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Touring Cambodia without crowds

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Travel to parts of Cambodia that most tourists have yet to discover.

In 2013 over 2 million people visited the temples at Angkor, which accounts for around half of all international travellers to Cambodia. These incredible structures are not to be missed on any holiday to Cambodia. However, take the time to see the other side of Cambodia and you will be duly rewarded. Here’s how.

Battambang

Crowd-free rating: 1/5

Battambang street sceneBattambang street scene by John Black

Although it is Cambodia’s second most populous town, peace only came to Battambang province as late as 1996, keeping it well off the tourist trail. The dearth of crowds and only moderate development has given this laid-back riverside city the ambiance of a country town. Although its residents were persecuted by the Khmer Rouge regime, the city itself was mostly unaffected through Cambodia’s long and bloody civil war. Home to some of Cambodia’s best preserved architecture, with over 800 buildings of historical significance, Battambang presents a fascinating blend of French-colonial and Khmer urban scenery.

Set on a tranquil river, Battambang’s many Art-Deco shops and houses are being restored into trendy cafes, bars, art galleries and some exceptionally good boutique hotels. The Governor’s Residence has been beautifully restored and the old train station gives a tangible insight into days gone by. Set just outside the city, the popular Bamboo Train utilises the old rails for rides on bamboo platforms powered by a small motor, ideal for travellers wanting a glimpse of nearby fields and villages. Vivid yet peaceful, the combination of an emerging art scene, exciting new places to eat, drink and stay and the budding interest of travellers make this the perfect destination to visit right now. Just three hours by car from Siem Reap, you can also arrive by boat, subject to water levels.

Preah Vihear

Crowd-free rating: 5/5

Preah Vihear cliff-top temple Preah Vihear cliff-top temple

Preah Viihear sits on top of a sheer 500m cliff-face in the untamed north of Cambodia. Built around 100 years prior to Angkor Wat, the temple is dedicated to Shiva, a Hindu deity. An ongoing dispute between Thailand and Cambodia has seen violent clashes, discouraging travellers for some time, but a recent court ruling confirming ownership by Cambodia has hopefully brought peace at last. This is great news for travellers looking for a new frontier as its historical significance, incredible location and lack of tourist crowds make this one of Cambodia’s most unique experiences. Located 210km from Phnom Penh, the road passes through Anlong Venh, the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold. To get up to the temple you need to take a motorbike or truck up the hill. Once there you will be rewarded with a majestic temple decorated with intricate bass-relief carvings, with many pavilions and courtyards throughout. Inside is the central sanctuary, where a small Buddhist temple is still in use. As you reach the back of the temple take in the breathtaking views from the cliff-top over the rugged plains below.

Smartraveller has no official warnings about Preah Vihear at the time of writing, however, given the historically capricious state of affairs in this region, we encourage all travellers to check with their government’s latest tourist advice prior to travel.

Mondulkiri

Crowd-free rating: 5/5

Traditional Mondulkiri house Traditional Mondulkiri house

Unique in both climate and culture, Modulkiri is the most sparsely populated province in Cambodia. Set in the hills, with some areas reaching up to 1km (0.6 miles) above sea level, the cooler climate cultivates pine trees and dark forests, grass-covered hills, lush valleys and sparkling waterfalls. Local culture is defined by the minority tribes, mainly Bunong, that make up 80% of Mondulkiri’s population. These tribes live off the land and while some farms are being developed, the majority rely on hunting for their living. Visit traditional villages for a taste of local life or search for wildlife amongst the trees. A six hour drive from Phnom Penh, we offer a three day Mondulkiri tour showcasing stunning vistas, waterfalls and traditional villages.

Kratie

Crowd-free rating: 3/5

While certainly not on the tourist trail, Kratie has developed a small holiday industry thanks to the native Irrawaddy River Dolphins. Passing through lush countryside, keep an eye out for traditional stilt houses, endless rice fields and the 100 pillar pagoda. Once you reach the Mekong River, a boat is needed to get out to the “dolphin pool”, where the patient may catch a glimpse of one of these rare river dolphins. Thanks to conservation efforts the number of Irrawaddy Dolphins is slowly increasing so sightings are more common than ever, with almost all travellers now seeing at least one dolphin. We offer a comfortable three-day Kratie Dolphin Discovery tour which includes transport to and from Phnom Penh.

Koh Kong

Lodge on the lakeLodge on the lake

Crowd-free rating: 5/5

Getting away from it all doesn’t need to mean doing without your creature comforts. Koh Kong is a southern province near the border of Thailand on the Gulf of Thailand coast.  4 Rivers Eco Lodge in Tatai, Koh Kong province consists of tented villas built over the water, surrounded by virgin forest. From these jungle hideaways, there is a labyrinth of mangrove waterways waiting to be explored. Kayaking through the pristine water is a great way to spot local birdlife, while trekking through the jungle into the Cardamom Mountains reveals the traditional ways of life of its native inhabitants. Four hours from Phnom Penh and three hours from Sihanoukville, Tatai is a million miles from anywhere.

Kampong Thom

Crowd-free rating: 3/5

Sambor Prei KukSambor Prei Kuk

About halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, most travellers pass straight through Kampong Thom, missing out on the charming countryside and fascinating temples at Sambor Prei Kuk. With more than 100 pre-Angkorian structures scattered through the forest, the area consists of three main temple complexes and the serene atmosphere is a world away from the crowds at Angkor Wat.

Kampong Thom is a perfect example of life in rural Cambodia and highlights include visiting local villages, silk farms and a silver village. The local people are at the heart of travel in remote areas, so simply visiting the local markets or watching farmers driving oxen through rice paddies will give you a real feel for the area. Located on Tonle Sap Lake, there is also the opportunity to cruise a little-visited part of this impressive lake.

Travel Indochina includes Battambang and Kampong Thom on some of its Small Group tours in Cambodia and offers tailor-made touring options to all the above destinations.