Cambodia – Beyond Angkor Wat

14 November 2018

Visiting the Khmer temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat is a thrilling experience, but one of southeast Asia's up and coming countries also offers other interesting destinations worth discovering.

Pub Street, Siem Reap. Photo: iStock

Siem Reap

Exploring the various temple complexes in the hinterland surrounding Siem Reap can easily fill an exciting and enlightening few days, but between the recommended sunrise and sunset viewing, there's also plenty more to see and do in Cambodia's most cosmopolitan destination. Shopping is excellent, especially for silk clothing and stylish Asian-influenced homewares, and the city's regular night market is crammed with opportunities to practise your bargaining skills. At Les Artisans d'Angkor, young rural Cambodians are trained in traditional crafts including wood carving, lacquerware and silk painting. Also transforming the lives of disadvantaged youth, Siem Reap's nightly Phare Cambodian Circus is an enthralling combination of acrobatics, storytelling and entertainment.

Phare Ponleu Selpak circus, Battambang. Photo: Getty Images

Battambang

Cambodia's artistic culture of circuses actually has its roots in Battambang, and now the country's third largest city – with a population of less than 200,000 – is leading a re-awakening of both the performance and visual arts. Reached from Siem Reap on a three hour bus ride or a more scenic seven hour river ferry, many of Battambang's faded French colonial buildings have reopened as galleries, artists' ateliers and cafes. Battambang's Phare Ponleu Selpak circus actually began in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1986, and now guided tours of their campus allow visitors to meet students practising new routines and learning music. The most impressive and innovative of Battambang's modern galleries is Romcheik5 artspace showcasing the work of 25 local artists.

A market vendor in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images

Phnom Penh

There is nowhere else in Cambodia where learning about the tragic legacy of the country's time under the Khmer Rouge regime is so accessible, and visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields on the edge of the city are both essential. Balancing these profoundly moving experiences is exploring the renewed vibrancy of the country's capital city almost four decades on from the harrowing years from 1975 to 1979. Phnom Penh's historic Central Market, built in Art Deco style in 1937, is once more the city's commercial hub, and sleepy laneways shaded by plane trees provide a more contemporary shopping experience. Visit 240 St for chic cafes and boutiques before ending the day in reflection at a rooftop bar with river views. Sunset is best enjoyed at the Social Sundown Club atop Phnom Penh's historic Russian Market.

A luxury resort in Kep, Cambodia. Photo: Getty Images

Kep

A favourite of French colonial families in the early 20th century, when this sleepy beach resort south of Phnom Penh was known as Kep-Sur-Mer, Cambodia's most relaxed stretch of coastline offers perfect balance to the capital city's increasingly energetic buzz. Stay at rustic and jungle-clad eco-resorts on the hillside above the beach, and spend the day exploring the butterfly haven that is Kep National Park, or taking a boat trip to even more laidback Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island). Another popular day excursion from Kep is on the Crab Shuttle – a converted local fishing boat - to the colonial riverine port of Kampot. An essential lunch is Kep's famous crabs cooked with Kampot's  fragrant green peppercorns.

Sihanoukville, southern Cambodia. Photo: iStock

Sihanoukville

With the introduction of new resorts and casinos, change is definitely coming to Cambodia's long-established backpackers's favourite, but there are still plenty of quieter stretches of sand to recharge and relax on after a few weeks exploring southeast Asia. Head to Otres Beach to combine well-priced boutique hotels and the allure of sunset cocktails, or escape the mainland entirely and decamp to Koh Rong Sanloem. This island's the best bet for chilled-out beach bungalows and lazy afternoons in a hammock, while nearby Koh Rong is more of a party destination. Either way, you'll be experiencing destinations at the vanguard of travel in the region.

Brett Atkinson

Brett Atkinson is a full-time travel and food writer who specialises in adventure travel, unusual destinations, and surprising angles on more well-known destinations. He's based in Auckland but frequently on the road for Lonely Planet and other publishers in New Zealand and abroad. @travelwriterNZ