Phnom Penh: the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. The glimmering spires of the royal palace, the fluttering saffron of the monks’ robes, and the luscious location on the banks of the mighty Mekong; this is one of Asia’s undiscovered gems. But it’s also a city on the move, as a new wave of investors move in, perhaps forever changing the character, and skyline, of this classic city. Phnom Penh is a crossroads of Asia’s past and present, a city of extremes of poverty and excess, of charm and chaos, but one that never fails to captivate.
The celebrated temples of Angkor are Cambodia's greatest tourist attraction. The 100 or so temples are the sacred remains of what was once a much larger administrative and religious centre, and were built between the 9th and 13th centuries to glorify a succession of Khmer kings. The three most magnificent temples are Bayon, Ta Prohm and the immense Angkor Wat.
Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century and the temples were gradually cloaked by forest. The site became the source of scholarly interest in the late-19th century after the publication of Voyage Ã Siam et dans le Cambodge by French naturalist Henri Mouhot. Efforts were undertaken to clear away the jungle vegetation that threatened to completely destroy the monuments, and restoration continues today.
Cambodia's second-largest city is an elegant riverside town, home to some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country. Battambang used to be off the map for road travellers, but facilities have been improved and it makes a great base for visiting the nearby temples and villages. The most scenic river trip in the country links Battambang with Siem Reap.
It's a secondary hub on the overland route between Thailand and Vietnam, and if National Hwy 6 from Poipet to Siem Reap is ever upgraded it'll become an even smaller hub. The network of charming old French shop houses clustered along the riverbank is the real highlight here, and there are a number of wats scattered around the town. The small museum has a collection of Angkorian-era artefacts, and beyond the town there's a number of hilltop temples, yet more wats and a large lake. Battambang is a pretty bumpy 293km (181mi) bus or share-taxi ride from the capital.
Surrounded by white-sand beaches and undeveloped tropical islands, the port city and beach resort of Sihanoukville (Krong Preah Sihanouk), also known as Kompong Som, is the closest thing you get to the Costa del Cambodia. Visitor numbers have risen steadily in recent years – and are likely to skyrocket if flights to Siem Reap are resumed – but for the time being, despite the boomtown rents, the city and its sandy bits remain pretty laid-back.
Copyright 2010 Lonely Planet Publications , all rights reserved, used with permission