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Before civil war broke out, Phnom Penh was nicknamed 'The Pearl of Asia' as it was considered one of the finest cities in the region. Located at the junction of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers, Phnom Penh has been Cambodia’s capital for most of the last six centuries. Having recovered from the dark legacy of the Pol Pot era in the 1970’s, Phnom Penh today is a vibrant economic center with a population of two million. Cafes, restaurants and hotels line the riverfront while boutique shops and art galleries sprout along smaller side streets. Even as it undergoes urban development, Phnom Penh has retained much of its old world charm as evident in the French colonial architecture and traditional ornate temples. Rich in history, the city offers a number of cultural and historical sites including the National Museum, Royal Palace, and Silver Pagoda.
To truly understand the country’s recent history and the people’s mindset, a visit to the Tuol Sleng Prison is a must. Also known as S-21, this former school became a torture center and has now been preserved as a museum. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields, an area where some 17,000 men, women and children were murdered and dumped in mass graves. Not for the faint-of-heart, these sites are sobering reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality—and of the rest of the world’s failure to intervene.
Siem Reap is a charming provincial town defined by a cluster of villages, Chinese-style shop houses, and French-colonial architecture. As a gateway to the ancient temple ruins of Angkor, Siem Reap has experienced exponential growth in recent years with hotel and resort developments turning this once sleepy village into a tourism mecca. Activities to experience in the town of Siem Reap include watching a traditional Cambodian “apsara” dance performance and participating in a Khmer cuisine cooking class. The rural outskirts offer plenty of interesting activities such as visiting craft shops and silk farms, taking a bike ride through the scenic countryside, or participating in a humanitarian assistance program by making a pump well donation or helping children at an orphanage.
Getting here: Most visitors arrive in Siem Reap by air. There are direct flights from most major capital cities in Southeast Asia. It is a 40 minutes flight or a 6 hour journey by road from Phnom Penh.
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992, the Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses dozens of temple ruins whose artistic and archaeological significance and visual impact place it alongside other wonders of the world like the Pyramids, Machu Pichu and the Taj Mahal. Built between seven and eleven centuries ago the temples—about 100 of which are still standing—were devoted to Buddha and Hindu deities. Within the fortified city of Angkor Thom lies the Bayon temple, the third tier of which is lined by more than 200 huge, carved faces that stare down from 54 towers. Other highlights include the Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm, which was not been restored and looks just as it did when French explorers stumbled upon it in the 1860s, and Angkor Wat, a vast temple complex dedicated to Vishnu in the early 12th century. Many of the temples are covered with fantastic carvings depicting religious stories and scenes from daily life.
You will be issued an “Angkor Pass” which is similar to an entrance ticket but has your photo on it. The pass allows you access all the temples in the complex. Make sure you keep the pass just in case you would like to explore the temples in your leisure time, as long as the date is still valid.
Sitting on the Sangker River just south west of the Tonle Sap Lake, Battambang town is at the heart of Cambodia's 'rice bowl'. Although being the country's second biggest town, Battambang still has a very local provincial atmosphere. Much of the architecture is traditional Cambodian and French colonial, evident in the town's many French-style villas and storefronts. The nearby countryside also harbors old pagodas, Angkorian-era ruins, caves, waterfalls, and Khmer Rouge period killing fields.
Getting here: There is a daily ferry that departs Siem Reap at 7:30am. It's a picturesque, 6-8 hour journey across the Tonle Sap and up the Sangker River in the wet season, but can be considerably longer in the dry season due to low water levels. Overland from Siem Reap via Sisophon takes 3-4 hours. Much of the stretch between Siem Reap and Sisophon is in poor condition. The road from Sisophon to Battambang is in good condition. Overland from Phnom Penh to Battambang is 291km (4 hours) on a paved road in good condition.
Banlung City is the provincial capital of Ratanakiri Province in the mountainous northeastern corner. It is one of the poorest regions in the country with a sparse population of 150,000. Ratanakiri is known for its lush forests and rich biodiversity, though recent development is threatening the province's ecological health. Some of the most biologically diverse lowland tropical rainforest and mountain forest ecosystems of mainland Southeast Asia are located in Ratanakiri. Activities include excursions/treks to remote Khmer Loeu villages and jungle areas, waterfalls, gem mines, and Ratanakiri's famous Yeak Laom volcanic lake.
Getting here: Check with the local operator about mode of transport since this is a difficult place to access.
Mondolkiri is the largest province of Cambodia but is sparsely populated with about 40,000 people. Located on the eastern highlands, Mondolkiri has scenery and a climate quite unlike anywhere else in the country. There are rolling grassy hills, serene rivers, powerful waterfalls, and forested mountains. At an average elevation of 800m, it can get quite chilly at night. Mondulkiri has numerous tourist attractions such as waterfalls, indigenous hilltribe culture, national parks and elephant trekking. Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, is a quiet town with a frontier feel, although it has potential to develop into an eco-tourism center.
Getting here: It is 370 km (6-8 hours) by road from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom. Most of the road is in good condition with exception of some potholes from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham. The worse part of the road is from Snoul to Kev Seima which has bumpy dirt tracks.
Located on the southwest peninsula facing the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville was originally founded as a port town half a century ago. Today this provincial town is Cambodia's premier beach destination with miles of powdered white sand beaches, picturesque islands and warm tropical waters which can be visited year round. The nearby islands teeming with coral and colorful range of tropical fish offer excellent opportunities for snorkeling and diving. If you are a seafood lover, you will especially enjoy the local specialties of fresh caught crab and shrimp.
Getting here: Sihanoukville is 230 kilometers or about a 3 ½ hours drive from Phnom Penh. It is accessible via one of the best inter-provincial roads in the country.
In contrast to the popular and bustling beachfronts in Sihanoukville, Kep is a small and low-key beach town. From the early 20th century through the 1960s, Kep was Cambodia's premier beach town, drawing weekend holiday-makers to its picturesque shores lined with ritzy ocean side villas of the privileged class. Nowadays, the old villas are in ruins, and the town is known more for its oceanfront seafood stalls than for its beaches, which are narrow and stony, offering just a few slivers of sand. Nearby attractions include Bokor Hill Station, a mountaintop collection of colonial buildings (hotel, casino, church, and royal residence) constructed by French authorities in the early 1920s as a retreat for French officials and foreign visitors to old Indochina.
Getting here: From Kampot, it is a 25km (30-45 mins) trip on paved, smooth road through scenic Cambodian countryside.