Once the greatest empire in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s colorful history and awe-inspiring sites make it one of the most exciting countries in the region to visit.
Cambodia, with the ancient archaeological ruins of Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the virgin forests, waterfalls, and remote hill-tribe villages in the northeastern provinces, is a raw, alive, beautiful and challenging destination that bring you a feeling of being a part of its mysterious history.
Cambodia shares borders in the north with Laos, to the west with Thailand, in the east with Vietnam and in the southwest with the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia’s landscape is a blend of rice paddies, sugar palm plantations and remote jungles. While most visitors come to see the marvels of Angkor Wat, Cambodia offers plenty of natural beauty for those willing to explore.
Bordering the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest, Cambodia offers some lovely beaches, while to the north and northeast are mountainous. Life in Cambodia has always revolved around two bodies of water: the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap, the name of which means ‘Great Lake’, is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Cambodia has a tropical climate that is warm and humid with two distinct seasons: rainy season and dry season. During the peak of the rainy season (June to August), the humidity is higher and the temperatures can reach the upper 30°C (86°F), From September to early November, it is wet and slightly cooler. Seasonal flooding in Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia occurs in September and October which may cause disruption to travel. The dry season (November to May) is pleasant from November to February and becomes hotter from March to May, where temperatures can soar as high as 38C (100F).
Cambodia operates on Greenwich meantime +7. Please note Cambodia does not observe daylight saving hours.
Popular cities for traveling:
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 in the south-central region of Cambodia, 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 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.
Getting here: Most visitors arrive in Phnom Penh 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 Siem Reap.
Siem Reap, located north-west Cambodia, 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 to exploring the peaceful countryside on the back of a horse or on a quad bike. The rural outskirts offer plenty of interesting activities such as visiting craft villages, workshops 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 funding a local school.
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.
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 boat that departs Siem Reap at 7:30am. It’s a picturesque but rough, 6-8 hour journey across the Tonle Sap and up the Sangker River and only available in the wet season. 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: Access by reasonable roads from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in the Dry season only. Both routes are usually conducted over two days with interesting stops en route.
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 the 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.
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 powdery white sand beaches, picturesque islands and warm tropical waters which can be visited year round. The nearby islands teeming with coral and a 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 3.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh. It is accessible via one of the best inter-provincial roads in the country. It is a 35 minute flight from Phnom Penh, 60 minutes from Siem Reap.
In contrast to the popular and bustling beachfront 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. Rabbit Island, a short 20minute boat trip from the shores of Kep has beautiful beaches and a very relaxed atmosphere.
Nearby attractions include the quaint French colonial style town of Kompot. Bokor Hill Station, this 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 now boasts a modern hotel-casino which has dramatically changed the sleepy atmosphere of yesteryear.
Getting here: From Kampot, it is a 25km (30-45 mins) trip on paved, smooth road through scenic Cambodian countryside. From Phnom Penh it is 3 hours.