14 days/13 nights
Day 1: Arrive Phnom Penh. Sunset boat cruise.
Relax with an afternoon cyclo tour of the city and a sunset boat cruise on the Mekong River.
Day 2: Royal Palace and National Museum. Tuol Sleng and killing fields.
We explore the stunning Royal Palace complex, home to the Cambodian royal family and a symbol of the nation. We enter the Throne Hall where the royal receptions are held, see the Napoleon III Pavilion made from iron, a gift from the French emperor in the 19th century and continue to the Silver Pagoda, named after the 5000 silver tiles covering the floor, each weighing 1kg. Inside are some of the country's most cherished treasures, including a life-size gold Buddha studded with 9584 diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats. There is also a delicate emerald Buddha made of baccarat crystal, which gives the temple its Khmer name of Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).
We leave the Royal Palace and continue to the nearby National Museum, home to the world's finest collection of sculpture from the Angkor period. The exquisite building was completed in 1920 and features collections from the pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor periods. We concentrate on the incredible sandstone sculpture from Angkor, as well as the intricate bronzes.
We come face to face with the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a centre for interrogation, torture and death. Today it is a museum of torture and serves to remind visitors of the terrible atrocities that came to pass in Cambodia. 17,000 people passed through the gates of this prison and only seven lived to tell the tale. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping, photographing all the prisoners and many of these haunting black and white images are on display in the cells. Tuol Sleng is a profoundly moving experience and not everyone will want to visit. However, it is key to understanding the hell into which Cambodia descended and how far it has come in the years since.
We then travel out of town to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Prisoners from Tuol Sleng followed this same route to their fate. An old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was turned into an extermination camp for political prisoners. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed from mass graves and are kept in a memorial stupa here. Despite the horrors of the past, it is a peaceful place to go and a tranquil spot to reflect on the tragic events that engulfed Cambodia and its people.
Day 3: Bear Keeper for a Day at Phnom Tamao.
We get to go behind the scenes and learn what it takes to look after more than 100 rescued Sun bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, south of the capital Phnom Penh with Free The Bears. You join the bear keepers in preparing food and enrichment toys which keep the bears happy and healthy in their forested sanctuary, as well as taking a look at the other endangered species at the Centre. Your personalized visit includes a traditional Khmer lunch and best of all, the opportunity to contribute directly towards helping care for bears that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.
Day 4: Travel to Mondulkiri and Elephant Valley Project.
We leave Phnom Penh and travel northeast to the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham. En route, there is the chance to pause at Skuon, where it is possible to sample the local delicacy of deep fried tarantula and then take a local lunch in Kompong Cham.
We then continue east towards the small junction town of Snuol, our gateway to the wilds of Mondulkiri. The first half of the journey from Snuol is flat, passing through patches of lush forest and areas of cultivation and plantations. After Khau Si Ma district, the road snakes up through the mountains that give Mondulkiri its name of 'where the mountains meet'. There is lush jungle hugging the road and locals claim to see tigers on this stretch at night. Nearing Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, the scenery changes again, jungle giving way to clusters of pine trees and rolling grasslands. The scenery is unique for Cambodia and dotted with traditional Pnong villages, the main minority group in Mondulkiri. On arrival in Sen Monorom, we check into the accommodation at the Elephant Valley Project.
Day 5: Elephant Valley Project.
We enjoy a unique ‘Walking with the Herd for a day’ experience at EVP, with the support of the Bunong villagers, which rescues and treats domestic elephants who have suffered injury and abuse. You will be introduced to the herd of elephants and get to know more about their history, character, behaviour and body language while walking alongside them in their natural environment. You will be able to feed the elephants buckets of bananas and bathe the elephants before watching themselves cover themselves in mud again.
After lunch, you will undertake a walking trek with the elephants through the stunning Mondulkiri countryside to a waterfall for a refreshing swim and elephant bath. We return to the EVP camp . Note** Please note that this is a description of an average day, due to the nature of this project and the elephants, some days may vary.
Day 6: Jungle trek in Mondulkiri.
Today we are on the trail of more Cambodian wildlife, specifically the black-shanked doucs in their natural habitat around Andong Kraloung. Our day trek winds its way through mixed evergreen forest to distant waterfalls with a good chance of spotting the doucs along the way. Banteng are also present, although not so commonly sighted, but the abundant bird life includes the spectacular giant hornbill and green peafowl. The scheme provides local villagers with an incentive to conserve the doucs and protect its habitat and a conservation contribution is included in the cost of the trip, which supports village development projects.
Day 7: To Kratie. Dolphins.
We leave behind the wilds of Mondulkiri, dropping off the windswept, pine-clad hills through steaming jungle back to the lowlands of Cambodia. We are making for the charming Mekong port of Kratie, gateway to an encounter with the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the upper reaches of the Mekong in Cambodia.
We arrive at Kratie and check in to our hotel. After a leisurely lunch, we travel to Kampi, one of the many deep pools where the rare river dolphins gather to feed. We board a local boat and cruise out into the mighty Mekong for a chance encounter with these gentle creatures. On the way back to Kratie, we can stop at the hilltop temple of Phnom Sombok to watch sunset over the Mekong. We spend the night in a comfortable local hotel.
Day 8: Kratie to Kompong Thom.
After breakfast in Kratie, we travel south to the bustling provincial city of Kompong Cham, nestled on the banks for the Mekong. We pass through Cambodia's rubber country on the way, vast plantations that were originally established by the French and are once again being redeveloped. There may be the opportunity to stop along the way and learn about how the rubber is tapped.
In Kompong Cham, we see the 'fusion' temple of Wat Nokor, an 11th century sandstone temple with a colourful modern wat set in its central courtyard. There are some intricate carvings at this temple and the kitsch contrast between the Hindu past and the Buddhist present is almost unheard of elsewhere in Cambodia. After lunch, we journey west to the provincial capital of Kompong Thom, our base for the night in a comfortable local hotel.
Day 9: Sambor Prei Kuk and travel to Siem Reap.
After breakfast in Kompong Thom, we explore the impressive pre-Angkorian capital of Isanapura, known today as Sambor Prei Kuk. The first major temple city in South-East Asia, the brick temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are a peaceful contrast to their more illustrious relatives at Angkor. We explore the main temples here, including Prasat Tao with its elaborately coiffured lions and Prasat Sambor, with its crumbling sanctuaries.
After lunch, we continue northwest on National Highway 6. This was an old Angkor road and we stop in Kompong Kdei to see one of the ancient Angkor bridges that were built to span the rivers. Spean Praptos or Kompong Kdei Bridge has more than 20 arches and is a spectacular sight, reinforcing the impression that the Khmers were like the Romans of Southeast Asia. We continue to Siem Reap where we check into our hotel and enjoy the rest of the afternoon at leisure.
Day 10: Ang Trapeang Thmor Bird Sanctuary.
We leave Siem Reap after an early breakfast and travel west and then north towards Phnom Srok. We eventually come to Ang Trapeang Thmor Sarus Crane Reserve, a giant reservoir constructed during Khmer Rouge rule which now provides a habitat for more than 200 species of bird. During the dry season, this reserve provides a habitat for more than 300 rare Sarus Crane, one of the tallest birds in the world with a distinctive crimson head. We enjoy a picnic lunch at the site before enjoying some more bird watching in the early afternoon. We return to Siem Reap by road.
Day 11: Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, ACCB Wildlife Center , Banteay Srei, Landmine Museum.
We journey north to Kbal Spean. The original ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle only discovered in 1969. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including thousands of lingams. A trip to Kbal Spean is one of the easiest ways to experience a short jungle trek in the Angkor area, as it is a steady but scenic climb to reach the river carvings.
After lunch we visit the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), a rescue center for wildlife, which includes a range of monkey species, pangolin, civets, leopard cats and a boar. The tour lasts 1 hour 30 minutes.
We then head to Banteay Srei, Angkor’s ultimate art gallery. This petite pink temple is the jewel in the crown of Angkor-era sculpture. The elaborate carvings here are the finest found in Cambodia and the name translates as ‘Fortress of the Women’, thanks to the intricate detail here, considered too fine for the hands of a man.
We also take the opportunity to visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum to learn more about the scourge of landmines and the shadow they cast over rural communities in Cambodia with a visit to this flagship museum promoting mine awareness and education. Later we visit the 12th century temple of Banteay Samre. Built by King Suryavarman II, the genius behind Angkor Wat, this temple has been extensively restored.
Day 12: Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
Today we travel to the pristine biosphere of Prek Toal, home to some of the most endangered birdlife on the planet. The immense Tonle Sap Lake is one of the most productive bodies of water in the world and millions of fish spawn here in the flooded forest. Prek Toal lies on the northeastern shore of the Tonle Sap, about one hour by boat from the port at Phnom Krom.
Prek Toal is a vast area of natural flooded forest that draws thousands of birds annually to breed during the dry season (Oct-Mar). This is one of the premier places in Southeast Asia to see rare birds such as storks, adjutants, pelicans and ibis. Birdwatchers will drift through their habitat and can observe large flocks of birds feeding on the lake shore, perched in the trees or soaring above the forest.
A trip to Prek Toal requires a very early start. We transfer by boat from Phnom Krom to Prek Toal and enjoy breakfast along the way. The morning is spent birdwatching on a traditional wooden boat as we glide through the flooded forest with local specialists. After a local lunch, we experience local life in the floating village, learning about different fishing techniques and traditional water hyacinth weaving. We return to Siem Reap late afternoon.
Day 13: Ta Prohm dawn. Angkor Thom.
We rise early to travel to Ta Prohm in the dawn light. Ta Prohm has been abandoned to the elements, left as it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860, the tentacle-like tree roots here are slowly strangling the surviving stones. After soaking up the unique atmosphere of Ta Prohm, we return to our hotel to relax.
In the afternoon, we visit the immense walled city of Angkor Thom that was the masterpiece of King Jayavarman VII. The scale is simply staggering and we are immediately overwhelmed by the audacity of Jayavarman on arrival at the city’s gates. We begin our visit at the Terrace of the Leper King, continue along the Terrace of Elephants, and visit the Baphuon, once of the most beautiful temples at Angkor, dating from the 11th century. It has undergone a massive renovation by the French and is now once again open for viewing. Our climax is the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself. We unravel the mysteries of the temple’s bas-reliefs, with their intricate scenes of ancient battles against the Chams and their snapshot of daily life during the Angkor period.
Day 14: Angkor Wat sunrise. Departure.
Rising at the crack of dawn, we journey out to the Mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. Believed to be the world's largest religious building, this temple is the perfect fusion of symbolism and symmetry and a source of pride and strength to all Khmers. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, this is most famous temple at Angkor. We stay at Angkor Wat to enjoy a picnic breakfast. As the crowds return to their hotels, we venture into Angkor Wat to enjoy its magnificence in peace and quiet, beginning at the bas-reliefs that tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire. Afternoon is free at leisure until transfer to airport for departure flight.