14 Days / 13 Nights
Day 1: Arrive Phnom Penh. Royal Palace and National Museum.
Upon arrival check in to hotel.
In the afternoon, we explore the stunning Royal Palace complex, home to the Cambodian royal family and a symbol of the nation. We enter the Throne Hall where the royal receptions are held, see the Napoleon III Pavilion made from iron, a gift from the French emperor in the 19th century and continue to the Silver Pagoda, named after the 5000 silver tiles covering the floor, each weighing 1kg. Inside are some of the country's most cherished treasures, including a life-size gold Buddha studded with 9584 diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats. There is also a delicate emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal, which gives the temple its Khmer name of Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).
We leave the Royal Palace and continue to the nearby National Museum, home to the world's finest collection of sculpture from the Angkor period. The exquisite building was completed in 1920 and features collections from the pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor periods. We concentrate on the incredible sandstone sculpture from Angkor, as well as the intricate bronzes.
Day 2: Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields. Sunset Boat Cruise on River.
We come face to face with the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng was a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a centre for interrogation, torture and death. Today it is a museum of torture and serves to remind visitors of the terrible atrocities that came to pass in Cambodia. 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison and only seven lived to tell the tale. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing all the prisoners and many of these haunting black and white images are on display in the cells. Tuol Sleng is a profoundly moving experience and not everyone will want to visit. However, it is key to understanding the hell into which Cambodia descended and how far it has come in the years since.
We then travel out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng followed this same route to their fate. An old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was turned into an extermination camp for political prisoners. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed from mass graves and are kept in a memorial stupa here. Despite the horrors of the past, it is a peaceful place to go and a tranquil spot to reflect on the tragic events that engulfed Cambodia and its people.
In the late afternoon, we board a local boat for a sunset cruise on the river. We set off on the Tonle Sap River, which famously reverses direction each year, acting as the world's largest natural flood barrier for the Mekong River. We cruise past the Royal Palace compound and around the Chrouy Changvar Peninsular on to the mighty Mekong River. We cruise past small villages and see fishing boats preparing their catch. We return to Phnom Penh after dark.
Day 3: Phnom Penh to Kep.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel south on National Highway 2 towards the south coast. We stop at Tonle Bati to visit the beautiful 12th century temple of Ta Prohm. Built by King Jayavarman VII, this temple is surrounded by flourishing flowers and is a tranquil sanctuary.
We continue to Takeo where we enjoy a local lunch overlooking the water. We then travel by speedboat along an ancient canal to Phnom Da, a beautiful 8th century temple atop a small mount. An island in the wet season, when this area is inundated with water, it is surrounded by a sea of green ricefields in the dry season. We explore the brick temple on top of the hill and take in the magnificent views. We then follow a forest path to Asram Moha Russei, a curious hermit's shelter carved from sandstone.
Later we return by speedboat to Takeo and transfer to our vehicle for our onward journey to the old French-era seaside resort of Kep. We check into a comfortable hotel for the night.
Day 4: Rabbit Island. Kep Cave pagodas.
This morning, we travel to the boat pier to board a local boat for the journey to Koh Tonsay or Rabbit Island. We journey across calm waters to this beautiful palm-fringed island, home to a small community of fisherfolk and farmers. We leave some time free to enjoy the white-sand beaches that ring the island. Then, we travel back to Kep by boat.
In the afternoon, we leave Kep and travel to the little town of Kompong Trach. For a long time this place was forgotten, as the civil war kept it off the map, but the new border crossing with Vietnam has seen a bit of a boom. We stop to visit the interesting cave temple of Wat Kirisan, built into the base of Phnom Sor. We travel through a small cave to a hidden chamber open to the elements, the sheer walls dripping with foliage. There are several hidden shrines here, as well as the Cave of a Thousand Ricefields, where locals claim the limestone looks like terraces.
We then journey to Phnom Chhnork, a large cave that contains a 7th century brick temple in remarkable condition. This hidden temple is a very sacred place for local Khmers. Later we return to Kep, our base of the night.
Day 5: Kep to Phnom Penh.
We leave behind the beaches of Kep and head north towards the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The road passes through some beautiful rural areas and there may be some good photo opportunities. We stop for a short break in Angk Tasaom before continuing to the lively riverside capital. We check into our hotel and leave the rest of the day free to soak up the atmosphere of this attractive city.
Day 6: Travel to Kratie, including Chhlong.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel northeast to the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham. En route, there is the chance to pause at Skuon, affectionately known as 'Spiderville', where it is possible to sample the local delicacy of deep fried tarantula. We arrive in Kompong Cham mid-morning and visit the sacred hills of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (man and woman hill). Later we see the 'fusion' temple of Wat Nokor, an 11th century sandstone temple with a colourful modern wat set in its central courtyard. We then enjoy a local lunch in Kompong Cham.
Our road journey continues on east bank, passing through the old river port of Chhlong, home to some of the best examples of French colonial architecture in the country. We then reach Kratie, a sleepy Mekong port and gateway to an encounter with the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin that inhabit the upper reaches of the Mekong in Cambodia.
Day 7: Dolphins. Travel to Kompong Thom.
After breakfast in Kratie, we travel to Kampi, one of the many deep pools where the rare river dolphins gather to feed. We board a local boat and cruise out into the mighty Mekong for a chance encounter with these gentle creatures. We then travel south to the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham, nestled on the banks for the Mekong. We pass through Cambodia's rubber country on the way, vast plantations that were originally established by the French and are once again being redeveloped.
After lunch, we journey west to the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, our base for the night. En route, there is the chance to pause at Skuon, affectionately known as 'Spiderville', where it is possible to sample the local delicacy of deep fried tarantula. We stay overnight in a comfortable local hotel in Kompong Thom.
Day 8: Sambor Prei Kuk. Travel to Siem Reap.
After breakfast in Kompong Thom, we explore the impressive pre-Angkorian capital of Isanapura, known today as Sambor Prei Kuk. The first major temple city in South-East Asia, the brick temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are a peaceful contrast to their more illustrious relatives at Angkor. We explore the main temples here, including Prasat Tao with its elaborately coiffured lions and Prasat Sambor, with its crumbling sanctuaries.
After lunch, we continue northwest on National Highway 6. This was an old Angkor road and we stop in Kompong Kdei to see one of the ancient Angkor bridges that were built to span the rivers. Spean Praptos has more than 20 arches and is a spectacular sight, reinforcing the impression that the Khmers were like the Romans of Southeast Asia. We continue to Siem Reap where we check into our hotel and enjoy the rest of the afternoon at leisure.
Day 9: Roluos Group. Preah Khan.
We travel back in time to one of the earliest capitals in the Angkor area, Hariharilaya, now known as Roluos. We begin with a visit to the brick temple of Lolei, originally set on an island in the centre of the Indratataka baray (reservoir). We continue to Preah Ko (sacred cow), named in honour of Shiva’s mount, Nandin. Originally coated in stucco and painted, there is still some of the ancient plaster visible on the rear towers. Finally, we encounter Bakong, the earliest of the temple mountains, which later became the signature of Khmer kings. It is a giant pyramid, its cardinal points marked by giant elephants. For those that are interested, we can offer a short diversion to the small country town of Roluos, a world away from Siem Reap.
In the afternoon, we travel to the mighty temple of Preah Khan or 'Sacred Sword', built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Sister temple to Ta Prohm, the cruciform corridors here are impressive and there are some wonderful carvings adorning the walls, including the spectacular hall of dancers. We then continue on to the elegant curves of Neak Poan. This petite temple is the ultimate ornamental fountain, its series of elaborate spouts including the heads of lions and elephants. We finish by experiencing sunset over the rice fields from the royal crematorium of Pre Rup, a classic view of the Cambodian countryside.
Day 10: Visit Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, Landmine Museum.
We journey north to Kbal Spean. The original ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle only discovered in 1969. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including thousands of lingams. A trip to Kbal Spean is one of the easiest ways to experience a short jungle trek in the Angkor area, as it is a steady but scenic climb to reach the river carvings.
We head to Banteay Srei, Angkor’s ultimate art gallery. This petite pink temple is the jewel in the crown of Angkor-era sculpture. The elaborate carvings here are the finest found in Cambodia and the name translates as ‘Fortress of the Women’, thanks to the intricate detail here, considered too fine for the hands of a man.
On the way back to Siem Reap, we visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum to learn more about the scourge of landmines and the shadow they cast over rural communities in Cambodia with a visit to this flagship museum promoting mine awareness and education.
Later we visit the 12th century temple of Banteay Samre. Built by King Suryavarman II, the genius behind Angkor Wat, this temple has been extensively restored.
Day 11: Tonle Sap Floating Villages.
We travel southeast to one of the largest and least-visited villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, Kompong Khleang, about 55km from Siem Reap. It has a population of about 10,000 people, all of whom make a living from the fishing industry. We explore the canals (wet season) or streets (dry season) of this incredible town. We cruise into the open water of the great lake to see a small floating village and learn some more about this incredible natural flood barrier.
Then, we travel to Kompong Pluk and board small wooden boats for the trip to visit Kompong Pluk. Cruising down a narrow waterway, we enter this medieval floating village, where the houses stand atop stilts as much as seven metres above the water. Everything lives on the water, pigs, dogs, crocodiles and people, all jockeying for space in this incredible floating town. We explore the local wat here, before boarding a bigger boat to take us through the flooded forest and across the Great Lake to Chong Kneas and the holy mountain of Phnom Krom. We climb Phnom Krom for a glorious sunset over the Tonle Sap before heading back to Siem Reap by road.
Day 12: Ta Prohm Dawn. Angkor Thom.
We rise early to travel to Ta Prohm in the dawn light. Ta Prohm has been abandoned to the elements, left as it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860, the tentacle-like tree roots here are slowly strangling the surviving stones.
After soaking up the unique atmosphere of Ta Prohm, we continue to the giant pyramid of Takeo, one of the highest temples in the Angkor area. Built at the end of the 10th century, it was never completed. This morning we also visit the remains of an old Angkorian bridge which once spanned the Siem Reap river. There is also the option to visit the smaller temples of Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon for avid temple enthusiasts.
In the afternoon, we visit the immense walled city of Angkor Thom that was the masterpiece of King Jayavarman VII. The scale is simply staggering and we are immediately overwhelmed by the audacity of Jayavarman on arrival at the city’s gates. We begin our visit at the Terrace of the Leper King, continue along the Terrace of Elephants, and visit the Baphuon, once of the most beautiful temples at Angkor, dating from the 11th century. It has undergone a massive renovation by the French and is now once again open for viewing. Our climax is the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself. We unravel the mysteries of the temple’s bas-reliefs, with their intricate scenes of ancient battles against the Chams and their snapshot of daily life during the Angkor period.
Day 13: Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.
We travel to the lost temple of Beng Mealea, the titanic of temples, a slumbering giant lost for centuries in the forests of Cambodia. It is the most accessible of Angkor’s lost temples, a mirror image of Angkor Wat, but utterly consumed by the voracious appetite of nature. Constructed by Suryavarman II in the 12th century, the builder of Angkor Wat, the forest has run riot here and it is hard to get a sense of the monument’s shape amid the daunting ruins.
We then head into the bush to the remote Angkor capital of Koh Ker. In the 10th century Jayavarman IV (928-942) fell out with his family, stormed off to the northwest and established the rival capital of Koh Ker. Although the capital for just 15 years, Jayavarman IV left a legacy of 30 major temples and some gargantuan sculpture that is on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
We visit Prasat Thom, a seven-storey step pyramid, more Mayan than Khmer, with commanding views over the surrounding forest, nearby Prasat Krahom or Red Temple and other temples, including the five towers of Prasat Ling, each enclosing a giant linga or fertility symbol, the biggest and best found in situ anywhere in Cambodia.
Day 14: Angkor Wat Sunrise. Departure.
Rising at the crack of dawn, we journey out to the Mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. Believed to be the world's largest religious building, this temple is the perfect fusion of symbolism and symmetry and a source of pride and strength to all Khmers. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, this is most famous temple at Angkor. We stay at Angkor Wat to enjoy a picnic breakfast. As the crowds return to their hotels, we venture into Angkor Wat to enjoy its magnificence in peace and quiet, beginning at the bas-reliefs that tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire.
Afternoon is free at leisure until transfer to airport for departure flight.