A Guide Through Provincial Cambodia
Cambodia Begins at 40 Co-founder Mark Bibby Jackson guides you through the various regions of provincial Cambodia.
I have been fortunate to have travelled through every province in Cambodia. While there are lot’s of similarities between provinces, there are distinct differences which provide a unique feel to the different regions. In this article I will provide my impression and advice on what to see in each of the different segments of regional Cambodia.
Dusty Northeast Cambodia
Although you might lump the northeast of Cambodia together in one amorphous mass – much like I have – there are distinct differences.
Kampong Cham is a very green and agricultural province, with a thriving Muslim Cham community, which makes it quite unlike most of the rest of the country – apart from parts of Kampot.
As you go further north the countryside becomes more arid – unless you hug the Mekong – as you progress through Kratie and Stung Treng. Of course the former has those ugly dolphins and the latter Koh Han Flooded Forest, but in truth you have to turn right before the countryside becomes really interesting.
Apart from geographically, Ratanakiri is the wild west of Cambodia, where people have come to mine for gold. Most have left empty pocketed, their pockmarks scorching the earth, exacerbated by the excessive deforestation. But the province does have Yeak Laom lake, one of the most wondrous places to go wild swimming anywhere in the world.
The terrain becomes more interesting in mountainous Mondulkiri, where I spent one of my best ever trips just hanging around with the local Bunung in Sen Monorom and visiting one of their boarding schools. Just like visiting schools in Kampong Cham it was a real eye-opener to the systemic poverty and constant battle for survival in ethnic communities around the country.
The Deep South
Cambodia does not possess a lengthy coast line like neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, but at least it does have a coast – sorry Laos.
Kep is blessed with the most beautiful forested hills within which are hidden some lost caves, as well as otherworldly salt flats, but its beach leaves much to be desired.
Sihanoukville has the beaches but really lacks everything else, such has been the unrestrained development of the area. Only Ream seems to have shown any resistance.
Off the coast, the islands remain pretty much unspoilt, with accommodation catering for all tastes and budgets, great beaches and clear waters. Another one to visit sooner rather than later.
North by Northwest Cambodia
Battambang, like Kampong Cham, is a strongly agricultural province – the rice bowl of Cambodia. Relax by the river, explore the surrounding countryside full of unexpected local treasures, or try some prahok in one of the factories.
The least I say about Pailin and Poipet the better. As you move slowly clockwise around the Thai border, the countryside seems to become drier and drier.
I am an enormous fan of Anlong Veng in Oddar Meanchey, but I am not quite sure why. Perhaps it is the history – it was one of the last hold outs of the Khmer Rouge, and you can visit Ta Mok’s house. The Butcher governed the province until 1997, 18 years after the fall of the barbaric regime.
Neighbouring Preah Vihear province has two outstanding temple complexes Preah Vihear itself and Koh Ker; the former is a rival for Angkor. There is also Sopheakmit Waterfall, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia.
Provincial Cambodia around the Tonle Sap
Which leaves the huge swathe of the country surrounding the Tonle Sap – the heart of the country. The country breathes as the waters of the lake expand and contract.
Perhaps the best place to see local people’s interaction with the lake is to visit one of the floating villages in Kampong Chhnang or neighbouring Pursat on the southern side of the lake. Like Kampong Cham and Mondulkiri, this will challenge any preconception you may have of the country.
Pursat is the gateway to the Cardamom Mountains, offering some of the best wilderness remaining in Southeast Asia.
On the north bank of the lake lies Kampong Thom, a province neglected on the slow bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, but which in Sambor Prei Kuk has a magnificent temple complex of its own – and one that predates Angkor.
If you wish to find your way around provincial Cambodia we suggest you consult our Cambodia Map.