Cambodia has emerged from its turbulent and tragic recent history to become an exciting and vibrant holiday destination. It is less developed for tourism than its neighbour Vietnam and offers one of Asia's greatest and most iconic attractions - Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. Many chose to visit Angkor after a tour of Vietnam, but for those who choose to explore the country in more depth they are rewarded with an insight into an Asia lost in many other countries.
The biggest attraction by far in Cambodia is the lost city of Angkor. For over 600 years from 802 AD this city ruled an empire that covered much of South-east Asia. At its height the city covered over 75 square miles, a size London didnt get to until well into Victorian times. Although most of the buildings were made of timber and have rotted away, the huge canals, lakes and temple complexes still survive, with more being discovered in the surrounding jungles every year.
The main temple in the city is Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world and one of the its most iconic structures. Built by Suryavarman II between 1113-1150 AD its size is overwhelming, only truly appreciated for the first time as you cross the wide stone causeway that crosses the complex's large moat. Some of the statistics explain why; over 600 metres of detailed bas-reliefs circle the wall of the main temple, its five huge towers shaped like Lotus blossom. (Watch out for the stairs up into the temple, they are steep.) In total over 2,000 carved dancing girls have been counted around the temple itself. Angkor Wat is a place that however long a visit has been anticipated and looked forward too, it will not disappoint.
Many people don't realise that Angkor Wat is just one of many temples and complexes dotted around the old city. Over 70 have been counted and several of these are on a scale that anywhere but in the shadow of Angkor Wat they would be major attractions in their own right. Almost next to it lies Angkor Thom, resplendent under vast carved faces and profiles of the gods.
Ta Prohm is one of the most photographed (and filmed) temples, with many of its walls and courtyards covered by the ancient trunks and roots of jungle trees that have slowly encroached and taken back the land to jungle. It is the ultimate image of the lost city. To the south east of these lie the Roluos group of monuments, the oldest in the city, and to the northeast is Banteay Srei, built in pink limestone.
Whether you have 2 days or two weeks, the city and its outlying complexes will keep you busy and enthralled by the scale of what the Khymer civilization achieved. You stay at Siem Reap, a small modern town that has grown up because of the constant flow of visitors and which has a sleepy, peaceful feel. There is a museum, souvenir shops, some excellent hotels and a vibrant travellers quarter with markets to barter in, street food to enjoy and cafes to sit in and watch the world go by.
The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh, a city that marries the elegance of the old French colonial architecture with the frenetic pace of modern Asian life. You can explore its sights and museums by rickshaw, eat in its lovely restaurants off the central boulevards and explore the markets and shopping areas.
When to go
Cambodia is hot throughout the year with the main criteria for choosing when to visit being the rainfall. The rains or monsoon start in May and continue through until October. It's quite possible to visit during this time, the rainfall mostly coming in short, sharp downpours, with broken sunshine in between. The dry season is the rest of the year - November until April - and this is the most popular time to visit, with very little rain and with lower humidity. The high season is November until January where the humidity is at its lowest but the lakes and rivers are full, and the jungle and vegetation lush and green.
Roughly speaking Cambodia has four key seasons:
1. November to February, cool and dry.
2. March to May, hot and dry.
3. June to August, hot and wet.
4. September to October, cool and wet.
The hot season rarely reaches above 35C and the cool season may go as low as 20C. The monsoon rains follow a regular pattern of 1 to 3 hours of rain in the afternoon making them easy to plan around.
A trip to Cambodia is a wonderful way to ignite your child's interest in other cultures. A real highlight for families is the chance to do a homestay, in a traditional rural village - you may even get to ride in an ox cart. Catching a tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap lake, Asia's largest fresh water lake where you can take a boat to see the floating villages and stilt houses is another must-do. The ruins of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, engulfed in jungle can be experienced from the air in a tethered balloon. The Hall of Echoes is always a popular stopping point for the children. There are wonderful small eco lodges for relaxing time and wild swimming beneath waterfalls to be enjoyed.