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Western Cambodia

Angkor Wat beckons

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When the New York Times asks why is everyone going to Cambodia?, you know a destination is well and truly on the map.

Home to Cambodia's crown jewels -- the sprawling Angkor Wat Historical Park -- Western Cambodia has seen a surge in tourists visiting the site. From 2004 to 2005 alone numbers increased by almost 50% to over 600,000. Numbers are increasing so quickly in fact that it appears that the Khmer government is finally going to fix the road from Siem Reap to the Thai border at Poipet... after a "non-specific" ten year delay.

Siem Reap, the launching base for visitors to Angkor has gone through a veritable development explosion. Five and six star hotels are seemingly dropping out of the sky, three star tourist factories line the Airport road like parking meters and a never-ending stream of new budget flophouses continue to appear on the scene. With enough western bars and restaurants to fully stock a medium-sized French town, Siem Reap is a bizarre sometimes disheartening amalgam of east meets west -- where tourists stepping over amputee beggars to get that prized table-with-a-view for cocktail hour are unfortunately all too common a sight.

Ironic that the fastest growing town in all of Cambodia is by far the least "Cambodian" place in the entire country.

The ruins are a must see, so you will need to stop by, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that aside from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Western Cambodia is nothing more than dust, dirt roads and ramshackle villages. There's more to see in this sprawling, fascinating part of the country.

For those with time on their hands, head southwest to the province of the Disappearing Stick -- Battambang -- where the quaint riverside setting and the fascinating, yet untouristed Khmer temples can easily justify an overnight stay -- plus you'll get to take a ride on a nori -- an experience unique to Cambodia.

Further afield, Pailin, an erstwhile Khmer Rouge hideout just about on the Thai frontier attracts others with it's exhausted mines and equally exhausted Khmer Rouge cadres. Still home to Khieu Samphan, one of Pol Pot's closest confidants, he bides his time in his little house on the outskirts of town (any taxi driver will point it out if you ask), waiting for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to finally gets its act together -- don't hold your breath Uncle Khieu.

Meanwhile, north of Siem Reap, another Khmer Rouge stronghold -- Anlong Veng in Oddar Meanchey province -- was the site of Pol Pot's death. Cremated on a pile of old tires they say. You can visit his grave and both his and Ta Mok's villas on the escarpment overlooking Cambodia -- creepy Khmer Rouge tourism at its best. There's no town in Cambodia quite like Anlong Veng.

Outside of Siem Reap, the facilities are basic. Don't expect five star hotels or fancy food, instead hope for a hot shower, perhaps air-con and of course a selection of critters for dinner -- that's the attraction, the fun and the experience of Cambodia's northwest.

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Western Cambodia

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