Going beyond Angkor Wat

Besides the famous temple ruins, this country also boasts beautiful beaches, wildlife and a fascinating modern history

After watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon, we dived into the water with our snorkels and were immediately surrounded by a galaxy of “stars”.

The spectacle, created by bioluminescent plankton, can be witnessed inmost places along the southwestern coast of Cambodia and is a treat for any nighttime swimmer.

Our small group had moored a boat near the coral off Bamboo Island, a short ride from the white-sand beaches of Sihanoukville. As dusk approached, we drank a beer and enjoyed the silence, which was broken only by our captain performing acrobatic dives from the hull into the warm, clear water.

When darkness fell, the sparkling plankton came alive, providing just one of the many visual feasts that visitors to this country can expect.

Although largely known for the Angkor Wat Archeological Park, a massive collection of centuries-old ruins in the north, and the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia also boasts beautiful beaches, forests and wildlife reserves, as well as myriad sites providing insight into the country’s fascinating yet often harrowing modern history.

For many tourists, Phnom Penh, the capital, is the first port of call. While not the most picturesque place, it does offer a taste of modern Cambodian life.

Life’s a beach

Ultimately, one or two days are enough in Phnom Penh. From here, most head to the splendid ruins of the north or to the relaxing beaches and sea views of the southwest.

We took a minibus southwest ($10 a seat) and arrived just under five hours later in Sihanoukville. This coastal city has a beach for all tastes: from Serendipity and Ochheauteal, backpacker favorites and nighttime party spots, to Otres, a laid-back stretch about 10 minutes from the center.

Kayaks, jet skis and surfing equipment can be hired at most beaches, while boat tours and ferries are available to take you to the outlying islands, such as Koh Rong (also known as Monkey Island) or the smaller but equally calm Koh Takiev. The islands all have beach bungalows for those who want to stay overnight.

As many tour operators stick to a fairly rigid schedule and tend to overload their vessels, we opted instead to rent a private boat for a day ($50 after haggling), which allowed the luxury of staying out after dark to snorkel among the sparkling plankton.

From here, you can also visit Kampong Nup Lok, an old fishing village that offers some nice views, and Ream National Park, a large mangrove nature reserve about 30 minutes’ drive east. A boat tour to the park will cost about $25, but they can be disappointing. Alternatively, you can arrive there by tuk tuk and hire a park ranger to lead you on a walking tour (usually $5, although best to call ahead).

After relaxing on the beach for a few days, we boarded a plane at Sihanoukville airport bound for Siem Reap. Flying takes about an hour, although buses are available and take about eight to 10 hours.

Ancient history

Siem Reap boasts Cambodia’s most famous attraction, while the city itself has grown into a fun and relaxing destination for international travelers.

A visit here would not be complete without a tour of the 12th century Angkor Wat and the many other ancient and varied temples “rediscovered” by French explorers about 300 years ago.

Most are located within two circuits to the north, both of which take a good 10 hours to cover, either starting at sunrise or finishing at sunset. Those in town for only a day or two will probably be content with the smaller of the two, which includes Angkor Wat and Bayon. However, if you do have the time, doing both circuits and adding a third day to see sites further out, such as the 1,000 year-old Banteay Srei or the jungle-covered Beng Melea, is well worth it to see the variations in carving styles and architecture.

Trips to temples further out can also be combined with other activities, such as a visit to the Landmine Museum ($5), which raises awareness and money for families affected by landmines, and Bantreay Srei Butterfly Park ($4).

For those interested in learning about Cambodia’s recent history, the War Museum ($5), not far from the city center, features a comprehensive collection of weaponry and photos from the civil war. Guides offer free tours and most themselves are former soldiers who can regale visitors with firsthand accounts of the conflict.

Just to the south of Siem Reap is the vast Tonle Sap Lake, which is surrounded by floating villages and boasts abundant wildlife.

Chong Khneas, a small fishing community, is probably the most popular among tourists, but you can escape the crowds by heading out early to Kampong Phluk. In the dry season (November to April), you can see the tall stilts that support the houses, offering an otherworldly experience. When the rain arrives, travel here can be accomplished only by boat.

After a tiring tour in Siem Reap’s beautiful wilderness, you’ll be spoiled for choice on where to unwind. Most of the city’s nightlife is spread between three areas – Old Market, Wat Damnak and Wat Bo – and all have an abundance of bars, restaurants, markets, and massage parlors.

The only downside is that you may never want to leave.

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