Cambodia is an up-and-coming tourist destination. It has long been known for the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, but its attractiveness stretches well beyond this now-crowded attraction. Phnom Penh is changing from a sleepy capital into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Sihanoukville is a laid-back beach town that is only starting to wake up to its tourism potential, while the nearby islands remain delightful undiscovered. These are three of the best destinations in Cambodia, but they are changing as their popularity grows, making this one of those countries that is best visited sooner rather than later.
Want to introduce yourself to Cambodia beyond the famous ruins of Angkor Wat? Here is how your itinerary should look.
A Surprisingly Cosmopolitan City
Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville are only just coming onto the tourist radar. This gives them an edge of excitement that many other places have long since lost. Even so, Phnom Penh boasts a surprisingly cosmopolitan restaurant and nightlife scene, as well as some great opportunities for a shopping adventure.
The gourmet small plates and artisan cocktails at Metro Azura are like medicine to help you get over your long flight to Cambodia. (If you had less than two connections, you can consider yourself lucky).
After dinner, you can head skyward, enjoying a drink at the Eclipse Sky Bar or the Fifth Element, both of which offer amazing views and serve as the perfect examples of PP’s cosmopolitan vibe. After a cocktail or two, you can enjoy another drink in the legendary, colonial-style FCC Club or maybe hit the dance floor at the sweaty, happening Pontoon Club.
If you have more than a day in Phnom Penh, shopping should be on the agenda. The art deco dome of the Central Market (also known as Psar Thmei - "New Market”) is a beacon for people seeking a retail adventure. Though modern malls thrive here, this market offers good deals, handmade products, and an almost-overwhelming sensory experience that is just not possible in a sterile mall.
Time For The Beach
It is possible to take a helicopter flight from Phnom Penh to the coast, but a three-hour ride in a hired car (driver included) is so reasonably-priced that air travel is really overkill. Buses are a cheaper, but much slower option. Mini-buses -Which are large, converted vans - offer a nice balance between budget and convenience. If you book through a travel company or your PP hotel, you can be sure to get an express trip (without any stops along the way).
Also refried to as Krong Preah Sihanouk or Kompong Som, Sihanoulville is defined by its sandy beaches. This laid-back town has long been a haven for backpackers. While this is one of the few places in Asia where you can still experience the chilled-out vibe that once defined the region’s sandy spots, budget bungalows, bars filled with gap-year kids, and restaurants serving knock-offs of Western dishes are not everyone’s idea of paradise.
The backpackers scene is centered around Serendipity Beach. However, it is one of many areas in Sihanoukville. The other “secret” spots are beautiful enough to earn this town its status as a “paradise.” Quieter beaches like Otres Beach offer the same relaxed atmosphere and stunning palm-framed vistas without crowds or loud music. The Sokha Beach Resort is a three-star hotel that boasts its own private beach. You can pay your way in even if you aren’t staying there.
The cosmopolitan eating and nightlife scenes of Phnom Penh are nowhere to be found in Sihanoukville. But with all the fresh seafood, you probably won’t miss the Big City. Local spots like Noh Kor Phnom serve hundreds of options made with fresh-off-the-boat fish. Some spots like Pure Bar and Restaurant, in the main tourist area, offer up good food and a classy atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Grand Restaurant Kampuchea is the best introduction to classic Khmer cuisine that you are likely to find in all of Cambodia.
Sihanoukville hotels and travel agents will offer all sorts of adventure options. Many are not worth your time, but one is a sure hit: Ream National Park. You can trek with a local ranger (some speak excellent English) up to scenic Meditation Mountain or to the stunning Keng Kong Waterfall.
To get closer to the water, spend at least a day or two on one of the islands that dot the Gulf of Thailand just off of Sihanoukville’s coastline. If the beach town is not enough of a paradise for you, these islands are exactly what you need.
A Private Island Paradise
Song Saa is one of the best destinations for this kind of island experience. Sitting on two small islands very near to the coastline, this resort can only be reached by boat (in about 30-45 minutes from Sihanoukville). The virgin rainforest, white sand beaches, and clear waters (which cover untouched coral reefs) all give Song Saa’s guests that elusive “I’m in paradise” feeling.
Private overwater villas and secluded jungle villas give guests a choice of accommodations. Meanwhile, special spa services, an amazingly talented staff of cooks, and a philosophy that encourages relaxation and rejuvenation with every breath gives this sanctuary a luxurious yet welcoming and peaceful ambiance.
If you want to explore the water, this is THE destination for you. Guided scuba and snorkel trips around the coral reefs that ring the islands and kayak trips to the coastal mangrove forests are offered to guests, while speedboat sightseeing tours bring the sheer beauty of this region into focus.
Have you been to Cambodia? Share your experiences with us in the comments section.