Published: 14th December, 2016
There's no doubt about what will have drawn you here first in the first place, but once you've seen the temples of Angkor there's still so much more to Cambodia—and here are some ideas on Cambodia after Angkor Wat.
Cambodia is teeming with dense, vital forests, vibrant wide-open countryside, cultural centres, peculiar sights, breath-taking views, strange natural phenomena, incredible birds, fabulous animals and temples in which you don't have to battle your way through the crowds; in fact, you may be the only person there. Now, thanks to massive road improvements, all this is within easy reach of Siem Reap, so if you were only planning on staying just a few days, you might want to think again.
If you've got a week on your hands, and are up for a little coordination, then in most cases it's as simple as hopping on a bus. Other sites, like the remote and beautiful Banteay Chhmar temple, take a little more effort, but are worth every moment.
West Cambodia is home to Battambang, the garden province and rice-bowl of the country, and the heart of a burgeoning arts scene. Then there is Pailin, one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge old guard. In Banteay Meanchey, you'll find Banteay Chhmar, an enormous temple that is a wondrous blend of human-made and natural beauty. In Oddar Meanchey towards the north, overlooking Anlong Veng, there is the creepy final burial place of Pol Pot, and a night at "The Butcher" Ta Mok's old house is the perfect setting for an incredible view of what seems like the whole of Cambodia.
Before you even leave Siem Reap though, we'd recommend a trip out to one of the floating forests of the Tonle Sap lake at Kompong Khleang. It's only an hour away by tuk tuk, and the boat trip should normally take about two hours. If you leave really early, and your timing is really good, you could even get back in time to catch a late bus or taxi to Anlong Veng.
The floating forest and stilted floating village of Kompong Khleang offer a glimpse into an extraordinary life, lived according to the unique rhythm of the Tonle Sap lake. Every year, the forest is inundated as the forces of the Mekong River drive the Tonle Sap river to reverse its flow, raising the levels of the lake by up to 10 metres. The trees have evolved to survive the flooding and here floating over treetops is not just something you do when you're dreaming. The best time of year to visit is from end October until January.
Anlong Veng is where Pol Pot finally came to an end, in circumstances no-one seems entirely sure of. His burial place is understated, to say the least, though it will surprise many to find that people still come and make offerings to the man responsible for failing to stop the social-political experiment that killed as many as 1.7 million Cambodians.
Not far from the burial site at Choam is one of the former residences of Ta Mok, "The Butcher", one of the men who is believed to have arranged Pol Pot's death, and escape from justice. From his home on the cliffs which is now a guesthouse, you feel you can see almost all the way to Sihanoukville. The view is spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset. You can imagine how difficult it would have been for the Cambodian army to attack such a location, and to what frightening use those cliffs might have been put.
The accommodation here is very basic, and the electricity switched off at 22:00.
Built by Jayavarman VII, who was also responsible for the Bayon and Ta Prohm, the Citadel of the Cat is an enormous temple that is midway through its restoration. It's extraordinary, given its size and splendour, to imagine that local villagers were unaware of its existence until French explorers started wandering about the place in the mid 20th century.
Nearby, Agir Pour le Cambodge has implemented a community-based tourism project, with homestays, cultural activities and, best of all, the possibility of picnics at the temple. Community members have been trained to cook a number of Khmer dishes, as well as in health and hygiene, so there's no need to worry. Agir Pour le Cambodge is the organisation behind the excellent hospitality training school, Sala Baï, so standards are high.
Get there fast before everybody else does, as Battambang is finding its way onto more and more travellers' itineraries, and for good reason. It's a busy, attractive town with its own clear identity, and it happens to be surrounded by lush countryside dotted with plenty of hilltop temples at which to test your glutes, and take in the gorgeous views.
It is also home to a hugely successful school dedicated to the arts and this is starting to generate its own energy in the town. A trip to Battambang is not complete without a trip to the evening circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak. It's enormous fun, and you can find flyers with the monthly schedule in most restaurants in town. Two relatively new art galleries are also worth a look on Street 2.5, Sammaki and Make Maek. Both of them feature the work of local artists, Cambodian and international, including some real stars of the Cambodian arts world, such as Mao Soviet and Khchao Touch.
Of course, Battambang is also best known for its special bamboo train (nori), a fun (provided you pack your sunscreen) way to see parts of the countryside you otherwise wouldn't reach, but you better get your skates on: rumours are circulating that the track will be lifted soon and replaced with a motorcycle route.
After all that running around, perhaps a little break should be in order. In Pailin, Memoria Palace is a new resort hotel with views over the Cardamom Mountains. With rooms from $25 a night, this is a great location to unwind and reflect back on your whirlwind week.
A little coordination is required as there are few straight lines in Cambodian planning. The best option is to take a day trip to Kompong Khleang on the first day, then an early bus up to Anlong Veng on the second, staying there overnight at Ta Mok's house (the one on the cliffs – there are two houses that formerly belonged to the delightful chap). You'll need a moto or local taxi to take you the 15km from Anlong Veng up to Choam and across the top of the Dong Rek mountain range to the guesthouse. It's a bumpy ride, but trust us the views will be worth it.
After going back to Siem Reap by bus the next day, the next step is to take a mini-van or taxi to Bantey Meanchey. A mini-van costs a bit at around $100, but can be good value if you can get a group of people together. Alternatively, take a bus to Sisophon (also known as Banteay Meanchey – the provincial capital), and take a local taxi from there. The homestays here come highly recommended, and the possibility of a moonlit dinner by the temple is just too wonderful to miss.
The next day, backtrack to Sisophon and take a bus or local taxi the remaining 70km to Battambang. Spending three days here is recommended; however you can also take a diversionary trip to Pailin, about 80km away, if the fancy takes you.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.