Western Cambodia is most famously home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple, as well as the hundreds of others that surround it within the confines of the Angkor Archaeological Park, exercise a fascination on people that is irresistible. And there's so much more to see in the region beyond Angkor. It's also home to beautiful natural scenery and wildlife, which you can take in by land, air or water, even more stunning temples, a fascinating modern history and plenty of adventure. It's time to get started.
Angkor, a 400-square-kilometre temple complex, was once home to the world's largest metropolitan area of its time. It was the home and the base of an empire that extended across huge swathes of Southeast Asia, and depended for its survival on a sophisticated hydrological system that allowed its people, the Khmers, to ensure a consistent supply of their staple food, rice, all year around. The traces they left behind, of impressive stone temples on which are recounted the stories of epic battles, legends and pastoral scenes of everyday life, remain beguiling today. The exquisite carvings are said to be among the finest ever created by human hands.
Just down the road from Angkor, Siem Reap is a thriving tourist town, full to bursting with bars and restaurants offering world-class food, more night markets than you can shake a pair of (made in China) elephant pants at, some actually interesting markets, an emerging arts and design scene and plenty of opportunities to get out and explore the gorgeous surrounding countryside. You'll find something active to do, whether your preferred style of motion is walking, cycling, motorcycling, canoeing, boating, quad-biking, flying, or even zip-lining. The one thing the area doesn't have is roller-blading and you'll understand why when you see the roads.
There's something there for every budget, from sumptuous $1,400 a night resorts to tasty street food that'll fill you up for a dollar. We've stopped keeping count of the number of bars and restaurants; it's just not possible because they change so fast. But whether you prefer Italian, French, Mexican, Indian, Thai or indeed, Cambodian, and a dozen cuisines in between, you'll find them here. As Siem Reap starts to attract more creative types, there's also a slowly emerging arts and design scene where you can find stunning photography, beautiful clothing, jewellery and more.
To the west, Battambang is a tranquil but thriving Cambodian market city set on a river. Defined by a lovely mix of Khmer, Thai, French and Chinese architecture, its central city area will soon (hopefully) be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a relaxing respite from busy Siem Reap, and is also home to an emerging but strong art scene thanks to the work of Phare Ponleu Selpak, a local NGO that trains disadvantaged youth in the audio, visual and dramatic arts, including circus skills. Whether you're in Siem Reap or Battambang, the Phare circus is not to be missed.
West of there, the remote town of Pailin beckons the adventurous. Not visited by many, this old mining outpost amid the hills that mark the border with Thailand has great trekking opportunities -- but don't stray off the path. Landmine clearance is still an ongoing operation in an area that was one of the last fiefdoms of the Khmer Rouge to fall, in 1996.
Getting quieter still, to the north of Battambang you'll find the temple of Banteay Chhmar. Not quite as vast a city temple complex as Angkor Thom, but not far off, this beautiful temple was once lost to the all-encompassing jungle but is slowly being recovered thanks to the hard work and dedication of a team of Cambodian and international archaeologists, architects and engineers. It's still a beautiful, peaceful location though, and an overnight in a homestay here is one of the top items on our list of things you really, really ought to do.
Heading east, you come to the town of Anlong Veng, the last redoubt of the notorious Khmer Rouge, the regime responsible for the deaths of as many as 1.7 million Cambodians. It was here that Pol Pot was "tried" by his peers for his crimes during the increasingly tense 1990s even as Cambodia had supposedly transitioned to democracy under the supervision of the UN. And it was here that he finally died without ever having met real justice for what he wrought on this country, or even believing that justice was his due. His burial site is a surreal place, which will leave you with more questions than answers. It sits on the Dangrek Mountains, and if you explore a little further you'll have the chance to take in some of the most amazing views across northwestern Cambodia.
East again, and on the border with Thailand you find the renowned Preah Vihear temple, until recently a lighting rod for conflict between Cambodia and Thailand. The conflict has abated, and cooperation between the two kingdoms continues to grow. It has been perfectly safe to visit for some time now, but foreign offices were slow to give the all-clear until early 2015. Accessed by a perilously steep hill, Preah Vihear is a kilometre-long temple that culminates atop a cliff 600 metres up with commanding views. Spend a night at the lively little market town of Sra'Aem to really appreciate the temple while also getting a glimpse of local life.
South of here, you arrive in the provincial capital of Preah Vihear, until recently known as Tbeng Meanchey. Krong Preah Vihear, or Preah Vihear city, used to be just a point on a map that you passed on the way to somewhere else, but it's soon to become a crossroads now that the road linking west and east Cambodia has been completed with a brand new bridge at Stung Treng. Now you can switch from temple rich lowlands to lush, green highlands in a fraction of the time (and discomfort) that it used to take. Preah Vihear city is also an interesting spot for accessing some exciting ecotourism initiatives.
Further south and you're almost completing the circuit back to Siem Reap. Back on the National Route 6, Kompong Thom is a transport hub and until recently not considered to be any more significant than that. But it's also an interesting little market town, and a great spot from which to base yourself for excursions to two of Cambodia's most wonderful temple sites, at Preah Khan of Kampong Svay and the pre-Angkorian Sambor Prei Kuk. Preah Khan was until very recently only accessible via some of the worst roads in Cambodia. Now it's a (relatively) comfortable 100-kilometre trip from Kompong Thom, and worth every bump on the way. Just north of kompong Thom, mystical Sambor Prei Kuk imbues the forest with a sense of mystery and wonder that you won't find anywhere else.
While there are rich pickings for accommodation in Siem Reap, they're a little slimmer when you get out of there. Battambang is now very well-serviced across a reasonably wide price range, from rock-bottom to the mid/upper-mid level. Outside of that though, and little luxuries start to get a little scarce. But that's part of the adventure, right?
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.