It's not by chance that Cambodia has quickly become highly popular among eclectic travelers of all sensitivities, whether they're seeking lush jungles spotted with dusty temple ruins, idyllic beaches with an air of luxury, artsy boutique hotels, exciting nouvelle cuisine, or ethical shopping, among numerous other vibrant options. Its rich—some may say loaded—history has peeled away to reveal the admirably dynamic, positive, and creative ability of its people to pull through and launch into new beginnings, bringing Cambodia to the world stage as a choice travel destination that almost confidently stands on its unique cultural identity.
Phnom Penh is the bustling capital, where visitors can dip into the darkest corners of the country's traumatized past by traipsing through the Killing Fields, or step into the glossy, edgy new design boom that the city's hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops are proudly flaunting. Siem Reap is still a leading draw because it's the base for visiting the country's architectural crown jewel, the stunning Angkor Wat, which continues to exemplify the merging of spirituality and symbolism. Then there's the South, where once sleepy coastlines are being transformed, sometimes into tasteless seaside party zones, but in other cases into enchanting havens of stylish beach chic.
An interesting trend with which tourists are met when exploring Cambodia is the staunch support given to local communities by NGOs, the creation of which blossomed in the early 1990s. In the aftermath of Cambodia's grueling civil war, foreign aid groups and governments have poured billions of dollars into the country, but not without coming under scrutiny. Around half of them have faced criticism for lack of structure, profiteering, and the commercialization of humanitarian efforts. Nonprofit organizations—in most cases working toward a better Cambodia—address a wide range of humanitarian, cultural, and environmental issues. Today there are about 3,500 registered NGOs in Cambodia, which has the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world, after Rwanda. Many nonprofits now run accommodations, restaurants, and travel agencies that provide the visitor with more than they expect to receive on vacation—the chance to help, and an education. But it's worth checking out the legitimacy of an organization before parting with your money. Do-good travel options are noted in this chapter's listings.