For all its well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage fame, the ancient temples of Angkor are far from being the only reasons to visit the Kingdom of Cambodia. With its fabled history, unique culture, friendly people, dazzling beaches, verdant jungles, punchy cuisine and unique emphasis on sustainability, it’s one of our favourite countries in the region to recommend to visitors looking for an offbeat holiday or adventure. To learn why, here are 9 compelling reasons to venture beyond the temples of Angkor to uncover some of the country’s incredible hidden gems. To dive right in to some amazing tours that visit these places, go here.
There’s simply no avoiding it: most visitors to Cambodia will have one thing at the top of their mind: Angkor Wat. While we would never discourage anyone from experiences its wonders firsthand, the purpose of this article is to inform them of what else there is to experience in the Kingdom; and visitors won’t have to go very far to find out.
Although it’s used primarily as a launching point for journeys into the ancient temple complex of Angkor, Siem Reap has emerged as a world-class destination in its own right over the years, thanks to its superb selection fo restaurants, cafes, bars, boutique and high end resorts and more. Venture just a bit outside of the city center and guests can also be treated to picture-perfect scenes of Cambodian rural communities, friendly locals and more. And with a range of other attractions not much further afield such as Tonlé Sap Lake, one could easily fill an entire holiday in and surrounding Siem Reap without ever visiting the temples of Angkor and have a wonderful time.
Tonle Sap Lake
Right on the doorstep of Siem Reap is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique natural and cultural attractions: Tonle Sap Lake. When it’s at its fullest, it’s the largest freshwater body of water in Southeast Asia, stretching some 250km across northwest Cambodia. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it hosts some 300 species of freshwater fish, 11 of which are globally endangered, and numerous rare and endangered birds, crocodiles, and monkeys, making it a veritable paradise for lovers of nature. Tonle Sap is also home to numerous floating villages such as Kompong Phluk and Kompong Kleang which are perfect examples of rural life in Cambodia.
With streets lined with old French shophouses, Battambang is considered one of Cambodia’s best-preserved colonial era towns. Hosting everything from fair-trade cafes and restaurants to art galleries, ancient temples and the amazing Phare Ponleu Selpak, a world-renowned NGO that trains performing artists while lifting them out of poverty, Battambang is small in size but packs a big punch with unique things to see, do and experience. For guests looking to experience authentic Cambodia without the crowds of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, Battambang is an easy pencil-in.
Kampot & Kep
These twin southern provinces on the coast of Cambodia offer a perfect combination of comfort, character and uniqueness for those seeking a more nuanced beach trip to find appealing over typical flop-and-drop getaways. World-renowned for its unique Kampot pepper, Kampot offers a host of charming riverside and boutique resorts for guests to relax at in between jaunts through the town while soaking up the French architecture or strolls by paddleboard or kayak through painterly riverside environs the area has to offer. Guests are also encouraged to take to the countryside on two wheels to discover the area’s undeniable cultural charm.
Nearby, Kep is a famous beachside town offering a surprisingly wide range of attractions and activities to easily fill the space of several days. Highlights include hiking in Kep National Park, a visit to Koh Tonsay or ‘Rabbit Island’, a winding ascent to Bokor Hill Station to discover hidden cave pagodas from the 7th century, and visits to rustic pepper farms and an iconic Crab Market.
Anyone who has ever overlooked Cambodia as a beach destination will be reminded of their follies with one look at Koh Rong, a lovely vision of paradise marked by azure waters and white sands that are at home on any post card. With a host of incredible beaches and tonnes of supporting activities to fill in whatever time is leftover between snorkeling and sunbathing, Koh Rong easily one of Cambodia’s top must-see destinations.
For all of the grandeur above the water, there is equal pizzaz below it with a whole host of marine species that can be readily seen with snorkelling trips around the island. Lovers of more sporty activities will feel at home with abundant opportunities for kayaking, zip-lining and more.
Not to be forgotten, the capital of Phnom Penh is keen to remind visitors that, while it may not have the ancient temples of Siem Reap, it has more than enough history and intrigue to keep visitors’ interest piqued, while its superfluous abundance of food, drink and entertainment simply cannot be outdone within the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Having experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, the city is now home to multiple hotspots for cool cafes, bustling bars, fascinating museums, feel-good NGO visits, CSR activities and more. Simply put, Phonm Penh is absolutely one of Cambodia’s premiere tourism destinations and should not be overlooked as such!
Considered by some to be one of Southeast Asia’s last great wilderness regions, the remote Cardamom mountains spans some 4.4 million hectares across southwestern Cambodia and is home to the region’s largest contiguous rainforest. Throughout this vast wilderness is an astonishing diversity of rare and exotic creatures such as clouded leopards, and only about 25,000 people, many of whom are ethnic minorities. Closed off to the world due to its remoteness and rugged landscape for time immemorial, only somewhat recently has the area become feasible to visit thanks to careful development of tented camps and visitor infrastructure. For lovers of nature, it is without a doubt one of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after and incredible destinations.
While much of Cambodia is characterized by endless rice fields and sugar palms, Mondulkiri has a decidedly more ‘wild’ appearance with verdant rolling hills and lush jungles. Located in the eastern part of the country, Mondulkiri is also a nature-lovers dream. Home to the indigenous Bunong people, who still follow animism and ancestor worship, guests can learn about their culture and unique Phnong houses. Mondulkiri has also become synonymous with responsible elephant tourism, with projects allowing guests to ‘walk with the herd’ instead of riding them. There are also plenty of nature excursions allowing visitors to spot langurs and gibbons while trekking through Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, or explore rushing waterfalls.
Other highlights include Bou Sra and Chrey Thom Waterfalls and the Memang Gold Mines.
Outside of Angkor Wat, Prasat Preah Vihear is arguably one of Cambodia’s most impressive temples. Perched majestically atop the Dangkrek Mountains, the heavily-forested ridge along the border between Cambodia and Thailand has breathtaking views across northern Cambodia.
The temple is a three-dimensional representation of Mt Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu mythology, and took nearly 300 years to construct, a period of time that makes evident how carvings and sculptures evolved in the country over time. Although it’s a bit off the beaten path, most visitors will agree that the effort in getting there is well worth it.
Kratie is the launching point for trips to spot rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins on the Mekong River. Although in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for guests to see these elusive creatures, the town’s unique colonial charm and arguably some of the best Mekong sunsets in the country make it a worthwhile stopping point through their Cambodia journey nevertheless.
Nearby Koh Trong Island is a relaxing place to experience authentic Khmer hospitality or explore by rented bike. North of Kratie lies the Mekong Discovery Trail, with a host of adventures and experiences, including community-based homestays, bicycle rides and boat trips.
Feeling inspired to book a trip to Cambodia that explores some of its ‘other’ incredible wonders? Our experts on the ground there would love to put together a custom itinerary for you. Feel free to reach out to us at [email protected]