Cambodia was unexpected. It crept up on me and settled over my skin until it felt lived in. I originally added Cambodia onto my Southeast Asia itinerary lazily, almost as an afterthought. But crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia was like changing lanes. Cambodia was cool, it was casual, it was calm. And it was cheap. There was a perceptible shift of pace, with a distinct (and welcome) lack of pushy tourism; once you step into this beautiful country, consider your feathers unruffled.
Kicking off with the big-ticket item – Cambodia's largest drawcard – no trip would be complete without Siem Reap. Gateway to the mighty Angkor Wat and a slew of other impressive temple sites, this brightly lit town has a low-key buzz with hip little spas, restaurants and backpacker chic to support the tourist trade. Depending on how temple crazy you are, you could spend days exploring; but for those with less time and/or inclination I suggest picking a few (we chose Angkor Wat; the tree-wrapped ruins of Tomb Raider fame, Ta Prohm; and the many-faced tiers of the Bayon) and making a day of it. If you want to get your blood pumping and see the countryside, get on your bike (literally) and cycle to your temples of choice.
Oft forgotten on the tourist circuit, there is a certain dilapidated charm about Battambang. Pretty, peeling lemon-yellow walls hold up some of Indochina's best preserved French colonial-era architecture. The sepia-toned streets are dreamlike, making wandering them pretty damn pleasant. Befriend your tuk-tuk driver and do a day trip out to Sampeu Hill, complete with a monastery, monkeys and a bat cave where at sunset, thousands of bats pour out of the cave mouth in a living, breathing black ribbon across the sky. But the real highlight is the artsy belly of Battambang, the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus (the animal-free kind, of course). Harnessing the raw talent and energy of the city's youth, this acrobatic and theatrical spectacular is nothing short of extraordinary, and offers a creative outlet and career opportunity for these young performers.
Famous for Kampot peppercorns, this riverside town has a snoozy mood that feels like you've just pressed pause on life, and a surprisingly delicious food scene. Check out Café Espresso that serves up great coffee, amazing breakfasts and legendary milkshakes for a little taste of home, or grab some ribs riverside at The Rusty Keyhole, an ex-pat favourite. Bokor National Park is great for exploring on a motorbike by day; don't miss Bokor Palace, a ghostly abandoned hotel perched atop the mountain with a creep factor of about 11 out of 10, particularly if you go on a misty day. But catch it when the sun's out and from the hotel rooftop you'll have a glossy, panoramic view of the sea.
For a pared-back seaside vibe, lovely Kep is an easy hour from Kampot. The beauty of this sleepy town is the art of doing nothing. Hire a scooter and lazily cruise around the wide open roads, eat some fresh crab by the ocean, or explore the temples in the nearby jungle. Kep is the proverbial breath of fresh air, and a personal favourite of mine.
If you're craving a livelier beach atmosphere, check out Sihanoukville. Perhaps the only exception to the 'calm and casual' rule mentioned earlier, Sihanoukville's main beach Serendipity Beach can be a little…grimy. A little brother to Kuta and Phuket of Bali and Thailand respectively, this particular area is full of tourists looking to party. If this isn't your style, head down to Otres Beach 2 for more of a laidback vibe with cleaner stretches of sea and sand, as well as a local Woodfordia-esque market with live music, tree swings and a special brownie store. Wander down to the beach after dark and you may see a glowing solar system of bioluminescent plankton twinkling in blue along the shore.
Phnom Penh can feel a little frenzied if you're not used to the pace of scooters and tuk-tuks zipping around you, but coming from Ho Chi Minh City (where crossing the street is a death wish and an artform in one), we felt at ease among the noise, smells and colours. Sadly, despite its serene ambience, Cambodia is home to a tragic and violent past. You would be unlikely to meet a Cambodian who was not directly affected by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, so visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is a harrowing but necessary experience if you want to understand this dark period of history. It also gives you a deep appreciation for the strength and spirit of the Cambodians and how they have rallied and rebuilt.
Indeed, the people of Cambodia are its epicentre; they are radiant, with a warmth and kindness that is unparalleled. Perfect for shifting down a gear and going with the flow, there's a raw beauty and rural charm about Cambodia that can't be ignored – so make sure you pay attention.
By Bree Potter