Over the last two decades or so, Cambodia has lost its dark, dangerous reputation and memories of Khmer atrocities have faded enough to let the beauty of the country and its people shine through. The Khmer culture fascinates its visitors with enticing street food, white sand beaches offering salty sea air, and the steamy, emerald jungle is filled with outdoor endeavors. Cambodians are peaceful and receptive, the history is unlike anywhere else on earth, and the vistas are backed by kaleidoscopic sunsets. Lacking travelers en masse like in Thailand, Cambodia is still unmistakably authentic.
Travelers are captivated by Kampot, an endearing, sleepy waterfront village with a magnetic, laid-back feel and one of the country’s most impressive examples of French colonial architecture. Anyone hoping to explore the beautiful Elephant Mountains and Bokor National Park will find Kampot not only advantageous, but an interesting and fun base from which to enjoy outdoor adventures. Nearby, the seaside town of Kep, with its magnificent caves and lush, eastern coast, is just another reason to stay. This old trading hub saw its heyday until the 1950s when Sihanoukville gained a favorable position and took over. Kampot is for those looking to enjoy a varied backdrop that’s interesting to explore and perfect to relax in. The Old Market, an aging landmark, has recently seen some gentrification and now features many interesting restaurants and shops—they themselves are attractions, filled with interesting families who begin as strangers but end up good friends.
7. Otres Beach
Along the southwest coast of Cambodia is beautiful Otres Beach, the country’s most beautiful stretch of sand. Lining the waterfront are small, traditional bungalows fronted by loungers and brightly hued papasan chairs, with hammocks hung from most big palms and other native trees. There really isn’t any one major attraction here; the biggest sell is the easy-going atmosphere. Most other Cambodian beaches are filled with early morning partiers hanging on to whiskey-filled buckets, looking to get their groove on. Otres is decidedly different. There’s a promising social scene-and plenty of cocktails available—but owners collectively agree to shut down music by 10 pm, making later evenings relaxing rather than rowdy. Though not a hidden gem, Otres Beach is still a little-known favourite among those in the know, but it won’t last so be sure to park yourself on Otres for a few days of pure relaxation and incredible sunsets.
6. Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap Lake is south of Siem Reap, Southeast Asia’s biggest freshwater lake, and a UNESCO biosphere designated site. When ancient Angkor’s people were thriving, it had much to do with the lake: it’s one of the world’s most productive and varied ecosystems and therefore a central hub for Cambodia’s food production. The most interesting scene here is the series of lakefront villages, both stilted and floating, bustling with life. The bulk of residents are fishermen, mostly Vietnamese immigrants who have been living here for dozens of years. Tourism is on the rise at Tonle Sap, which is producing an essential stream of revenue, but it’s evident traditional life is slowly ebbing away. To avoid the thick of things and enjoy a more authentic experience, skip groups en masse and ride a long tail boat to villages Kampong Khleang and Kompong Phluk, where friendly locals are still fond of curious onlookers.
5. Sisowath Quay
In Phnom Penh’s pretty riverside area is the historic quay called Sisowath, part of Chamkarmon district and adjacent to Sisowath Boulevard. The Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet here which is also near the Royal Palace of Cambodia. In the old days of mighty kings and men, the palace was a vantage point for area events such as river races during the annual Water Festival. Being relatively small, Phnom Penh is an easy place to merge eating, temple-spotting, sightseeing, and shopping into a relaxing walk through the city—the dots are all connected by the three kilometer waterfront promenade hugging Tonle Sap’s west bank. This is the social center of Phnom Penh, where locals and visitors mix easily, ambitious artisans and vendors sell their wares, and bars, restaurants, and cafes are abundant. The quay is also the place to find authentic French baguettes and explore magnificent Wat Ounalom.
4. Chi Phat
Once a poacher’s haven, Chi Phat has been impressively transformed into a conservationists paradise, where reformed poachers are the guides who will show you some of Cambodia’s most beautiful, natural treasures. Set in the misty Cardamom Mountains, you’ll be far-flung from the crowds but close to lots of amazing scenery. Take a jungle trek to some of Chi Phat’s best attractions: waterfalls, mountains, and grasslands which are filled with incredible flora and fauna. The village of Chi Pat sits along a river, home to more than 600 families, and also to CBET (community-based ecotourism foundation). Travelers can enjoy the rare opportunity to delve into the ecosystems of the Cardamom Mountains while subsidizing an incredibly worthwhile project. The once logged and poached landscape has enjoyed a much-needed change becoming a reliable source of income and jobs for local villagers aiming to conserve this essential part of Cambodia.
3. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is by far the most famous, historic landmark in Cambodia, and arguably the most popular attraction in Southeast Asia. The complex of ancient temples near Siem Reap is one of the biggest religious masterpieces in the world. Originally built for the Khmer Empire as a Hindu temple, the compound was slowly altered into a Buddhist wat, or temple, near the 12th century. Rivaling the great temples at Bagan in Burma, Angkor Wat is an architectural wonder with stonework to be explored in depth. Khmer kings based out of Angkor ruled the lands from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal, and held reign for centuries. Over 100 astonishing temples of stone are today’s remnants of a massive social, religious, and administrative center. Some of Angkor’s most unforgettable sights include the faces of Bayon, Banteay Srei temple, and Ta Prohm, each living up to their world famous reputations.
2. Ream National Park
Established in 1993 by King Norodom Sihanouk, Ream National Park is one of seven major conservation efforts in Cambodia. Home to more than 205 square kilometers of earthy and marine habitats, Kep is another place to kick off dusty city boots and get out into nature. Less than 20 kilometers from Sihanoukville, Kep boasts rich mangrove swamps, breathtaking coastal panoramas, and flourishing forests of evergreen—the islands of Koh Ses and Koh Thmei are also here. Birders relish in spotting a host of birds—there are more than 150 species in Kep—and exploring Prek Toeuk Sap River where kingfishers, storks, and fishing eagles are common. From December through April spot playful dolphins in almost any season. Day trips by boat through mangroves and rivers, ending in the Gulf of Thailand, are most popular. Safaris and mountain walking tours are more options for scouting the area.
1. Koh Rong
Anyone who’s explored Thailand’s vast network of islands will love the quiet beauty of Koh Rong, Cambodia’s premier paradise island. Reachable only by a small ferry, not too many tourists make the trip to this small, but gorgeous spot. With more than 20 different beaches to check out, the temptation to stay awhile and laze away the days is overwhelming. Treehouse resorts, traditional beach huts, and a cluster of small hotels will keep any budget traveler on track while still living the good life. Tech junkies will have to put away their devices—there’s only power from dinner time through midnight—but that’s part of the peacefulness here. Lazy hammock days, sunbathing on quiet beaches, eating your weight in delicious Khmer specialties—it’s all readily available on Koh Rong. If you really need some adventure in your island schedule, head out hiking, snorkeling, or diving in the Gulf.