Cambodia, sans temples

A colleague who heads up our operations in Cambodia has a mantra: “There is so much more to Cambodia than the temples” and when I asked him recently what it would take him to leave Cambodia he replied he’d have to leave “feet first”.

Cambodia is indeed a captivating destination that offers so much more than the world famous temples of Angkor. Although it is struggling with domestic issues around land-grabbing and corruption the country’s outlook is generally positive and whether you’re jumping on a backpacking, snap-packing or even a more flash-packing style tailor made holiday of Cambodia there’s plenty to discover.

Cambodia keeps throwing up new truing opportunities. Once the conflicts with neighbouring Thailand has subsided then Cambodia’s north western region which is home to the disputed pre Angkorian temple complex of Preah Vihear – set in magnificent hills and luscious scenery – will once again be accessible and a joy to explore. Elsewhere you can already access deserted coastlines and small market towns that have long been hidden from tourism, Mekong cruising between Saigon in Vietnam and Siem Reap is a fast booming industry. So, if you’re looking to see beyond the temples and stay a few more days then try the below for inspiration.

Battambang

Dating back to the 18th century and located on the Sangkae River, Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city. Although commonly referred to as Cambodia’s rice-bowl, Battambang is a fast growing city and rapidly becoming a favourite on the tourist trail. With a small town vibe explore many of Battambang’s boutique shops and artisan markets which offer wares you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Cambodia.

Take a cruise on the Kamping Puoy Lake which is located about 30km outside of town and famed for its enormous water lilies. For the more active take the Bamboo train which runs from the Battambang to a small local town. The small train line is still up and running but rumour has it, its closure is on the cards. Elsewhere take a walk along the banks of the Sangkae River and watch the locals relax in the evening haze. Or sample some of the local café’s which offer sumptuously rich coffee from the local plantations serves with baguettes filled with Cambodia salads or (a favourite of mine) Nutella.

Half of the fun of Battambang can be getting there. Located about 3 hours from Phnom Penh by car you can stop at a local winery, visit some remote villages or find a remote stopping point and enjoy a packed lunch looking over the verdant rice-paddies. For a more leisurely option take the boat which takes around 6 hours from Siem reap. If you’ve ample time then an eerily abandoned Pepsi factory can be visited en-route by road (it’s about half way between Battambang and Siem Reap) and was abandoned and never reopened during the Khmer Rouge war. As you walk through the gutted lines you can see empty bottles and dust overed work-stations that have not changed since its abandonment.

Thailand minus the hoards

For a truly tranquil experience venture away from Cambodia’s heartlands and venture to its pristine, secluded, historical and generally idyllic southern coastline.

Previously referred to by its French creators as Kep-sur-Mer, Kep was a weekend retreat for the French elite wishing to escape the inland heat which can reach stifling levels through the summer months of 35 degrees and above. After the French left throughout the 1950’s the town was left unoccupied (apart from the visits by Cambodian royalty) but was later sucked into the destruction of the Khmer rouge war when many of the once grand and proud villas were razed or badly damaged.

The region never fully recovered and many of the villas have become uninhabited shells which are slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding jungles, leaving an eerie yet peaceful ambiance. However, Kep is no ghost town. Throughout the town you can still watch the fishermen ply their trade, visit local coffee plantations and sit at one of the beach front establishments for coffee and Cambodia refreshments.

An hour or so up the coast and you’ll find Kampot. Slightly larger than Kep, Kampot has some lovely little restaurants and café’s which dot the tree lined streets with their tired French-colonial facades. Given its southern location the crowds are thin, offering a perfect tonic to the hubbub of Angkor Wat or Phnom Penh. In Kampot you can explore the local countryside, relax on the beach or take a slow sunset cruise up the coast for total isolation.

In the evening grab a couple of take away beers and find a secluded spot on the beach and watch the local fisherman return or feast on BBQ seafood, much of which is caught by the local Cham Muslim fisherman. Specialities include stuffed squid, salt and pepper crab and locally made fish curries! If you’re looking for a slightly pricier meal option (plus US$20pp) then try Rikitikitavi which arguably offers the best local cuisine as well some surprising (a little pricey at $7+) local cocktails served from a breezy balcony!

About the author:

Kian is part of the digital team at Travel Indochina and has visited Cambodia twice. Once with Travel Indochina and once as part of a year-long backpacking trip. His favourite Asian city remains Phnom Penh and next on the cards is a Burma or a cycling trip across Japan! Follow him on Twitter @41jessi or check out his Google + profile.

Check out Kian’s Google+ profile.

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