Beyond Angkor Wat: Cambodia’s less-traveled sites for art, culture and nature

Battambang’s dreamy, poetic vibes are a welcome change from Siem Reap. Pic: Mad Monkey Hostels

THERE’S good reason tourists flock to Siem Reap all year round – some of the most intricate temple architecture in Asia can be found at the city’s centrepiece, Angkor Wat.  The second largest temple complex in the world is largely intact, a mightily impressive feat of engineering.

But beyond the iconic temples are quaint provinces and villages that are slowly emerging as tourist destinations. These small towns – all which are currently vying for UNESCO World Heritage status – are worth the trek out as alternative hubs for art, culture and food.

The process for these sites to get on the short-list will take at least five years, with restoration work in the three towns completed before then. But before they climb up the must-visit lists, make a detour the next time you’re in Cambodia.


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How to get there
You can buy a bus ticket from Siem Reap for trips that can take up to three-and-a-half hours

What to expect
A thriving art scene and unique food

In the western region of Cambodia is Battambang, a province rich in architectural heritage and an increasingly vibrant art scene. Travelfish said that the city’s dreamy and poetic vibes are a welcome change from the raw, unbridled energy of Phnom Penh and the chaotic mash of Siem Reap.

Battambang’s contemporary art scene is a result of many homegrown artists enjoying recent success. The city’s artistic revival has seen large, psychedelic murals in public spaces, numerous art galleries, artist collective spaces, and art exhibitions often met with warm response.

It’s also worth stopping by Jaan Bai, a restaurant endorsed by the renowned David Thompson of Bangkok’s Nahm. The restaurant cleverly combines Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai influences in tapas-sized dishes including Kampot pepper crab with chilli jam. Bonus: A seven-course menu will only set you back US$15.

The surrounding countryside allows for exploration on bicycles, a cheap and efficient way to get around. Soksabike offers full- and half-day tours in the countryside complete with trips to local residences to learn about cottage industries such as rice wine production and weaving.

Battambang is also where Cambodia’s last-standing bamboo trains operate. People, rice and livestock are shuttled back and forth upon squat wooden platforms, which are placed on top of a wheeled metal carriage powered by a small engine. The train chugs along at only 40 kilometers per hour, crashing though jungle undergrowth and rattling over bridges on the way.


How to get there
Kampot is a five-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, and will only set you back about US$4

What to expect
Pepper farm tours and fried black pepper crabs

Kampot is a sleepy riverside town known for producing some of the best black pepper in the world. Top chefs around the world pine for Kampot spice, which carries slightly sweet and floral notes. The pepper vines thrive at the foot of the mountains because of the quartz in the soil, lending the spice its unique characteristics.

When visiting a pepper farm in Kampot, it’s not a trip out without buying fresh peppercorns, fresh from the stem. There are also many riverside restaurants making use of the premium spice in Khmer dishes like stir-fried whole crab tossed in dark, peppery sauce. To wash down the heat, Rikitikitavi offers attractive happy hour deals.

Kampot is also the durian capital of Cambodia. For the uninitiated, durian is a thorny fruit with an especially pungent smell. The thick skins open up to luxuriously creamy flesh, sometimes folded into cake batters, ice cream and cream puffs. When eaten at its prime, the flesh is both rich and sweet with inexplicably savory undertones.

SEE ALSO: Dare you try these unusual Asian fruits?


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How to get there
You can take a bus from Phnom Penh on a trip that takes about six to seven hours. You can also opt to take a bullet boat from Kampung Cham along the Mekong.

What to expect
Friendly Irrawady dolphins and river trails

Along the Mekong and northeast of Cambodia is the charming town of Kratie, one of the best places in the region to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawady dolphin. According to Travelfish, roughly 80 of the dwindling species have made a home out of Kampi, 20 kilometers north of Kratie.

These dolphins don’t usually approach tourist boats, and are harder to place in the wet season. But be mindful about your tour guide following guidelines provided like only using oars when near the dolphins. Profits from the souvenir shop in Kampi go towards conserving the dolphins.

For the nature lover, it’s also worth booking a ride on the Mekong Discovery Trail. You’ll be taken by boat through some of the Mekong’s least populated trails and may even touch the Cambodia-Laos border. The Mekong runs through China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, and many communities depend on the stream for their livelihoods.