Flow and pacing – the heart and soul of any winning trip – are often overlooked in international travel. This holds especially true when experiencing the Angkor temples in Cambodia.
Most visitors allow only a couple days to explore these magnificent stone monuments. In no time, they’re thoroughly ‘templed-out’ and do not gain a meaningful understanding of the civilization behind their construction. And more importantly, they haven’t had fun!
Smart travelers should devote a week to Cambodia, a nation reemerging as a must-see travel destination. Getting there has never been easier via newly paved roads from Thailand and Vietnam and lots of daily flights into Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Over the course of many trips, I’ve compiled a roadmap for experiencing Cambodia over the course of a week. By following this itinerary, and embracing a mindset of “doing less and seeing more,” you’ll find you have adequate time to dip-in and get a taste of this colorful kingdom on the move.
Fly or drive to Siem Reap, the jumping-off point for the temples of Angkor. Founded in 802 as the seat of the Khmer empire, a plethora of elaborate stone temples were constructed by successive kings until the kingdom fell in 1431.
Settle-in and read a quick history over a plate of fish Amok, a tasty curry and Cambodia’s national dish. Spend the afternoon in a Khmer-style tuk-tuk (a chariot pulled by motorcycle) with a fun guide (this is key) hitting a few lesser-visited temples, such as Phrea Khan and Ta Som, stunning rock monoliths that require you to venture deep inside their dark, cavernous corridors. Few tourists travel the extra 10km to get here and you’re likely be have them almost to yourself.
Finish-off by climbing Pre Rup’s steep stairs, sip some bubbly (available at many Siem Reap grocers) and watch the sun set on lush, thick jungle, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Time to hit the big ones – set off early by bicycle and catch sunrise at The Bayon, where a plethora of smiling faces of the Buddha carved into stone gaze upon you. Peruse the former Khmer capital of Angkor Thom then ride through the towering south gate as you pedal to your hotel to enjoy lunch.
Swim, nap then stop by the impressive Angkor Hospital for Children and learn about the lack of medical care available in the country and the free care this facility gives to all children in need.
In the afternoon get back on your bike and hit Angkor Wat proper. This is THE big one; don’t rush. Grab a cool drink, sit down atop the highest tower and soak it all in as the sky changes color and casts shadows on Angkor’s mighty moat. As the world’s largest religious building, you’re sure to be spellbound.
Overgrown by massive trees and their roots, Tha Phrom is dazzling, largely been left as it was found in the mid-1800s by French explorer Henri Mouhot. Taken over by jungle, stone blocks lie next to intact towers and there’s a creeping feeling you too could be overtaken by these creeping vines.
Back to your hotel to freshen-up, then make your way 45 minutes southeast to Khompong Phluk, a floating village on Thonle Sap Lake, SE Asia’s largest. Houses teeter on stilts, some more than 10m above the ground, keeping inhabitants well above the water, which swells to five-times it, normal level during wet season.
Finally, hit the 9th century Rolous Group of temples on your way back to Siem Reap. While not a large in scale as Angkor Wat, they’re Angkor’s oldest temples and charming country roads leading there give you a genuine feeling for traditional Khmer life.
Don’t ignore Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Easily reachable in 40 minutes by plane or four-and-a-half hours by private car, this once pristine colonial city designed by the French has seen better days but is definitely a happening place with debilitated houses sitting next to lovingly restored ones, and sweeping boulevards creating a peaceful calm, while motorbikes dart to and fro.
Walking this relatively small city affords an opportunity to see Khmers going about their daily routine. Sidewalks teem with life from vendors selling freshly cut, colorful fruit, barbers clipping an inch here and there to artisans delicately chipping away stone to create intricate statues of the Buddha. This is truly traveling at street-level.
Wat Phnom, the city’s main stupa atop a small hill, is a good starting point. Stroll the boulevards to Phsar Thmey (Central Market), Independence Monument, along Sisowatch Quay past the National Museum and Royal Palace to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) for sundown drinks and snacks while overlooking the Sap River.
Cambodia’s shocking past under the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge shouldn’t be ignored. Take a private car 30 minutes outside the city to the Killing Fields, then onto S21, the notorious prison where victims were tortured and imprisoned before meeting their gruesome fate. Thousands of eerie black and white mug shots of prisoners fill several rooms and several cells have been left as they were found with the KR fled, creating a chilling but very moving experience.
For a relaxing change of pace continue three hours south to Kep, a former seaside escape for well-to-do Khmers and foreigners. Check into the very slick Knai Bang Chatt, a collection of three art-deco villas inspired by premier architect Vann Molyvann. Gaze at the sea as the last rays of sun glisten off the clear waters.
Hire a boat and venture 20 minutes south to Rabbit Island, enjoy soft sand and swim in the warm ocean. Back on the mainland, finish the day hiking the hilltop National Park trail (8km), which winds through nice forest with sweeping views of the ocean below, and take-down some famous Kep crab cooked in succulent Kampot pepper for dinner.
Time your three-hour journey back to Phnom Penh to mesh with your flight out of the capital. You’ve just slowed down, experienced the world’s largest temple complex, breathed-in the capital (and acquired a tropical tan) while getting well away from it all.