PHNOM PENH is the vibrant bustling capital of Cambodia. Situated at the confluence of three rivers, the mighty Mekong, the Bassac and the great Tonle Sap, what was once considered the ‘Gem’ of Indochina. The capital city still maintains considerable charm with plenty to see. It exudes a sort of provincial charm and tranquility with French colonial mansions and tree-lined boulevards amidst monumental Angkorian architecture. Phnom Penh is a veritable oasis compared to the modernity of other Asian capitals. A mixture of Asian exotica, the famous Cambodian hospitality awaits the visitors to the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Here in the capital, are many interesting touristy sites. Beside the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeng Ek Killing Fields and Wat Phnom, there are several market places selling carvings, paintings, silk, silver, gems and even antiques. Indeed, an ideal destination for a leisurely day tour. The whole area including the outskirts of Phnom Penh is about 376 square kilometers big. There are currently 2,009,264 people living in Phnom Penh.
The city takes its name from the re-known Wat Phnom Daun Penh (nowadays: Wat Phnom or Hill Temple), which was built in 1373 to house five statues of Buddha on a man made hill 27 meters high. These five statues were floating down the Mekong in a Koki tree and an old wealthy widow named Daun Penh (Grandma Penh) saved them and set them up on this very hill for worshiping. Phnom Penh was also previously known as Krong Chaktomuk (Chaturmukha) meaning “City of Four Faces”. This name refers to the confluence where the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers cross to form an “X” where the capital is situated.
Phnom Penh is also the gateway to an exotic land – the world heritage site, the largest religious complex in the world, the temples of Angkor in the west, the beaches of the southern coast and the ethnic minorities of the North-eastern provinces. There are also a wide variety of services including five star hotels and budget guest houses, fine international dining, sidewalk noodle shops, neighborhood pubs international discos and more.
Phnom Penh, like other Asian-City tourist destinations, is in the midst of rapid change. Over the past few years the number of restaurants and hotels have grown considerably and in the last year there had been a huge increase in the number of visitors. Come and see a real “original” as it won’t be the same in a few years.
Siem Reap province is located in northwest Cambodia. It is the major tourist hub in Cambodia, as it is the closest city to the world famous temples of Angkor (the Angkor temple complex is north of the city). The provincial capital is also called Siem Reap and is located in the South of the province on the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake, the greatest sweet water reserve in whole Southeast Asia. The name of the city literally means “Siamese defeated”, referring to the victory of the Khmer Empire over the army of the Thai kingdom in the 17th century.
At the turn of the millennium Siem Reap was a Cambodian provincial town with few facilities, minor surfaced roads and little in the way of nightlife. Tourism industry catered largely to hardy backpackers willing to brave the tortuous road from the Thai border on the tailgate of a local pick-up truck. There were a couple of large hotels and a handful of budget guesthouses. Tuk-tuks and taxis were non-existent and the trusty motodup was the chosen means of touring the temples of Angkor.
The proximity of the Angkorian ruins turned Siem Reap into a boomtown in less than half a decade. Huge, expensive hotels have sprung up everywhere and budget hotels have mushroomed. Property values have soared to European levels and tourism has become a vast, lucrative industry. The Siem Reap of today is barely recognizable from the Siem Reap of the year 2000.
Though some of the town’s previous ramshackle charm may have been lost the developments of the last few years have brought livelihoods, if not significant wealth, to a good number of its citizens. This has been at a cost to the underprivileged people living within and beyond the town’s limits that now pay inflated prices at the central markets and continue to survive on poorly paid subsistence farming and fishing. If Cambodia is a country of contrasts Siem Reap is the embodiment of those contrasts. Despite the massive shift in its economic fortunes, Siem Reap remains a safe, friendly and pleasant town. There is an endless choice of places to stay or dine and a host of possible activities awaiting the visitor.
There are few places anywhere on earth to match the splendor of Angkor Wat. The temple is one of the largest monuments to religion ever built and is truly one the wonders of the world. Believed to have been constructed as a temple and mausoleum for King Suryavarman II at the peak of the Khmer empire in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is probably the best-preserved of the Angkorean temples. As with other Angkorean temples and walled cities such as Angkor Thom, the central theme of Khmer architecture revolved around the idea of the temple-mountain. By the time building on Angkor Wat was begun early in the 12th century, this had been elaborated to a central tower surrounded by four smaller towers. The central monument represents the mythical Mount Meru, the holy mountain at the centre of the universe, which was home to the Hindu god Vishnu. The five towers symbolise Mount Meru’s five peaks. It is difficult to express in words the enormous scale of Angkor Wat, but it can be explained in part by a look at the dimensions of the complex. The temple is surrounded by a moat which makes the one around the Tower of London, built at roughly the same time, look like nothing more than a garden trench. At 190 meters wide and forming a rectangle measuring 1.5 km by 1.3 km, it is hard to imagine any attacking force overwhelming the defenses. But the moat was more than just a defensive bulwark, in line with the temple’s Hindu origins it represented the oceans of the world. A rectangular wall measuring 1025 metres by 800 metres borders the inner edge of the moat. There is a gate in each side of the wall, but unusually for the mainly Hindu-influenced Angkorian temples, the main entrance faces west. This entrance is a richly decorated portico, 235 m wide with three gates. However, the temple’s greatest sculptural treasure is its 2 km-long bas-reliefs around the walls of the outer gallery and the hundred figures of devatas and apsaras. This intricately carved gallery tells stories of the god Vishnu and of Suryavarman II’s successes on the battlefield. The whole complex covers 81 hectares.
The Great Lake Tonle Sap & Floating Fishing Village
Continuing about ten minutes beyond the hilltop temple, on the same road that you took from Siem Reap, are a land based fishing village and the bullet boat-landing site. Just hope for a good wind when you come as the combination of dead fish and raw sewage from the village can be a bit overwhelming. Just pass by this area to get to the water.
There are small motorboats for rent and a few locals that speak English will probably greet you when you approach the water. They will take you out for a tour of the floating fishing village area nearby (most structures are actually built on stilts), charging you US$5-6 for a one-hour tour. The village has its own “street” grid system and seems to have just about everything that a village should have. It’s an interesting and scenic journey with plenty of photo ops on hand.
Sihanoukville & the Beach
Sihanoukville province is a small southern province of Cambodia. The capital sits on a peninsula with beaches and tropical islands around. Sihanoukville (also known as Kampong Som or Kampong Saom) was founded in 1964 to be the only deep-water port in whole Cambodia. It is gradually being redeveloped as a tourist attraction, but despite the promise of massive Malaysian investment – a casino is planned for Naga Island – tourist numbers are still fairly low. Also its nice with sand beaches and several paradise islands have made it popular as a tourist destination.
In honor to the king, who fought for the independency of Cambodia the provincial capital was called Sihanoukville. Located in the southwest corner of Cambodia, 232km from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville can be reached via National Highway N° 4. White-sand beaches that include O’chheuteal, Sokha, Pram Pi Chan, and Deum Chrey beautify this coastal city. These beaches are known for their quiet, cosy atmosphere and the large stretches of white sand and clear waters and these make them popular spots for families on vacation. These seaside paradises with the refreshing coolness of the fresh water streams can be enjoyed all year round.
Business opportunities in Sihanoukville are varied from financial activities to tourist and travel-related industries in conjunction with the government’s objective of making Sihanoukville a major tourist destination besides its status as an International Offshore Financial Centre. The government welcomes both foreign as well as local investors to participate on a joint-venture basis.
This famous see side resort is formed by wide and huge streets and quite new big concrete buildings, which lost any impression of the former architectonical colonial style. As the town is not a small place due to it’s wide spread urban areas, the best way to get around is to hire a motorbike. Beside the nice beaches and some very nice vantage points there isn’t that much to see in the town itself. To catch a nice view on the city you best climb the small hill to Wat Leu. Wat Krom is another place of interest as this is a recently build pagoda, because the older one was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and it houses a sanctuary called Yeah Mao, the guardian of the cost. Nearby to the town there are nice places for a detour such as the Ream National Park and the beautiful Kbal Chhay Waterfall.
Preah Vihear is quite a big northern province of Cambodia. Its capital is called Phnom Tbeng Meanchey. The province itself is named after the temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, what is definitely the hotspot of this province. Much of the province is extremely remote and strongly forested. Unfortunately do large logging companies reduce the natural landscape by carving huge tracts of pristine tropical hardwoods out of the locations. It is also one of the least populated provinces in the Kingdom of Cambodia. This tranquil site is popular for the Preah Vihear temple, standing in the vicinity of the borderline between Thailand and Cambodia.
The province has one of the worst infrastructures in the country – there are even no proper Major Roads in existence. Going around this province is not that easy if you’re used to proper roads and usual transportation possibilities, as there are only a few pick-ups or some money-hunting moto drivers to take you where you would like to go.
Whatsoever the province has a lot to offer for those, who are interested in ancient temple structures and remote villages without touristy influence. Here in Preah Vihear you may find three of the most impressive legacies from the Angkorian era: the mountain temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, the 10th-century capital of Koh Ker and the mighty Preak Khan. Koh Ker is nowadays easily accessible from Siem Reap via Beng Mealea, but the other two still remain difficult to visit, requiring long and tough overland journeys and a distinct possibility to spend a night in the jungle. During the wet season these places are more or less unreachable. But there are governmental plans to develop the region for a smooth but constant tourism, building roads and improving infrastructure.
The provincial capital Tbeng Meanchey is due to the state of the infrastructure and it’s geographical location not visited by a lot of foreigners. Most of them don’t make it here worrying about the street conditions and the backcountry feeling of no fast supply in need. The city is sprawling and dusty and consists of little more than two small major dirt roads form South to North. There is nothing interesting in town or to do, so it has necessarily become more a stopover on the way to Koh Ker and Preah Khan.
Ratanakiri is located in Cambodia’s far northeast bordered by Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east, Mondulkiri to the south, and Stung Treng to the west. This rural rugged province is a 70% ethnic minority, which are known as “Chunchiet”. Ratanakiri was as recently as 2002 seriously off the beaten track but has since been “discovered” step by step. Still, while you won’t get any bragging rights for coming here, it’s well worth the effort to do so, and once you get away from it’s capital Banlung you won’t run into too many other tourists. So Ratanakiri is still a remote province in Northeastern Cambodia worth to visit.
The word “Ratanakiri” itself is a derivative of two Cambodian words, which are combined to mean “place of gems and mountains.” The word comes from the Sanskrit words Ratna (gem) and giri (mountain). It’s quite dusty capital, Banlung, is located in the central highlands of the province, approximately 365 miles (586 kilometres) from Phnom Penh and reminds one of a wild western city, even if it’s the wild east. Its wide red laterite roads are bordered by new, recently build houses replacing the older ones. The centre of the town features a lively marked with all the needful things.
Lomphat is a small town in the southern plains, which was once the former capital of Ratanakiri. There are a few other small towns like Ta Veng and Voen Sai.
The province is getting more and more popular for thousands of tourist every year. Especially for those, who seek a close contact to originality, hidden roots of ethnic groups and abundant wildlife. Therefore the Ecotourism abounds, due to lush wildlife and remote tribal villages. Most of the inhabitants of Ratanakiri are indigenous minorities. Ethnic Cambodians make up only 10-20% of the country’s total population.
Remnants of an ancient volcano exist near to Banlung in the form of a crystal-clear lake that was formed after the active volcano went dormant. There are also a few ancient lava fields that testify to the fact that the area was quite lively at one time. Beautiful waterfalls, clear rivers winding through stretches of jungle, and rolling hills that meet mountains near the Vietnamese and Lao border provide a full agenda for nature lovers.
Non-structured, low-impact, custom trips to outlying villages and natural areas can be organized (strictly by yourself or with help from a guesthouse). There is a few foreigners living in Banlung you’ll definitely meet while walking in the streets you can ask for actual tour offers, prices etc (change spontaneously).
You will soon realize that this area hasn’t seen a lot of tourists in the past. If you will visit the hill tribe people in the further areas outside of Banlung, don’t be surprised if they look appalled at you. They just haven’t seen many, if any, foreigners.
Yeak Laom Volcano Lake
This beautiful place is not far from town and is great for a swim, picnic, or hike around the crater rim of the old volcano. Due to the lake’s tremendous depth of 48 meters, its water is exceptionally clean and crystal clear. The lake is almost perfectly round and measures around 750 meters in diameter. It has a small informative local museum thrown in to boot. In 1995 the governor of Ratanakiri officially set aside a 5,000-hectare (12,350-acre) protected area, of which the lake is a part, and in 1996 got help from the International Development and Research Centre of Canada and the United Nations Development Program to develop an effective resource management program. This area represents Cambodia’s finest attempt at preserving a site. Full-time rangers work to ensure the area is protected. They receive regular training and have put up signs throughout the area reminding people not too littler, wash clothes or toilet in the lake. That’s amazing for Cambodia.
The main swimming and picnic area features a nice wood deck that’s great to use for a jump into the crystal clean water. Nearby, park rangers erected a couple of examples of hill tribe construction in the form of non politically correct bride and groom homes, where the man gets the elevated home (his status in the relationship) and the woman has the one nearer to the ground.
A few hundred meters down is the Cultural and Environmental Centre, which has information about area history and displays of local hill tribe tools and handiwork. They also sell some of the handicrafts made by the hill tribes: musical instruments, beaded belts, shirts, and hats.
From the centre you can take a nature trail around the entire crater rim. King Sihanouk had a chalet built on the shores of the lake and used it during the 1960s. It was destroyed in the 1970 war between the Lon Nol government and Khmer Rouge guerrillas. You can still see the remnants of this and also-indifferent spots around the lake-trenches that held gun emplacements during the fighting.
The original inhabitants of the area are the Khmer Leu hill tribe people, who have always recognized the lake as a sacred place, home to the spirits of the land, water, and forest. Here those spirits interact with humans and, according to the local legend of Yeak Laom Lake, fabulous, spiritual aquatic beings reside here. The surrounding forests of the area are also said to be the home of spirits and therefore can’t be cut. This helps to explain why the hill tribe people took so strongly to the idea of protecting the area.
It’s very easy to get there – just go east from the Independence Monument circle 3 km to the Hill Tribe Monument circle (two indigenous figures) and go right for about 1,5 km to the entrance gate. The local hill tribe community connected to the lake get to collect an entrance fee, giving them a source of income and revenue for protecting their resource. It’s US$1 per person and a few hundred riels for a motorcycle.
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