You’re planning a trip to Cambodia and you’re hoping to find some other spots. You want to escape the tourists yet stay close to Angkor Wat. With this list of four of my favorite spots near Siem Reap, I hope you can visit these hidden sites tucked away from the main tourist trail.
Each of these tourist spots is within a one or two day trip from Angkor Wat and could easily be added on to a traditional Cambodia itinerary.
Imagine visiting Angkor Wat without the tourists. Picture a temple half reclaimed by the jungle, with massive trees growing out of the faces and towers. Sounds pretty magical, right? That’s what you’ll find when you visit the temple complex at Banteay Chhmar.
Located a full days journey from Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar features a massive central temple with the enigmatic carved face towers similar to those found at Angkor. There are four smaller satellite temples surrounding the main temple as well.
Though Banteay Chhmar lacks the preservation of Angkor Wat, there is a certain charm to its tumbling walls and neglected towers. Without the crowds, you can take your time and appreciate the remarkable beauty of this ancient Khmer temple. Stroll around the grounds, scan the bas-relief murals, and gaze up at the faces of long-dead kings as they stare out at a now-vanished empire.
How to Get to Banteay Chhmar
From Siem Reap, take a bus or taxi to Serey Sophorn/Banteay Meanchey. All buses that go to Battambang will pass through this town. From there, you need to get a taxi to Banteay Chhmar. The community-based tourism cooperative located in Banteay Chhmar has one taxi that they run, otherwise, you can easily find a car waiting near the bus depot that will take you to the temple for a small fee.
Accommodation in Banteay Chhmar
Banteay Chhmar doesn’t have any traditional guesthouses or hotels, so if you’re looking for those, you’ll want to get a room in Serey Sophorn and take a taxi up to Banteay Chhmar. It is very doable as a day trip.
If you want to sleep in Banteay Chhmar, the people who live in the village around the temple run a Community Based Tourism project (CBT) that runs homestays in the village. Get in touch with them ahead of time to let them know you’re coming. They have an office in town, but when I visited in June 2017, it was unmanned.
Another impressive remnant of the Khmer Empire, this ancient temple complex sits only 75 miles (120km) from Siem Reap, making it an easy day trip. This tourist spot has the added benefit of being less well known and thus lacking the crowds associated with Angkor.
Though there are over 180 temples and sanctuaries in the Koh Ker region, the main attraction is Koh Ker temple, a square stepped pyramid rising dramatically out of the surrounding Cambodian landscape. Also worth a visit are the beautifully carved red temple Prasat Prahom, and the fantastical Prasat Pram overgrown by strangler figs.
How to Get to Koh Ker
The easiest way to get to Koh Ker is by hiring a private taxi for the day. A taxi to and from Koh Ker stopping at several temples along the way should set you back about $70.
Preah Vihear Temple
Arguably the most impressive temple in Cambodia, this little-known tourist spot sits atop a mountain on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Older than Angkor Wat, it is built in a similar style and can be reached in a two or three day trip from Siem Reap.
Preach Vihear Temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and stretches 2,600ft (800m) on a north-south axis at the top of a mountain in the Dangrek Mountain range. The sight of a thousand-year-old temple standing on the edge of a 1,600ft (500m) cliff looking out across the Cambodian floodplain is not something you will soon forget.
This tourist spot also has an intriguing modern history. Because of its location on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, the two countries have had several conflicts over ownership of the temple.
In June of 1962, the Hague ruled that Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia. And yet, the two countries continue to dispute ownership. If you visit today, you will still see Thai soldiers positioned across the border, a few fortifications, and maybe a Khmer soldier sitting idly waiting for something to happen. The area has been conflict-free since 2013, but it may still make sense to check with your embassy before visiting.
How to Get to Preah Vihear
This may be confusing so read closely. There are two places in Cambodia called Preah Vihear: the first is the temple, the second is a city of the same name. You do not want to go to the city. The nearest town to Preah Vihear temple is the village of Sra’aem.
There are minibuses that run from Siem Reap to Sra’aem, passing through Anlong Veng. Tickets should be $10-15.
From Sra’em, it’s 18 miles to the temple. You can hire taxis or a moto in town or your hotel may be able to help you find a ride. Expect to pay $15 round trip.
Entrance to the temple is $10 and you need to show your passport to buy a ticket. Getting a ride to the top of the mountain is a further charge, you can pay a motodop ($5) or take a truck ($25). It’s also possible to hike to the top using the ancient staircase. I highly recommend taking this track if you’re relatively fit an adapted to the heat in Cambodia. Bring snacks though, there is no food at the top.
Where to Stay
There are several guesthouses in Sra’aem that line the main road through town. Rooms in any of them should be between $8 – $15, depending on the time of year and your negotiation skills. When I visited in June 2017, I stayed at the Soksan 66 Guesthouse and I thought it was perfectly comfortable.
This town, situated 83 miles (135km) north of Siem Reap, is home to some stark reminders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Genocide. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Anlong Veng was one of the most remote towns in Northwestern Cambodia, inaccessible by road. This inaccessibility made Along Veng the perfect stronghold for the Khmer Rouge leaders in the dying days of their power.
A quick history lesson for you: from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the communist Khmer Rouge who orchestrated a massive genocide, killing over a quarter of the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge was controlled by Brother Number 1, Pol Pot, and a group of his cadres, including Ta Mok (Brother Number 4), Son Sen, and Khiev Samphan.
When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and pushed the Khmer Rouge out of their capital, Phnom Penh, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retained control of the fringes of the country, continuing to fight a guerrilla war for decades. Pol Pot, Ta Mok, and many others made their home and center of control in the remote town of Anlong Veng
Today, physical signs of this complicated history remain in Anlong Veng. The five most notable dark tourist spots in Along Veng are Ta Mok’s house and lake, Son Sen’s grave, Pol Pot’s Grave, Ta Mok’s Mountain House, and Pol Pot’s House.
In town, tourists can visit Ta Mok’s house and see the artificial lake he constructed in the 1990s. This is easily reachable by foot, just head north towards the mountains from the roundabout in town and the driveway will be on your right.
For all the other sites, you will need to have your own transportation or hire a motodop driver in town for the day. I highly suggest hiring a driver, because many of these tourist spots are incredibly hard to find, and some are not signposted at all. A motodop for the day should cost between $10-$20 depending on your negotiating skills.
To reach the remote sites, follow the road north towards Choam and the Thai Border. The home and grave of Son Sen sit off the road to the right, shortly before you reach the mountains. Son Sen was once a leader of the Khmer Rouge, but his death was ordered by an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot in the late 90s.
Up in the Dangrek Mountains, just on the border with Thailand and directly across the street from a gaudy casino building, Pol Pot’s tomb sits quietly unadorned on a small side street. It is something of a travesty to think that a man who ordered the death of a quarter of his countrymen should be buried in such a beautiful place.
Just before the border crossing, take a right onto an unassuming dirt road and you’ll soon come to Ta Mok’s mountaintop vacation home, now the location of a Peace Museum and Khmer style resort with small pavilions and hammocks perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the floodplain below. This is a good spot to enjoy a picnic lunch, as bizarre as that sounds.
The last spot of the day, if you have the energy and fortitude to reach it, is the most gruesomely interesting. Deep in the jungles of the Dangrek Mountains sits the remains of the house of Pol Pot.
Following the road that passes Ta Mok’s mountain home, continue east, climbing up and down mountain slopes, through small villages, across wide open farmland, and through several military encampments. The border between Cambodia and Thailand is a bit porous up here and there is a chance the road passes in and out of both countries.
After many kilometers, a few forks, and lots of confusion, the road shrinks down to a muddy single track through the jungle, culminating in the graffitied shell of structure: the home of once all-powerful Brother Number One.
Once you soak up all the eeriness you can handle, head back down to Anlong Veng to recoup from your day of dark tourism.
How to Get to Anlong Veng
There are mini buses that run from Siem Reap to Along Veng every day, several times a day. Tickets should be $8-10.
Accommodation in Anlong Veng
There are several guesthouses on the main road in Along Veng, some nicer than others. I stayed in a perfectly comfortable family guesthouse in a room for $5, though I negotiated somewhat aggressively for that price. Expect to pay $7 to $15 for a room with a fan or A/C respectively.
Tourist Spots Off The Tourist Trail
Each of these tourist spots is located with a day or two of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. If you only have a short amount of time in Cambodia and you want to understand this country’s history on a deeper level, I hope you’ll consider exploring one or more of these gorgeous and important tourist sites.
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