Geographically, Cambodia is bordered by Thailand and Laos to the north and Vietnam to the south and east. The Gulf of Thailand is off to the southwest. As a simplistic overview, Lake Tonle Sap functions as a natural storage basin of the Mekong and is located in the centre of Cambodia, with plains around it extending out to the mountains that ring the country.
Cambodia’s history has been turbulent since the fall of Angkor in 1431. France and neighbouring powers pillaged the region in the successive centuries. After declaring independence in 1953, Cambodia reverted back to civil war. Most people have heard of the Communist Khmer Rouge and their relentless reign of terror, led by Pol Pot. This has seen a lot of coverage in the western world. In 1975, Communist Khmer Rouge forces took over Phnom Penh and forced people to leave the cities and towns. It is thought that over a million people were executed, and many tragic hardships ensued. Infrastructure and institutions collapsed. The Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out into the countryside in 1978, but Cambodia had to be pretty much built again from ground level.
It has only been recently- since 1993- that Cambodia has been gathering some semblance of stability. Despite widespread poverty, travellers are increasingly finding that Cambodia has a lot to offer. Popular temples and beaches receive the most exposure, but there are many under-explored areas. However, due to the turbulent past, infrastructure is poor in almost all areas of the countryside, and most local people live by subsistence farming.
Despite the well-known problems of the past, much of Cambodia’s history is actually rather illustrious. The remains of the temples at Angkor are a testament to the wealth and power that the Khmer Empire once commanded. It was at its height at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains the ruined remains of the civilisation. But it is far more than an archaeological site- it is a huge (400 square kms!) magical region that is one of the most treasured gems of South East Asia. Angkor Wat is probably the most famous of all- and rightfully so- but despite its magnificence, it is just one of many vestiges of the Khmer Empire. The Bayon Temple is another eminent place to visit and stand in awe of the elaborate sculptural structures. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, it is now getting the support it needs to help preserve it for future visitors to enjoy.
Siem Reap is considered the entry point to the Archaeological Park. This town is currently experiencing rapid expansion due to an influx of tourists that has turned it into an experience of Cambodian life with additional non-Cambodian comforts. This makes it more expensive than other places in the country. Like always, you pay to experience the well-known sites. Whilst it is worth it, it is also worth balancing it out by embracing your adventurous side and exploring the lesser-known areas. These are the parts of Cambodia that will make your trip unique, rather than a carbon copy of everyone else’s. Perhaps you’d like to check out Kompong Thom, where there are equally fascinating ancient temples, just far fewer people from back home!
Phnom Penh, the capital city, is definitely worth the visit. It can be a bit of a full-on introduction to Cambodia, and less hardy travellers may find the lack of conveniences, beggars, dust, litter, crazy traffic and general chaos a little too much at first. Despite the occasional grittiness it is a great place to soak up the culture. While there are not so many sites to see, it’s nice to walk the wide boulevards and enjoy everything from the Royal Palace to the visible French colonial influence.
If you fancy exploring the Cambodian Mekong, head north-east to Kratie, where you might spot the famous river dolphins that everyone raves about. These are sometimes seen from Kampi Village, 15 kms north of Kratie. It is a small town, but popular with backpackers due to a couple of nice temples- like Phnom Sombok, located at the top of a hill. There are also pleasant pagodas. Its proximity to the surrounding rural areas, such as Sambor- with remains predating the Angkor era- is a strong selling point too. Sambor is 40kms out of Kratie. If that’s not enough, basket weaving villages can be found 15kms south of Kratie.
Sihanoukville (Kompong Som) is developing credibility as a place to visit for its beautiful beaches and stretches of coastline, which are only just emerging after the bombing, fighting and banditry of Cambodia’s past. It’s no longer only the daring who experience the beauty of coastal retreats such as Sokha Beach, and word of this wonderful place is spreading fast.
For an alternative destination, as close to the ‘real’ Cambodia as anywhere established enough to be mentioned in a travel guide, head to Kompong Cham, a relaxed and quaint city on the Mekong.
You could also enjoy a few days exploring Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s central lake, boating past small villages and even popping into one of SE Asia’s best bird sanctuaries- Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve.
As for food, like most Asian countries, rice is par for the course, sometimes noodles. There are Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes and influences on Khmer food. If you’re looking for something uniquely Cambodian, then try something that contains ‘prahok,’ the infamous fish paste that many travellers try before choosing to steer clear of for the rest of their trip! Amok, which is a type of coconut curry, is a very popular dish that tourists often enjoy. A drink to try is tuc-a-loc, which is a surprisingly refreshing mixture of egg, milk, fruit juice and ice. You might want one of these to wash down the selection of fried insects you can buy from the market- spiders, beetles- there have even been rumours of scorpions!
After a long day’s exploring, you’ll need somewhere to stay. The cities that are used to tourists, such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, will have a choice of whatever you want- costing from around US$6 per night. However, they can be around half this price in the countryside, simply as a result of supply and demand. But even if you’re in the city, don’t expect hot water or a towel unless you’ve paid over US$15 per night.