Our guide to Cambodia
Captivating and colorful, Cambodia offers visitors a wealth of experiences and an insight into one of the world’s most fascinating histories. From one of Asia’s earliest civilizations during the Angkorian period to the French colonial era and from the tragic years under the Khmer Rouge to a country that is now full of positivity and growth, Cambodia has had a varied and somewhat turbulent time. Nowadays it’s one of Asia’s most celebrated destinations packed full of other-worldly experiences.
Explore its temples tangled in jungle at dawn, experience Angkor Wat soaring from the dusty plains at sunrise, navigate its sleepy colonial towns, luxuriate on its glistening beaches and enjoy welcoming smiles in its pristine villages. It’s packed full of things to do and is ideal for families and couples alike. Stop here for 3 or 4 days as part of a longer tour through Indochina, or spend 10-14 days seeing it as a standalone destination in-depth. Whatever you choose to do, you can be sure to succumb to its charm.
The Angkor Archaeological Park, home to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is like nowhere on earth and can only be compared to the majesty of The Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu. Crumbling temples are ensconced in luminous jungle as others soar from the ground. As the location for Tomb Raider, the area is perfect for families as the temples are ripe for adventurous exploration on foot or by bicycle. The coast is also fringed by untouched beaches and warm waters, so Cambodia is also a fantastic destination for those wanting to avoid more built up beach locations found in neighboring countries. To us the real draw of Cambodia is its people. Despite such a tragic history, their spirit and charm is beyond compare and you’ll find yourself instantly and warmly welcomed.
When is the best time to visit Cambodia?
Cambodia is essentially a year round destination that’s warm throughout the year. Unlike many countries in Asia it has a fairly simple weather system with just two seasons; dry season that runs from October to April and the so called wet season that runs from May to September.
The dry season
The dry season runs from November to April. Between November and February the temperatures drop and are a little cooler, making it a great time to explore temples or indulge in some adventurous activities. Between March and May the temperature warm up a bit and some can find it too hot during the day. This can be managed by visiting temples earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon and simply relaxing around the pool or in the shade in the heat of the day. This is a great time to visit the coast as it should still remain dry during this time and the coastal breeze offers respite from the heat.
The wet season
During wet season (usually a short sharp shower in the afternoon, but usually otherwise sunny) the country becomes a glorious shade of luscious green and rivers and lakes fill up. To many, this is a great time to visit as there are fewer tourists and costs are lower; do bear in mind it can get a little muddy and in September it can prove a little difficult to get to more remote locations.
Avoiding the crowds
Your decision of when to visit Cambodia may be based more on avoiding the crowds at Angkor Archaeological Park rather than the weather; it very much depends on your priorities. The best time to go to avoid throngs of visitors is March to July and September to October. This period also offers better value for money. While November to February is the busiest time of year, don’t worry if this is the only time you can go, as our experts on the ground are adept at avoiding crowds, and conduct footfall counts and will work your route to stay away from the other tourists.
How do you get to Cambodia?
For most, flying to Cambodia will not be direct but getting there is still very straightforward. We can simply arrange your flights via one of the Asian hubs. From Bangkok, from it’s just over an hours’ hop over to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (close to the temples of Angkor, including Angkor Wat). There are also domestic flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville nowadays, which makes access to the beach areas really easy.
How to get around Cambodia?
This very much depends on your itinerary and how much time you have. Many choose to fly between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh as this is a short and easy hop, saving a day in a car. It’s also possible to fly to Sihanoukville from Siem Reap as well. For shorter journeys we often find it better to go overland by air-conditioned vehicle with a private driver, which we love, as you are able to see and experience the landscape en-route. The most common journeys are Siem Reap or Phnom Penh to the colonial town of Battambang, or from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville or Kep on Cambodia’s coast. The road network is constantly improving, making this easier.
What are the main highlights of Cambodia?
Siem Reap, the entry point to the Angkor Archaeological Park is what draws most people to Cambodia; the area is the country’s undisputed highlight. UNESCO protected, the area is home to some of the world’s most significant temple structures and remains of towns and villages that date back between the 9th and 15th century. It really offers an other-worldly experience and is truly beyond compare. There are numerous ways to enjoy the area depending on your interests; for families we’ve designed treasure hunts, cycling routes and village experiences and for history enthusiasts we’ve sourced specialists to get you behind the scenes of these ancient monuments, providing an in-depth view.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, is also not to be missed. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, the city is one of Asia’s fastest growing capitals and has an arty ambiance with great boutiques, markets and restaurants. It also provides a captivating insight into Cambodia’s rule under the Khmer Rouge. We’ve crafted some fantastic experiences to make sure you learn about this turbulent period in the right way.
To the west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s coastline is also a major draw. Undeveloped, sleepy and pristine, the areas of Kep as well as the island of Koh Rong provide an idyllic and unique respite after a busy touring itinerary. The hotels here are really impressive.
For those with more time we highly recommend the sleepy and charming town of Battambang. The area is studded with fantastic temples and a patchwork of paddy fields and is perfect for those who want to escape the crowds during high season.
If you are looking to really get more off the beaten track then look no further than the far north and east of Cambodia. Remote, wild and untouched, this part of Cambodia is great for intrepid families looking to explore. Visit tribal communities, elephant conservation projects, dramatic waterfalls and enjoy the scenery by zip-line or on the back of a quad bike. Accommodation is simple here, and journeys are long, but we think it’s immensely rewarding. Mondulkiri in particular is one of our favorite regions; offering large tracts of wilderness. It’s also home to half of Cambodia’s elephant population. The family-friendly Mayura Hill Resort is the ideal base for exploring this area.
Accommodation in Cambodia varies greatly, from luxurious 5* retreats in Siem Reap to simple boutique lodges in the far north and east. We spend a lot of time researching and testing the properties we recommend to ensure where you stay is as comfortable as possible. In general, the more remote you get the more simple the properties become.
Luxury hotels in Cambodia
Luxurious 5* hotels in Cambodia are at their best in Siem Reap. Amansara is one of our favorites with understated luxury at its core. Phum Baitang offers paired-back natural luxury whilst La Residence d’Angkor offers more traditional boutique comfort. In Phnom Penh look no further than historic Raffles Le Royal that dates back to 1929.
Cambodia enjoys a collection of unique boutique hotels; these tend to be historic, intimate and charming but they do vary in terms of luxury and have fewer facilities that the luxurious hotels above. We particularly love Maison Polanka, Sala Lodges and La Villa in Battambang and believe these types of properties offer great value for money and charm. They are also in-keeping with Cambodia.
We always tailor-make our itineraries, but have created a few suggested itineraries which can of course be adapted to suit you and your interests. Temples and Bays makes a fantastic honeymoon or luxurious escape, taking in Amansara in Siem Reap and the indulgent island resort of Song Saa on Cambodia’s coast. Complete Cambodia is a truly unique route, taking you outside of Siem Reap to experience a temple safari, camping under the stars before heading to Phnom Penh and Kep on Cambodia’s coast. For many Cambodia works as a fantastic addition to a longer itinerary in Southeast Asia; Laos and Cambodia Explorer is a fantastic and gentle journey taking in Luang Prabang, Champasak, Siem Reap and Kep. For a grander and more luxurious tour, look no further than Opulent Indochina with Aman Hotels. Please remember that every itinerary is designed from scratch and can be completely designed for you.
Cambodia for families
From the ruined forest temples of Angkor to the remote tribes in Mondukiri and from the glorious beaches on the west coast to elephant projects in the far-east, Cambodia is an excellent destination for families. To make the most of it we’ve created extraordinary as well as educational experiences for all the family to enjoy. Many of the hotels are also well equipped to take families as well, with lots of family villas and interconnecting rooms available. Talk to our specialists about your children’s interests and your exact requirements, so that we can design the best thing for you and your family.
Cambodia for honeymooners
With a wealth of unique and luxurious accommodation, private island escapes and one in a lifetime experiences such as temple breakfasts, gourmet meals surrounded by paddy fields and helicopter journeys to remote locations, Cambodia makes a fantastic option for honeymoons. We can craft a tour just in Cambodia but we can also combine it with Vietnam, Laos and/or Thailand for something truly spectacular.
We have crafted and created some incredible experiences so that you make the most of your time in Cambodia and get beyond the obvious. We do everything we can to avoid contrived and touristy experiences so that you see the authentic and real Cambodia and get to the heart of real communities. Examples include kayaking on Tonle Sap Lake, cycling through the temples of Angkor, a foodie tour on the back of a vintage Vespa, exploring Angkor Wat with experts such as Dr Damian Evans and taking a helicopter to remote corners of the country. It’s also possible to meet with one of the survivors of S21 and enjoy a private dinner surrounded by paddy fields. We really feel we offer some of the most unique and exclusive experiences in Cambodia and have taken great lengths to make sure you do this in style.
Cambodian cuisine is as unique as its history and we highly recommend getting involved. It tends to be less spicy than what is found in Laos and Thailand and it arguably has more similarities with Vietnam and China. Lots of Cambodia’s dishes are cooked in a single pot or wok over a stove, such as fish amok, one of the country’s most famous dishes. You’ll find everywhere and it includes a local herb known as slok ngor, along with fresh coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic and galangal. Khmer Red Curry is another specialty; less spicy than in neighboring countries, this coconut based dish can be served with beef, chicken or rice. Thanks to the French, you’ll still find baguettes everywhere as well. To make the most of Cambodia’s comforting cuisine, we recommend our Dine around Phnom Penh experience, our Foodie Vespa Adventure or Private Temple Dinner.
Festivals and vacations
Cambodians love celebrating and have more public vacations than most countries on earth! Public vacations in Cambodia center around four main themes; traditional farming celebrations, Buddhist festivals, the Royal Family and those recognizing independence from France and the Khmer Rouge.
Arguably the most important festival is the Khmer New Year (April 14-16), which sees Cambodian families returning to their hometowns around the country. It marks the end of the long dry season, the beginning of the rainy season and the end of the harvest; put simply it celebrates abundance and food. During this time families will place small shrines outside their houses that are decorated with candles and infused with incense that they burn all day. The ritual washing of Buddha statues, the elderly and oneself is also highly important, intended to bring luck for the rest of the year. From a travel perspective, we typically suggest that guests avoid the week of New Year celebrations, as many sites can be quite crowded with domestic celebrations.
The Water Festival is arguably the most visually impressive that’s typically held in October or November. The Water Festival celebrates the ancient Cambodian navy of King Jayavarman VII (builder of Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and Bayon). The timing of the celebration coincides with the famed reversal of flow of the Tonle River; the only river in the world to flow backwards! Boat races are held throughout the country, with the largest being in Phnom Penh. Siem Reap’s racing, which passes through the center of town, is also a fantastic spectacle and highly recommended. During this time riverside streets are closed to vehicles and the celebrations spill into the streets, with open air concerts being an important aspect. In the evenings, families gather at the river to float hundreds of small candle-lit paper boats down the river.
Temples of Cambodia
For more information about Cambodia’s magnificent temples and monuments, take a look at our guide. Here we explain where to go, when to go and some of our beautifully designed experiences to help you make the most of them.