Elijah Ferrian, Vinh Dao and the AsiaLIFE team cover the more esoteric parts of Cambodia leading up to Tet, for those that are looking to explore Vietnam’s neighbour to the West. Three regions, subdivided into the best spots to eat, drink, and learn about everything contemporary Khmer.

If you’re living in Vietnam, chances are you have headed over to Cambodia at least a few times. While many people travel to the well-known spots like Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and the party-backpacker town of Sihanoukville, there is so much more to experience.

It’s no secret to any history buff the strife and conflict that Cambodia has been through in the past century, but when you dig deeper and talk to the people that are working on building up the culture and progressing forward into the future, the road ahead looks paved with creativity, ingenuity and promise.

The last decade has seen the country move forward in leaps and bounds, with improved infrastructure and facilities opening relatively unstepped paths.

One of Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforests, and the rare and distinct flora and fauna it is home to, can be explored through trekking, adventure and eco-tourism trips in the Cardamom Mountains. Connecting with indigenous tribes and the natural beauty of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri, now accessible, and eco-tourism spots are cropping up in Kratie, home to the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin and endangered Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle.

Tropical island life is aplenty, with the swathe of mostly undeveloped islands offering a slice of sought-after paradise. While Koh Rong is the party island, nearby Koh Rong Samloem is more untouched, and 2017 sees the addition of two luxury island resorts in the form of Six Senses Koh Krabey and Alila Villas Koh Russey by mid-year.

On the coast, Kep is undergoing a revival, having enjoyed the title of premiere seaside resort of Southeast Asia until the Khmer Rouge era. Once a weekend escape for the elite, the compact town is home to a series of derelict colonial villas that harken back to the country’s glorious Golden Age of the 1950s and ‘60s. The famous market, where a visit without sampling the crab is seen as sacrilege, and sprawling Kep National Park are must-dos.

The nearby riverside town of Kampot is making it onto the map of many visitors. This laid back destination is home to the country’s famous Kampot pepper, pristine countryside, a surprising amount of top-quality restaurants, boutique cafes and a burgeoning arts scene.

Those wanting to explore the pinnacle of Cambodia’s contemporary art scene should head to the country’s second largest city, Battambang. Also dubbed “the rice bowl of Cambodia”, the province boasts some of the best countryside Cambodia has to offer, as well as access to the country’s only surviving bamboo train. The city is home to a series of small galleries, restaurants, quirky boutiques and bars.

This issue, we would like to highlight all of the fantastic happenings in Cambodia’s most energized areas. A sort of travel guide, but with nods to specific restaurants, dishes, people, art scenes, and more. Insight from folks that have lived in the country, travelled it extensively, and have their finger on the pulse of the happenings there.

From its southern beaches to its northern hills, this country has serious pull for travellers. With spa and meditation retreats, quad bike escapes, luxury river cruises, wilderness expeditions, horseback outings, and sailing and dive trips, there is little the Kingdom does not offer. “Diversity is one of the things that makes it so amazing,” says Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, executive director for the Cambodia Hotel Association.

“You have to recognise the very high potential of Cambodia,” adds Try Chhiv, the government’s deputy general director of tourism, noting that the country’s recent relative stability has been a driving force for tourism.

Visitors can also get more bang for their buck, he says, by dining in high-end restaurants and touring the country at a fraction of the cost of other Southeast Asian nations.

Battambang – Arts Capital of Cambodia

Considered the relaxed southern neighbour of Cambodia’s tourism powerhouse Siem Reap, Battambang has risen to prominence as a juggernaut in the region for its stellar arts scene. The city has always had the reputation of fostering the best artists in the country.

Battambang has its roots steeped deeply in the history of Khmer creativity.

The Kingdom’s second-largest city has been the birthplace of many of the country’s most famous artists, musicians and intellectuals, such as 1960s singer Ros Sereysothe, and S-21 survivor and painter, Vann Nath.

Although the majority of artists were killed or fled under the Khmer Rouge, 35 years on from their ousting, the city’s art scene is gaining traction at a rapid pace. Today, Battambang is well on its way to once again being Cambodia’s creative capital, with more artists per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Romcheik 5 is one example of how creativity is blossoming in Battambang. Nestled in a small set of live-in studios across the Sangkae River, more and more artists are carving successful careers out for themselves.

Here the talented collective, who have been plucked from lives of horror, having being forced into child labour in Thailand, call on their undeniable creativity to produce stunning contemporary work that challenges their audiences.

“Battambang is becoming a healthy place to be as an artist,” Chov Theanly, a local Battambang artist says. “The growing number of expats living here and foreigners visiting is also helping to foster the scene and I enjoy being part of it.”

Evidence of this emerging landscape is the smattering of independent galleries, studios and workspaces opening up shop. Street 2.5 is quickly becoming the hub of the movement, with Lotus, Sammaki, and Make Maek centred there. Then there’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, also home to the renowned circus, and Studio Art Battambang, to name a few.

Travel

Countryside jaunts are where it’s at when it comes to travelling Battambang and the surrounding area. Marked by gorgeous, faded-orange colonial buildings within the city, and numerous temples dotted all across the outer lying valleys, Battambang is ripe for a motorcycle and a camera.

The city is filled with mythical statues that give a ‘larger than life’ vibe to the surroundings. Traveling south of the city centre to Wat Banan, known as “mini Angkor Wat”, it’s a short trip to this active buddhist temple that has a side trail leading visitors to a radical, little-known cave that was historically known as “The Cave of Sacred Water.” It’s worth a short trip out if you would like to explore some temples and natural phenomena, and stay away from crowds.

Eat

Jaan Bai

It’s hard to miss Jaan Bai. The ceiling-to-floor glass frontage and colourful mural that covers the outside wall make it stand out amongst the row of identikit electrical shops and phone stores that line the quiet Battambang street.

Operated by an NGO, Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT). They work with underprivileged children, and Jaan Bai, rice bowl in Khmer, operates as a training restaurant offering a fusion of Thai, Khmer and Western food.

However, don’t be put off by the term “training”, as there’s nothing amateur about the food, or service at this contemporarily kitted-out, artistic space. With a lengthy list of solid cocktails, it rightfully holds the reputation for being the best restaurant in the city.

1 Street 2, Battambang
Tel. 053 650 0106
cambodianchildrenstrust.org/projects/social-enterprise/jaan-bai/

Smokin’ Pot

An awesome spot that offers stir fry cooking classes for carnivores and vegetarians alike. Spend time with locals, head to the market, and then back to the village to cook and converse with some awesome folks. Really great experience for those new to Cambodia.

SE Street 121 + Road 1.5, Battambang
Tel. 551 282 400

Cold Night

One of the longest running restaurants in the city. The restaurant was a hangout for UNTAC workers in the early 2000’s. What is left over from that era are possibly the best ribs in Cambodia.

Off the main restaurant strip. Near junction of Street 207 and 5 National Route, Battambang.

THE SOUTHERN COAST – Dreamy Coastal Town of Kep and Ever-Hip Kampot.

Kep

While it’s long been on the map of locals and expats wanting a brief break from the suffocating urban centres, a steady trickle of tourists is starting to plant Kep on their travel itinerary. The recent addition of the town’s first two ATMs – cutting out the tedious trip to Kampot – is evidence that the historic town is gearing up to enter a new era.

However, for now, Kep’s tranquil charm remains, with relics scattered about the landscape harking back to a bygone age when luxury sports cars cruised down the newly-designed promenade and past the packed beach, filled with the top echelons of Khmer and colonial French society – all clad in the latest fashions.

To the other side of the promenade, sprawling villas with European minimalist architecture peek out from tropical forests that hug the hills gently rising from the shore. Horses and carriages carry the country’s elite along the quiet streets that are lined with cafés, restaurants and boutiques all serving fine cuisine and upmarket wares.

This is a picture of life during Kep’s heyday, enjoyed during the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s when it was a town reserved for the rich. Dubbed Kep-Sur-Mer, or the Saint Tropez of Southeast Asia, it was labelled an exclusive getaway.

However, the dream life was short-lived and, like the rest of the country, Kep suffered under the Khmer Rouge, becoming a military stronghold. It wasn’t until 2001 that peace was restored, and since then, Kep has slowly rebuilt itself. Derelict mansions have been restored into chic boutique hotels and private homes, a new generation of restaurants, bars and cafés are opening, and travellers are rediscovering the enchanting beauty that attracted high society.

Now, there’s more to do than laze on the beach, or kick back a cocktail at sunset in the serene surroundings of the Sailing Club. Kep National Park is 50 square kilometres of jungle, tropical forest and rolling hills. While walking is an option, a bumpy tuk tuk or moto ride along the winding trails offers views of sweeping landscapes taking in stretches of paddy fields dotted with intricate wats and sugar palms out to the sea and a smattering of islands.

The ancient caves of Kompong Trach sit a 40-minute drive away. Here, nature has worked her magic to carve the caves deep inside limestone mountains, and with a wonderful touch, centuries of erosion has led to the roof of the caves collapsing, creating a small lake that makes a stunning swimming spot.

Also, just try to imagine if the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi came to earth and built a guesthouse. That guesthouse would be a spitting image of Veranda, one of the longest running guesthouses in Kep. The expansive grounds are chock-full with wooden pathways, bungalows that are built alongside the contours of the hills, two pools and a restaurant with a view that overlooks all of Kep.

*You can get to Kep from Ha Tien, Vietnam. Fly into Rach Gia. Take a VND500,000 taxi to Ha Tien. Then take another VND400,000 cab to Kep. This is a cheaper, quicker option than flying to Phnom Penh and getting a taxi to Kep.

Kampot

Inland, riverside Kampot town is making an equal name for itself, rising as a foodie destination and offering kayaking, rock-climbing and stand-up paddle boarding. It also benefits from proximity to the capital, taking just over two hours by taxi.

Kampot was once a sleepy riverside town that tourists went to while staying in Kep. Oh, how things have changed.  The town is probably the hippest place in the Kingdom of Wonder with riverside bars, boutique hotels and innumerable posh cafes.

The coastal areas are gradually making up a larger portion of tourists’ destinations, drawing numbers away from the country’s traditionally dominant attraction – Angkor Wat. Last year, almost 14 percent of travellers visited these areas, compared to 44 percent in Phnom Penh, 41 percent in Siem Reap, and just over one percent in ecotourism locations.

Explore Kampot

Paintball Potshots

Only $10 to pay for the base package. Two playing fields, natural and manmade obstacles, and lots of beer. Plus, they have a bar with its very own fireman’s pole. Just some lighthearted fun in a vibrant little town.

Andoung khmer, Kampot
+855 97 491 4684
potshotskampot.com

Fishmarket Kampot

Renovated riverside fish market that serves Western and Cambodian fare in a riverside setting.

1 Norodom Quay, Kampot
+855 12 728 884
facebook.com/FishMarketKampot

Rusty Keyhole

Best pub grub in town. You should definitely order the brontosaurus-sized ribs.

Riverside Road, Kampot
+855 12 679 607
facebook.com/rusty.keyhole

Rikitikitavi

Have some cocktails at the best place to catch the sunset in Kampot.

Riverside Road, Kampot
+855 12 235 102
rikitikitavi-kampot.com

Phnom Penh – Secret Metropolis

While Phnom Penh has a fraction of the population of Ho Chi Minh City, the large expatriate-to-local ratio gives it one of the most vibrant scenes in Southeast Asia.

Some Phnom Penh’ers would say that the city is all about genocide and girly bars, just to keep the secret to themselves. Heck, we know a person that used to crinkle paper onto the phone while talking to their bosses in Singapore, just to support their claim of a bad connection. They could just get away with it. “It’s Cambodia.”

Let’s just say that once you get beneath the surface a bit, Phnom Penh will surprise you. With it’s logically numbered streets and relatively small size, it’s an easy city to navigate. However, rush hour can be horrendous thanks to a very liberal tax system for automobiles.

The selection of western food is top-notch and is, as our photo editor whom lived in the city a decade would state, better than the selection in Ho Chi Minh City.

Black Bambu has fantastically refined western fare for a very reasonable price. Their turmeric and black pepper ice cream topped with honeycomb is worth the price of the airfare alone. The Tiger’s Eye, located in trendy Bassac Lane is one not to be missed either.

Once you get past the genocide tourism, one will find a city filled with things to do. River cruises are a favourite pastime for those long, dry days. Head down to Sisowath Quay near street 68 and you will find the river cruise dock. You can negotiate a price per hour which should be around $20USD, and you are set to go.

The best part about this arrangement is that you can self-cater with your own drinks and snacks. The larger boats will have kitchen facilities if you want to make something a bit more fancy. If you are looking for a swim, the boat captains will know spots along the Tonle Bassac or the Mekong where you can take a dip.

Khmer food has gotten a bad rap in recent history. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re sandwiched between two culinary phenoms. There are a few chefs in the city trying to change things around. Restaurants such as Malis and Romdeng are two examples of contemporary Khmer restaurants with the highest quality cuisine. If you are looking for cheaper fare, you can’t go wrong with Sovanna BBQ on Street 21. Get a plate of the grilled pork. Once you finish with that, order another one. It’s that good.

Khmer food in general is a mix of Chinese and Indian influences. The base of most Khmer dishes is kroeung, an herb and spice paste that is ground using  a mortar and pestle. Similar to a thai curry paste, Cambodians tend to use more lemongrass and galangal to give kroeung a distinct Cambodian flavour.  Must tries are fish amok, a curry soufflé, beef with red ants and holy basil, and Khmer red curry.

Cambodia’s nightlife can be as raucous or as sophisticated as you want it to be.  Whether it’s sipping an espresso martini at Café Metro on the Sisowath Quay, or downing Anchor beer (pronounce the ‘CH’ like the word church) at a dingy local restaurant, the nightlife is something to be experienced.

While Sisowath Quay is a mainstay in the city’s bar scene, Bassac Lane is now the hotspot for the denizens of the city. Located near the Independence Monument, this small alleyway is home to hip boutique bars and international restaurants. Don’t miss out on Meat & Drink’s burgers, or the motorbike-themed Hangar 44.

If you are looking for the rock n’ roll scene, and maybe some killer dumplings, look no further than the Zeppelin Café (or just the “Rock Bar” to expats). Joon, the Taiwanese owner, is normally ensconced in his corner, cigarette in hand, dishing out the tunes.

Don’t try to stump the man with some obscure rockabilly band you saw in Orange County a decade ago. He probably has all their albums on his computer, along with some bands they toured with. As a plus, dumplings and drinks are available until the wee hours of the morning.

Black Bambu

No. 29, 228 Samdech Mongkol Iem St. (228), Phnom Penh

blackbambu.com

The Tiger’s Eye

No. 49, Samdech Sothearos (3), Phnom Penh

thetigerseye.asia

Malis

No. 136, Preah Norodom (St. 41), 12301 Phnom Penh

malis-restaurant.com