Tours of Cambodia were, for decades, considered by the most intrepid travelers only. But today, the vibrant and fascinating country welcomes all kinds of tourists, from luxury travelers who enjoy modern amenities in cities like Sihanoukville and roam the grounds of Angkor Wat, to backpackers who venture off well beaten paths to small villages and soak in Cambodian culture in its truest form. Angkor Wat tours are the country’s main allure for certain but over the years, it’s become evident there’s more to Cambodia then meets the eye.
Angkor Wat Tours
Many visit Angkor and afterwards turn around and head back to Thailand, Vietnam, or further south. The ancient temples of Angkor attract thousands annually, hosted in the close-by city of Siem Reap - another small-time village transformed by major tourism. Angkor and several other ruins, such as Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea, are the most noteworthy attractions. Set on the north shores of Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap surroundings deserve intensive exploration, something not accomplished by most temple-focused visitors. Siem Reap also has an airport that creates easy route to and from high-spirited Phnom Penh.
In Phnom Penh, history comes alive through many top-rated Cambodian attractions. Though only a more recent part of Cambodian history, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are major attractions for the city. Phsah Thmei, or the Central Market, presents the country’s best and most diverse shopping experience. Day trips to Mekong Island pay off with picnic-worthy sites amid tranquil rice fields, fruit orchards, and vegetable farms. For the strong history buff, a visit to the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21 interrogation and torture centre) underlines much of the history revolving around the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
Sihanoukville is a huge draw because of the many beaches located all around the outskirts on the Gulf of Thailand. Each exhibits a different feel and different level of hustle and bustle, with some offering complete peace and quiet without any crowds. White sand beaches and beach activities, waterfalls and national parks, world class dining and shopping, and thriving nightlife create many worthy reasons to explore the city. There are many offshore islands that are being bought out by major developers who will inevitably extend tourist amenities (mainly hotels) and create more options in luxury hotels. Sihanoukville has developed around the port that was first honed in 1955. Originally it was named Kompong Som but was renamed for King Sihanouk – most locals still use the original name. Beach-lovers might also want to head on southeast to Kep, a coastal city enjoying a welcome resurgence and a more relaxing, small-town feel.
The former are the three most popular cities in Cambodia but to limit travel to them only would be a recipe for self-reproach. With appropriate time, tours of Cambodia can include visits to less-popular but equally rewarding locations such as Battambang, a farmer and trader town near Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Battambang presents rural living at its best, Angkor-related temples, mountain scenery, and plenty to explore on foot in town. The temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in the northwest is a fascinating and almost-completely off-the-map attraction for most tourists. This temple and similar ones nearby (Samnang Tasok, Banteay Top, and Boeung Cheung Kru) offer an experience right out of the movies (think Indiana Jones) and are perfect complements to Angkor Wat tours. Head out from Sisophon, and expect less than favorable road conditions, but once you arrive there is no room for regret, just overwhelming awe.