So you’re searching for places to visit in Cambodia - and there’s plenty to choose from. Here are five that lie slightly off the beaten track to help you dodge the tourists and selfie sticks.
You haven’t really ‘done’ Southeast Asia until you’ve hit up Cambodia. Once part of French Indochina along with Vietnam and Laos, these days the country’s famed for being home to some of the most jaw-dropping temples in the world.
Yet aside from the temples, it’s impossible to ignore the more tumultuous side of Cambodia's history. There are many reminders of Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Thankfully these days, with increasing development and investment pouring in, Cambodia is moving towards a bright future. And while this beautiful country may be less developed than neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, this is changing fast. So the time to take in Cambodia’s most tranquil spots is, well, now.
Here are five places to visit in Cambodia that are just far enough off the well-trodden tourist paths to retain their quintessential authenticity.
1. Battambang Bat Cave
Visit the base of Phnom Sampeou at around 5pm and most evenings you’ll see crowds of locals waiting expectantly. Come sunset the show begins as thousands upon thousands of bats pour out of a cave in the cliff face, their black silhouettes cutting starkly against the burnt backdrop of the sunset sky. This amazing show continues for up to 40 minutes, with the bats so numerous you can literally feel the temperature lift during their flight. As if this isn’t thrilling enough, it's possible to climb a path right to the cave entrance and feel the bats whoosh past up close.
2. Catch a bamboo train from Battambang
Cambodia’s rail system was, for a very long time, more like the punchline of a joke than a credible transport system. Dodgy rails and irregular services meant that if you were lucky enough to actually catch a train, its woeful speeds could easily lead you to believe that walking would have been a better idea. Enter the ‘noory’. Villagers frustrated with their almost non-existent rail services took matters into their own hands and began utilising existing rail tracks for their own makeshift train carts. Comprised of a bamboo platform attached to a metal axis and wheels, then propelled along the tracks by a lawnmower or boat engine, these trains became a regular sight on Cambodian tracks. These days they’re becoming rare as the railways modernize, but there’s now a dedicated Bamboo Railway near Battambang that caters to tourists and can take you all the way to Phnom Penh. All aboard!
3. The curious carving at Ta Prohm
Chances are you’ve heard of Angkor Wat. This mega temple is the jewel in the crown of a complex of temples stretching over 400km2, and within that area lays Ta Prohm. Before it was used as a location in a Tomb Raider film the temple was little known to tourists. But since then its growing in popularity, with its unique charm and beauty drawing increasing numbers.
Ta Prohm is particularly special thanks to the gargantuan trees that have wrapped their roots around the masonry, slowly enveloping the structures over the course of several centuries. Sounds awesome, right? There’s more. In a quiet corner of one of the temple’s rooms is a carving that looks totally out of place, yet is easily missed if you’re not looking for it.
The carving depicts something bizarre; something that for all the world looks like a stegosaurus. Why? Some claim it’s a hoax, skilfully carved by pranksters with a penchant for sculpting. Others claim the ancient Khmers may have discovered fossils and worked out what the prehistoric titans may have looked like. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that it’s worth a gander.
4. Kbal Spean
Easily offended? Then you may be wise to avoid a trip to Kbal Spean. But that would be a shame. Because there are few more visually arresting paeans to fertility than this beguiling stretch of the Kulen Hills. The riverbanks - both above and below the waterline - that slice through the jungle are abundantly bedecked with hundreds of phallic symbols, punctuated with faithful carvings of Hindu deities. It’s quite a sight. Especially against the backdrop of waterfalls and exotic wildlife.
Kep-Sur-Mer or ‘Kep on the Sea’ was once the focal point of what used to be the ‘Cambodian Riviera’. Built in 1908 for French colonialists and becoming a favourite haunt for the Cambodian elite after their independence from France, this idyllic spot was once the premier seaside resort in the country. Sadly the boom times didn’t last. During the Cambodian civil war and the traumatic years of the Khmer Rouge regime, this resort fell into disuse and even witnessed fighting. When the Vietnamese army passed through they gutted the buildings of the resort and stripped them of their valuables. Since then nature has had its way with the buildings and brave villagers use the dangerous structures as homes. The fortune of Kep-Sur-Mer has always tended to reflect the fortunes of the country. So as investment to Cambodia increases there is a chance this resort will witness a rebirth. Get there fast if you want to witness this coastal oddity in its current guise.
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