Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is the cultural and commercial centre of the country. Situated at the convergence of the country’s three rivers, the Mekong, Tonle Sap andBassac, this city serves as the gateway to all that Cambodia has to offer. Normally the first stop on any travellers visit to the country, it is only a short hop from here to explore the temples of Angkor in the north and the beautiful beaches of the southern coast.
Phnom Penh was founded in 1372 by the Khmer noble Lady Penh. She was said to have been travelling down the river when she came across four Buddha statues in a tree trunk. Due to this discovery, she decided to build a tiny monastery on the nearby hill and as the city built up in the surrounding area, the town soon became known as Phnom Penh, or Hill of Penh. This new place took over the capital city honours when the Khmer nobility fled the incumbent Angkor in order to escape the invasion of the Siamese in 1434.
There is no time for boredom as points of interest abound within the city. The National Museumhouses over 5000 Khmer artefacts as well as literally millions of bats! These nocturnal creatures don’t bother the patrons during the day, except for the occasional guano dropping on the shoulder, but as the sun starts to set, they make for quite a sight as they evacuate the museum in waves to feed under the cover of darkness. Maybe this is where the local restaurants obtain their feature ingredient for ?
Other highlights include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda with its exquisite Khmer architecture and a shopping trip to the art deco building of the Central Market where you can buy souvenirs, silks and various treasures that you will wonder why you bought on returning home. Don’t forget your bargaining skills!
A cultural tour of the city would not be complete without a visit to one of the city’s various temples or wats, including Wat Phnom, the site of the original founding of the city. Round out your evenings with a traditional dance performance, an exotic meal or one of the various relaxing river cruises.
Bokor Hill Station
Bokor Hill Station lies fifteen miles outside the coastal town of Kampot, hidden away in the Elephant Mountains of Bokor National Park. Now in complete ruins, the French originally built this Hill Station in 1922 during their colonial rule over Cambodia. It served as a casino and summer retreat for the elite French society in order to escape the oppressive heat and noise of Phonm Penh. The views from the hill are absolutely stunning and the lush surroundings boasts clear streams and cascading waterfalls. Since the 1940’s, the buildings were overrun first by the Vietnamese and then again by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The site has been a ghost town ever since and picked clean to the bone of anything valuable. If you are keen on staying in the National Park, the rangers have a small dormitory where visitors can sleep but accommodations must be reserved in advance. Everything you need should be brought with you since no services of any kind are available.
Northeast of Phnom Penh, in the province of Mondolkiri, lies the provincial capital Senmonorom. This is one of the most inaccessible parts of the country but holds Cambodia’s most beautiful landscapes. The surrounding jungles are teaming with wildlife and serve as a good launching point for various animal safaris and treks.
Deep in the heart of Cambodia sits the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap. This ever-changing lake is the scene of a natural anomaly with the waters changing their directional flow twice a year and surface area alternating between 800 and 1800 square miles during the monsoon season. The lake is surrounded by tiny fishing villages, balancing on 20ft stilts, where the inhabitants make a living from the large fish stocks and aquatic life. After the monsoon season, as the waters start to recede, the surrounding mud banks provide extremely fertile land for growing crops such as rice and bamboo.
Tonle Sap lake can be a wonderful place to visit. Be prepared, however, for the lack of public places to stay but you will most likely be welcomed to stay in someone’s home. This presents a chance to experience the village way of life, good or bad, and take a boat ride across the lake or row through the treetops of the flooded forests.
Angkor Wat is one of Angkor’s best-preserved remains and stands defiantly as the main attraction of Angkor. You could spend all day at this temple alone but it is worth venturing out to see the other equally impressive temples such as Ta Prohm and The Bayon. In order not to be completely wiped out by the end of the day, hire a bike and ride throughout the luscious landscape, stopping at places that seem interesting and generally taking in the stunning views. A day pass to Angkor will set you back $20USD and the best way to avoid the throngs of tourist buses is to arrive early and find your way to the side entrance. Note: take a torch with you if you plan to go for sunrise or sunset. Climbing or descending the steep, uneven temple steps in the dark can prove to be quite tricky!