Cambodia (or Kampuchea in some close language) is a small Southeast Asian country bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Ascend to the realm of the gods, Angkor Wat. Descend into the hell of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng. Ancient temples, empty beaches, mighty rivers, remote forests… and (outside Angkor) only a handful of tourists. But the word is out – Cambodia has emerged from decades of war and isolation and is well and truly back on the Southeast Asian travel map. Thanks to a history both inspiring and depressing, Cambodia delivers an intoxicating present for adventurous visitors.
Cambodia – An Empire of Temples
Though Cambodia has had a bad run of luck for the last half-millennium, contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkorian period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.
Cambodia – The Comeback Capital
Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples. It should be important to keep in mind that the chaotic yet charismatic capital of Phnom Penh is a hub of political intrigue, economic vitality and intellectual debate. All too often overlooked by hit-and-run tourists ticking off Angkor on a regional tour, the revitalized city is finally earning plaudits in its own right thanks to a gorgeous river-side location, a cultural renaissance, and a wining and dining scene to rival anywhere in the region.
Cambodia – Upcountry Adventures
In general, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh may be the heavyweights, but to some extent they are a bubble, a world away from the Cambodia of the countryside. This is the place to experience the rhythm of rural life and time-less landscape of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms. The South Coast is fringed by tropical islands, with just a handful of beach huts in sight. Inland from the coast lay the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness that provides a home to elusive wildlife and is the gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and is home to some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins. The northeast is a world unto it-self, its wild and mountainous landscapes a home for Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and an abundance of natural attractions.
The Cambodian Spirit
In terms of spirit, people often refer to Cambodia as having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.