For expats living in Cambodia, the luxury of time means there's no excuse for missing out on the rest of the country’s less visited attractions. Here’s our guide to getting off the beaten track and exploring some of the lesser known, but no less rewarding, treasures Cambodia has to offer.
Situated near the Gulf of Thailand, Kampot is a river town where the river is the main attraction. That may not sound much fun, but there are few more tranquil places to unwind in Cambodia than this sleepy town. There’s no beach (though you won’t have to travel far to find one) but you’re ideally placed to explore Bokor National Park where you can see the eerie Bokor Hill Station, a crumbling ghost town dating from the French colonial period. In town there are loads of guest houses and few decent bars for a cold beer.
Climb the highest mountain in Cambodia
It may not be Everest, but climbing the 1,813 metre high Phnom Aural gives you the chance to do something totally outside the realm of most guidebooks. As it’s not set up for tourists, organising the trek might take a bit of initiative - you’ll need to organise a Khmer speaking helper beforehand (locals don't speak anything else) who can ask the way.
There are a couple of small villages around the mountain, but after that you’re on your own with pure mountain wilderness. Make sure you bring a hammock to sleep in, mosquito repellent and whatever you do, don’t attempt it in the wet season!
You can do the trek through a tour company, costing you the best part of US$1,000, but by organising the trip yourself it can be a fraction of that price and, let’s face it, ten times more exciting.
From Phnom Penh, take the bus to Sihanoukville and get off at Kampong Speue. From there, take a shared van to Spien Daik from where you’ll have to hire your own transport to the village of Srae Kan. This is the best place to begin your ascent.
Mondulkiri province still receives just a trickle of tourists throughout the year. Though not longer true, it's old reputation of being a nightmare to reach endures. It's still a long bus journey away, though the rewards you’ll get by coming here will make it completely worthwhile.
These are truly unspoilt natural highlands, where you’ll be able to see gibbons, elephants and a whole array of birds. You can base yourself in Son Monorom, a small, dusty, but perfectly comfortable place which feels a little like a frontier town. Set off in any direction and within five minutes you’ll find yourself in a pristine pastoral wonderland.
Now that the road has been improved, there are several buses a day from Phnom Penh to Son Monorom. The journey should take around six hours.
The Killing Fields
Many people feel a little apprehensive about visiting a place with such a horrifying past, but sobering as it may be, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek - just outside the capital Phnom Penh - are something everybody ought to see.
Over 8,000 bodies have so far been exhumed, though anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 17,000 Cambodians were murdered here. The peacefulness of the site today belies the horrors that took place, making it hard to picture the utter brutality of what is very recent history here. Make sure you visit the museum to get a full understanding of the significance of the place.
Koh Ker Temple
The remotest of all Cambodia’s Angkorian temples, Koh Ker is practically buried within the forest. Though it’s been badly neglected (and looted), this, combined with the lack of tourists, makes it a magically atmospheric place to visit in its own right. Indeed, so far off the tourist trail is Koh Ker that the government have never bothered clearing the landmines from the surrounding forest - so don’t stray too far off the beaten track.
Though hard to believe now, this site was once the capital of the entire Khmer empire during the ninth century. If walking around these jungle-clad ruins doesn’t bring out your inner explorer, nothing will.