Grand Cambodia Journey
19 Days / 18 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. Lunch at PSE. Wat Phnom.
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.
We have lunch in the capital at PSE (a French NGO supporting children from the garbage dump) where their Lotus Blanc restaurant serves excellent international and Asian cuisine. The clients can then take a tour of the PSE facilities where both schooling and work/life skills are available to the children and youths as a way of escaping the poverty of their lives spent on the city’s main garbage dump.
We then make for Wat Phnom, a symbol of the city. Located on one of the few hills in this pancake-flat capital, the first pagoda was originally built in 1373 to house Buddha statues discovered in the Mekong by a woman named Penh. This gives us the modern name of the city, Phnom Penh or Hill of Penh. Cambodians come to the shrine to pray for luck in love and life, employment and exams, so it's always a bustling place.
Day 3: Travel to Kratie.
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 'fusion' temple of Wat Nokor, an 11th century sandstone temple with a colourful modern wat set in its central courtyard. There are some intricate carvings at this temple and the kitsch contrast between the Hindu past and the Buddhist present is almost unheard of elsewhere in Cambodia. 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. We head over to the island of Koh Trong where we will enjoy the peace and quiet of our overnight accommodation, on an island in the middle of the Mekong River.
Day 4: Morning Dolphin watching. Travel to Mondulkiri.
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. Viewing is commonplace, although it is easier to see the dolphins in the shallower waters of the dry season, than in the swollen river of the wet season. After enjoying an hour or more of dolphin viewing, we then travel south towards the small junction town of Snuol and then onto Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri province. We pass through patches of lush forest and areas of cultivation and plantations. After Khau Si Ma district, the road snakes up through the mountains that give Mondulkiri its name of 'where the mountains meet'. There is lush jungle hugging the road and locals claim to see tigers on this stretch at night. The scenery changes again, jungle giving way to clusters of pine trees and rolling grasslands as we reach Sen Monorom, where we check into a comfortable local hotel for the night.
Day 5: Bou Sraa Waterfall and Minority Villages.
We leave Sen Monorom after breakfast and head east towards the double drop waterfall of Bou Sraa, one of the most famous in Cambodia. Along the way, we stop at a Pnong minority village to learn a little about their way of life. We may be invited to drink some rice wine, as Pnong villagers are extremely hospitable and welcoming of outsiders.
We continue to Bou Sraa and explore the falls. It is possible to access both drops and there are swimming opportunities for those who want to take the plunge. We enjoy a picnic at the falls and then continue east to the village of Pichenda on the other side of the river. We return to Sen Monorom later in the day, perhaps stopping to visit another minority village along the way.
Day 6: Elephant Valley Project.
We leave Sen Monorom after breakfast and travel to the nearby Elephant Valley Project which, with the support of the Bunong villagers, rescues and treats domestic elephants who have suffered injury and abuse. Enjoy a unique ‘Walking with the Herd for a day’ experience. You will be introduced to the herd of elephants and get to know more about their history, character, behaviour and body language while walking alongside them in their natural environment. You will be able to feed the elephants buckets of bananas and bathe the elephants before watching themselves cover themselves in mud again. After lunch, you will undertake a walking trek with the elephants through the stunning Mondulkiri countryside to a waterfall for a refreshing swim and elephant bath. Later we return to Sen Monorom.
Day 7: Travel from Mondulkiri to Phnom Penh.
We leave behind the wilds of Mondulkiri, we travel 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. There may be the opportunity to stop along the way and learn about how the rubber is tapped. After lunch at in town, we continue towards the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. 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 Phnom Penh and check into our hotel.
Day 8: 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 9: Morning on 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 10: Kep to Sihanoukville.
We leave behind the beaches of Kep and head west towards the popular resort of Sihanoukville, home to Cambodia's finest beaches. We pass through the charming riverside town of Kampot where we may stop for some refreshments. From here, the pretty road passes under the shadow of Bokor Mountain and hugs the coastline for much of its length. We pass through some pretty fishing villages before we arrive in the small town of Veal Renh on National Highway 4. We head south to Sihanoukville, check into our hotel and leave the rest of the day free to enjoy the beautiful beaches and warm waters.
Day 11: Free time in Sihanoukville.
Day free at leisure
Day 12: Sihanoukville to Battambang via Phnom Penh.
We leave Sihanoukville and travel north on National Highway 4 towards the Cambodian capital. We pause to pay our respects to Yeay Peau, a protective spirit who looks after travellers on the road. The Pich Nil Pass is where the road cuts through Bokor and Kirirom National Parks to the east and west and is lined with shrines and incense.
We continue to Phnom Penh where to have lunch, and then we leave Phnom Penh and travel west towards Battambang province, the rice bowl of Cambodia. There may also be the opportunity to visit a local pottery village, as Kompong Chhnang is famous for producing undecorated items for the Cambodian home.
We continue northwest through Pursat province, passing through typical Cambodian landscapes of endless ricefields dotted with sugar palms. We arrive in Battambang late afternoon and check into our hotel. We leave the rest of the day free to soak up the charm of this historic riverside city.
Day 13: Battambang Lifestyle.
After breakfast, we travel to Wat Koh district to visit a local village and learn about rural life in Cambodia. We learn about the rice harvest, fruit farming and how the sugar palm is used. After our village visit, we board the bamboo train to travel back towards Battambang. These 'local trains' are bamboo platforms with wheels and they fly along the rail tracks offering great views of the surrounding countryside.
After lunch in town, we travel to the hilltop temple of Wat Banan. The winding road follows the Sangker River and passes by many traditional wooden homes, offering an authentic glimpse of rural Cambodia. Arriving at the temple, we ascend to the summit and are rewarded with striking views of the surrounding plains. We continue to Phnom Sampeau, a sacred mountain dotted with interesting pagodas and stupas. There is also a moving memorial to Khmer Rouge victims who were thrown into one of the many caves that pepper this holy mountain. We then return to Battambang town for the night.
Day 14: Battambang to Siem Reap via Banteay Chhmar.
We leave Battambang after breakfast and travel north towards the trading town of Svay Sisophon. We then head deeper into Banteay Meanchey province to the incredible jungle temple of Banteay Chhmar, famous for its signature faces of Jayavarman VII. We see the magnificent carvings of Lokesvara with 32 armsas well as the beautiful but ruined Hall of Dancers. 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. After a picnic lunch around Banteay Chhmar, we travel south through Sisophon once more before veering east to Siem Reap, the atmospheric gateway to the majestic temples of Angkor.
Day 15: 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 16: 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.
Day 17: Ta Prohm at Dawn. Afternoon at Walled City of 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.
We walk to the first great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, Banteay Kdei, built in 1186 by Jayavarman VII. We explore its extensive corridors and elegant sculptures. Although it is in a ruinous state, it often receives far fewer visitors than nearby Ta Prohm, giving it a serene atmosphere. We then visit the royal bathing pond of Sra Srang.
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 18: Beng Mealea and Kompong Khleang.
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 southeast to one of the largest and least-visited villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, Kompong Khleang, about 55km from Siem Reap. It’s population of 10,000 all make a living from the fishing industry. We explore the canals (wet season) or streets (dry season) of this incredible town. In the wet season, the houses appear to be floating, as water laps at the verandas, but in the dry season towering stilts are revealed, the houses almost like wooden skyscrapers. 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. Later we return to Siem Reap by road.
Day 19: 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.