Cambodia is world-famous for its ancient temples, but the country also has an extensive system of national parks and protected areas, covering around 40% of the country and providing a vital haven for a vast variety of wildlife.
Sprawling over 4104 sq km (1584 sq miles), Southern Cardamom National Park is the largest protected area in Cambodia and it forms part of the vast, magnificent Cardamom Rainforest Landscape, which encompasses 11 contiguous reserves covering more than 20,000 sq km (7722 sq miles) of the southwest.
Other national parks that see plenty of visitors include Phnom Kulen National Park near Siem Reap, Bokor National Park near Kampot, and Kep National Park near Kep. Many Cambodians have taken the opportunity to get back to nature during the COVID-19 pandemic, and trekking and camping in the national parks have really taken off, particularly in Kirirom National Park and the Cardamom Mountains.
For travelers who fancy a dose of nature with their temples, here's our guide to the best national parks in Cambodia.
Phnom Kulen National Park
Best for lost temples
The sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen was the birthplace of the Khmer Empire. In 802 CE, this was the spot where King Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a devaraja (god-king) and the earthly representative of the Hindu god, Shiva. The sacred summit is still an important place of pilgrimage for the Cambodian people and the surrounding national park is one of the most visited reserves in the country.
Attractions include an iconic waterfall that featured in the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, the mysterious River of a Thousand Lingas (Kbal Spean), and the 16th-century reclining Buddha of Preah Ang Thom. The extensive forests that cover the plateau also hide the remains of the ‘lost city of Mahendraparvata,’ the former capital of Jayavarman II, which lay forgotten beneath the jungle for a millennia or more.
Trekking routes are not yet well developed at Phnom Kulen, but community-based ecotourism projects in Anlong Thom are opening up some pristine areas of the mountain to trekkers. This is arguably the most rewarding park to explore in Cambodia thanks to the wealth of archaeological relics that await beneath the jungle canopy.
Kirirom National Park
Best for pine forest scenery
Although it lies just three hours southwest of Phnom Penh, lush, elevated Kirirom National Park offers a chance to really get away from it all. Winding trails lead through pine forests to cascading wet-season waterfalls and exposed cliffs with incredible views of the Cardamom Mountains. And there’s some great mountain biking to be had in this rugged landscape if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.
Back in the heady days of the 1960s, when Cambodia was a peaceful and stable oasis, Kirirom was earmarked as the site for a new mountaintop city called Tioulongville, but civil war and genocide put an end to the plans. The remains of several old mansions can still be seen around the forest, including one built for former King Norodom Sihanouk.
One of the best hikes is the 14km (8.7-mile) trail up Phnom Dat Chivit (End of Life Mountain), where an abrupt cliff face offers an unbroken view of the Elephant Mountains and the Cardamom Mountains to the west. Homestays and community-based hiking programs provide plenty of chances to steer tourist income to local communities.
Virachey National Park
Best for remote wilderness
One of Cambodia's largest protected areas, Virachey National Park stretches for 3325 sq km (1284 sq miles), running east towards Vietnam, north towards Laos and west into Cambodia's Stung Treng Province. The park has never been fully explored and is home to many rare mammals, including Asian elephants, clouded leopards and sun bears. Chances of seeing any of these creatures are slim, but you’ll probably hear endangered gibbons and you may spot great hornbills, giant ibis and other rare birds.
The park plays such a vital role in the biodiversity of the Mekong region that it was designated an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2003. It's only possible to visit on organized treks booked through the Virachey National Park Eco-Tourism Information Centre in Ban Lung, 330km (205 miles) northeast of Phnom Penh.
The program aims to involve and benefit minority communities, with activities such as two- to eight-day treks led by English-speaking rangers. The Phnom Veal Thom trek is a six-day, five-night expedition and goes deep into the heart of the Phnom Veal Thom grasslands, an area rich in wildlife, with regular sightings of sambar deer, gibbons, langurs, wild pigs, bears and hornbills.
Bokor National Park
Best for panoramic views
The abandoned French hill station of Bokor, now part of Bokor National Park, is renowned for its refreshingly cool climate and derelict buildings that enjoyed their heyday during the 1920s and 1930s. On cold, foggy days it can get pretty haunting up here as mists drop visibility to almost zero and the wind howls through the decaying buildings. When the weather is clear, Bokor offers stunning views over the coastal plain, some 1000m (3280ft) below.
Unfortunately, a giant casino hotel and housing development have destroyed some of the charm of the old hill station, but the setting is still impressive, and the dense rainforests of this 1581 sq km (610 sq mile) park shelter an incredible array of wildlife. The best-known attraction here is the crumbling Catholic Church, which looms eerily out of the mist on a cool day, but it's also worth exploring Wat Sampov Bram, named after the five boats it is said to resemble, and Popokvill Falls, one of the more impressive wet season waterfalls in the area.
Botum Sakor National Park
Best for an authentic ecotourism experience
Encircled by mangroves and beaches, Botum Sakor National Park is home to a profusion of wildlife, but their habitat is fast disappearing because of major development in the area. The good news is that you can still enjoy some world-class ecotourism activities at Cardamom Tented Camp, located in the heart of Botum Sakor on the banks of the wildlife-filled Prek Tachan River.
The camp is a fine model of how to do ecotourism successfully and one of the most charming and beguiling overnight stays you'll find anywhere in the region. Sophisticated safari tents provide guests with creature comforts while they participate in practical conservation activities such as forest patrols and tree planting. Trekking and kayaking trips are also popular diversions, offering the chance to spot gibbons, otters, and countless species of rainforest birds.
Southern Cardamoms National Park
Best community-based ecotourism (CBET) experience
The largest national park in Cambodia at 4104 sq km (1584 sq miles), Southern Cardamom National Park is home to more than 50 species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including Asian elephants, sun bears, gibbons and pangolins.
A dedicated team of rangers and military police patrol this vast area, which is spread across the four provinces of Koh Kong, Pursat, Kampong Speu and Kompong Som (Sihanoukville). Ecotourism is having a very positive impact in the region, with Koh Kong city serving as the jumping-off point for community ecotourism programs in the Areng Valley and Osoam.
The Areng Valley is one of the most remote and wild regions in the Cardamom Mountains, and it's the setting for a Wildlife Alliance-supported initiative to promote trekking in this stunning landscape, which is home to one of the last remaining wild populations of Siamese crocodiles.
Southern Cardamoms National Park is also a western access point to the impressive Khnong Phsar grasslands. There are plans underway to link Koh Kong and Kompong Speu via overnight treks, connecting the Stung Areng ecotourism project and Rolerk Kang Cheung in the eastern Cardamoms.
Kep National Park
Best for gentle trekking
One of Cambodia's smallest protected areas, Kep National Park looms large over the popular seaside town of the same name, offering easy access to nature. The park includes an 8km (5-mile) circuit trail, navigable on foot or by mountain bike or motorcycle, which starts behind Veranda Natural Resort. The 'Stairway to Heaven' trail is a highlight, leading up the hill to a pagoda, a nunnery and the popular Sunset Rock viewpoint.
A new road is under construction around the perimeter of the park which may improve access to some of the more remote walking trails. Various viewpoints offer immense views over the Cambodian coastline and the island of Phu Quoc, across the border in Vietnam.
Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for exploring the mangroves
Anchored to a series of alluvial islands, the magnificent mangroves of this 260 sq km (100 sq mi) sanctuary protect the coast from erosion, act as a hatchery and nursery for fish, shrimp and shellfish, and provide a home for myriad birds. To get a feel for this delicate mangrove ecosystem – the largest in mainland Southeast Asia – head to the park entrance where a mangrove walk wends its way above the briny waters to a 15m (49ft) observation tower.
You can hire a motorboat to take you through the sanctuary at water level, visiting fishing hamlets and some of the more remote mangrove islands, which have isolated beaches to relax on. Much of Peam Krasaop is on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The area is all the more valuable from an ecological standpoint because similar forests in Thailand have already been trashed by short-sighted development.
Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for wildlife
One of the most biodiverse areas in Northeast Cambodia, the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary has an estimated population of 20,000 black-shanked douc monkeys and 1000 southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbons, according to recent a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) study. These are the world’s largest known populations of both species.
Jahoo Gibbon Camp offers the chance to trek into the wild to spot these rare primates, along with other elusive animals – part of an innovative project to provide local villagers with sustainable income as an incentive to conserve these endangered primates and their habitat. Treks wind between mixed evergreen forests and waterfalls, with an excellent chance of spotting doucs, macaques and sometimes gibbons along the way.
You'll need to be up before dawn to spot these skittish creatures, however, so sleeping at the camp is highly recommended. A conservation contribution is included in the cost of the trip, which supports local community development projects.
Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary
Best for mountain peaks
Standing tall in the northeast corner of the Cardamom Mountains, this 2538 sq km (980 sq miles) sanctuary is home to the country's highest peak, Phnom Aural, which tops out at a modest 1813m (5948ft). More of a trek than a climb, ascending Phnom Aural definitely does not require mountaineering experience. The mountain can be conquered in a day, but most visitors take two days with an overnight stop near the summit.
There are also a number of remote waterfalls around the mountain and plans are afoot to develop walking trails and visitor facilities as part of the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism (CSLE) project, supported by the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and the World Bank.
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