Until recently, most visitors to Cambodia headed to Angkor Wat, the immense complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples near the northwestern city of Siem Reap, before continuing their travels in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. But times have changed and Cambodia has become a destination in its own right.
The following itinerary outlines a possible 16-day trip, which could also form the basis of a more extended vacation in Southeast Asia.
For our editor’s full trip report from Cambodia, see the May 2019 Hideaway Report.
Our itineraries are for your inspiration. Please contact a travel advisor to customize this itinerary to fit your needs.
On arrival in Phnom Penh, transfer to the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, the city’s historic property, which dates from 1929 during the French colonial period. (Cambodia’s capital has no Hideaway Report-recommended boutique hotels.) A combination of colonial, Khmer and art deco styles, the hotel has an unusually tranquil atmosphere despite its size. The most desirable of the 175 accommodations are the Landmark Rooms and the Personality Suites in the original main building.
In the afternoon, either relax beside one of the two courtyard swimming pools surrounded by frangipani trees, or head to the spa for a traditional Khmer pressure-point massage. In the evening, stop by the famous Elephant Bar for a cocktail (or two). Assuming you are not too tired, have dinner at Restaurant Le Royal, where the menu features Khmer dishes that follow recipes from the Royal Palace kitchen.
After breakfast at the hotel’s Café Monivong, take a guided tour of the city’s principal sites. These include the National Museum of Cambodia, which houses a collection of classical Khmer statuary; the ornate Silver Pagoda adjacent to the Royal Palace; and the huge 1930s art deco Central Market. Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Sisowath Quay extends for 2 miles along the west bank of the Tonle Sap, and although on every tourist itinerary, it remains a pleasant place to stroll. There are numerous small local eateries; alternatively have lunch at Malis Restaurant, a well-known establishment serving Cambodian cuisine, located close to the Mekong and just a few blocks south of the Royal Palace.
Understandably, Cambodia is trying to move on from the traumatic events of the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror killed more than 2 million people. Those of robust disposition may nonetheless wish to visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, 10 miles south of Phnom Penh. Even more harrowing, and definitely not for the fainthearted, is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the city itself.
In the evening, eat out at Topaz, the city’s best-known French restaurant, on Norodom Boulevard.
This morning, head back to the airport to catch a 45-minute flight to Siem Reap, the principal city of northwestern Cambodia. Transfer to your hotel, Amansara, a serene villa enclave on the grounds of a guesthouse that once belonged to King Norodom Sihanouk. The two-dozen accommodations all come with large sitting areas, furnished patios, plunge pools and dedicated private drivers. After lunch, either relax beside the 82-foot lap pool or indulge in a spa treatment. Have dinner at the hotel’s indoor-outdoor restaurant, which serves Khmer cuisine prepared using local organic ingredients.
Amansara is situated a 10-minute drive from the ruins of Angkor Wat, a huge Buddhist-Hindu temple complex built on a 400-acre site that contains surviving monuments of the classical Khmer culture, which flourished between the ninth and 14th centuries. The world-famous archaeological park now receives more than 2 million visitors a year. In order to beat the crowds, get up at 4:30 a.m. so you can be at the entrance at sunrise. (It is possible to have breakfast at Amansara’s own Khmer village house, which overlooks the 10th-century royal bathing pool of Srah Srang.)
In the late afternoon, visit some of the lesser-known (and less crowded) temples, including Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Bayon.
In the early morning, before the heat becomes oppressive, go on an escorted bike ride through the countryside surrounding Angkor Wat. Alternatively, take a helicopter excursion to remote jungle sites, with landings at Banteay Chhmar (a massive temple, along with satellite shrines and a reservoir), Koh Ker (a stepped seven-tiered pyramid) and Beng Mealea (a mysterious temple still swathed in vegetation).
In the late afternoon, explore the city of Siem Reap, especially the Old French Quarter and the Old Market, with its numerous boutiques and small restaurants. For dinner, you may wish to try Malis Restaurant Siem Reap, the sibling of Malis in Phnom Penh, or Cuisine Wat Damnak, where Cambodian dishes are served in a traditional Khmer house and its tropical garden.
From July to November, during and after the rainy season, the water levels in Tonle Sap Lake, the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong River are sufficiently high to allow you to return to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap aboard the Aqua Mekong, a lavish riverboat with accommodations for a maximum of 40 people. (From December to June, the dry season, the Aqua Mekong operates downstream between Phnom Penh and My Tho in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.)
The vessel comprises three decks, with the rear of the second taken up by a dining room. There, the food is under the supervision of Australian chef David Thompson, who earned a Michelin star at his former restaurant, Nahm, in Bangkok. On the top deck, the Mekong has a lounge-bar with floor-to-ceiling windows, a media room and a small library. At the stern, a gym provides a selection of aerobic machines, while in the bow, a shaded plunge pool offers an idyllic place to sip a glass of wine and to watch the world of the river scroll past. The vessel has four auxiliary aluminum launches crewed by English-speaking guides. These head off two or three times a day and are in radio communication with the main vessel. Ten bicycles are also available for either guided or independent shore excursions.
At the end of a relaxing morning at Amansara, board an air-conditioned coach for the 45-minute transfer from Siem Reap to the Aqua Mekong, which is docked on the Tonle Sap Lake. Spend the afternoon relaxing on board.
After breakfast, take a launch and explore the vast wetlands around Tonle Sap Lake, home to remote communities living in villages constructed on stilts. The bird life is prolific, and you may well observe large waterbirds like the spot-billed pelican, the milky stork, the black-headed ibis and the masked finfoot within the 85-square-mile Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve.
In the afternoon, the Aqua Mekong will sail to a floating village where passengers can attend a Buddhist blessing ceremony.
Spend the morning exploring more of the remote villages around Tonle Sap. In Chhnok Tru, the schools, churches, pagodas and even the police station have all been constructed over the lake.
After lunch, visit the serene village of Kampong Chhnang, where you will be able to meet traditional potters and watch them practice techniques dating to the sixth century.
Following a leisurely breakfast, sail to the village of Koh Chen, where the artisans produce the famous royal Khmer silverware. Their silver bowls are regularly chosen as gifts for visiting dignitaries.
In the afternoon, head to Koh Oknha Tey, an island in the Mekong River where Khmer artisans dye and weave krama, a kind of sturdy silk scarf dating from the Angkor period, which can be used as a bandanna or even a hammock for small children. If you are feeling energetic, go on an escorted bike ride to explore the island.
Disembark from the Aqua Mekong in Phnom Penh and meet you driver and “butler” from Shinta Mani Wild. Located three hours to the southwest of Phnom Penh, on a private nature sanctuary, the camp is surrounded by a forested landscape dominated by the peaks of the Cardamom Mountains, which rise to an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. Set on an 865-acre site in a wildlife corridor between the Bokor and Kirirom national parks, it is dramatically situated at the edge of a ravine.
The property is the personal project of the renowned architect and designer Bill Bensley and comprises 15 opulent tented accommodations erected on stilts. The interiors reflect Bensley’s theatrical and baroque style, with public areas resembling those of an old-fashioned colonial-style safari camp, complete with brass fixtures, leather chairs, steamer trunks and crystal tumblers and decanters.
On arrival, relax on the elevated deck of your opulent villa screened by the dense tropical vegetation. The tented accommodations feature outdoor tubs, dining tables and vibrant animal-print sofas.
Later enjoy a cocktail on the terrace of the bar, which, from July to November, overlooks a dramatic waterfall. (The river flows year-round, but during the dry season it is less spectacular.) Have dinner at the property’s nearby restaurant, which serves locally sourced Cambodian cuisine.
In the morning, go for a bird-watching cruise aboard a custom-built boat on a serene nearby river. Return to the camp for lunch and spend the afternoon in the small hilltop spa, which offers Khmer treatments employing only organic products.
Get up early in order to accompany local wildlife rangers on a hike into the surrounding protected areas. The region has been the scene of widespread illegal logging and mining, as well as rampant poaching. Despite these depredations, it is still covered by one of the largest forests in Southeast Asia, home to Asian elephants and pileated gibbons, as well as remnant populations of tigers, clouded leopards and sun bears. Alas, viewing animals, and even birds, is a challenge in dense forest, but you will be able to assist the rangers in downloading camera traps.
In the afternoon, relax beside the camp’s spectacular black horizon pool, surrounded by jungle.
After breakfast, you will be transferred to the port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. There you will board a speedboat for the 35-minute crossing to Song Saa, a private island resort in the pristine Koh Rong Archipelago. The resort’s name means “the sweethearts” in Khmer, a reference to the paired islets, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, that comprise the property. The 24 villas include 2,150-square-foot Ocean View Villas, which feature thatched ceilings, sunken seating areas and wooden decks offering outdoor showers and private infinity pools. Overwater Villas offer direct ocean access from private balconies.
After lunch at the beachfront Driftwood bar — which serves a tapas menu, plus thin-crust pizzas — spend the afternoon relaxing on the white sands and swimming in the tranquil turquoise sea. You may wish to have dinner in the privacy of your villa. Alternatively, head to the waterfront Vista Bar and Restaurant, where the menu features both Khmer and international dishes, prepared with exceptional local seafood and produce.
After breakfast, go on a sea-kayaking excursion into the surrounding archipelago. In the afternoon, spend time by the pool and then indulge in a spa treatment. Although there is no centralized spa facility, outdoor salas and treatment villas are scattered through the rainforest and along the ocean shore. Individual treatment schedules combine traditional Khmer techniques with Ayurvedic principles. Yoga and meditation are also available.
This morning, go on a snorkeling trip, led by a marine biologist, to explore the spectacular coral gardens that surround the resort. Scuba equipment is available for qualified divers. After lunch, if you are still feeling energetic, take a rainforest tour guided by a member of the resort’s conservation team.
This morning, after a final dip in the ocean, return by speedboat to Sihanoukville and catch a flight to Phnom Penh. From there, return to the United States via Hong Kong or Shanghai.
Contact a travel advisor to book your custom itinerary. Fill out the form or call (630) 734-4610.