Many travelers that make their way to the lush, green land of Cambodia make the mistake of limiting their trip to Siem Reap and the world-famous Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. However, the rural beauty of Southern Cambodia have a lot more to offer visitors in terms of nature-based activities and quaint cultural treasures.
The warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand laps up on Cambodia's western shorelines – while this body of water has become more famous for Thai islands like Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan, Cambodia has its own collection of tropical islands well worth a visit for sunseekers in search of some coastal adventures.
Since it was colonized by the French in the 1860s, much of Cambodia still retains a European colonial charm. Nowhere is this intriguing East-meets-West blend more evident than in Phnom Penh, a small but bustling city situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in the country’s central flatlands. Some 230 kilometers from the Cambodian capital, Sihanoukville is the kingdom's primary seaside resort destination and a popular launch pad for scuba divers.
With the Cardamom and Elephant mountains to the west, and glowing golden coastline a couple of hours south of the capital, the balmy climes of Southern Cambodia are also ideal for adventurers in search of travel destinations a little off the beaten track. Many visitors also head to the steamy mountains of Bokor National Park to enjoy the pristine natural beauty of the kingdom by trekking through abundant forests to meet imposing waterfalls. Low-key resort towns like Kep and Kampot are a quick two-hour journey from the capital, so make a great weekend getaways away from the hubbub of the city.
Phnom Penh tends to be the first stop for visitors arriving in Southern Cambodia, and it is well worth setting aside a few days in your travel itinerary to explore the city. Unlike other sprawling Asian metropolises, Phnom Penh retains a quaint colonial charm and was once known as the Paris of the East. Tourism is centerd in the area between Sisowath Quay on the banks of Tonle Sap River and the city’s impressive Independence Monument.
“Riverside”, as it is widely known to visitors, glitters with the gilded golden architecture of traditional temples, the National Museum and the Palace, which are interspersed with a smattering of chic bars, restaurants and boutiques. Riverside is a mere 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from tourist destinations like the Cambodian Television Studios for those who want to take in some Khmer kickboxing on their trip.
Despite the troubled historial of the Killing Fields Memorial and Phnom Penh’s S21 Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng), many visitors like to pay their respects, and indeed they are sites well worth visiting. Situated in the centre of the capital, Tuol Sleng was used by the Khmer Rouge to house thousands of prisoners between 1975 and 1979, and the Killing Fields (or Choung Ek) is the name given to a number of sites a short distance outside of Phnom Penh.
Also in Phnom Penh and situated a stone’s throw from Sisowath Quay, the Royal Palace and National Museum offer a glimpse into Cambodia’s regal history. Visitors are able to explore some areas of the Royal Palace (other sections remain private, as the palace remains the official residence of the King) including the Silver Pagoda, the Throne Hall and the Chan Chhaya Pavilion. Just down the road, the National Museum boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art from before, during and after the Khmer Empire.
From misty mountaintops to intriguing palaces and museums, there is absolutely no reason for any visitor in Southern Cambodia to feel bored.
Coastal resorts like Kampot and Kep are a must-visit destination for visitors in the South. Kampot, a small relaxed town perched on the river, is the gateway to Cambodia’s Bokor National Park, where an hour’s drive up into the mountains will reveal spectacular vistas and pretty waterfalls. Watersports like paddle boarding and wake boarding from the riverbanks of Kampot are also popular. Heading further south, visitors will reach Kep, one of Cambodia’s most popular coastal destinations. Kep Beach, a one-kilometer stretch of glistening sand, is a fantastic place for visitors to soak up a few rays. The town is also a short boat ride from Rabbit Island, a popular day-trip beach destination for tourists.
To combine your need for speed with some sightseeing, join a motorcycle or ATV tour of the wild Cambodian countryside. Situated in Phnom Penh, Blazing Trails offer a number of packages for visitors seeking to explore rural attractions within the vicinity of the capital, including the Killing Fields Memorial and Angkorian temples. If you are based in seaside Sihanoukville, Ride Cambodia Motorcycle Tours operate a number day trips around the area for tourists that want to cool down with a breezy ride.
The undisputed center of Cambodia’s coastal tourism, however, is Sihanoukville. Home to dozens of pearly beaches, the town often attracts a younger crowd of beach-goers who are in search of a party. However, for visitors not content to relax for the duration of their stay, sailing is also a popular pastime for those who want to explore the spectacular coastline. Day trips to pristine, unspoiled islands like Koh Rong and Koh Russei are also popular.
Animal lovers shouldn’t miss out on a day trip to Phnom Ta Mao Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located around one hour from Phnom Penh and home for many species, including elephants, bears and tigers. Many visitors choose to rent their own motorbike for the day and explore the large park sprawl independently. Another of Cambodia’s hotspots for animal lovers, the Mondulkiri Elephant Reserve offers visitors a chance to explore the jungle surroundings and help the local mahouts take care of these gentle giants.
Tourism in Southern Cambodia is focused between Phnom Penh and southern seaside towns like Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville. The quickest and easiest way to travel between these towns is by bus. The majority of visitors head to a local travel agent (Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay or the BKK1 area is home to many reputable agents) to book their bus tickets, most of which can be purchased for reasonable prices.
Travelers can choose between luxurious air-conditioned tourist cruisers or pay less for standard buses that tend to be used by local people. The price of your bus ticket usually includes a transfer from your place of accommodation to the bus terminal, although it is always worth double checking this when you book your tickets.
Cambodia’s bumpy roads and travel infrastructure are not as well developed as neighboring Thailand’s, so bus journeys tend to take a long time – particularly during rainy season. To break up a long journey, it is always possible to do hops between cities and towns via private taxi, a fairly reasonable option if the fare is split between several passengers.
To travel short distances around towns like Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville, many travelers enjoy the cooling breeze of 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 getting 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
Phnom Penh is home to Cambodia’s largest airport, which is situated on the city’s outskirts a mere 20-minute taxi ride from the tourist nucleus of the city. From the airport, a tuk-tuk transfer to the popular Riverside area should not cost visitors more than US$10.
Phnom Penh offers direct connections to China, France, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Domestic flights from Siem Reap take just one hour.
If you are traveling on a tighter budget, the likelihood is that you will enter Cambodia via bus from Thailand or Vietnam. The busiest border crossing with Thailand is located in Poipet, located about an eight-hour ride from Phnom Penh. A bus ticket between the two locations costs around US$20.
If coming from Vietnam, the main crossing is the Moc Bai/ Bavet crossing on the road between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. Buses between the two cities cost around US$12 for the six-hour journey.
Visitors travelling from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh can travel by boat, or by a combination of bus and boat. Boats from Chau Doc in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta take approximately five hours to reach Phnom Penh.