Cambodia Travel Guide

Cambodia Travel Guide

While Angkor Wat somewhat takes the limelight, Cambodia is a magnificent travel destination in its own right, offering ancient civilizations, unkempt natural wonders and unbelievable value for money throughout. Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat’s sprawling remains, will first surprise you with her contrasts. Along the central hub loaded with fancy boutiques, upscale dining options and countless bars and clubs, you’ll also find eager tuk-tuk drivers and salesmen peddling anything from oil painted canvases to fried insects. In addition to famed temples and traditional culture, you’ll also discover burgeoning LGBT, art and fashion scenes. The same goes for Mekong-flanked Phnom Penh, the nation’s sprawling Capital crammed with a mix of 1960s modernist architecture, frenetic markets and wild nightlife. As for the rest of the country; make time for it! From hedonistic islands to expat-run towns, Cambodia has something for everyone, stretching all the way to the indulgent resorts of the Khmer Riviera. Clueless about what to do in Cambodia? Let Mr Hudson’s ultimate Cambodia travel guide enlighten you.

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The best hotels in Cambodia

Phnom Penh 

Compared to other Asian capitals Phnom Penh may feel provincial, but nonetheless, the streets can get quite hectic. Escape the roar of a thousand tuk-tuks in the little oasis of Rambutan, a gay-owned boutique resort around a gorgeous pool on a quiet street south of central Phnom Penh. Built by a French-Cambodian architectural firm run by the daughter of one of Vann Molyvann’s students, it retains the retro feel of New Khmer architecture, brightened up with Dutch owner Dirk de Graaff’s pick of local art.

For the men-only, clothing-optional experience, try the French-run Arthur & Paul resort and spa next door to Rambutan. This cruisy little oasis consisting of a large villa and garden offers spacious and luxurious rooms with homoerotic artwork. All floors are linked by a spectacular spiral staircase, and the downstairs restaurant (aptly named Mâles) and bar are wrapped by a beautiful pool. The bathhouse (yes, that kind of bathhouse) is also very popular with locals.

Siem Reap

For a perfect stay in Siem Reap, book a room at the upscale Shinta Mani Club, a breezy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away from Angkor Wat. The modern design by acclaimed architect Bill Bensley was inspired by the temple complex and includes quirky details like tables on swings and Hindu deities crayoned on blackboards. Excellent service and generous support of local causes helped this property’s ratings skyrocket to one of the best in the world.

Khmer Riviera

In the 1950s, king Norodom Sihanouk decided the sleepy fishing village of Kep would make the perfect location to create his own Southeast-Asian Riviera. Led by the monarch, the area became an artistic playground for the wealthy French colonial elite, and an estimated 150 villas in the style of the homegrown Modernist New Khmer movement appeared along the coast. When the country fell to the Khmer Rouge, many of these ostentatious villas were stripped and destroyed. Today, about 30 remains, covered in graffiti, slowly pulled apart by vines and roots. Three of them, however, were salvaged by the Belgian entrepreneur Jeff Moons. A single gay father raising an adopted Khmer son, Moons has built a new life in Cambodia, providing jobs and schooling programs for the local community by running the villas as luxury boutique resort Knai Bang Chatt. The fabulously decorated rooms with ocean views attract a well-heeled crowd, seeking both natural and architectural beauty while enjoying the culture and delicacies of the crab market nearby. Those interested can still visit the other ruins – a fascinating, if somewhat ghostly, experience.

Shinta Mani Club Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Shinta Mani Club Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

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Recommended hotels in Cambodia
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Catching the sunrise over the five towers of Angkor Wat is on everyone and their mother’s bucket list, so prepare to brave a dark forest of selfie sticks

Things to do in Cambodia

Just outside Siem Reap, this collection of magnificent temples of Angkor – some well preserved, others dreamily overgrown and consumed by gigantic trees – once supported the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Unfortunately, catching the sunrise over the five towers of Angkor Wat is on everyone and their mother’s bucket list, so prepare to brave a dark forest of selfie sticks. Alternatively, head for blissful tranquillity at the lesser-known temples first, and return to the main temple by midday. Highly recommended are the tours by Belgian bioengineer, cartographer and photographer Stéphane de Greef, who focuses on the hidden aspects of the site, covering not just the wealth of temples everyone ignores, but also the stunning biodiversity around them.

Cambodia’s brief golden age between independence from the French in 1953 and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s was marked by a great cultural revival. The most tangible legacy of this heyday is the work of visionary architect Vann Molyvann. His style, branded New Khmer architecture, brilliantly merged Le Corbusier’s principles of High Modernism with the layout, building and water management techniques of his Angkorian forefathers. Miraculously, many of the buildings survived the destructive Khmer Rouge regime. Some are in a terrible state of neglect, with trees sprouting from walls like they do at the temples of Angkor. Others are still in use – conference halls, private residences, university buildings. To get a sense of this largely forgotten era, visit the ’Olympic’ Stadium and watch as refrigerator-sized speakers are wheeled in to energize a mass workout at dusk. Even better, book a guided tour by tuk-tuk (three-wheeled auto rickshaw) led by young local architects.

Angkor Wat, Krong  | Photo: Remi Yuan

Angkor Wat, Krong | Photo: Remi Yuan

Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

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Recommended experiences in Cambodia
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What to see in Cambodia

There are almost countless answers of what to see in Cambodia and with so many beautiful cities and towns to explore the only restriction will be the amount of time you have. While you could easily spend weeks travelling through smaller towns like Kampot with its expat-led craft beer scene, Kep with its history as a French-colonial seaside retreat and Kratie with its rare Irrawaddy dolphins, we will try to keep our Cambodia gay travel guide as concise as possible. Starting us off then are the Floating Villages of Tonle Sap, the location of the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, just a short tuk-tuk trip from the centre of Siem Reap. Here you can get a nice respite from the city while gaining colourful insight into traditional Khmer cultures. Be aware that there are many other fishing villages in the area, many of which are poorly maintained and attempt to extort tourists without paying locals their fair share. For this reason, it’s recommended to book with a reputable tour agency.

Hugging the border between Thailand and Cambodia is the lesser-known UNESCO heritage site Prasat Preah Vihear. This dramatically set temple atop the Dangrek Mountains not only features fewer crowds than Angkor Wat but also stunning views of the Cambodian floodplains from the summit. Originally built to honour the god Shiva, with ownership being hotly contested by Thai authorities until 2013, Prasat Preah Vihear has only recently been put back on the Khmer tourist trail and is well worth the long 200-kilometre trip north from Siem Reap. An alternative (and closer) day trip option from Siem Reap is Phnom Kulen, a perfect outing for those wanting to escape to nature and picnic in awe-inspiring surroundings. Otherwise known as Kulen Mountain, Phnom Kulen is a sacred national park complete with a hilltop temple, two glorious waterfalls and the archaeological spot, Kbal Spean, where The River of a Thousand Lingas lies.

Hard to miss thanks to its shimmering golden roofs, The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is among the top Cambodia points of interest, as being the official royal residence of King Sihamoni. Although parts of the palace remain closed to the public – for risk of Sihamoni being spotted in his undies, we guess – the Throne Hall, Silver Pagoda and various other surrounding buildings are all accessible, allowing a close look at the intricate architectural detailing of the temples and structures in the midst of beautifully manicured tropical gardens.

Angkor Wat , Siem Reap | Photo: Aylor Simpson

Angkor Wat , Siem Reap | Photo: Aylor Simpson

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Remembering the genocide

Cambodia is a country that has been ripped apart by its history and, while here, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, where a total estimated 1.7 million people (a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time) were executed. Although it may be difficult to stomach, it can allow greater insight into the perspectives of the Khmer people and their admirable resilience. While in Phnom Penh, those willing to learn more can take a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school turned detention centre where an estimated 17,000 people were tortured and murdered. Further out to the south of the city, you’ll find Choeung Ek, the best-known of a number of mass graves known as ‘The Killing Fields’ with a hard-hitting audio tour. This reflection on the dark side of humanity is not everyone’s cup of tea but undoubtedly a moving experience.

Over on the South-eastern coastline of Cambodia you’ll find Sihanoukville, a fun beach town often used as a jumping-off point for the white sand islands nearby. While extensive development of Chinese-owned hotels and casinos takes over the beachfront of Sihanoukville, the islands retain their charm, with sheer natural beauty and lack of infrastructure making for an adventurous trip. Don’t expect total isolation however, for the islands are pretty popular with party animals, meaning the island’s bar scene can get pretty crazy. The laid-back little sister of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem Island, is our top pick for its pristine white sand Saracen Bay beach and prime snorkelling spots on the island’s northern tip. Wildlife watching on the forest trail is a must while you’re here; stay quiet and you might catch sight of hornbill birds, monkeys and sea eagles.

X-EM Gallery Phnom Penh | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

X-EM Gallery Phnom Penh | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

Siem Reap | Photo: Jurriaan Teulings

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Cambodia’s only master chef Luu Meng, owner of restaurant Malis, is constantly experimenting and showcasing the very best of his country’s culinary secrets

Where to eat in Cambodia

Phnom Penh

While in Phnom Penh you can’t go wrong with a visit to Romdeng, a restaurant specialising in traditional Cambodian fares, such as baked-fish amok, tangy pomelo salad and tiger prawn curry. Set in a colonial villa with its own pool and staffed by former street youths, Romdeng also allows daring customers to sample deep-fried tarantulas and stir-fried tree ants with beef and basil – crispy and full of protein!

Other gastronomical delights in Phnom Penh are decidedly international. Topaz, a 20-years-old landmark of French fine dining in the city centre is where cutting-edge cooking meets time-honoured tradition is a contemporary setting reflecting the best of the region’s vibrant diversity. Sourcing the best ingredients from across France and Cambodia, with frequent events attended by Michelin-starred chefs, Topaz is one for the itinerary. Another unlikely find is Mediterranean-Chinese fusion restaurant Chinese House, bringing modern Asian flavours – like marinated squid and big blackfish – together with East-meets-West tapas options. As an added bonus, Chinese House also houses a chic cocktail bar downstairs, as well as weekday specials, music events and Sunday brunch. For the veggies among us, Backyard café is your Phnom Penh go-to, catering to a growing number of international fans with vegan, vegetarian and raw food options, such as their tasty king quinoa, pumpkin and hummus salad.

Cambodia’s only master chef Luu Meng, owner of restaurant Malis, is constantly experimenting and showcasing the very best of his country’s culinary secrets. The menu at Malis features a healthy balance of curries, grilled food and specialities, including his signature dish Prahok Ktis, made with Cambodian fermented fish, kroeung curry paste, minced pork, pea eggplant, chilli and coconut milk, served with fresh, crispy vegetables and rice crackers. Aside from the original restaurant in Phnom Penh, there is also one in Siem Reap.

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Siem Reap

Another restaurant with locations in both major cities is The Sugar Palm, the brainchild of Chef Kethana, daughter of Cambodian refugees who escaped to New Zealand during the 1970s. In the early 2000s, she returned to her home country to be at the forefront of the revival of Khmer cuisine, re-establishing Cambodian cooking as her mother and grandmother had taught her and adding her own, modern twist in beautiful colonial villa settings. There’s more Khmer cuisine to be had at Mahob Khmer Cuisine, a stylish eatery converted from a traditional wooden Khmer house overlooking the Siem Reap River. Choose between an outdoor table either on the second-floor terrace, in the lush tropical gardens out front, or in air-conditioned luxury, to enjoy Mahob’s tasting menu and à la carte offerings featuring ‘hot stone’ dishes cooked on volcanic stone. If you’re interested in how it’s done, try joining in on one of their weekly cookery classes.

Good food for good causes, Marum is a social enterprise restaurant that operates as part of the NGO Kaliyan Mith (meaning ‘good friends’ in Khmer) providing intensive training and jobs for former street kids. As well as heaps of heart, the food here is fantastic, offering coconut-heavy Khmer dishes with contemporary flair. Blue Pumpkin – Angkor Wat meanwhile is a popular name in the city, for its bakery and restaurant concept that serves up Asian and French cuisine as well as baked goods, sweet treats and ice creams. Now with a small early-opening branch right outside the entrance to Angkor Wat, there’s no excuse not to fuel up on delicious food before watching the famed Angkor Wat sunrise. After a day of temple traipsing, the upscale offering Embassy Restaurant will no doubt hit the spot. Specialising in a seasonal seven-course gastronomy menu of Khmer favourites, this restaurant also boasts a fine, exclusive selection of wines for ideal pairings.

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Chinese House, Phnom Penh

Shopping in Cambodia

For nine years, Khmer fashion designer Kosal Ou learned everything about standards, design and sewing of good quality clothing in a garment factory for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap. Today, his own Kool As U label, is at the forefront of Cambodia’s fledgling fashion scene. It features proud Khmer designs, available at his Phnom Penh shop.

Trunkh’s two shops in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are little treasure troves of upcycled furniture, badges, ceramics, aging hand-painted shop signs, and even carousel animals from the Kingdom of Wonder. The two owners of this ‘first Cambodia-centric lifestyle brand in the world’ collect local objects and fashion on provincial buying forays and design some themselves.

Rather than pursuing a career in Europe, the French-schooled artist Em Riem came back to Phnom Penh to help develop and represent a new Khmer contemporary art scene. To achieve this, he started his own gallery X-EM in 2008, a few blocks away from the Royal University of Fine Arts. His portraits of hunky Khmer guys on burlap rice bags are a few of the eye catchers of Mâles, the hotel restaurant of the Arthur & Paul resort.

Central Market, Phnom Penh | Photo: Thavry Em

Central Market, Phnom Penh | Photo: Thavry Em

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A newcomer to our Cambodia gay nightlife guide to Phnom Penh is Valentino’s, an inclusive gay hotspot hosting live shows that kick off at midnight, alongside cheap drinks and live DJs

Cambodia nightlife

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is best viewed from above and its glittering nighttime view is better than any. At the new Rosewood hotel’s Sora Sky Bar visitors can gaze out at the city’s sunset and night panoramas, on the 37th floor of the Vattanac Capital Tower, in 5-star luxury. An institution in Phnom Penh at this point is the iconic Raffles Le Royal hotel’s Elephant Bar where you’ll find quintessential afternoon tea, snacks and tapas plates served up in timeless surroundings dripping with sophistication. Complete with a well-stocked bar of fine spirits and over 30 types of gin, come to Elephant Bar to try the Femme Fatale, a cocktail specially crafted for Jackie Kennedy during her visit to Cambodia in 1967.

A brilliantly conceived bar concept in Phnom Penh is Space Hair; hair salon by day, gay bar by night. Owner Sopheap Chuk has trained his resident Khmer staff in both beauty and hospitality meaning that they can tell their Bloody Marys from their Bellinis, and don’t mind showing off some toned muscle either! A newcomer to our Cambodia gay nightlife guide to Phnom Penh is Valentino’s, an inclusive gay hotspot hosting live shows that kick off at midnight, alongside cheap drinks and live DJs. As well as a nightclub, Valentino’s also serves food from their own bistro on the outside terrace all day and night. A more mature Phnom Penh nightclub is the long-running nightclub Heart of Darkness, open since 1993 and attracting visitors from all over the world. Fun and affordable, Heart of Darkness is the place to be for a stylish night out celebrating Khmer culture and tradition.

Siem Reap

It’s undeniable that many of Siem Reap’s gay bars tend to be a little tacky and on the city’s main tourist drag, unaffectedly named Pub Street, be prepared to steer yourself away from a multitude of club promoters and other quirky characters. Nevertheless, you should prepare for a fun, unpredictable night out! A little gay gem on the same stretch to ease you into the night is relaxed gay bar Barcode, featuring an outdoor terrace with garden views and regular drag performances starting at 9.30pm.

Sora Sky Bar

Sora Sky Bar

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