Cambodia is a wonderful country filled with history, natural beauty, and friendly locals. It is home to the mighty Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex from the 12th century AD. However, very often Angkor is the only stop on a typical Cambodia itinerary.
Cambodia is so much more than just Angkor Wat, as beautiful as it may be.
There are thousands of other awe-inspiring Khmer temples in the country, many of which are still waiting to be discovered.
If you step out of Siem Reap and take a road trip through the Cambodian hinterland, you will find ancient shrines and lost cities at every turn.
Many are huge complexes and some have hosted famous Hollywood stars.
A few feel like they don’t belong there and some are just piles of stones.
On our second trip to Cambodia, we decided to take a road trip to discover some of these lesser-known gems of the country.
Our 3-day Cambodia itinerary on the road was packed with history, culture and lots of amazing things to do in Cambodia we wouldn’t have dreamed of.
Bookmark our road trip packing list for ideas on what to take on your journey.
Cambodia Itinerary – Northern Cambodia Road Trip
On our Cambodia road trip, we covered more than 600 km in northern Cambodia.
We mostly drove on national highways and well-paved country roads but there are a few bumpy ones too.
Traffic was not very bad since we were taking an off-beat route.
We hired a private taxi and a driver who was also our tour guide for the next three days.
It was helpful to have a local with us because language was an issue in some really remote locations.
Day 1 – Beng Melea and Koh Ker
Early in the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Siem Reap and drove through National Road (NR) 6 and 64 to reach Prasat Beng Melea.
The journey took us 1.5 hours and was a comfortable one.
Prasat Beng Mealea, often dubbed as Cambodia’s hidden jungle temple, lies 70 km east of Siem Reap.
Built in the 12th century, Beng Melea was one of the largest temples of the Khmer Empire.
The temple is mostly in ruins today. Galleries and libraries that surround a central sanctuary are all covered with moss.
Strangler figs try to invade each and every crevice.
If you wish to have your Indiana Jones moment yet avoid the crowds of Ta Phrom, come to Beng Melea.
Get your tickets for US$5 at the ticket counter-cum-resting area on the highway.
Insider tip: Do not forget to try Krolan, sticky rice with beans and coconut milk, on your way here. You will see scores of Krolan vendors on NR 6.
Once we were done with Beng Mealea, we headed out to explore the lost city of Koh Ker, further north.
It took us another hour on NR 64 to get here.
We decided to have lunch at one of the local restaurants right in front of the ancient monuments before putting on our explorer shoes.
These restaurants often have an English menu with marked-up prices. Ask for the local menu and get translation help from your driver. Lunch turns out to be much cheaper then.
Koh Ker is the modern name of the ancient Khmer city of Lingapura.
The city was dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva of the Hindu Trinity and contains more than 200 Shiva temples.
What makes Koh Ker unique is a huge seven-tiered pyramid shrine called Prasat Prang. At a height of 36 m, Prasat Prang feels like a Mayan pyramid from the Yucatan peninsula. Totally out of place in tropical Asia!
Climb up 200 steps to get to the top of the pyramid for some amazing panoramic views of northern Cambodia.
Entry tickets to Koh Ker are available for US$10. You can buy your tickets at the same counter as of Beng Melea.
After finishing up with Koh Ker, we made a move to Sra Em where we had decided to stay for the night.
After a satisfying meal of Khmer red curry, vegetables, and rice we retired for the night. Our cozy little room in a guest house at Sra Em was comfortable and had all the necessary amenities.
Insider tip: Online accommodation options for Sra Em are limited. That is because many of the guest houses here are not registered online. You may want to wait till you get here to book yourself a good room for the night.
Day 2 – Preah Vihear
Temple of Preah Vihear, Dangrek Mountains
The next morning, after an early breakfast, we drove further north on NR 62 to arrive at the Temple of Preah Vihear in the Dangrek mountains bordering Thailand.
Preah Vihear has had a disturbing and bloody history behind it.
The temple was caught in an ownership feud between Cambodians and Thais for decades.
It was finally resolved in 2013 at the International Court of Justice.
You will be surprised to know that the Temple of Preah Vihear is another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cambodia.
Until now, I was under the impression that Angkor Wat was the only one.
The temple is stoically positioned on the edge of a cliff and commands an impressive view of both Thailand and Cambodia.
To get to the temple, you have to ride the last leg on a pickup truck.
The road is almost vertical to the ground here.
The truck shoots up the mountain as you dearly hold on to the railings. Quite similar to a thrill ride.
Tickets are priced at US$10 and hiring a full pick-up truck costs US$25. You can split it up if you can find people to accompany you.
Insider tip: Carry a hat and water because it can get unbearably hot in the mountains. There isn’t much shade in and around the Temple of Preah Vihear.
After an exhilarating ride up the mountains and an exciting time exploring the temple, we headed towards our last destination, the sustainable commune of Banteay Chhmar.
We had lunch midway at a local restaurant in a sleepy, little town called Anlong Veng.
Banteay Chhmar consists of 14 small villages on the Thai-Cambodia border.
Life, here, is slow.
Apart from the fact that it is home to one of the largest temple complexes of the Khmer era, you would think there is nothing much to do here.
We thought so too!
But Banteay Chhmar surprised us. It is one of those places where you can truly experience local culture.
This has been made possible through their Community Based Tourism (CBT) effort.
The CBT enables and empowers people of these villages. Locals help restore ruined temples, run homestays for tourists, feed them local food, and engage them in other cultural activities.
Once you arrive here, you simply need to go to the CBT office and then you will be all taken care of.
We arrived in Banteay Chhmar later in the day when it was sultry hot. We headed straight to our homestay for a quick shower and nap.
Then we had an early homemade dinner under the sky near the ancient temple of Banteay Chhmar.
A table had been laid out and our hosts (an elderly couple) were waiting for us.
The food that I had was one of the most amazing I had had in a while.
We went back to the homestay.
A few old ladies took a fascination to my son and we had a mute but interesting conversation for quite some time.
Insider Tip: Mobile network is bad. So, be prepared to stay disconnected from the rest of the world. And isn’t that a good thing sometimes?
Day 3 – Banteay Chhmar
Banteay Chhmar Temples
After a delicious breakfast of bread, eggs, soup, and fruits, we headed out to explore the ruined temple complex at Banteay Chhmar.
This temple had been built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century as a reminder of the war between Khmers and Chams.
On the outer walls, you will see intricate carvings depicting life and war from that era. These carvings are quite unique to this temple.
It’s not something you will see in other Angkorian temples.
The main complex comprises of four shrines – one dedicated to Buddha and the rest to the Hindu trinity.
In its heyday, the inner sanctuary housed both Buddhist and Hindu libraries side by side. You can see some broken remains today.
Your CBT tour guide will help you maneuver fallen rocks and get closer views of the architecture.
Tickets are priced at US$5 and are available right outside the temple.
When you are at the ticket counter take a glance at the incoming register. Not more than 10 people make it to Banteay Chhmar every day!
We could only imagine the expertise of architects and workers that had designed this place. And we hoped for a speedy restoration so that Banteay Chhmar could be seen again in its full glory.
An exciting Kuyon trip
We had a sumptuous lunch, again at the CBT office.
My son was getting excited for the next leg of the trip which was going to happen on a Kuyon.
A kuyon is a rural Cambodian vehicle that is steered by the engine of a tractor but resembles an open pick-up truck.
You will be exposed to the elements on this ride.
So, make sure you apply lots of sunscreen and carry your hat, sunglasses, and water.
You need a kuyon because some of the narrow roads in the villages are not accessible by car.
On your way, you will see typical Cambodian houses with porches in front of them.
Many of them lie vacant or are filled with older people.
The younger generation is on the other side of the border in search of better job opportunities.
We spent the afternoon exploring satellite temples of the main complex and another set of ruins outside the town.
On our way, we passed numerous cassava plantations, the new wonder crop of this side of the world.
Travelling in Banteay Chhmar was a lot about engaging with the locals, eating their food, understanding their history of pillage and plunder, and appreciating the fact that they were happy in spite of everything.
Insider Tip: Don’t expect to do much in Banteay Chhmar. Take it slow and soak it in.
Our road trip through Cambodia was dotted with smiles from warm and hospitable people. And lots and lots of history.
We also encountered some potholes and dusty roads.
Sometimes, the heat took our breath away but with an expert driver who knew his way around, it was the journey of a lifetime.
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Soumya is a passionate traveller who loves to explore the history and culture of every country she visits. She is a frequent visitor to South East Asia and has strolled through all ancient ruins in this region. Soumya chronicles her experiences on her travel blog, Stories by Soumya. Through her travels, she hopes to understand the world better, one trip at a time.