Sihanoukville, also locally known as Kompong Som, is Cambodia’s leading beach resort. There are empty white-sand beaches around the headland, unspoilt islands off the coast and the popular Kbal Chhay waterfall near town. As well as relaxing on the beach, boat trips to Koh Russei, Koh Rong and other islands are a popular activity. Snorkelling and diving can also be arranged, although the best diving lies quite a long way offshore and would require an overnight stay on a boat or island. The best beaches are Occheuteal and Otres Beaches, but large parts of under redevelopment. For something more remote or romantic, try and the beaches of Ream National Park or one of the offshore islands.
Ream National Park, just 15km from Sihanoukville, is a coastal park occupying 21,000 hectares, including two islands, Koh Thmei and Koh Ses.
Kampot and Kep
Kampot is a charming riverside town, rich in French colonial-era architecture and a popular place for river trips. It is a good base to explore Bokor Hill Station and atmospheric colonial seaside town of Kep-sur-Mer. There are also several cave pagodas in the area, including perfectly preserved brick temples from the pre-Angkorian period. Kep was Cambodia’s first seaside resort, founded by the French in 1908. After many years in hibernation, it has once again taken off, with new boutique hotels and resorts offering comfortable, atmospheric accommodation and delicious food. Nearby islands such as Koh Tonsay are popular for day trips and local crab and fresh seafood is a popular lunchtime treat. Bokor is a one of the most atmospheric places in Cambodia, a 1000m-high plateau of steaming jungle, shy wildlife and abandoned buildings. Built by the French as a hill station in the 1920s, it was redeveloped by Sihanouk in 1959 as a casino resort before being abandoned to the elements in 1970. Off limits until recent years, the empty buildings and majestic views give it a haunting, romantic quality. Nearby Popokvil Falls are impressive in the wet season. It is currently only accessible during public holidays, as the old hill station is currently under redevelopment.
Koh Kong is becoming an increasingly popular gateway to Cambodia for overland travellers. It is emerging as a new centre for ecotourism, with several protected areas and community tourism projects established in the area. There are two major waterfalls north of the town which can be visited by road or boat. The Peam Krasaop mangroves include a wooden walkway to explore and are home to diverse bird and sealife. The nearby village of Koh Kapi includes stilted houses built over the tidal flights of the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Kong Island is the largest in Cambodia and the west coast is flanked by beautiful white sand beaches. Chipat is a community-based ecotourism project that is drawing adventurous backpackers to explore the surrounding area. We have visited several times, but feel the homestays are still a little too undeveloped for our average guest. Accommodation in the Koh Kong area includes the new 4 Rivers Floating Ecolodge and the rustic Rainbow Lodge.
Takeo and Angkor Borei
The region of Angkor Borei is one of the main sites of pre-Angkorian Cambodia. Several temples were built in brick by King Rudravarman of Funan in the 6th Century in an area about 20km east of Takeo town. Vishnu was his patron deity and many Hindu statues from this site have survived the centuries, the best of which can be viewed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Copies of these statues are on display in a small museum in the town of Angkor Borei. The principal shrine at Angkor Borei is Phnom Da, a holy mountain with four caves carved into the north-east wall as shrines. There is a small brick temple atop the summit of Phnom Da. Getting here involves a speedboat trip along an ancient Angkor canal. A sea of water in the wet season, in the dry season you will find yourself skimming between lush green ricefields.
Kirirom National Park
Kirirom is a beautiful, mountainous area of pine forests and waterfalls. It is the most accessible of Cambodia’s national parks, about 140km south of Phnom Penh, and sees many day-trippers from the capital. Short treks are possible, including a hike through pine forests to Phnom Dai Chivit or End of the Life Mountain. Last time we explored here, we were lucky enough to stumble upon two Asian black bears. There is even a smart alpine style lodge here for families looking for a different experience, including kayaking and a zipline.
Battambang and Pailin
Battambang is one of Cambodia’s largest towns, nestled on the banks of the Sangker River. As well as boasting graceful architecture, the town is a popular place to visit by speedboat from Siem Reap across the lake. Nearby attractions include the hilltop Angkorian temple of Wat Banan, the sacred mountain of Phnom Sampeau and the riverside temple of Wat Ek Phnom. Lifestyle excursions are a popular experience when visiting Battambang, including riding the ‘bamboo train’ through the lush countryside. Just outside Battambang lies Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO-funded circus school helping disadvantaged children to learn an alternative lifestyle.
Formerly a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Pailin is known for its gemstones and has a beautiful setting on the edge of the Cardamom Mountains. The Thai-Cambodian border is open and when the new road between Pailin and Koh Kong is complete, the town will then lie on a strategic overland corridor between the temples of Angkor and Cambodia’s unexplored south coast.
Cambodia’s most populous province, the provincial capital of Kompong Cham is one of Cambodia’s most important towns, located on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Attractions are relatively low key, so most visitors pass through en route to the remote northeast of Cambodia or Southern Laos. Wat Nokor is an 11th Century Mahayana Buddhist shrine near Kompong Cham. It was rebuilt and dedicated to Therevada Buddhism in the 15th Century and today there are many Buddha images scattered throughout the complex. There is a small colourful wat located within its walls, contrasting with the ancient sandstone and making for something of a fusion temple. Other sights include the sacred hills of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (man and woman hill), offering great views across the countryside and the rickety bamboo bridge that connects the mainland to Koh Paen in the dry season. Renting a bicycle and visiting rural villages on this pretty island is a rewarding experience.
Kompong Thom and Sambor Prei Kuk
Kompong Thom is busy town located midway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and is a popular lunchstop for foreign visitors. About 35km north of Kompong Thom, Sambor Prei Kuk served as the capital of Chenla during the 7th Century reign of Isanavarman. Also known as Isanapura, this was the first significant temple city constructed in Southeast Asia and represents the most impressive group of pre-Angkorian monuments found anywhere in Cambodia. The site consists of three main groups of monuments, mostly built of brick. Much of the origins of Angkor era architecture can be seen in these temples.
Kratie is a small town on the banks of the mighty Mekong River with some of the best sunsets in Cambodia. The river north of here is home to the unique Irrawaddy Dolphin, one of the rarest creatures in the region and viewing is possible throughout the year. Hanuman has pioneered the Mekong Safari to allow visitors to spend a comfortable night on a Mekong sandbar, with only nature for company. The area is very beautiful with abundant birdlife and experiencing a Mekong Safari allows you to observe the dolphins without another visitor in sight. Nearby Phnom Sombok has a temple on its summit and offers some striking views across the Mekong River. Opposite Kratie lies Koh Trong, a pretty and peaceful island to explore by bicycle. North of Kratie lies the Mekong Discovery Trail, an emerging area for visitors where cycling, trekking and homestays are all possible.
Mondulkiri feels almost like another Cambodia, isolated and windswept, remote and adventurous. Nestled against the border with Vietnam, Mondulkiri is located at a high elevation, supporting unique flora and fauna among its hills. There are several minority groups (chunchiets) in the province including the Pnong who make up half the population. There are many rare animals found in the province, including elephants, tigers, bears and leopards. Sen Monorom is the provincial capital and nearby are a number of chunchiet villages and picturesque waterfalls. Bou Sraa Waterfall is most impressive in Cambodia with an impressive double drop plunging 15m then 30m into the jungle below. Other popular waterfalls include Romanear, Dak Dam and Monorom. Hanuman supports the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, a sanctuary for retired elephants in the jungles of the northeast. Instead of riding the elephants, visitors are invited to join the herd for a day, learning about elephant behaviour, watching these majestic creatures forage and helping them bathe. Much better than an elephant ride, this is more like observing the mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda.
In the far north east of Cambodia is the ruggedly beautiful Ratanakiri province, home to Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and some of its endangered wildlife. The provincial capital of Ban Lung is a good base for exploring this wild province. Serenely beautiful and surrounded by jungle, Yeak Lom is a freshwater lake within a volcanic crater and undoubtedly Cambodia’s finest natural swimming pool. Elsewhere in the province are several large waterfalls, many gem mines and the opportunity for jungle boat trips. The province also supports several minority groups including Kreung and Tompuon. Popular adventures include a visit to a minority cemetery to learn about traditional burial customs and treks through community forest to tribal villages. Virachay National Park, one of the largest protected areas in Cambodia, is located in the far northeast of the province and includes some of the most remote areas in the country. Short two-day treks are available up to eight-day treks into the Phnom Veal Thom wilderness area.