Cambodia isn’t all about Angkor. Not by a country mile. While the temples are jaw-droppingly beautiful, they are only the beginning. If you scratch beneath the surface of Cambodia, beyond the tourist-heavy hubs of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, you’ll stumble across a softer side to South East Asia. Here, amongst sleepy coastal nooks and forgotten inland crannies, you’ll find gentle, welcoming people living a timeless way of life. Put simply, it’s spellbinding.
It stands to reason that tourists to Cambodia make a beeline for Angkor and bunk down in Siem Reap for a good few days. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is a bucket list regular and one of life’s truly breathtaking experiences. Combine this with a few days around Phnom Penh learning about the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, and you’ve got a week to really remember.
However, if you’re not pinned down to a tight window of time, look past the headliners and take a peek into the hidden Cambodia, you’ll be glad you did. Here are a few of the Cambodian corners that mass tourism has yet to conquer. Just don’t tell everyone!
Angkor without the tourists? Sounds too good to be true. Banteay Chhmar is Cambodia’s best kept secret. It’s a huge but hidden temple complex around two hours from Siem Reap, shrouded in both jungle and mystery. Buried far off the beaten track, it’s the perfect spot to live out all of your Indiana Jones fantasies. If you’re lucky, you might even have the place to yourself! There are no hotels, just home stays, no Western restaurants and not a wisp of Wifi. It’s the temple that time forgot.
Banteay Chhmar is the 4th largest Angkorian temple in Cambodia, but tourism has so far been reluctant to reach its remote location. This makes Banteay Chhmar all the more intriguing. Surrounded by a vast moat, it boasts gallery walls carved with bas-reliefs and face towers similar to those the Angkor complex. And there’s nobody there! A further 12 kilometres down the road, you’ll find Prasat Samnang Tasok, a temple that has been totally overtaken by the jungle in an epic, crumbly way. Tomb Raider, eat your heart out.
Hammocks slung between coconut palms, banana pancakes on the beach and a cold Angkor beer alongside a fiery sunset - this is what Koh Rong Samloem has in store. And a whole lot more.
Just two hours by boat from the beaches of Sihanoukville, it’s a pocket-sized paradise that most tourists pass straight by. The west coast is lined with rich golden sands, while the east coast beaches are pearly white. Inland, the island is bursting with free-roaming wildlife, so trekking here is an untamed delight. Suffice to say that you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Koh Rong Samloem is developing fast, so our advice is to get in quick! Resorts are popping up all over the coast, from backpacker bungalows to smarter villas and top-end splash outs. There’s accommodation available for every style of traveller, so you really can’t go wrong. Despite these developments, the island feels very authentic. The locals are so welcoming, the water is warm and the atmosphere is wonderful. Change is on the horizon, so grab your chance and go soon.
Kep is a small, snoozy seaside town in the far south of Cambodia, surrounded by sprawling salt fields and family-run pepper plantations. Often treated as a stepping stone across the border to Vietnam, Kep is seldom seen as a destination in its own right. However, if you spend a couple of days here, you’ll quickly fall under Kep’s sleepy spell. Think long, lazy days with a good book, scenic walks in Kep National Park and more fresh seafood than you can shake a squid at.
The Crab Market is the beating heart of Kep and the only place to be at sunset. As the sun sizzles down into the sea, it’s a hub of hectic activity. Fishermen haul in their crab pots while a bidding war for their catch breaks out onshore, makeshift barbecues send rich, flavoured smoke into the tropical air and kids run around with seafood skewers like lollipops. Next to the market, there’s a row of rickety restaurants built out over the water, all of them selling local specialities such as tasty crab amok and banana blossom salad. It’s brilliant.
Just half an hour from Kep’s coastline by long tail boat, Rabbit Island is the perfect place to reconnect to the bare necessities and take a much-needed break from modern living. With no electricity and no Wifi, it’s somewhere to treat as a total technology detox. Hop in a hammock with a book, kick a football around on the beach, chat to the locals, play some cards and let the sunshine rule your waking hours. Most importantly, be sure to relish being off-grid.
While Rabbit Island is a beautiful place to get back to nature, it will also send you right back to basics. Facilities here are few and far between, the sparing accommodation is ramshackle to say the least and you might even wade out to catch your own dinner! Rabbit Island is rustic in every sense, so if you’re after glamour, it’s best to give it a miss. The island isn’t for everyone, but if you need some time out to restore perspective and take one eye off the iPad, there’s nowhere better.
While there’s nothing remarkable about the remote town of Pailin itself, its surrounding area is truly stunning. A lonely outpost perched on the edge of the Cardamom Mountains, it’s your gateway to the Great Outdoors. Less than an hour from the Thai border, the region is seldom-visited yet welcoming to strangers and full of surprises. If you’ve got the time, it’s well worth the effort.
Trekking to the Blue Mountains alongside Otaveo Waterfall is wonderful way to spend the day. There’s a little restaurant next to the falls serving simple local specialities and the whole area feels untouched by tourism. Teetering on a nearby hilltop, the temple of Wat Phnom Yat is a real eye-opener, depicting sinners being punished in horrifically imaginative ways. A cheating couple are climbing a very spiky tree in the buff and another two criminals are about to be boiled alive!