Demand for gap year travel in Cambodia has rapidly increased in recent years, and it's fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia.
Why is this? Well, it’s mainly thanks to the glorious temples of Angkor Wat, the world-famous Pub Street in Siem Reap and its buzzing capital city, Phnom Penh. But did you know that Cambodia is rich in culture and has a lot more to offer than just its headline sights? Below I’ve outlined five spectacular parts of the country that are well and truly off the beaten track, which I’d highly recommend any traveller pays a visit to.
So, if you’re looking to get away from other tourists and your schedule allows it, leave the big cities behind and head to one of these places…
The Seaside Town of Kep
Kep is a small and tranquil seaside town on Cambodia’s southern coast, where lush jungle borders the sea. It used to be a retreat for French colonialists, but once Cambodia gained independence in 1952, the French fled and Cambodians took over their homes. Later, when the communist Khmer Rouge regime came about, these homes were largely torn apart. Nowadays, a dozen or so buildings still remain and make for rather unique and beautiful scenery.
You can wander from one to the next, or take a self-guided bike tour, and even go into the buildings to explore them. Most tourists neglect this aspect of the town, as they’re usually more interested in its beaches and crab market, but I personally think that the abandoned houses are quite remarkable. Kep is also the gateway to Rabbit Island, where visitors can relax in hammocks with ice-cold Angkor beers and enjoy the surf.
Kratie: The Base for Dolphin Spotting
The tiny riverside town of Kratie is a great place to visit for two main reasons: its swirling waters are home to the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and from the riverfront, you’ll get the best sunset views in all of Cambodia. I recommend taking a boat trip down the Mekong River in the early evening, when you’ll be able to see both, and the heat is a little less fierce.
Dolphins and sunsets aside, there are some nice-looking homes of French and Khmer style, which are still intact, as Kratie was spared the wartime bombing that destroyed many other parts of the country. You’ll also find a bustling market, where you’ll be able to sample delicious traditional Cambodian foods and take in the town’s beautiful rural surroundings.
Sen Monorom and its Beautiful Elephants
Sen Monorom is the capital of the Mondulkiri province, which still receives just a trickle of tourists throughout the year. This small, cosy town is situated approximately six hours by bus from Phnom Penh and is well worth making the journey to, for the rewards are truly unspoiled highlands, where you’ll be able to see gibbons and elephants. Elephants hold a particular cultural significance in Cambodia and The Pnong tribe of Mondulkiri has a very close relationship with these gentle giants.
Take part in The Leap’s 5 week volunteering program in Cambodia and you’ll get the chance to visit Sen Monorum and work on behalf of Elephant Valley Project, who care for rescued elephants that have been abused or maimed by landmines. The town is also the best basecamp for travellers who want to go hiking in the hills and encounter communities of hill-tribe people that haven’t been affected by mass tourism.
Kampot for Pepper Sampling
Situated near the Gulf of Thailand, Kampot, which was once Cambodia’s primary port, is another sleepy riverside town and the perfect spot for a bit of relaxation during your travels. From here, you can visit Bokor National Park, which is famous for its abandoned French station, now an eerie ghost town. You’ll also be able to spot endangered animals here, such as leopards, Indian elephants, Asiatic black bears, sun bears and slow lorises.
Other than the national park, Kampot is renowned for its delicious pepper, which grows at the foot of the mountains in mineral-rich soil, and you can visit nearby pepper plantations, such as Starling Farm. Back in town, you’ll find several nice riverside cafes and bars, villas and old shopfront trading houses.
Battambang: The ‘Real’ Cambodia
With its Buddhist temples, colonial architecture and bamboo train, Battambang is THE place to go to get a real taste of Cambodian life. It’s the second largest city in the country, yet it sees few tourists, other than those who are looking to get off the beaten track.
Be sure to visit the caves of Phnom Sampeu, admire the exotic statues that are all about and take a scenic trip down the river whilst here. The magnificent Phare Ponleu, Cambodia’s best-known circus, is also situated here and the city has produced many of Cambodia’s most adored singers, actors and artists, making it a real cultural hotspot.
Where Will You Visit?
With such beauty and diversity, and with so many interesting places to go, I can’t imagine anyone travelling round Southeast Asia would want to give Cambodia a miss. Fancy seeing this marvellous country for yourself? We still have places left on our Cambodia teams departing in April, July and September so if you want to avoid missing out, make sure you book now.
Have I missed out your favourite off-the-beaten-track destination in Cambodia? Let me know by posting in the comments box below!
on 18 / 03 / 2015