Cambodia: how to hit the highlights in two weeks

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A journey to Cambodia offers travellers a window on the soul of Southeast Asia. The magnificent temples of Angkor are unrivalled, and beyond the rich legacy of the ancient Khmer empire lie the buzzing capital of Phnom Penh, countless kilometres of unspoiled tropical beaches, the mighty Mekong River, a vibrant culture and some of the friendliest people in the region. Cambodia is full of surprises, so gear up for the adventure.

If you’re planning a trip to this gem, it’s best to go during December and January when the humidity and rainfall are relatively low. While this is also the peak tourism season and the crowds will be thick, there is something to enjoy in the clang and clamour of Cambodia’s chaos. Time it right to take part in Chinese New Year.

Those keen to escape the crowds can visit around October, as the rain tends to come in short, sharp downpours and is easier to bear. Angkor is surrounded by lush foliage and the moats are full of water at this time of year.

Plus October is the time of P’chum Ben, the Cambodian day of the dead where offerings are made via monks over several days in the form of food, drink, paper money, flowers incense and candles. Occurring anywhere between October to November (depending on the lunar calendar) is Bon Om Tuk, one of the most important events on the Khmer culture. Bon Om Tuk celebrates the epic victory of Jayavarman VII over the Chams, who occupied Angkor in 1177, this festival also celebrates the natural phenomenon of the Tonlé Sap River reversing its current.

If you are planning to visit remote areas, however, the wet season makes for tough travel.  Preparation is key from planning accommodation and travel routes (and perhaps a few backups) in advance.

Classic Cambodia itinerary

Whether you start in Siem Reap and travel south, or head north to Angkor, this is the ultimate journey, via temples beaches and the capital.

Hit Phnom Penh for sights such as the impressive National Museum, with its excellent Angkorian sculpture collection, and the stunning Silver Pagoda. There is superb shopping at the Psar Tuol Tom   Pong, and a night shift that never sleeps.

Take a fast boat to Phnom Da, then go south to the colonial-era town of Kampot. From here, visit Bokor Hill Station, the seaside town of Kep and the cave pagodas at Phnom Chhnork and Phnom Sorsia.

Go west to Shianoukville, Cambodia’s beach capital, to sample the seafood, dive the nearby waters or just soak up the sun. Backtrack via Phnom Penh to Kompong Thom and get a taste of what’s to come by visiting the pre-Angkorian brick temples of Sambor Prei Kuk.

Finish the trip at Angkor, a mind-blowing experience with which few sights compare. See Angkor Wat, perfection in stone; Bayon, weirdness in stone; and Ta Prohm, nature triumphing over stone – before venturing further afield to Kbal Spean or jungle-clad Beng Mealea.

This trip can take two weeks at a steady pace or three weeks at a slower pace. Public transport serves most of the route. Rent a motorbike for side trips to Kep and Sambor Prei Kuk, and try out a remork-moto (tuk tuk) at Angkor. Have more money but less time? Rent a car and set your own pace.

Further reading: Discover Cambodia off the beaten track or check out a guide to Cambodian etiquette.