14 Days / 13 Nights
Day 1: Arrive Phnom Penh. Royal Palace and National Museum.
On arrival head to your hotel for check-in.
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.
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 Sihanoukville via NHCC Project.
We leave Phnom Penh and head out along National Highway 4 towards the south coast. En route we visit the New Hope For Cambodian Children’s village to see the work undertaken by John Tucker and his team in providing a safe and caring community environment for orphaned and abandoned children living with HIV/AIDS.
We then pause to pay our respects to Yeay Peau, a protective spirit who looks after travellers on the road at Pich Nil Pass, where the road cuts through Bokor and Kirirom National Parks to the east and west and is lined with shrines and incense.
We continue south to the popular resort of Sihanoukville, home to Cambodia's finest beaches. We check into our hotel and leave the rest of the day free to enjoy the beautiful beaches and warm waters.
Day 4: Island Beach Safari.
We leave Sihanoukville and board our boat to experience Cambodia's undiscovered islands. We travel out to Koh Rong, stopping along the way for the chance to snorkel around some of the smaller islands. We anchor off the west coast of the island, where there is an incredible white sand beach stretching for almost 10km. We leave some time free to swim or relax in this lovely spot, while our team prepares a fresh seafood barbecue for lunch. This is our idyllic camp for the night, so we encourage guests to make themselves at home, beachcombing under the swaying palms or just snoozing in the shade. Overnight in luxury tent.
Day 5: Sihanoukville to Kompong Thom via Phnom Penh.
After a private breakfast on the island, we board our boat to return to the mainland. We leave Sihanoukville and travel north on National Highway 4 towards Phnom Penh, the lively riverside capital of the country. Then we travel northeast towards 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 journey west to the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, and stay overnight in a comfortable local hotel.
Day 6: Visit Sambor Prei Kuk. Koh Ker Temple Safari.
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 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.
We then return to our camp for the night, spending the night in a luxury safari tent.
Day 7: Koh Ker to Anlong Veng. Preah Vihear.
We rise early to enjoy a sunrise across the temple complex and after breakfast, we explore some of the lesser known sites around Koh Ker. We then continue north towards Preah Vihear. We enjoy a local lunch along the way before arriving at the base of this sacred mount. The snaking road up the mountain is very steep in places and we eventually emerge at the second enclosure of this king of the mountain temples.
We explore the temple on foot and continue onwards to the final level, clinging to a cliff face in the Dangrek Mountains, towering hundreds of metres above lowland Cambodia below. The views from this most mountainous of temple mountains are breathtaking. Later we continue our journey to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, where we enjoy dinner and our overnight accommodation.
Day 8: Anlong Veng to Banteay Chhmar Temple Safari.
We rise early for breakfast and to visit the house of the former military strongman Ta Mok as well as the gravesite of Brother No 1, Pol Pot. Anlong Veng was the last Khmer Rouge stronghold to surrender to government forces in the late 1990s.
We then travel west to the incredible jungle temple of Banteay Chhmar, famous for its signature faces of Jayavarman VII. On arrival we see the magnificent carvings of Lokesvara with 32 arms, nicknamed lok sam-pee (Mr 32) by Khmers, as well as the beautiful Hall of Dancers, similar to the famous Preah Khan. After clambering about among this sleeping giant, we continue to explore the outer complex, including the outer gate of Ta Prohm, like a smaller cousin of the impressive Angkor Thom gates and protected by a moat and the jungle-clad face-tower of Samnang Tasok. We spend the night in our luxury tent close to the temple of Banteay Chhmar.
Day 9: Banteay Chhmar to Siem Reap. Visit Artisans d’Angkor.
After enjoying the sunrise at Banteay Chhmar, we leave some free time to explore more remote outer gates and temples around the main complex. We continue south to the enigmatic temple of Banteay Top. Here the central tower has collapsed, only to be rebuilt and resembles a precarious tower of building blocks. We then journey south to the provincial capital of Svay Sisophon before we then continue west to Siem Reap to the rural district of Puok, home to the Artisans d'Angkor silk weaving project. We visit a working silk farm where it is possible to learn about all aspects of the production process. Then, transfer to hotel for overnight.
Day10: Visit Roluos group. Preah Khan and Remote Temples.
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 11: 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 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 Floating Villages.
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.
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 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.