The mystical magnificence of Angkor Archaeological Park have long attracted visitors to the northern region of the Cambodia. However, the kingdom's northern provinces have a lot more to offer visitors than a warm day spent strolling among the ruins of its UNESCO World Heritage-listed temples. Once in northern Cambodia, the majority of tourists use the bustling town of Siem Reap as a base for their explorations of the surrounding areas. With the world famous Angkor Archaeological Park just a short tuk-tuk ride away, the temples offer a spectacular reminder of the mighty Khmer Empire that once encompassed parts of modern day Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Siem Reap is also home to a wide range of hotels and restaurants, making it an ideal place to indulge in a traditional Khmer spa treatment or unwind with new friends at Pub Street after a long day of excursions. Just a short drive from Siem Reap, visitors can glimpse the quiet, agrarian way of life in the Kingdom by delving deeper into its provinces. Flat expanses of glittering paddies dotted with grazing water buffalo fade into stunning mountains the further north you travel. Northern Cambodia is also home to the Tonle Sap Lake, which is the largest expanse of fresh water in the whole of Southeast Asia, and peppered with a number of quaint floating villages.
Visitors that make it to the northeast edge of the Kingdom can enjoy the remote outer edge of rural Cambodia, home to several impressive national parks, cascading waterfalls, and the Mekong, a mighty river that defines the region as much as its ancient temples. Bicycling along the scenic river banks and through quaint fishing villages offers visitors a glimpse into the local way of life.
Other northern Cambodian destinations include Battambang, the country’s second largest city which still maintains a touch of French colonial charm, and the riverside town of Kratie, the latter popular with visitors looking for a chance to encounter Irrawady dolphins in the Mekong river.
No visit to Cambodia would be complete without a visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park. The park covers an area of approximately 400 square km, and boasts the remains of several capitals from the Khmer Empire, some of which date back to the ninth century. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple site of all, and visitors that go at sunrise or sunset are treated to the best views of the temple. Decorated by a number of ornate sculptures and engravings, all of the Angkorian temples are highly symbolic structures, so if you are a true history buff it is worth doing some reading up before you go. The vast size of the park requires visitors to rent a tuk-tuk or bicycle for the day to ensure they make it to all of the must-see sites.
Siem Reap is also home to a number of cultural attractions, including several of its own modern day temples. A temple visit is one of the best ways for visitors to gain an insight into the practice of Cambodian Buddhism, and visitors often have the chance to speak to some of the temples’ saffron-clad monks, or even get a blessing.
Siem Reap’s Angkor Silk Farm is an ideal destination for travellers that want a break from temples, and visitors can learn about Cambodia’s unique silk-making process. Siem Reap’s Old Market is also a perfect place to barter over a few essential souvenirs, from tourist t-shirts to intricate Khmer silverware.
For many visitors, a quick visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat does not provide much of an insight into Cambodia’s rural way of life. To catch a glimpse of life outside the Kingdom’s tourist centre, an increasing number of tourists are heading to more remote provinces like Ratanakiri. Sandwiched between Cambodia’s Laotian and Vietnamese borders, Ratanakiri is the perfect place for visitors in search of a more laid-back pace of life. The region is also home to many of Cambodia’s ethnic minority communities, known collectively as the Khmer Leou. In addition to the highlands’ serene lakes and streaming waterfalls, a guided tour around a selection of the region’s ethnic minority villages can be an unforgettable experience.
From the hush of Battambang’s Khmer Rouge Killing Caves to the ethereal tranquility of the Tonle Sap Lake, northern Cambodia is ripe with opportunity for visitors that want to get off the beaten track of the Angkorian temples.
Quaint colonial architecture, a scattering of ancient temples and an infamous bamboo train mean that Cambodia’s second most populous city is fast becoming a firm favourite with tourists in the Kingdom. Whilst in Battambang, many visitors explore the darker side to Cambodia’s history with a trip to Phnom Sampeu, a hill that is home to the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge. The entry fee is US$3, which offers access covers a selection of caves, many of which are decorated with Buddhist statues, plus a visit to the local temple. The colossal stream of bats that arrive at the caves every evening by the thousands is certainly one of Phnom Sampeu’s highlights.
If you can’t get enough Cambodia’s fascinating history, why not take a trip to the ancient temples of Koh Ker? Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 AD, and still boasts the remains of some magnificent buildings and structures which have rarely been visited until now. Koh Ker is fairly remote, so it is best to visit the site as part of a tour from Siem Reap which is some 130km away.
If you are an active tourist that wants to delve into the hidden depths of the Angkor Archaeological Park, an off-roading bike tour of the temples is definitely for you. Tours are available for those who want to explore the park via off-road tracks rather than the usual tuk-tuk circuit. Alternatively, visitors can get their get off the beaten path by exploring remote villages and countryside in an off-road motorbike adventure. Tours can be organised through reliable local tourist agencies.
Tonle Sap Lake is Southeast Asia’s largest, and its size changes throughout the year depending on the flood of water from the connecting Mekong River. The lake is a rich habitat for many varieties of fish, reptiles and mammals, and is also home to a stunning bird sanctuary. The passenger ferry from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap travels across the lake, although visitors that want to indulge in the scenery for a little longer can organize day trips from Siem Reap and explore the nooks and crannies of its floating villages on a kayak.
Visitors that stick to the Kingdom’s established tourists routes tend to travel by bus. It is best to book tickets in advance through specialist tourist agencies, and the very reasonable price of the ticket often includes pickup from your place of accommodation.
Cambodia’s buses range from luxurious air-conditioned cruisers that hand out snacks and chilled water to cramped local buses with no cooling system. As such, it is always best to find out the duration of your journey (due to the poor road quality in the Kingdom, getting from one place to another can often take a lot longer than expected) and whether there will be any stops to buy snacks and water on the way.
Travelers that can’t stomach bumpy eight-hour bus rides from one town to another may prefer to hire a taxi for longer journeys. Of course, this increases the price considerably – a taxi from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, for example, will set you back by approximately US$50, (compared to US$12 for a VIP bus) – but remains a viable choice if traveling in a group of four.
For shorter hops in and around towns like Siem Reap and Battambang, many visitors enjoy a tuk-tuk or motorcycle ride. It is always best to negotiate a price with the driver before hopping aboard, and visitors should try and avoid traveling on the back of a motorcycle unless they have their own helmet.
All visitors that enter the Kingdom (apart from citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) are required to purchase a visa upon arrival. A basic tourist visa costs US$20, while a month-long business visa will set you back US$25.
Siem Reap is home to the country’s second-largest airport, and is a convenient entry point for visitors to Angkor Archeological Park. Siem Reap Airport offers direct connections with Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, with a number of low-cost airlines now offering reasonably priced seats. Visitors that want to avoid the six-hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to Siem Reap can also catch an internal flight that takes just one hour.
If you are traveling on a tighter budget, the likelihood is that you will enter Northern Cambodia by bus via one of the country’s land borders. Poipet, situated a two-hour drive from Siem Reap on the Thai border, is Cambodia’s busiest land crossing. Other border crossings include Koh Kong, Daun Lem and O’Smach, which are all also served by buses. All of Cambodia’s six border crossings with Thailand are open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., and visas are available upon arrival.
Visitors entering Cambodia via Laos can take a 90-minute speedboat jaunt across the Mekong, to the north of Stung Treng. The ferry service between Thailand and Cambodia is no longer in operation