For many adventurous travellers the allure of anunspoilt and little-explored country is irresistible. Emerging froma violent past of human rights atrocities, war, and politicalinstability, Cambodia is steadily recovering and slowly emerging asa top destination on the Southeast Asian travel trail. Themagnificent 'Lost City' of Angkor is undoubtedly one of the mostmagical tourist attractions in the world and a bucket-listdestination for many, drawing hordes of travellers to Cambodiasingle-handedly.
Modern day Cambodia is the successor kingdom ofthe powerful Khmer Empire which ruled most of what is todayVietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 9th to 14th centuries. Althoughthe country does not have the same volume of famous attractions assome of its neighbours, the Cambodian people are incrediblyfriendly, providing a warm welcome for travellers and authenticglimpses into their culture. This friendliness is amazing in and ofitself, given the suffering that Cambodians had to endure duringthe three-and-a-half year reign of Pol Pot, which resulted in thedeaths of an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge, underPol Pot's leadership, altered the face of the country. Overnight,cities were emptied and property destroyed, the economy was left intatters, and so were the lives of countless families. This periodbetween 1975 and 1979 represents a particularly dark one in thenation's history.
The horrors of the Khmer Rouge are commemorated byfascinating museums and sites that are an important part of theCambodian itinerary. However, those who shy away from exploring theinfamous Killing Fields, will find that the country offers manymore peaceful and cheerful diversions. Beautiful moments can be hadin the snatches of friendly conversations, in the tranquillityushered in by Buddhist prayer, or in the sounds of workers in therice paddies. One can also search out the charms of theFrench-flavoured capital city Phnom Penh, drift past sleepyriverside locations on a traditional boat and best of all, explorethe illustrious ancient history of the region at sites like AngkorWat.
The scenery is breath-taking, shaped by landscapesof lush green forests and jungles, banana plantations, agriculturalfields, and mighty rivers. People here live modest and simplelifestyles and the populace is largely rural. It is not a place offast and efficient transport or luxurious hotels and resortpleasures. Infrastructure is basic and travelling betweendestinations can be quite an experience - fun for some andfrustrating for others. The country's world-class attractions andless-explored reaches, golden beaches, and islands beckon theenterprising traveller, and make Cambodia a unique traveldestination.
Cambodian attractions are unique, moulded by thecountry's culture and history, making sightseeing a real Khmerexperience. The fact that Cambodia has only recently emerged as apopular tourist destination has ensured that visitors can still getan authentic experience of this ancient culture. Most people whoholiday in Cambodia are enticed by the impressive ancient templecity of Angkor in Siem Riep. Once hooked by the ancient attractionshowever, tourists will discover that the more recent history of theKhmer Rouge, though tragic and frightening, is intriguing in itsown way. The more sombre Phnom Penh attractions, such as theKilling Fields and Tuel Sleng Prison Museum, are contrasted to thevibrant Central Market and to the peacefulness of the river frontand lake side, not to mention the habitually friendly localpopulation. For even more relaxation, the beach towns of Kep andSihanoukville on the Cambodian coast are well worth a visits, ifonly to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins of thenortheast.
Getting around Cambodia can be challenging. Visitorsshould bear in mind that in monsoon season - June to October - theroads can get really muddy, making travel outside of the maincentres more difficult. The rest of the year travel can be dustybut is more manageable.
The Royal Palace is one of the principal attractionsof Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmerarchitecture in the city. The palace has remained the officialresidence of the kings of Cambodia since 1860. Set among theperfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite ThroneHall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept,the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion which was madeespecially for performances of classical Cambodian dance.
Although much of the palace complex is off-limits tothe public, the Silver Pagoda is open to visitors. This remarkablebuilding is the highlight of the compound and takes its name fromthe floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silvertiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depictingepisodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists.It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, a tribute tothe magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha thatsits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricatelycarved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid goldstatue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584diamonds.
Remember to dress conservatively and respectfullywhen visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are frownedupon within the complex.
The National Museum is a striking and famous exampleof the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's mostimportant collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material andKhmer 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 ofCambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological orderand the already impressive collection continues to grow as newtreasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered.The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the templesof Angkor, making a visit a natural accompaniment to exploring thetemples.
The museum was built in 1917 but has expanded overthe years to include a beautiful central garden with fountains andgreenery, a serene place to rest and relax after touring theexhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extrabut they are worthwhile as the printed information in the museum isminimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building. The giftshop sells books, souvenirs, and replica sculptures.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeeredand converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where theydetained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionarybehaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims wereimprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. Thebuilding appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it,and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of theorganisation.
It is a tremendously moving experience. The photographs,instruments of torture, and bloodstained walls give a thorough ideaof the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people.Thousands of victims were transported from here to theextermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The KillingFields), to be killed. There are some first person accounts ondisplay at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 knownsurvivors.
A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without avisit to Central Market. Phnom Penh's most obvious landmark lookslike a Star Wars trading post and its quirky architecture is partof the appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consistsof a huge central dome with four wings opening out into largehalls. Psah Thmey contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was saidto be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone yearsof serious renovation with the newly improved Central Marketreopening in 2011.
Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginableincluding souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers,postcards, antiques, and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stockthe same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find thereal value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly.Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendorsselling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almostanywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roadsbut, if necessary, all taxis know Central Market.
A pleasant way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is on the widebalcony of the Foreign Correspondent's Club. This well-located bar,restaurant, and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riversideoverlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap. The spectacularview is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides withthe FCC's happy hour. The FCC can be more expensive than itsneighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the placegives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in theheart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popularnightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era Frenchvilla and is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes,famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists coveringthe last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most ForeignCorrespondent's Clubs it is not private but members from otherclubs do get a discount.
Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnalpleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automaticrifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are on offer. The cityis known for availability of weapon that are probably deemedunsuitable at home. There are about four well-known shooting rangesin Phnom Penh that are generally run by the military. While thereare safety measures in place, it is a remarkably casual and freeenvironment. 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 ondisplay and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how muchhandling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that youvisit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites likethe Killing Fields, as experiencing Cambodia's violent past hasbeen known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range.Most guesthouses and taxi drivers can recommend a good shootingrange, but it is best to check online reviews to ensure you aregoing to a respected establishment. The Cambodia Extreme OutdoorShooting Range is a favourite with travellers and has been awardedcertificates of excellence by review sites like TripAdvisor inrecent years.
The magnificent Temples of Angkor are a must-see on any trip toCambodia, taking the visitor into the heart of the ancient KhmerEmpire. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 100temples have been uncovered as evidence of this impressive ancientcivilisation and one of the biggest cities of its time. Angkor Watis the largest religious monument ever built, an impressive Hindutemple surrounded by a moat, and acknowledged as one of the wondersof the world. The walled Royal City of Angkor Thom is home to theBayon Temple and its huge stone faces, another fascinatingattraction. Khmer architecture is unique and although it evolvedfrom that of the Indian subcontinent, and borrowed fromneighbouring traditions, Angkor Wat stands as testament to thepower and individuality of the Khmer's ancient oriental artform.
The complex includes ancient ruins, well-preserved temples,religious sites, monuments and lots of stone work and will take youa few days to explore in entirety. If your budget allows, you cansee Angkor from the air in a hot air balloon or helicopter. It isparticularly special to see the temple complex at sunrise andsunset, and it is best to avoid going during the midday heat. Don'tforget hats and drinking water and wear comfortable walking shoes.Also note that visitors are expected to dress respectfully andticket vendors may refuse entry to those showing too much skin.
The Aki Ra Museum, often simply called the Cambodian LandmineMuseum, provides a jarring counterpoint to the ancient Khmerglories on display at Angkor Wat by showcasing the more recenthorrors of Cambodia's political and social upheavals. This museum,founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, provides aclear and compelling account of this troubled time, and theappalling legacy of landmines and unexploded ordinance that arestill a blight on the lives of Cambodian people today.
Despite ongoing efforts to find and defuse these sleepingweapons, it is estimated that about five million still remain. AkiRa himself deactivated over 50,000 of them, many using his ownhomemade tools. The museum contains hundreds of these landmines,and many other weapons, providing a useful service by teachingvisitors and locals how to recognise these devices and what to doshould they encounter them. The museum exists primarily to tell AkiRa's fascinating story, and to gain exposure for the Cambodianstruggle with landmines. It is also home to a number of childrensupported by the museum, who are all victims either of landmines,disease, or simply poverty.
Psar Chaa, the Old Market, is Siem Reap's mostpopular shopping experience for visitors. The outside stalls sellevery kind of souvenirs including silk, carvings, stoneware, fauxvintage items, clothes, paintings, and photos of Angkor Wattemples. You can even get very reasonably priced haircuts at themarket. Further inside are fresh produce and seafood stalls. Thefood stalls are an excellent opportunity to sample authentic Khmerfood, invariably served with the distinctive local prahok, a typeof fermented fish paste. A good accompaniment is coconut milk drunkdirectly from the fruit. The ubiquity of baguettes and frog legs isa clear and delicious legacy of the French colonial era.
Be aware that some merchants have learnt to exploitnaive tourists; you are expected to bargain and can get up to 75percent off the asking price if you do so well. Be patient andgood-natured and maintain your sense of humour and you can getwonderful deals. The Old Market is very central and convenientlylocated close to the river and the popular Pub Street.
This museum is an archaeological museum dedicated to thepreservation and presentation of the Angkorian articles. Itconvenient 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 whichoften remains hidden when viewing the Angkor temples without aguide. The museum's main attractions are its archaeologicaltreasures, including the lion and demon heads missing from thetemple statues, Khmer artefacts predating the Angkor period, and afascinating collection of ancient Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptionson stone tablets. There is a striking gallery dedicated solely toimages of Buddha and a gallery featuring the ancient costume of theAngkor period, including jewellery and headdresses.
The museum uses multimedia displays and various artefacts toevoke the golden age of Khmer culture. Displays are colourful andvibrant and the information is informative and accessible. Thebuilding itself is fairly recent, with a modern, lavishlyair-conditioned, and enormous 20,000 square metres of floor spaceand some dramatic fountains. There is also a museum gift shop forsouvenirs. Allow at least an hour for a visit. In addition to theentrance 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 timeabroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home, andCambodian cooking classes are one of Phnom Penh's most populartourist attractions. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thaiand Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromaticherbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamutfrom sweet, to salty, sour, and spicy.
Favourites include the Cambodia Cooking Classoperated from Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, which pridesitself on 'small classes, maximum attention', as space is limitedto 16 participants per day. During the full day lesson visitorswill learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as gettingsome useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorativeaspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price istransportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market tobuy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can tryyour new culinary skills on your friends and family once you returnhome. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in abeautiful riverside setting.
Not to be confused with the Central Market (PsahThmay), the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is located southof Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range ofbargains. The market is home to an impressive array of silkscarves, silk hammock, and motorbike parts. Apart from thesetreasures, it is easy to find curios, souvenirs, jewellery, andalmost anything else that may take your fancy. There are some verygood tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits and shirts forvery reasonable prices, although you will have to wait about threedays to collect them. There is also wonderful local food on offerand the fish soup is particularly appetizing.
Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get verycrowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or laterin the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss themidday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you gettired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining themarket for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name fromthe plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visitingCambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains thecity's most popular market for tourists.
Cambodia's climate is tropical with seasonal monsoons. There aretwo distinct seasons, the rainy and dry. Temperatures during therainy season, between May and October, average 81°F to 95°F (27°Cto 35°C). The dry season can be divided into cool months, fromNovember till February, with temperatures averaging 63°F to 81°F(17°C to 27°C); and hot months, from March till May, withtemperatures averaging 84°F to 100°F (29°C to 38°C). The cooler,dry months of November to February are a pleasant time to visitCambodia, but the best time to visit does vary depending on desiredactivities.
Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen.Foreign currency can be difficult to exchange, with the exceptionof US Dollars. Most transactions require cash but credit card useis on the rise, especially in tourist-orientated hotels andrestaurants in larger cities and towns. US Dollars and Thai Bahtare accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done inRiel. A torn US Dollar note is useless. There are ATMs in PhnomPenh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville but they shouldn't be reliedupon as a source of money.
Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken,but English is fast becoming popular with the youngergeneration.
Local electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. TheEuropean round two-pin plug is standard. Travellers should be awarethat power cuts are frequent and, outside the capital, electricityis generally only available in the evenings.
US travellers must have a passport valid for at least six monthsfrom date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrivalfor stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, US nationals can obtainan e-visa before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
UK travellers must have a passport valid for at least six monthsfrom date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrivalfor stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively a visa can be obtainedonline before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
Canadian travellers must have a passport valid for at least sixmonths from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained onarrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, a visa canobtained online before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
Australian travellers must have a passport valid for at leastsix months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtainedon arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively an e-visa canbe obtained online before departure at /www.evisa.gov.kh
South African travellers must have a passport valid for at leastsix months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtainedon arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors canobtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
Irish travellers must have a passport valid for at least sixmonths from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained onarrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors canobtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
US travellers must have a passport valid for at least six monthsfrom date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtained on arrivalfor stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively, US nationals can obtainan e-visa before departure at www.evisa.gov.kh
New Zealand travellers must have a passport valid for at leastsix months from date of arrival, and a visa, which can be obtainedon arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Alternatively visitors canobtain an e-visa online before departure from www.evisa.gov.kh
All visitors must have sufficient funds to cover their stay anddocumentation for onward travel. A visa can be issued on arrivalfor 30 days. For a visa to be issued on arrival one passport photois required and an empty page in the passport is required, alongwith US$30 for a tourist visa or US$35 for a business visa. E-visascan be obtained before departure at https://www.evisa.gov.kh/.Extensions of visas are usually possible.
Malaria is common in Cambodia and malaria prophylaxis isrecommended for all areas except Phnom Penh and around Lake TonleSap. Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is also prevalent,especially in the heavily populated areas. Insect protectionmeasures should be taken throughout the day. Travellers stayinglong-term, or for more than one month, and those who may engage inextensive outdoor activities, should be vaccinated against Japaneseencephalitis. Vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoidare recommended for all travellers. If you come from ayellow-fever-infected area then a yellow fever vaccination isrequired. Avoid swimming or paddling in fresh water as Bilharzia ispresent. Tap water is not suitable for drinking but bottled wateris widely available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, saladsand food sold by street vendors, and don't drink beveragescontaining ice. Medical facilities are very limited in most ofCambodia, except for a few expensive private clinics in Phnom Penh.Treatment must be paid for with cash and health insurance isessential.
Tips are not necessarily expected, but are welcomed inrestaurants and hotels. Hotels often add a 10 percent servicecharge to the bill, but small amounts for personal services areappreciated, as salaries in the country are low. Tour guides shouldbe tipped.
Cambodia remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries inthe world. When hiking or visiting rural areas, travel with a localguide and never stray off the main paths. It is not advisable totravel in rural areas at night.
Caution should be taken in the capital, Phnom Penh, especiallyat night, as street crime is a problem, and popular touristnightspots may be targeted. After dark there is also a risk ofcrime in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Visitors should be aware thatbag snatching is becoming an increasing problem on tuk-tuks,motorcycle taxis, and while walking in the main towns. Due to thelarge numbers of tourists involved in road accidents onmotorcycles, police in Siem Reap and other tourist centres have inthe 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 largegatherings, demonstrations, and political meetings. Travellers arealso advised to avoid the Cambodian-Thai border areas because ofongoing border disputes; the Preah Vihear temple area has becomeparticularly dangerous.
Permission should be sought before taking pictures of people,particularly monks. Avoid touching someone on the head as it isconsidered the most sacred part of a person's body. When visitingreligious sites, shoes should be removed, and shorts avoided; womenin particular should dress modestly. A traditional greeting inCambodia is a bow, bringing together the hands at chest level(similar to hand position for prayer). With foreigners Cambodianssometimes convert to the handshake. The simple rule is to respondwith the same greeting you were given.
Developing a personal relationship in Cambodia is importantbefore any business can be discussed, a process which might includeshared meals and plenty of socialising. It is considered rude tocause any business associate to 'lose face' publically, so tact andpoliteness are important.
On introduction, the most senior in the group will be introducedfirst, and visitors are advised to do likewise so that the hostsunderstand the hierarchy of the group; the highest-ranking personon both sides should greet each other first and perform theintroductions. A light handshake is appropriate on introduction,after which business cards can be exchanged using both hands; it isconsidered impolite to put the card away without making a show ofstudying it for a short while. If men are dealing with women theyshould wait and see if they extend a hand before doing so. Eyecontact 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 nameor both the first and surname. Dress is conservative, but formalbusiness suits will be out of place in the tropical heat;lightweight suits can be worn for formal meetings. Business hoursare generally 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday, often with a long lunchfrom about 12pm till 2pm.
The international access code for Cambodia is +855. The outgoingcode is 001 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 00144 forthe United Kingdom). Phnom Penh's area code is (0)23; the code forSiem Reap is (0)63. Internet cafes provide a fast and inexpensiveservice in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and other main towns. Free wifiis available at restaurants, cafes, and hotels in most touristcentred areas. Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased for areasonable price to avoid expensive international roaming fees.
Travellers to Cambodia are allowed to enter the country with areasonable amount of tobacco products and spirits for personal use:200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 200g of tobacco; about 350ml ofperfume; and two litres of alcohol. Cambodian customs authoritiesmay enforce strict regulations on the import or export of drugs,firearms, antiquities, and ivory.
Ministry of Tourism, Phnom Penh +855 (0)23 884 974 orwww.tourismcambodia.org.
Embassy of Cambodia, Washington DC, United States (alsoresponsible for Canada): +1 206 726 7742.
Embassy of Cambodia, London, United Kingdom (also responsiblefor 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 forCambodia): + 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 forCambodia): +66 (0)2 254 2530.
The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of thegreat horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) wereeither ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died ofstarvation in the communal fields. Choeung Ek was the exterminationcamp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) wereexecuted. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of thesame name, this football-field-sized area contains the mass gravesof about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before beingexecuted.
A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate thedead with more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind theglass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and Englishsummarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As areminder of the reality of this great tragedy, human bones arestill frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many ofthe tour guides have personal stories to tell about theirexperiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fieldsis harrowing - and not suitable for young children - but it remainsone of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.
Ratanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the WildWest. Situated in the northeast of the country, along the borderwith Vietnam, it is slightly inaccessible. This does not deter themore intrepid travellers for whom the extra effort is worthwhilefor the stunning natural beauty of the region. Visitors travellingto Ratanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests, volcaniclakes, pristine waterfalls, and abundant wildlife including Asianelephants, monkeys, guar, and many endangered bird species. Theprovince has slightly cooler weather than most of the country. Oneof the key tourist attractions is Yak Loum, a perfectly roundcrater lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense junglefoliage. The lake is great to swim in and a relatively shortdistance from the town of Banlung. Also close by is a protectedarea in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. There areinteresting villages to visit which allow for authentic culturalexperiences.
Be aware that the roads in this region are not great;they are very muddy during the wet season and covered in thick reddust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats area popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination forthe eco-tourist or adventure seeker Ratanakiri is a paradise.
Most tuk-tuk and moto drivers in Siem Reap will beonly 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 arebuilt on ten foot (3m) poles, so that when the water rises - as itdoes every year during the monsoon - the homes are not flooded orwashed away. There are three main floating villages around SiemReap located around the Tonle Sap Lank. The closest floatingvillage is situated in Chong Khneas, just an hour's drive from SiemReap. Villages closer to Siem Reap tend to be touristy, while thosefurther away are far more picturesque and authentic.
A two-hour boat trip through Chong Khneas villagecosts about $8 per person or around $20 for a boatload. While thestilted 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 shallowwater. Be aware that there have been tourist scams in the villagesand that the poverty witnessed can be disturbing.
While this beach town isn't nearly as famous as thosefound along Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great touristgetaway. 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 ofThailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with allthe requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses, andsmiling hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth theextra 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 areaand the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Mosthotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visitingthe National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food andoffer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to developthe area for larger resorts which may well ruin its laid-back beachcharm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three to fourhour journey to and from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia's best road.There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, theCambodian/Thailand border.
From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerlylavish resort town of Krong Kep. Once a famous high-societydestination, called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of arustic fishing village; a peaceful and charming destination forthose who like to travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge dida number on this town, but the ruined villas of the rich now add toKep's crumbling mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers ofbeaches, jungled mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island ensuresthat 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 delightfulcreatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian populationwas recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For yearsthe dolphins were killed illegal fishing practices, and hunted bythe Khmer Rouge for sport. The dolphins are now protected and havebecome a symbol of hope for the sleepy north-eastern town of Kratieand the money paid to view them supports the local community aswell as the conservation of the dolphins.
The animals themselves are shy and intelligent andtheir perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimesspotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent smallboats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthydistance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough torecognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphinsmiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice ofcheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbikedrivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins'river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the housesare raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
Boeung Tonlé Sap (Tonlé Sap Lake) is one of the largestfreshwater 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 instilted or floating houses. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in theTonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve is home to ibis, stork, pelicans, andfish eagles; the best time to view these birds is in the dryseason. There is also a Tonlé Sap Exhibition in Siem Reap,showcasing Khmer heritage through a display of the local people'sculture and environment.
Boat tours on the lake are popular and an enthralling way to seethe riverside villages and interact with the locals. Be aware thatwhile the majority of guides are friendly and competent, there havebeen reports of some trying to scam tourists and charge ridiculousrates for boat trips. It usually costs well under $20 to hire aboat and you can share it between a few people. Tips for the guidesare also expected.
For those visitors especially charmed by Tah Prom'sjungle-clad stones within the Angkor Wat complex, it is well worthmaking the five-hour round trip to visit Beng Mealea. Its namemeaning lotus pond, this little-visited sandstone temple, has nowalmost completely fused with the surrounding jungle. Built in the12th century as a Hindu temple, and long since abandoned, thissprawling complex is on a similar scale, and built in a verysimilar style, to Angkor Wat. The temple is so well preserved thatit looks nearly identical to what the first western visitors theremust have experienced when stumbling upon these forgottenwonders.
Little is known about the temple's history, what isknown is that it was once the centre of a town taken over by thedense Cambodian jungle. If you prefer to travel off the beatentrack then Beng Mealea, overgrown and largely unrestored, willcaptivate you with its mystery and the relative freedom of theexperience of exploring it. Visitors are allowed to climb andinvestigate freely, and the peaceful atmosphere encourages many tospend time reading, writing, or relaxing in a chosen spot among theruins. Many of the carvings have been desecrated by earliersouvenir hunters, but in other ways the integrity and atmosphere ofthe structure has benefitted from the small number of visitors.