There are many fascinating places beyond Angkor in Cambodia, including small, traditional villages, Asia's largest lake (Tonle Sap), lush jungle landscapes, island retreats, white sand beaches and smaller towns where few travelers venture. Below are some our recommendations of where to go in Cambodia, all of which combine easily with a tour of Angkor.
Seen from the river, palm trees, and the pagoda-like spires of Khmer royal buildings rise over French-era shop houses and villas. The riverine city's yellow-ocher buildings, squares and cafes, and frangipani-lined boulevards resemble a French provincial town. Located at les Quatre Bras (the Four Arms), where two arms of the Mekong meet the Bassac and Tonle Sap tributaries. The city is largely a French creation with wide boulevards and stately mansions constructed in the French colonial era, and Phnom Penh quickly became an important commercial center. The only major port on the Mekong above the delta, Phnom Penh was in the 1950s and 1960s one of the finest cities in Southeast Asia.
Phnom Penh, of course, has witnessed rapid and bizarre changes of fortune. On April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, emptied out by the Khmer Rouge starting a four-year reign of terror. Today, development is rapid and the city is being transformed, mostly by Chinese investment. Still, there are pockets of charm and tradition, such as the fascinating street markets.
"Here then are those temples which for so long seemed like visions... Here are the foundations, the plinths, the galleries, the extraordinary domes resembling multi-ringed tiaras" —Claude Farrere, L'illustration, 1931
If you've come this far to the region, you will not want to miss the "Prize of Southeast Asia" — the Temples of Angkor — short one-hour flight from Danang or Bangkok or ninety minutes from Hanoi or Luang Prabang. Angkor what? Many people have heard of the main temple Angkor Wat, but Angkor consists of over 70 discovered ruins spread over 200 square kilometers. Angkor Wat itself is a kilometer-wide and the greatest Buddhist monument ever constructed. There are astounding structures of equal impact surrounding it. This density of ruins is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and has been aptly called the "Nile Valley of Asia."
No longer simply a base for exploring the Angkor temple complex a few miles away, Siem Reap has within only recent years become an enjoyable small town worthy of a stopover all by itself. New luxury hotels have opened up while older ones have undergone extensive renovation, including the famed Raffles, nearing its century anniversary. Complimenting its vibrant night markets, a new and renowned "street circus," world-class dining, and shopping boutiques have sprouted up.
After a morning exploring the temples, Siem Reap offers a pleasant, walkable town only steps from most properties. Siem Reap is one of the most kid-friendly destinations in Southeast Asia, with fascinating attractions, including a "bug restaurant" and street fish spas. We will plan your dining here, as there are new venues you should not miss and if you enjoy cooking, there are a couple of delightful classes offered in the town.
Battambang, a tranquil town about three hours drive from Siem Reap offers a glimpse of local life in Cambodia. More than a weigh point, Battambang features well-preserved architecture and a delicious dining. Less known is that is at the cutting edge of an emerging art scene. The arts school teaches visual, applied and performing arts to almost a thousand students. The impressive street circus troupe in Siem Reap come from the visual arts center here, Phare Ponleu Selpak. We can arrange a visit, with a circus troupe performance twice a week. The art school's graduates are now opening their own art galleries, studios, and workshops, such as artist-curator Mao Soviet who runs Make Maek, and the newly opened artist-collective space called Studio Art Battambang. It’s a cavernous old shop house that exhibits large, bamboo sculptures and huge canvases. We pop next door to refuel at Kinyei, a social enterprise cafe with probably the best coffee in Cambodia (try a piccolo or a “Cambodian street latte” with palm sugar and orange essence).
Of course, we always recommend cycling where it's good in the region and here there is a half-day cycling tour for about 20 miles, looping around the villages and gives us a glimpse into the various agricultural industries – rice paper production, dried fruits, rice liquor and prahok (fermented fish paste) are some – that support Battambang’s economy.
North along the Mekong from Phnom Penh is Kratie, a small fishing and logging town. The Mekong is navigable year-round from Phnom Penh to Kratie and a cruise is possible when the river runs high from September to January. The town has a smattering of attractive rustic French buildings and small cafes, and some 30 kilometers north of Kratie is the site of the ancient capital of Sombor, which lies close to the Mekong. Crocodiles inhabit the river in this area but Kratie is well known for its dolphins—the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins, which are highly endangered with only about 80 said to remain.
Kratie is a pleasant base for exploring the area, of which Koh Trong is a highlight, a small island facing the town across the Mekong. The island is one of Cambodia's loveliest destinations, a virtual tropical paradise, explorable by bicycle.
Cambodia's first and premier beach resort. Song saa, or "The Sweethearts", is just off the southern coast from the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
The Song Saa, along with the Nam Hai and Amanoi, now offers three properties to compliment travel in Vietnam and Cambodia, rather than the longer trip down to the Thai islands. This resort offers a setting similar to Maldives properties. The resort is located on two small, private connecting islands in the middle of a marine reserve of the clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The resort features luxurious Over-Water, Jungle and Ocean-View villas built with sustainable materials with respect for maintaining the natural environment.
The Cardamom Mountains is a vast range in southwestern Cambodia stretching from the border of Thailand across the country to Vietnam. The area features Cambodia’s highest peak—Phnom Aural— at nearly six thousand feet and one of the last primitive rainforests in Southeast Asia, home to an enormous variety of plant and animal life and where wild elephants still roam free. Once a rebel holdout from the Khmer Rouge period and off-limits until recently, the Cardamoms are now a national park ever more popular for outdoors exploration.
From a base in the town of Chi Pat, we can arrange a variety of eco-adventures, including treks and river cruises into the Cardamoms National Park, overnighting within the forest. If you have interest, ask about volunteering opportunities on conservation projects within the park.
Tonle Sap or "sweet water" is the remarkable inland sea in northwest Cambodia, and the name of the river linking it to the Mekong. Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the richest inland fisheries in the world, accounting for more than half of Cambodia’s protein intake. An area on Tonle Sap around Prek Toal village is the gathering ground for a variety of bird species, many of whom are endangered and is not a national sanctuary.
Tonle Sap is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, recognized and protected for its social, cultural and scientific significance. The best time to cruise and witness life on Tonle Sap is during high water levels from October to February. For bird watching, the dry season is best.
Indochina TourWith few exceptions, Japan is the most fascinating of all destinations for children.
Cambodia Family AdventuresEverything you've heard is true — Japan is the ultimate culinary destination.
Cambodia Arts TourDuring this delightful yet vigorous half-day cooking lesson with a master chef.
The 1,000 Year-Old City
If you can only visit one city in Vietnam, it should be Hanoi. To visit Hanoi is to steep yourself in history, tradition, and legend in a capital that has been inhabited continuously for a millennium. Hanoi's present architecture is mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, and the stately French-built section of town is largely intact. Hanoi is cleaner, leafier, and quieter than other big cities in Vietnam — in a word, it's "cooler."
There's cooler weather, more drizzle, less traffic, less hype; the streets seem quieter, with few large billboards. There's a cooler mentality here, too-prouder, more prudish. Hanoi is a magnet for intellectuals and artists, while Saigon seems to attract entrepreneurs and hustlers. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city boasts the country's only world-class museums and artists prefer the city, their galleries and studios have recently enjoyed global attention.
The spectacular geographic highlight of Vietnam does not disappoint, but enthralls. Halong Bay has over 3,000 limestone and dolomite islets sprinkled over an area of 1,500 square kilometers, offering a wonderland of karst topography. In recognition of this, in 1994 Halong was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend has it that when the Vietnamese were under attack long ago, a dragon came to their aid, splitting mountains to impede the progress of the enemy. The limestone topography was created by the lash of the dragon's tail as it thundered down from the mountains to the sea; consequently, "Vinh Halong" — Halong Bay-means "Bay of the Descending Dragon." In geological terms, the mythical monster at work here is wind and water, weathering the porous limestone over a few million years. This process created the bizarre limestone cathedrals, colonized by stunted and twisted vegetation. The misty romantic setting of rugged island peaks and bays dotted with sailing junks has inspired a whole genre of Vietnamese painting. Halong Bay is featured in our 2008 Photography Series. For celluloid viewing, watch Indochine with Catherine Deneuve.
We recommend at least one night on the bay. Kayaking allows up close access to the islands and cave exploration. Read more about our trips to Halong Bay and the special boats we use on Halong Bay.
Cuc Phuong is most important area of biodiversity, designated a national park by president Ho Chi Minh in 1962. The park, roughly six miles wide and fifteen miles long, was created in 1962-the first area in Vietnam set aside as a national park. It covers an area of 25,000 hectares, but for the moment is primarily a national park in name only. There are six Muong villages in the park: villagers farm and raise cattle on park lands and hunt. Deforestation in the surrounding area steadily encroaches on parkland, and large amounts of brushwood disappear from the park daily. The park supports a wide variety of flora species and patches of primeval forest, including 50-meter-tall Cinamomum, Parashorea, and Sandicorum trees. You can find ancient trees with thick clusters of roots, and parasitic plants and ligneous creepers. Some tree species have been introduced from Myanmar (Burma), India, and Borneo. Clusters of orchids grow near cave entrances, where the moisture conditions and light are ideal. Varieties include coral, vanilla, snow-white, and butterfly orchids.
Sapa has changed dramatically since the first visitors began arriving in the early 90s. The small town has been transformed by tourism and the weekend market is teeming with tourists who the hilltribes now market goods to, rather than each other. Still, the high-mountain setting is picturesque and offers extensive trekking for both light and extended trips when the weather permits. Unfortunately, the weather in Sapa is most adverse during the December and January high season when temperatures can dip to the 30s with heavy fog and drizzle. Mai Chau offers a warmer (and closer) option for trekking and cycling during these months.
While the south has changed dramatically, today the sleepy imperial capital city remains a quiet town of 350,000. While Saigon and Hanoi grow by leaps and bounds, places like Hue crawl along. Few joint ventures are allowed, and there are few private hotels but deliberate blocks placed by the central government insist joint ventures in Hue be "branches" of those in Hanoi or Saigon. Hue is renowned for its university, producing such leaders as Ho Chi Minh.
The real attraction of Hue, aside from the tranquil environment, are the imperial tombs are scattered in the countryside four to eight miles south of Hue. Sightseeing along the Perfume River also offers the historic citadel and Purple, or forbidden city. Thien Mu Pagoda is located overlooking the river and is Vietnam's most important Buddhist site.
About 80 miles south of Hue, just inland from the white sands of Cua Dai Beach lies Hoi An, an ancient port of trade that is typically everyone's favorite stop in Vietnam. This quaint town features well-preserved traditional wooden architecture, a flourishing cohort of established cafes and restaurants, and a picturesque setting on the Thu Bon River.
Hoi An is a wonderful place for cooking classes, "flash fashion" custom tailoring, and our unique, leisurely cycling tour that travels by sampan and bicycle to neighboring villages. No visit to Vietnam should miss this special UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After 1945, Saigon was the biggest and the most developed city in Asia. Today, it is again a boomtown and one of Asia's most-rapidly-changing cities. As rural Vietnamese immigrate in search of jobs, foreign corporations move in, and as Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese move back to their home country, the city has been transformed.
There are few historic sites left from either the colonial and American periods, but Saigon possesses fantastic cuisine, the best in the country, and the buzz and energy on the streets is unique for not only Vietnam, but much of Asia. There are few more interesting spectacles than sitting at night in a central quarter cafe watching thousands and thousands of Vietnamese cruise by on their motor scooters.
Once an idylic, beautiful and undeveloped beach cove only a short hop north of Saigon, Nha Trang today is a bustling developed beach resort town popular with package tourists from around the world. Although the town itself is no longer a recommended stop on your visit to Vietnam, there are two exceptional luxury resorts here to linger during longer trips when lounging in the sun by the pool is paramount and other beach destinations of Phu Quoc and Hoi An are inconvenient or experiencing cooler weather.
In the Mekong Delta the mighty Mekong River ends its run from the Himalayas, splitting into multiple branches before emptying sights and experiences for those who care to explore. If you make the effort you'll be amply rewarded. The delta is a region of extraordinary energy and market commerce, with burgeoning markets, the last floating markets in Asia, exotic fruit orchards, and more coconuts than you'd want to contemplate.
The delta is a relaxing place, with good food (seafood!), pleasant river trips, cheap boats, and friendly people. You're never far from water in the delta, and boats in some districts are the main mode of transportation. Intriguing in the backwaters are the floating markets, which have disappeared in other parts of Asia. If you've the, we can organize Mekong Delta trip that travels through the heart of the delta, then by boat along the Mekong to Cambodia's sleepy capital, Phnom Penh. From Phnom Penh, the temples of Angkor are a short 50-minute flight to the north.