Ten years ago, Siem Reap - a town in northern Cambodia - was a fairly quiet place with not much going on. You might go there to grab a beer or two after visiting the famous Angkor Wat temples.
Today, it offers tourists anything they could possibly wish for: world-class wining and dining across an array of cuisines, bars with happy hour deals hard to resist (50-cent beer anyone?), freshly prepared $1 smoothies (mango lemon is a top choice), nightclubs, great shopping, a huge choice of hostels and hotels, and a vibrant cultural scene.
Siem Reap is a microcosm of the exponential growth in tourism that’s been going on in the whole country. In 2004, the Kingdom of Cambodia welcomed around one million tourists. By 2016, it was five million.
Tourists come to Cambodia for the stunning temples, beautiful landscapes and paradise-like beaches. But what makes the most striking impression on visitors is probably the incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming people. Whether it’s a man selling petrol in sweltering heat, shantytown kids or a tuk-tuk driver who has just been bartered down from $3 to $2 for a ride, people always seem to be happy. Everyone smiles all the time. And it’s genuine!
So it’s no surprise that Cambodia has gone from being a “hidden gem” to becoming a top tourist destination. But there are a few simple steps you can take to avoid the crowds and enjoy the “untouched” kind of Cambodia that made it so popular in the first place.
The easiest way to keep as much of the country to yourself as possible is to be smart about when to go: Avoid high season, which starts around mid-November and runs until March. Those not averse to hot and humid weather should visit between March and April - the hot season - when many hotels offer discounted prices. Most people are scared off by the tropical climate, but if you don’t plan to do much walking, it’s perfectly manageable.
If you like it cooler, the tail end of the rainy season - usually towards the end of October into the beginning of November - is the time to go. And if you want a completely empty country, go right in the middle of the wet season, which peaks in September, but bear in mind that it will rain a lot.
In Phnom Penh, the capital, make sure you book yourself into a nice, quiet hotel where you can recharge before diving into the hustle and bustle of the city. A top choice is the Pavillion, which impresses with a truly oasis-like feel, two gorgeous swimming pools, a small gym and a luscious breakfast buffet.
Cambodia’s history is both riveting and tragic. From the glory days of the vast Khmer empire to centuries of foreign occupation - Vietnamese and French influences are still very much part of the culture today - and brutal civil war culminating in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975 to '79) from which Cambodia is still recovering, there is plenty to find out. Head to the National Museum for thousands of archaeological finds representing the country’s Hindu and Buddhist history. The museum, with its traditional Cambodian architecture and neatly manicured garden, is an attraction in itself. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Killing Fields are also popular tourist attractions and are best booked in advance, but can - as the names suggest - make for heavy going and grueling experiences.
For a more carefree holiday, turn to the city’s stunning Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and Wat Phnom. Stroll along the beautiful river promenade or take part in one of the many fitness classes at dawn and dusk at most parks. For food, head to Special Pho on Street 178 which makes the best pho in town, or Sovanna Pi on Street 21 - a place popular with locals, where you get your own mini barbecue and hot pot to cook unlimited fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.
From Phnom Penh, most people travel north to see the famous Angkor Wat complex, which covers 402 acres and consists of scores of temples, basins, reservoirs and canals, countless sculptural decorations and also many villages. The temples have become such a popular tourist attraction that the government in February raised prices by 50 percent. Instead of going to a crowded ticket office on the morning of your visit, buy your passes the day before after 5p.m., which is when your ticket for the next day is valid from. For a stunning sunset, avoid Phnom Bakheng temple, where most tourists gather at dusk, and go to Srah Srang Lake, which will be much more tranquil and offer a fantastic view of Angkor.
Hire a tuk-tuk driver for your temple experience, which you can make last from a day to a week, depending on how many temples you want to pack in. It’s worth getting up for the Angkor Wat sunrise (around 5:30a.m.), which will be cooler and quieter than “rush hour” (7a.m. to 11a.m.).
Get your driver to take you to the East Gate instead of the busy West Gate of the main Angkor Wat temple (after which the whole complex is named) and walk through the temple from the back. Watch the sun lighting up the stones as it ascends, then head out of the West Gate for coffee and breakfast at one of the stands nearby.
Climb up the steep steps of Ta Keo - a temple missed off most visitors’ itinerary, and enjoy a view over the temple-dotted landscape from 21 meters up, away from the crowds.
Most visitors - and most tuk-tuk drivers - are keen on long lunch breaks, making the slot between noon and 2 p.m. the best time to see some of the more popular temples like Ta Phrom, which was used as location in Lara Croft - Tomb Raider, and the 12th-century Bayon, which features 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist personification of compassion.
A top accommodation choice here is the Templation Hotel in Siem Reap, where $200 a night will buy you an apartment for up to four people with a small but exquisite private pool equipped with jet streams to transform it into a Jacuzzi, access to a huge and beautiful landscaped pool and delicious daily breakfast in a stylish open-air restaurant.
A holiday in Cambodia should also include a trip to its beautiful southern coast. Of the many beaches there, Otres II is undoubtedly the best. Here you can take your pick from an array of hotels and bungalow resorts located just feet from the sea. The top choice is Tamu, which is also one of the most expensive, followed by Secret Garden and Mary Beach Hotel. While you can fill your days by seeking out activities such as kayaking, walking, boat trips or a visit to the stunning Kbal Chhay Waterfall, the easiest way to enjoy your time down south is to relax on the beach. Why not try a different seaside restaurant each night and find out which one offers the best cocktail happy hour?
And while you’re down there, a trip to Koh Rong Samloem Island should not be missed. If you were impressed by the white sand and tranquility at Otres II, this island will blow your mind. Make sure to book ahead as early as you can as the accommodation (mostly bungalows) books up fast. Development on the island is picking up speed and a new building is probably springing up as you’re reading this. Oddly though, these new projects are mostly focused on the east side. For total peace and quiet, go to the southwest of the island to Lazy Beach - a 20-minute walk through the jungle from the main port at Saracen Bay.
These tips will make for a largely crowd-free holiday. But it will probably be much less than ten years until they’ll have to be updated again.
Where to Stay
Phnom Penh: The Plantation $115 a night for a double, theplantation.asia.
Siem Reap: Templation $258 a night for a suite sleeping up to four people, maads.asia/templation.
Otres II Beach: Tamu from $115 a night, tamucambodia.com; Secret Garden from $59 a night, secretgardenotres.com; Mary Beach Hotel & Resort from $100 a night, booking.com.
Koh Rong Samloem: Lazy Beach bungalows from $45 a night, lazybeachcambodia.com.