Provinces in Cambodia – Emerging Cambodia Travel Destinations
As the country’s infrastructure drastically improves and investment into outlying areas starts to increase, lesser-known patches of the country are opening up to the outside world. The pandemic-fuelled border closures throughout most of 2020 and 2021 also saw more young Cambodians explore parts of the country, which has driven the mushrooming of eco-tourism in outlying parts of Cambodia.
Provinces in Cambodia – Kep
Once reserved for the country’s rich and famous, the quaint seaside town of Kep was established in 1908 as a station climatique and quickly became a refreshing retreat for the French colonial elite. After Cambodia gained independence in 1953, then-King Norodom Sihanouk kept Kep’s prestige alive by hiring revered architect and father of Khmer Architecture Van Molyvann to design a royal summer villa and other impressive structures.
Cambodia’s rich and famous followed in the King’s footsteps and during Cambodia’s Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s, the rolling hills that flank the tiny town were dotted with stylish minimalist villas. Kep was left to crumble during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 and for decades all signs of its exclusivity were left to fade. However, the last decade has seen Kep slowly make a comeback as well-designed accommodation that harks back to its Golden Age heyday and a handful of restaurants and bars appear.
Watch women wading into the shallow waters to check their bamboo baskets for hauls
Famous for its crab, a visit to the crab market is a must. Here you can watch women wading into the shallow waters to check their bamboo baskets for hauls, buyers and sellers haggling over crabs and buckets of flapping fish, and freshly-caught seafood being barbecued on grills.
The Sailing Club is a popular spot for sunset, thanks to the restaurant and bar delicately perching over the ocean. It serves a variety of seafood-inspired dishes and creative cocktails. The adjacent Discovery Centre has boats for hire and offers sailing courses and sea-bound excursions.
Kep is also home to a small beach of imported white sand that is popular with locals – and gets extremely crowded during public holidays. Kep National Park takes in jungle-clad hills that boast vistas across to the ocean. An 8km walking trail takes guests through the park. Entry is US$1.
Provinces in Cambodia – Kampot
About a 20 to 30-minute drive from Kep sits the riverside town of Kampot. The laidback town where time seemingly stands still is slowly gaining momentum with visitors, especially in recent months as visitors switch Sihanoukville for Kampot as a desired destination.
Nestled on the banks of Kampot River, the compact town centre comprises a central market, a riverfront that is home to a growing number of eateries, guesthouses and bars, and several quiet streets that house more spots where to eat, drink and sleep. The Fishmarket Kampot serves up plates that are as easy on the eye as they are on the stomach, coupled with idyllic views of Kampot River. Just along the riverfront Rikitikitavi serves excellent cocktails as well as some great food, and has comfortable rooms. Twenty Three Kampot is a great bistro and Mea Culpa offers excellent value rooms just off the main drag.
The beauty of both Kep and Kampot is the ease of sliding from urban (albeit slow) life to authentic rural living. Just a few kilometres out of town, several guesthouses dot the tranquil river as it gently winds out of town – perfect for diving into the waters, kayaking, paddle-boarding or simply soaking up the backdrop of mango-lined waters and rolling hills on the horizon. These range from budget backpacker stalwarts, such as Arcadia, through to Villa Vedici’s quaint collection of riverside villas and Sabay Beach’s elegant treehouses and man-made beach.
Bokor Mountain makes for a wonderful day trip. Unless you have your own transport or fancy sitting on the back of a bike – you won’t be allowed access without a helmet – hire a private car for the day, either through your accommodation or at one of the small travel shops in Kampot.
Sitting about 40km away from town’s centre, a smooth road takes in waterfalls, Buddhist monuments, crumbling churches, a giant casino and, at its peak, sweeping views that stretch across to Vietnamese island Phu Quoc. The derelict shell of Bokor Hill Station was until recently a highlight. However, Sokha Hotels took over a few years ago, transforming it into an exclusive resort, meaning visitors can no longer explore its eerie crumbling shell.
Kampot is world-famous for its pepper, so head into the countryside for to find out more about the special ingredient. Used by top chefs in kitchens across the globe, the sharp pepper comes in four forms – black, green, red and white – and adds a real kick to dishes. There are a range of farms offering half-day visits, including Sothy’s Pepper Farm, BoTree Farm and La Plantation, or you can purchase your supplies at the Kampot Pepper Shop.
Provinces in Cambodia – Battambang
Despite being Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang contains none of the cacophony of city life found in Phnom Penh or even Siem Reap. Dubbed the rice bowl of Cambodia the countryside is peppered with a patchwork of paddies, meaning escaping to the countryside is easy and comes with heaps of rewards.
The compact city – more a walkable town – is home to Cambodia’s best-kept collection of colonial buildings and other ancient architecture. Khmer Architecture Tours offers a downloadable map so visitors can take their time exploring the city. To get the inside info on the city, sign up to one of Soksabike’s sustainable cycling tours.
Serving as Cambodia’s artistic hub, a visit to some of the independent art galleries and studios that dot the city is a must. Romchiek5 is a gallery and working studio for four young Cambodian artists and sits across the river from the centre and HUMAN Gallery showcases the work of Joseba Etxebarria, who travelled 37,000km through 29 countries by bicycle taking photos of people along the way.
If you are looking for a place to stay, then you need look no further than La Villa, a wonderful 1930s-era French colonial hotel, which was the setting of the novel To Cook a Spider, written by Cambodia Begins at 40 founder Mark Bibby Jackson.
No trip to Battambang is complete without a jaunt on the bamboo train. While the original track was dismantled in 2017, last year the government reinstated the line in a different area of the province, although we understand you can still use the old track if you ask around. Called a norry in Khmer, the “train” is a small bamboo platform covered with a mat and a few thin cushions to sit on. This rests on two sets of bogies with a motor at the back. A wooden pole is used as both brake and accelerator, with the train hitting speeds of up to 50km/h.
As Cambodia’s creative capital it only seems right that Battambang is home to Phare Ponleu Selpak. Widely known for the circus shows put on in Siem Reap and Battambang, the organisation serves as more than just a circus school. It offers underprivileged youngsters free arts training in a range of skills, including fine arts, animation, music and theatre.
Visitors can take a daily tour of the campus before stopping off to see a circus show.
A highly recommended afternoon trip is to take a tuk tuk out to Phnom Sampeou, about 12km from Battambang centre. At the hill’s 100-metre peak sits the temple of Wat Sampeou and its sweeping views of the sprawling countryside. Visitors can explore the temple as well as the neighbouring Killing Caves. A sobering affair, this is where Khmer Rouge soldiers pushed their victims to their death. Inside sits a shrine of skulls.
An absolute must is to head to the hill’s base just before dusk to join the growing crowds that gather before 6pm to watch the seemingly endless stream of hundreds of thousands of bats spiralling out of the cave for a night of hunting.
Other Provinces in Cambodia
Other emerging destinations worth incorporating in your Cambodia travel plans include the rural province of Kampong Cham and its bamboo bridge – although the original bamboo bridge has now been dismantled and replaced by an alternative pedestrian-only bridge connecting the mainland with the small island of Koh Pen. Hanchey Bamboo Resort is a great spot to revitalise while overlooking the Mekong River.
As mentioned in the Outdoors and Nature section of this Cambodia travel guide, Kratie is becoming another notable destination for those seeking to indulge in Cambodia’s nature and growing number of eco-activities. While those seeking to get away from it all are increasingly heading to the mountainous eastern province of Mondulkiri. Trekking through the jungle terrain, hanging out with elephants and meeting the indigenous Bunong hill tribes are popular activities.
One of the best ways to get around the country is through a reliable locally-based travel company with local insight, offering tailor-made travel itineraries. A couple we recommend are Hanuman Travel, which is co-owned by Lonely Planet writer Nick Ray, and Travel Asia, which offers bespoke private or group tours to Cambodia.