned, this sprawling complex is on a similar scale, and built in a very similar style, to Angkor Wat. The temple is so well preserved that it looks nearly identical to what the first western visitors there must have experienced when stumbling upon these forgotten wonders.
Little is known about the temple's history, what is known is that it was once the centre of a town taken over by the dense Cambodian jungle. If you prefer to travel off the beaten track then Beng Mealea, overgrown and largely unrestored, will captivate you with its mystery and the relative freedom of the experience of exploring it. Visitors are allowed to climb and investigate freely, and the peaceful atmosphere encourages many to spend time reading, writing, or relaxing in a chosen spot among the ruins. Many of the carvings have been desecrated by earlier souvenir hunters, but in other ways the integrity and atmosphere of the structure has benefitted from the small number of visitors.