Cambodia isn’t just watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat. While the temples are absolutely beautiful, there is so much more. If you travel beyond the tourist-heavy hubs of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and the fast-growing party town of Sihanoukville, you’ll come across a softer side to South East Asia. you’ll find gentle, welcoming people living a timeless way of life.
If you have more than a week time to explore Cambodia, make sure to look past the headliners and have a look into the hidden gems this country has to offer. I’m going to share 4 secrets that tourism has yet to conquer.
Let’s just begin with Cambodia’s best-kept secret, Banteay Chhmar. This is Angkor without tourists. Sounds good right? It’s a huge but hidden temple complex around two hours from Siem Reap. Buried far off the beaten track, it’s the perfect spot to live out your Lara Crofts’ Tomb Raider fantasies. You might even have the whole place to yourself if you’re lucky. Around this area there are no hotels, restaurants and wifi, just some home stays and little local places to eat. Banteay Chhmar is the temple that time, and people, forgot.
Banteay Chhmar is the 4th largest Angkorian temple in Cambodia, but tourism has, luckily, not reached this location. Surrounded by a vast moat, it boasts gallery walls carved with bas-reliefs and face towers makes this temple complex look quite similar to the Angkor complex. But then completely without people. A nice bonus.. 12 kilometres down the road, you’ll find Prasat Samnang Tasok, a temple that has been totally overtaken by the jungle in an epic, crumbly way. Tomb Raider, eat your heart out.
Kep-sur-Mer is a small, snoozy seaside town in the far south of Cambodia. It’s an old French Colonial town that became a popular retreat for the Khmer elite in de 50’s but later witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting between the Khmer Rouge and government forces. It lay all but deserted for the following few decades, until intuitive expats began to rebuild and renovate the beautiful old villas. Nowadays it’s often treated as a stepping stone across the border to Vietnam. It’s seldom seen as a destination on it’s own. But if you spend a couple of days here you will see a different side of Kep. You will fall under the “just chill out and do nothing” spell. Think long lazy days, scenic walks in the National Park and the freshed seefood you’ll ever have made at local wood shack restaurants.
If you want to witness a ‘not standard’ sunset, The Crab Market is the place to be. As the sun sizzles down into the sea all the fishermen haul in their crab pots while a bidding war for their catch breaks out onshore, makeshift barbecues send rich, flavoured smoke into the tropical air and kids run around with seafood skewers like lollipops. Next to the market, there’s a row of restaurants built out over the water, all of them selling local specialities such as crab amok and banana blossom salad.
Just half an hour from Kep’s coastline by long tail boat, Rabbit Island is the perfect place to take a break from modern living. With no electricity and no Wifi, it’s somewhere to treat as a technology detox. Hop in a hammock with a book, chat to the locals and play some cards. Most importantly, be sure to relish being off-grid.
While Rabbit Island is a beautiful place to get back to nature, it will also send you right back to basics. Facilities here are few and far between, the sparing accommodation is ramshackle to say the least and you might even wade out to catch your own dinner! Rabbit Island is rustic in every sense, so if you’re after glamour, it’s best to give it a miss. The island isn’t for everyone, but if you need some time out to restore perspective and take one eye off the iPad, there’s nowhere better.
The Cardamom Mountains
Cambodia’s south-west corner is a nature lover’s paradise. To reach it you must drive south-west from Phnom Penh, then up along Koh Kong Conservation Corridor – a richly bio-diverse area that’s thankfully protected by the Cambodian government. Alongside the corridor, the stunning Cardamom Mountains are home to gibbons and monkeys, among other primates, and a wide variety of birdlife, such as hornbills. You may even spot an elephant if you’re very lucky.
A good place to stay is the Chi Pat village and the Four Rivers Floating lodge. The remote village of Chi Pat is only accessible by dusty track and has joined forces with several neighbouring settlements to form a fantastic community-based eco-tourism project, consisting of a few basic guesthouses and homestays. The villagers participate in cooking and guiding, with activities on offer ranging from relaxed cycling to overnight camping in the hills.