16 Days / 15 Nights
Day 1: Day 1. Arrive Phnom Penh. Visit 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. Visit PSE for lunch. Visit 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 there it is always a bustling place.
Day 3: Travel to Kirirom National Park.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel south on National Highway 4 towards the south coast. At Kirirom National Park, we leave the main road and travel up into the park, the jungle slowly giving way to pine forest as we reach an altitude of 675m. We visit the attractive Chambok waterfall in the park with some opportunities for a gentle walk on a nature trail. We also enjoy lunch in the community restaurant, and stay overnight at one of the community homestays.
Day 4: Trek to Phnom Dai Chivit.
Today we explore Kirirom National Park with a local ranger. We trek through temperate pine forests at a height of about 650m above sea level. The trail passes through grasslands and some wildlife is visible along the way, including the occasional startled mammals. Eventually the trail emerges at the top of a cliff face with dramatic views across the Cardamom Mountains range. Cambodia’s highest peak Phnom Aural is visible on a clear day. We return to Phnom Penh.
Day 5: Travel to Kratie, Via 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. We board a boat and travel out to our island camp in the Mekong. The camp is set on a beautiful sandbar, surrounded by flooded forest and abundant birdlife. We enjoy a private dinner on the island with the light of a bonfire and traditional torches.
Day 6: Morning Dolphin Watching. Travel to Ratanakiri.
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 north on the new National Highway 7 towards Stung Treng. We stop for a local lunch along the way, before veering east towards the red earth of Ratanakiri. We cross the Srepok River along the way, the river depicted in the seminal war film Apocalypse Now.
We arrive in Ban Lung in time to enjoy the refreshing waters of the beautiful crater lake of Yeak Loam, set amid a pocket of lush jungle. We then return to the provincial capital and spend the night in a comfortable local hotel.
Day 7: Ratanakiri Forest Walk.
We spend our day enjoying a walk that takes us into the countryside and the community forests that dot the Ratanakiri landscape. Our main focus is on the black basalt lava fields known as Veal Rum Plan, north of Ban Lung and a protected area with a natural appeal for our walk. With our guide, we experience the forest, small waterfall and ‘tiger’ caves and find out more about the history, fauna and flora of this region of the province, as well as the different minority peoples that inhabit the area. We return to our hotel later in the afternoon.
Day 8: Trek around Veun Sai and Boat Trip to Kachon.
We enjoy a short road journey and then continue by walking to the small town of Voen Sai on the banks of the San River, passing through some pristine stretches of forest along the way. We take a local boat across the river to a Lao village on the other side. We follow the riverbank to a unique Chinese village that has been located here for more than one hundred years. From here we continue on foot to another Lao village with a wooden pagoda.
We take a boat up the river to the Tompuon village of Kachon, passing some beautiful sections of river along the way. Kachon is home to a traditional Tompuon burial ground complete with carved effigies of the deceased. Family groups are buried side by side and elaborate ceremonies held after a period of mourning. We return to Banlung by road.
Day 9: Travel to Kratie. Mekong Safari.
We leave Ban Lung and head south towards our overnight stop in a luxury tent in the Mekong River. If time allows, we will try and catch a view of the river dolphins. We board a boat and travel out to our island camp in the Mekong. The camp is set on a beautiful sandbar, surrounded by flooded forest and abundant birdlife. We enjoy a private dinner on the island with the light of a bonfire and traditional torches.
Day 10: Travel to Kompong Thom. Visit Forest Temples of Sambor Prei Kuk.
After breakfast in Kratie, 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. We continue our journey west to the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, where we enjoy lunch. 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 then 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.
We stay overnight in a comfortable local hotel in Kompong Thom.
Day 11: Travel to Siem Reap. Roluos Group walk.
After breakfast in Kompong Thom, 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. Following lunch in Siem Reap we head out to the Roluos Group of temples for our afternoon walk. This is a fine introduction to the early temples of the Angkor period and a great way for visitors to experience a slice of rural life. We begin our visit at the temple of Lolei where we visit the old pagoda located in the grounds of this 9th century temple. We walk between the rice fields to the temple of Preah Ko to learn about this early Angkorian capital of Hariharalaya. Here we leave the trail and wind our way through farms and villages to the temple of Bakong, stopping to learn about aspects of rural life along the way. We end at Bakong, the first artificial temple mountain to be constructed in the Khmer Empire. We head back to Siem Reap for our overnight accommodation.
Day 12: Visit Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea.
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.
After a local lunch, 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.
Day 13: Walking Walled City of Angkor Thom.
This walk is a wonderful way to experience the 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 walk at the impressive South Gate of the walled city of Angkor Thom. We walk on the immense ancient walls towards the south-west corner where there is a small temple, Prasat Chrung. We continue walking around to the West Gate, before weaving our way towards the principal temples, exploring the Baphuon, often nicknamed the world's largest jigsaw puzzle, as it was dismantled before the civil war and the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the archaeological records; the Royal Palace complex, which was once home to the God-kings of Angkor; Phimean Akas, a petite pyramid temple; before finally arriving at atmospheric Preah Palilay, a Buddhist temple overshadowed by huge kapok trees. We then take a break for lunch within the walls of Angkor Thom.
After lunch, we explore the central square of Angkor Thom, starting at the Terrace of the Leper King. This intricately carved platform was the royal crematorium and the statue that was originally thought to be the leper king is now believed to be Yama, the god of death. We continue along the Terrace of Elephants, originally used as a viewing gallery for the king to preside over parades, performances and traditional sports. 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 14: Ta Prohm at Dawn. Walking the Small Circuit.
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.
Today’s walk is a great way to experience the impressive temples of the Small Circuit, including everyone’s favourite, Ta Prohm. We continue our day at the old French dam and take a short walk through the forest to Ta Nei. After exploring this charming temple, we continue to walk through the forest to emerge on the imposing temple of Ta Keo. After enjoying the views from on high, enter Banteay Kdei through the West Gate. We leave Banteay Kdei from the South Gate and make our way to the royal bathing pond of Sra Srang where we enjoy a well-earned drink and head back to Siem Reap for a well-earned rest.
Day 15: Angkor Wat for Sunrise. Boat to Floating Village ofChong Kneas.
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.
Taking a break from the temples, we travel out to the mighty Tonle Sap Lake to visit the floating village of Chong Kneas. Nestled under the hill of Phnom Krom, this floating community moves location with the waters of the lake. Everything floats on water in this living fishing community and if interested, we can also make a stop at the Gecko Environment Centre to learn more about the lake.
Day 16: Departure.