I have previously asked “why is Cambodia so popular for backpackers?” and it became apparent that there were two main areas of the country that were more visited than others: central Siem Reap and the coastal town of Sihanoukville. If you had to spend a week in just one of these places, which would it be, and why?
Most people go to Siem Reap to see the majestic Temples of Angkor but there are plenty of other things to keep you interested when you’re there. Visiting Sihanoukville, however, it less about the culture and history, more about relaxing by the beach and enjoying a tropical holiday [that ISN’T in Thailand].
For most visitors, entry to Cambodia will be at Siem Reap International Airport, so that immediately gives Siem Reap the advantage over Sihanoukville. The other main international airport in Cambodia is in the capital Phnom Penh, which is much closer to Sihanoukville, so arrival in the capital may mean an easy journey westwards to the seaside – although you’d be missing out on the famous Ibis Bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap which all backpackers seem to take!
So what are the advantages of heading to Siem Reap?
Put simply, the main draw in Siem Reap is to see the Temples of Angkor. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Preah Khan et al, they are all amazing in their own ways. I would recommend seeing them all. The one day entrance price to the Temples of Angkor is $37 (you keep the ticket and show it at all temple entrances), so this is not exactly cheap, but come on, you will never regret seeing these amazing Khmer monuments. Away from the temple trampling, you have other attractions in Siem Reap, such as the Cambodia Landmine Museum, Kbal Spean, and Pub Street, as well as the trek down to the Tonle Sap.
Would you advise coming to Siem Reap if I am not interested in temples?
Actually, I don’t think that would be a good idea. The Temples of Angkor are THE reasons to visit this city. Although Siem Reap does have some nice attractions aside from the temples (including Pub Street where you can drink Angkor Beer and eat Khmer BBQ all day long), your money would be better off spending some time by the beach instead.
So what are the main advantages of heading to Sihanoukville?
The seaside! Put simply, Sihanoukville (and the surrounding area) is being developed as a major holiday destination these days by the Cambodian Government, and it is still in its infancy, so you enjoy it before it gets too crowded and commercialised. The beaches here are gorgeous: Otres Beach, Serendipity Beach, and Ochheuteal Beach are the main ones. Being near the seaside also provides two more of Sihanoukville’s main draws: the water sports and the seafood! Probably the best – and freshest – food in Cambodia is served up in Sihanoukville (and nearby Kep), and most it came straight from the Gulf of Siam only an hour ago! Just make sure you do your windsurfing BEFORE you eat, or things could get messy…
Isn’t it a bit silly to spend time in Sihanoukville if I am not interested in beach holidays?
Perhaps, yes, but Sihanoukville is a very laid-back seaside town, and while it does not have the wealth of tourist attractions that Siem Reap has, it nevertheless offers some downtime and relaxation away from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle. I don’t like sunbathing at all, but it is always a joy to walk along the famous beaches of Sihanoukville, and the nearby Ream National Park is a classic example of getting in touch with Cambodian nature.
So what else does Cambodia have to offer?
If you are planning to spend a few weeks in Cambodia, then Phnom Penh is also a nice city to visit. It is known in backpacking circles as being a place for some ‘dark tourism’: experiencing the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum where Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of people. Most people will only visit Phnom Penh if they have time, as the usual choice will be between the temples of Siem Reap and the beaches at Sihanoukville.