Phnom Penh (ភ្នំ ពេញ): the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. The glimmering spires of the Royal Palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong – this is the Asia many dreamed of when first imagining their adventures overseas. Cambodia’s capital can be an assault on the senses.
Intrepid travellers take note: Northwest Cambodia is an explorer's delight. The region is first and foremost about remote temples, many of them pillars of the Angkorian empire. The most famous is Prasat Preah Vihear, now more accessible than ever thanks to rapidly improving roads.
The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap (see-em ree-ep; សៀមរាប) was always destined for great things. It has reinvented itself as the epicentre of chic Cambodia, with everything from backpacker party pads to hip hotels, world-class wining and dining, and sumptuous spas.
Kompong Som Province
Sandwiched between Kampot and Koh Kong Provinces, this diminutive province is dominated by its main city, the dynamic port of Sihanoukville. Besides the surrounding islands, natural sites include Ream National Park, 18km east of Sihanoukville, and the Kbal Chhay Cascades.
Surrounded by white-sand beaches and undeveloped tropical islands, Sihanoukville (Krong Preah Sihanouk), also known as Kompong Som, is Cambodia’s most happening beach destination. Visitor numbers have risen steadily in recent years and look set to skyrocket now that flights from Siem Reap are operating daily, with more routes planned.
Battambang Province (ខេត្តបាត់ដំបង; Bat Dambang), said by proud locals to produce Cambodia’s finest rice, sweetest coconuts and tastiest oranges (don’t bring this up in Pursat), has a long border with Thailand and a short stretch of the Tonlé Sap shoreline. Battambang has passed from Cambodia to Thailand and back again several times over the past few centuries.
There's something about Battambang that visitors just love. Forget the fact that there's really not all that much to do in the city proper. The colonial architecture, the riverside setting, the laid-back cafes – they all make up for it. It's the perfect blend of relatively urban modernity and small-town friendliness.
Kampot Province (ខេត្តកំពត) has emerged as one of Cambodia’s most alluring destinations thanks to a hard-to-beat combination of old colonial architecture, abundant natural attractions and easy intraregional transport. Enchanted visitors often end up staying in the sleepy, atmospheric provincial capital of Kampot rather longer than planned.
Koh Kong Province
Cambodia’s vast and sparsely populated far southwestern province of Koh Kong (ខេត្តកោះកុង) shelters some of the country’s most remarkable and important natural sites. Until relatively recently the entire province was effectively cut off from the rest of the country because of dreadful roads.
Koh Kong City
Once Cambodia’s Wild West, its isolated frontier economy dominated by smuggling, prostitution and gambling, Koh Kong is striding towards respectability as ecotourists shoo away the sleaze. It’s a sleepy town on the banks of the Koh Poi River, which spills into the Gulf of Thailand a few kilometres south of the centre.
Popular Ratanakiri Province (ខេត្តរតនគិរី) is making a name for itself as a diverse region of outstanding natural beauty that provides a remote home for a mosaic of minority peoples. The Jarai, Tompuon, Brau and Kreung are the Khmer Leu (Upper Khmer) people, with their own languages, traditions and customs.