Travel in Cambodia can be a bittersweet experience. Beneath the veneer of pristine landscapes and broad smiles, this remains a place where politics are volatile, poverty rife, and the wounds of the Khmer Rouge years still fresh. The temples of Angkor are Cambodia for most people, but they're just the beginning of the story. Beyond that wat lies a country that is slowly, slowly opening up -- from the shanty-to-chic capital Phnom Penh to the northeast's dense, jungle-filled mountains and Sihanoukville's little-known beaches.
Thanks to the temples of Angkor in its backyard, Siem Riep has rapidly gone from dusty backwater to five-star boom town. Chaotic, ever-evolving Phnom Penh catapults you from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Museum to the splendor of its gilded Royal Palace. Life moves at a more relaxed pace in Battambang, with its faded French colonial architecture and Angkorian temples, and the Vietnamese Floating Village on the shores of Tonlé Sap Lake.
Eating and Drinking
Cambodians will tell you they eat anything with four legs except a table and anything that flies except an airplane. The grasshoppers, meaty tarantulas and unidentified flying objects sold at markets prove their point. You might find peppercorn-studded crab in coastal Sihanoukville, freshwater fish on the Mekong's banks or shrimp pancakes by Tonlé Sap Lake more palatable. Phnom Penh, Siem Riep and Battambang dish up everything from coconut-infused Khmer curries at street stalls to classic French cuisine in colonial villas.
Off-limits for decades, rural Cambodia now invites cautious exploration. Lapped by the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville's beaches and islands are paradise found. Slightly north, hike to misty falls and, if you're lucky, spy a tiger in Bokor National Park and the wild Cardamom Mountains. Elephant treks in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri's crater lakes await in the mountainous northeast, home to hill tribes. Endangered irrawaddy dolphins get cameras clicking in Kratie, a five-hour boat ride down the Mekong River from Phnom Penh.
History and Culture
Angkor, heart of the mighty Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 13th century, is Cambodia's pride and joy. The biggest and most iconic temple is Angkor Wat itself, with its lotus bud-shaped towers, reflecting moat and intricate friezes. The jungle-strangled ruins of Ta Prohm of Tomb Raider fame and Bayon's 216 gigantic stone faces are also unmissable. To do Angkor justice, allow several days and hire a bicycle to reach scores of little-known, but equally enigmatic, temples.