Few destinations leave an impression quite like Cambodia’s. Angkor Thom was an advanced city, and Angkor Wat and the Bayon sophisticated temples, built around the time of the Norman conquest. New skyscrapers complete the dramatic landscape and tell a contemporary story of fast-paced change. And then there are the Cambodians themselves, who are optimistic, warm and soulful.
Consider starting your journey at Siem Reap, a city that has called to travelers for decades thanks to its proximity to the temple complex Angkor Wat. One of the best times to see the site is at daybreak, when you can watch the sunrise over its iconic towers. Then head back to the urban center to shop, dine and explore.
You’ll find a slew of fashionable boutiques selling souvenirs a few blocks from the Siem Reap River. Named for the collection’s Madagascar-born, French-educated designer, Eric Raisina is known for its haute dresses and silk wraps. Next door, ceramic elephants come in a rainbow of colors at Theam’s House. Also look for vases and woven bamboo place mats.
Once limited to street-food stalls and hotel restaurants, Siem Reap’s culinary scene has exploded in recent years. Dishes on the tasting menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak are a twist on traditional Cambodian dishes, such as wild mangosteen and freshwater fish from nearby Tonlé Sap Lake. If you’re in the mood for cocktails, stop in at Miss Wong, which is decked out in red lanterns. And don’t miss the Phare Cambodian Circus, where performing-arts students put on shows full of acrobatic acts and bodily contortions in an intimate red tent.
Adventurers who want to get off the beaten path can plan an extraordinary overnight experience with Asia Transpacific Journeys to Banteay Chhmar. This 12th-century temple is in northwest Cambodia, three-and-a-half hours from Siem Reap. Although much of the one-square-mile complex is in ruins and many of its massive stone piles are gripped by tangles of jungle vines, the Global Heritage Fund and other groups are slowly piecing its intricately carved temple walls and towers back together.
Other than a handful of children who think of Banteay as their playground, you’ll probably have the temple to yourself (it hosts several hundred tourists a year, compared to Angkor Wat’s more than 2 million). Meals are cooked by villagers, and travelers bed down in one of two canvas tents outfitted with a toilet and a shower. You can then top off the magical day with a candlelit dinner at the edge of the ruins while local musicians play traditional Khmer music under the stars.
Eric Raisina: Oum Khun St.; no phone; ericraisina.com
Theam’s House: 011-855-78-208-161; theamshouse.com
Cuisine Wat Damnak: between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School; 011-855-77-347-762; cuisinewatdamnak.com
At Miss Wong: The Lane; 011-855-92-428-332; misswong.net
The Phare Cambodian Circus: Comaille Rd.; 011-855-15-499-480; pharecambodiancircus.org
Asia Transpacific Journeys: 800-642-2742; asiatranspacific.com
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.