Beyond Phnom Penh

Day trips from the capital reward the curious, as Guy Wilkinson discovers.

Golden-spired temples, saffron robed monks and a picturesque location on the banks of the mighty Mekong; Cambodia's capital has long been synonymous with exotic.

But although the city boasts many worthwhile attractions, the traffic-clogged streets and stifling humidity can close in, making the prospect of a day trip all too enticing. To escape the hustle of Phnom Penh for a day or two, consider some of these worthwhile excursions.

ESCAPE TO SILK ISLAND

About 15 kilometres north-east of Phnom Penh, Koh Dach Island feels like another world. Located on the banks of the Mekong, it has the moniker Silk Island due to the sheer numbers of silk-weaving artisans who live and work here.

Spanning about 30 square kilometres, you can wander by foot or bicycle, experiencing authentic rural life. Most houses are built on stilts, many with workshops operating in the tiny spaces beneath them and you may even be invited inside for a first-hand demonstration.

There's also a beautiful white sand beach, handicraft markets and tropical fruit plantations.

With increasing competition from garment manufacturing factories in the Big Smoke, this is one excursion to undertake before it's too late.

EXPLORE SAMBOR PREI KUK TEMPLE COMPLEX

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Pre-dating Angkor Wat by some six centuries, Sambor Prei Kuk is among the oldest of temple cities in South-east Asia.

Originally divided into two kingdoms, it spans an area of about 400 hectares and was home to more than 280 temples in its heyday. A combination of US bombing raids, the ravages of time and looting by Khmer Rouge cadres has seen that number dwindle to about 60, but what remains is spectacular.

Built mainly from brick, each temple has a unique feel, many with ancient trees growing through them, giving them a faintly indie horror-movie feel.

In most cases, it's possible to explore the interiors, some containing ornate shrines or battered prayer flags. And due to its off-the-beaten-track location, you're more likely to find herds of grazing cows than hordes of tourists here.

Located 130 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, it's worth considering an overnight stay in nearby Kampong Thom.

RIDE SPEEDBOATS FROM TAKEO

A two-hour drive south of the capital, Takeo town is a sleepy lakeside provincial capital, home to some of the finest crumbling colonial architecture in the region.

In wet season (May to October) it's a great place to dine on freshwater lobster and also boasts the only museum in the province. The highlight of a trip here involves an exhilarating speedboat ride from Takeo township into a winding network of rice field canals to the pre-Angkorian hilltop temples of Phnom Da and Angkor Borei. On the way back to the capital, climb the 412 steps to Phnom Chisor for magical views.

VISIT THE PHNOM TAMAO WILDLIFE RESCUE CENTRE

Need a break from temples? This outstanding zoo-cum-safari park is just a 45-kilometre drive from town. Home to more than 1200 animals including elephants, lions, tigers, bears and monkeys, it's the perfect place to see creatures from Cambodia's remote areas. Most animals were saved from poachers and the illegal wildlife trade and admission fees help the cause. The centre also operates breeding programs for endangered species. Operated jointly by the Forestry Administration of Cambodia and Wildlife Alliance, the conditions at the 2285-hectare site are excellent by South-east Asian standards.

See phnomtamaozoo.com.

EXPERIENCE NATURE AT KIRIROM NATIONAL PARK

If you have time, take the 112-kilometre drive south-west to Kirirom National Park to enjoy an altogether different side of Cambodia.

The high-altitude plateau is a calming mix of alpine walking trails, cascading waterfalls (in wet season), lakes, rice fields and lush pine forests. Chambok ecotourism offers educational walks, with proceeds helping to fund the nine rural villages the region. Overnight home stays are available and active highlights include trekking to a 40-metre waterfall, exploring a bat cave and panting up Phnom Dat Chivit (cheerily translated to End of World Mountain) for spectacular views over the Cardamom Mountains and bush.

See chambok.org.

EXPLORE OUDONG

The capital of Cambodia between 1618 and 1866 - until the French persuaded King Norodom to relocate the court to the more strategically placed Phnom Penh - modern day Oudong is unrecognisable from its glittering past. During the civil war of the 1970s, much of the old city was destroyed but what remains today is an important pilgrimage site.

For day-trippers, the main drawcards are the twin humps of Phnom Udong, both of which are littered with chedis (many containing the ashes of royal leaders) as well as offering unparalleled views across sugar-palm dotted countryside.

Home to a prominent Cham Muslim population, the ubiquitous mosques lend the place a unique cross-cultural feel.

The writer was a guest of Travel Indochina and Vietnam Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Vietnam Airlines offers fares year-round low season (January 16 to November 29) return fares from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City for about $1119 including tax. Catch a connecting return flight to Phnom Penh with Vietnam Airlines.

TOURING THERE

Travel Indochina offers tailor-made holidays, small group journeys and Asia river cruises. See travelindochina.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Frangipani Royal Palace is in the heart of Phnom Penh, a couple of minutes walk from the riverfront area and Royal Palace. Rooms from $US140 ($160). See frangipanipalacehotel.com.

Sambor Village Hotel is a 19-room boutique hotel 45 minutes drive from Sambor Prei Kuk Temple complex. Rooms start from $US50. See samborvillage.com.

MORE INFORMATION

travelindochina.com.au

THREE BIG DAYS OUT

KAMPONG KHLEANG FLOATING VILLAGE

Take a boat ride into the heart of an aquatic community living in harmony with the tidal rhythms of the Tonle Sap, south-east Asia's largest lake.

SANTUK SILK FARM/PHNOM SANTUK

Learn about the entire cycle of silk production at an enterprise that provides much-needed employment opportunities for local people. See facebook.com/SantukSilks.

KAMPONG THOM PROVINCE

A great base from which to explore the Tonle Sap Lake and Prei Kuk Temple complex between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

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