I love travelling in Asia. Most visited countries are Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. I hope you enjoy my articles.
Cambodia offers some of world's most beautiful places and large historical structures like Angor. In this article we'll cover some of the lesser known, but still very worthwile sites and experiences in Cambodia. If you want something more from your travels to this South East Asian country, consider this great things to to in Cambodia:
- Koh Ker Temple Complex
- Preah Vihear Temple
- Visiting Mondulkiri Cambodia
- Battambang Bat Caves in Phnom Sampeou
- Kbal Spean, a Hidden Treasure
- Angkor Silk Farm
- Cambodia Landmine Museum
- Kampot Village
1. Koh Ker Temple Complex
When I first entered the Koh Ker temple complex I thought I was in Central America. This structure was unlike any other I had seen in Cambodia and was pyramid-like, rising into the sky.
This was once the capital of Angkor from AD928 to AD944 and was abandoned to the jungle for centuries. Today it can be reached by a toll road and is around 120 miles from Siem Reap.
Koh Ker Temple
Many of Koh Ker’s treasures are in the National Museum in Phnom Penh including the massive garuda in the entrance. But for visitors to this complex, there are some intriguing ruins to explore. One of the best is at Prasat Bram where a collection of brick towers are clustered and have trees growing in and amongst them creating unusual shapes. The roots have twisted around the brickwork and the whole area is somewhat eerie.
These tower trees at Koh Ker were for me the main attraction to go there, although I’ve seen temples overgrown with trees at other places, Preah Khan at Angkor area in Siem Reap, for instance, these were different and the atmosphere was different also.
Prasat Krahom is another highlight of the Koh Ker temple complex and has red brick archways and stone carvings. Stone nagas line a causeway and there are entrances leading to old libraries, galleries and the ruins of this structure.
But the highlight itself is at Prasat Thom where the seven-tiered pyramid rises from the ground. It appears as you walk through the ruins and is a complete surprise to see. I climbed the stairway to the top which is crumbling in parts and what a view from the summit. The landscape of mountains, jungle and temples stretching before me was magnificent.
Few people get to Koh Ker so it is a quieter complex to explore. Although the area has been cleared of landmines it is not advisable to step off the well-worn tracks. When I visited sleeping overnight at the temple had been banned due to tourists not respecting the complex. There are guesthouses nearby for those who want to stay overnight.
2. Preah Vihear Temple
Perched high in the Dangkrek Mountains is one of the most dramatic of the Angkorean monuments. Look at this and you’ll wonder how anyone managed to build a temple here.
Located on an escarpment the views across the lowlands of Cambodia are nothing short of spectacular.
In Angkorian times Prasat Preah Vihear was one of the most important places of pilgrimage and was built over the lifetimes of seven monarchs. The construction began in the reign of Yasovarman 1( 889-910) and continued until Suryavarman 11 reigned from 1112-1152.
Even within the walls of this temple, there is a dynastic feel left by these rulers. Like most of the Angkor temples built at this time, it was designed to look like Mount Meru and dedicated to Shiva. The Preah Vihear Temple is constructed along a north-south axis with five pavilions or gopura decorated with carvings.
Most people begin by entering the temple to the sandstone Gopura V where the monumental stairway leads to the Thai border. Even today there is a dispute that the Thai people see part of the temple as theirs.
As you walk through the complex the eastern staircase has been rebuilt and was originally used by Cambodian pilgrims. Along the walls are carvings of the Churning of the ocean of Milk which is similar to Angkor Wat.
The best-preserved parts are around Gopura 1 and the views looking out across the plains are stunning. The cliff near here is popular for picnics because of the views.
This temple is close to the Thai border and subject to security checks.
It is worth checking the latest security position before traveling and although the area has been demined, it is inadvisable to stray off the well-trodden paths. But go, like the pilgrims have and enjoy those amazing views.
3. Visiting Mondulkiri Cambodia
One of the least known and visited areas of Cambodia is the Mondulkiri region. But there are lots of things for visitors to enjoy.
Mondulkiri is very different from the rest of Cambodia and is famed for the Bunong people and their elephants. The name Mondulkiri means the Meeting of the Hills and this is a beautiful area of rolling hills and a more temperate climate.
Visitors can spend time in traditional villages and learn about elephants. One of the best places to do this is the Elephant Valley Project.
There are opportunities to spot other species of wildlife on guided treks and these include leopards, bears, monkeys and the famous elephants. There are lots of bird species around Mondulkiri too.
Sen Monorom is the main village in Mondulkiri and the best place to get elephant tours and other attractions. The Monorom Waterfall is another popular day out of the village and is lovely.
The Elephant tours are a big attraction though, and who could resist a walk through the jungle with these beautiful creatures. If you plan on staying for a few days here to learn more about the locals and the elephants then you’ll find homestays as well as guest houses which are basic and welcoming.
There are restaurants too where you can taste local specialties. You’ll find local crafts and markets and a generally laid back lifestyle. The area can get chilly at night so it is recommended you bring a warm jacket for the evenings.
For a very different perspective on Cambodia, this area Mondulkiri is worth a visit to support the conservation and see this way of life in the hills.
4. Battambang Bat Caves in Phnom Sampeou
Phnom Sampeou is very close to Battambang City and popular with visitors. It is renowned for its temple complex, bad-tempered macaques, and bats. The best way to get up to the top of the peak is by a steep stairway on the entry road. You’ll get to the golden stupa at the summit from where you’ll have amazing views.
From here by turning left and heading under the gate marked with a bas relief of Eiy Sei you’ll see a deep canyon with stalactites, bats, and greenery. There is still a gun emplacement up here but most visitors head to the Sunset viewing balcony nearby.
This area is famous for its bats but has a darker side to the history. The Khmer Rouge used these caves to torture and kill people. Even today human remains can still be seen around the caves. Today the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau are a place of pilgrimage. There’s a staircase lined with greenery leading to a golden Buddha and some of the skulls of people killed here have been left as a memorial.
As for the bats, each evening at dusk a huge column emerges from a cave higher up. This is a fascinating display of thousands of bats flying around and lasts around 30 minutes. The sky is literally turned black during this display which attracts visitors from far and wide. Of course, if bats are not your thing then it is best not to go as they can and do swoop around when making these displays.
The bat caves are a short drive from Battambang and easily reached by taxi.
5. Kbal Spean, a Hidden Treasure
Just to the northeast of Angkor is one of the hidden treasures that few visitors to Cambodia get to see. A carved riverbed with natural rock bridge is another of the famous Angkor sites, and also known as the River of a Thousand Lingas. Look closely at the carvings here and you’ll see elaborately carved lingas and Hindu deities in the stonework.
Kbal Spean was discovered in 1969 by Jean Boulbet when a local hermit took him to the site. Unfortunately, just after this discovery, the civil war meant that Kbal Spean was off limits for years and only really became safe in 1998. Even today visitors must stay on the marked paths as there may be unexploded ordnance in the area. Taking water on the walk is essential as it is hot and there are no supplies on the route.
One of the best parts of Kbal Spean is the 2km walk uphill to the site itself. This is through the jungle and there are beautiful rock formations along the route. The path either leads to a waterfall or the famous carvings. At the bridgehead, there are some beautiful carvings but some have suffered damage over the years.
Towards the river, there are good carvings of Vishnu and Shiva. As you head downstream the linga carvings start to appear along the riverbed. Animal carvings including a cow and frog can be seen around the waterfall and you can get to the base of the falls via a wooden stairway.
Another attraction in this area is the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity which is near the base of the Kbal Spean Trail. This centre highlights the endangered species in the area and is very interesting. The area is best done by heading to the riverbed first, followed by the waterfall to cool off before returning to the Biodiversity centre.
6. Angkor Silk Farm
One of my favorite places to go in Cambodia is the Angkor Silk Farm. This is located around twenty minutes from Siem Reap and is a very interesting place to see how silk is produced. But it is also a very special place because most of the people who work there are from a disadvantaged background and the co-operative gives them training and a job.
I arrived and was welcomed by one of their guides before being taken through the workshops. This is fascinating and where visitors can see the silkworms and mulberry bushes. There are also the round baskets where the silk begins to be produced from the cocoons. A whirring noise alerted me to the looms.
Groups of smiling ladies sat at wooden looms weaving the silk cloth from the threads. Vibrant colors were used from a brilliant yellow to a strong bronze hue. In another section, workers were using the ikat method or tie-dyeing to get the correct shades of the thread. This definitely looked a very messy part of the job.
After being taken through a small courtyard I arrived at the shop. A rainbow of colors met me and in such gorgeous shades. Do remember to take some money on a tour with you because you will be tempted by the silk farm shop. There were cushions in the colors of rice paddies and bags in jewel-like shades. The ties and scarves were perfect for gifts and before long I had succumbed to the temptation and filled a basked.
All the goods were excellent quality and quite different from anything I had seen in other parts of South East Asia. Prices are good too. This is a fascinating place to include on your visit to Cambodia- but you will be tempted by the beautiful items in the shop.
The riverside town of Kratie is famous for its sunsets on the Mekong. It is also known for its French colonial style architecture and is a natural break for a journey between Phnom Penh and Southern Laos. But the big draw for visitors to this area is a chance to spot one of the rarest mammals in Asia- the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Irrawaddy Dolphin Watching in Kratie
Before the civil war Cambodia had over 1000 dolphins but today there are fewer than 85. In Kratie, there are boat trips along the Mekong to try and spot these elusive creatures. You’ll see conservation efforts too as this is one of Asia’s most endangered species.
Do encourage the boat owners to use the engines as little as possible to avoid disturbing the dolphins. Most are seen in the middle of the Mekong. Visitors also enjoy kayaking around Kratie which is an excellent chance to get up close to river life and the small communities.
You can get guided tours which are recommended or go independently.
Kratie has several good guesthouses which are ideal for a short break in this area. There are also homestays in the area. The town has a lot of restaurants serving local specialties.
Another popular attraction in Kratie is Wat Roka Kandal which is a lovely temple dating from the 19th century. The grounds here are worth exploring as there are several traditional wooden houses to see.
You’ll find Wat Phnom Sambok about 10 kilometers out of the town of Kratie. It’s a Buddhist monastery on a hill. It provides an excellent overview of the area and the beautiful surrounding. You’ll climb the hill via stairs that have Buddha statues lined up next to it. This can provide for a nice photo, but overall this is not a must visit if you are short on time. You can stop here when you go for the Irrawaddy Dolphins, but otherwise, you don’t have to go out of your way.
Angkorian City of Sambor
If you are looking for a day trip from Kratie then the pre-Angkorian city of Sambor is very interesting. Just across the river from Kratie, the island of Koh Triong is a delight to visit with its villages, mud turtles and rural atmosphere. Kratie has more to see than you think and is a great place to spend a couple of days- and if you see the dolphin that’s a bonus.
8. Cambodia Landmine Museum
Visit any of the Angkor sites in Cambodia and chances are you’ll hear a music group full of amputees or see crafts made by disabled people. Cambodia has suffered in the 20th century through war and famine and one of the biggest tragedies has been the landmine legacy.
Many landmines were planted during the wars in the 1970s here which led to Cambodia is one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. Even today visitors need to be careful when visiting remote sites not to stray off well- marked paths as there are still unexploded mines around.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum is just outside Siem Reap is a really interesting place to visit and highlights the dangers of war and mined areas. There is a huge collection of mortars, weaponry, and mines here which were all used in the civil war.
You’ll even find a mock minefield where you can try to spot where the hazards are. But there’s another good reason to visit this museum. The profits go towards the rehabilitation of those disabled by war including training and landmine awareness. And all the money raised here stays in Cambodia.
Just after I visited this museum I wondered to myself just how much ordnance there really is left in Cambodia, given the amount of mine clearance in the country. It didn’t take long for me to find out.
As I walked through the ruins of Banteay Kdei my foot kicked at something in the dust. A bullet emerged from the path- yet another reminder of the civil war here in Cambodia, and how much more there is left to do.
9. Kampot Village
If you enjoy cycling, nature, waterfalls Kampot could be the place you are looking for in Cambodia. Let's explore.
Though located in what many would consider the middle of nowhere, Kampot is still nothing short of a spectacular tiny town to visit, explore and discover the many fantastic things it has to offer its guests.
Despite its interesting location and small area, popularity amongst tourists continues to increase nearly every year with visitors looking to have some fun in this lively and welcoming Cambodian town. If you are considering making your way to Kampot, be sure not to miss out on the following three things to do there:
Explore Kampot by Bicycle
One of the best ways to get a good feel for the town of Kampot is to head to a local bicycle rental shop and go on your way! The roads and pathways are great for cycling and you will find that you can see and explore so much more on a bike rather than simply on foot.
Some great areas you can bike to include the fishing village located just 1 kilometer from the center of town and a place filled with picturesque views of the water, small colorful boats and local Khmer people going about their everyday routines.
Bike by the Olympic Stadium to check if there are any local tournaments being held and you may be lucky enough to attend a fun and laid back football match if the timing is right. If you would rather not head out on your own, then consider joining in on a guided tour where you will not only get to see some of the best things of Kampot but also learn about them along the way.
Biking is a fantastic way to get an up close and personal look at a town and with excellent paved roadways and the help of friendly locals, Kampot is the ideal town to do just that!
Stop whenever you see something that may tickle your fancy, enjoy delicious Khmer foods at local restaurants and food stalls and simply take in natural beauty and pleasant ambiance that this small yet lively town has to offer.
Discover Bokor National Park
Spread out over 1,500 square kilometers and spanning four Cambodian provinces, this national park is amongst one of the top things to see and explore while in Kampot. Although there is now a newly developed casino, convention center and hotel on the land, it is still home to many wildlife species including hornbills, sunbears, civets and gibbons.
Whether you decide to head out on a guided tour or simply on your own accord, be sure to check out the many old buildings filled with rich history of the Khmer Rouge, stop at look out and viewpoints along the way to capture some incredible pictures and pay a visit to the Black Palace where King Sihanouk was said to live and is now covered in surprisingly bright orange lichen.
Though it may be hot and humid before beginning your journey up to Bokor National Park, the climate once there is typically cool, so be sure to pack a light jacket just in case. This is especially a good idea if you make the well worthwhile trip to the two-tier Popokvil Waterfall that you most certainly won’t want to miss out on.
Enjoy the Teuk Chhou Rapids
If there is one thing true about Cambodia, it is that the climate can be rather hot, humid and lead to exhaustion for those who are not exactly used to that type of weather. If you need to cool down from the heat, then head to the Teuk Chhou Rapids where you can enjoy a dip in the clean water and maybe even enjoy floating on big rubber tires that are available for rent.
This is the perfect outing for a group of friends or a family of little ones looking to spread out and enjoy being among lush greenery and plenty of fun water activities to take part in. If you are hoping to spend an entire morning or afternoon there, consider bringing along a picnic and renting out a small hut and mat for the day.
© 2021 Sam Shepards