What is it about the Kingdom of Cambodia that attracts millions of visitors each year?
In only 20 years the number of tourists has jumped from 218,000 to over 5.6 million and growth shows no signs of slowing. “The Kingdom of Wonder” is clearly doing something right.
Despite neighbouring Vietnam being several times larger and more economically developed, when it comes to tourism, Cambodia punches well above its weight thanks to its unique allure. This is a country that captures the hearts and minds of those seeking the ultimate adventure in Southeast Asia.
Geographically and historically, Cambodia truly is the heart of Southeast Asia. This can be seen in its many captivating landscapes. A kaleidoscope of modern yet exotic cities, filled with pagodas, colonial villas and leafy Parisian-style boulevards, the most amazing range of majestic temples in the region, coastal resorts and cool riverside towns, lush green countryside, mountain ranges and crimson red sunsets that seem to devour the sky…
These mesmerising backdrops offer something to match everyone’s dreams of a tropical paradise. They also appeal to the adventurous spirit inside so many of us world wanderers.
If you can only visit one place in Southeast Asia it has to be the temples of Angkor Wat. They are one of the wonders of the world and the largest religious monument ever built. A national treasure and pride of all Cambodians, the temples are rarely left off a travel bucket list.
And little wonder why. There is literally nothing that compares with Angkor Wat anywhere on the planet, never mind in the region. The temples alone make Cambodia a top travel destination but really they’re just the start of the delights on offer here.
The nearby city of Siem Reap, with its old French quarter showcasing a beautiful mix of French and Sino-Khmer architecture, is not to be missed. The city provides a culture and heritage snapshot of the very best of Cambodia as it brims with artisans, silk weavers, sculptors, jewellers and traditional Khmer Apsara dance performers.
Then there’s Phnom Penh, the thriving capital known as the “Pearl of Asia” and the “Charming City”. It’s where I and many other expats have chosen to settle. Abundant with landmarks from its historic past, including palaces, pagodas and leafy boulevards, it’s a one-of-a-kind city. Colonial buildings stand next to ancient temples while traditional markets operate alongside gleaming skyscrapers. It’s a melting-pot metropolis where everything manages to find its place in a bewitching blend of old and new.
But only a few hours outside the capital you can be enjoying the fresh ocean breeze, deserted islands and laidback rhythms of Cambodia’s “Lost Riviera.” A retro railway network links Phnom Penh to the coast providing picture-perfect views of the beautiful provincial countryside. In the early 1900s the colonial French started developing the area—which became known as the “Saint Tropez of Southeast Asia” due to its French Riviera vibe—as a coastal retreat for well-to-do bureaucrats.
For my money, the best places to visit here are Kep and Kampot. The beach resort of Kep, with its fresh crab market, ocean-front boutique hotels and colonial villas is a quick, 30-minute drive from the train station. It’s a perfect spot to reconnect with nature in a tranquil environment.
Then there’s Kampot—a 45-minute, $20 tuk-tuk ride from Kep. This chilled-out, riverside locale attracts a steady stream of visitors but retains the cosy feel of a sleepy hideaway. Kampot’s main focal point is its rustic riverside where restaurants and bars offer superb views of the river’s relaxing surroundings. You can sit back and feast on fresh seafood, join an evening river cruise or take part in the water sports activities on offer.
Another plus to life here is the low costs, but I’m not talking cheap as chips street food or $2 beers—though of course, they’re available. But here in Cambodia, you can get serious bang for your buck. A bottle of Champagne for $33… a round of golf, on a pro-designed course and with the services of a caddie included, for $80… a day at the country club—massage included—for $14… dinner for two, with wine, in a cosy Italian for $14… Here, everything from basics, like rent, to indulgent luxuries are reasonably priced and means even those on more limited incomes can enjoy major lifestyle upgrades.
It’s nice to live it up and still have something left at the end of the month, but of course, money isn’t everything and what I love most about Cambodia is something money simply can’t buy: the delightful nature of the local people. There is a spirit of welcomeness from Cambodians, who consider the millions of people visiting their country as cause for celebration, that’s unparalleled. Walk down any road and prepare to be greeted by locals of all ages saying “hello” or “how are you?” with big, beautiful Khmer smiles and wanting nothing more than to practice their English and make a new friend.
So, if you want to experience the true heart of Southeast Asia, then come to Cambodia and let yourself be captivated by the charming and welcoming “Kingdom of Wonder”.