Most people travel to Cambodia for the same sole reason – to see the incredible Angkor Archaeological Park, visit its temples, and (for some of us) to find our own “Tomb Raider” experience. If you only have a few days here, then for sure Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor are your best choice. However, should you happen to be lucky enough to stay a bit longer in this incredible country, there is so much more to do.
Cambodia is one of the lesser-visited countries in Southeast Asia, but by no means is that a reflection of what it has to offer. Cambodia is a quiet and unassuming country that will continually surprise you as you uncover the wealth of culture and natural beauty that can be found within its borders.
After decades of unrest, Cambodia is now enjoying an era of peace and stability. With excellent cuisine, stunning islands, the fascinating Mekong River, and genuine and friendly people, there’s a lot to love about this Southeast Asian gem. To give you some inspiration on how to spend your Cambodian holiday, here is a list of our favorite things to do in Cambodia.
The Angkor Archeological Park complex is a must-see. Of course, the main attraction is Angkor Wat. One of the wonders of the world and unrivaled in magnificence, many people will rise before dawn on the first day of their visit in order to get to the complex to see it at sunrise.
However, visitors should remember the famous Angkor Wat (by the way – the word wat means temple) is just one of many temples in the area. For example, if you are a big Lara Croft fan then you’ll want to include a visit to Ta Prohm, the temple featured in the 2001 movie “Tomb Raider”. Overgrown by trees, merged with the jungle during the centuries of abandonment, Ta Prohm is like nothing you will see anywhere else.
All the temples of the complex lie just outside of Siem Reap and can be reached by tuk-tuk or a bicycle unless you prefer the comfort of an air-conditioned taxi. If planned well, it’s feasible to see several temples in one day, but two and three-day passes are available. The recommended routes are called Small Tour Circuit (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan) and Grand Tour Circuit (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup).
The whole area of Angkor Wat can easily consume a week to see, but not many choose to give it that much time. Nonetheless try to reserve at least 3 days for Siem Reap, to give yourself time for sightseeing and recovering after long hours in the heat. Bear in mind that Siem Reap itself is lovely too and worth spending some time walking around.
These are the kind of islands you dream about visiting. Located in the Sihanoukville Province of Cambodia, a 45-minute ferry ride off the coast, these pristine tropical islands are still quiet and a perfect place for those travelers looking to escape the hustle and bustle, step back from all the temples and historic “must-visits”, and relax and indulge in nature.
Blessed with white powder sand and a shimmering turquoise sea is the perfect place to kick back, relax and enjoy the never-ending sunshine from the comfort of a hammock tied to two swaying coconut palms. The islands are particularly well known for their coral reefs and there are some excellent snorkel and dive spots here.
Travelers should bear in mind the islands were only introduced to tourism not so long ago so the infrastructure is still developing. That said, there are several lovely resorts with beach bungalows and direct access to very well-taken care beaches. The aptly named Lazy Beach is where you should come to do nothing or snorkel amongst the colorful coral and tropical fish. If you stay to catch the sunset (recommended), be sure to venture to Saracen Bay or between Koh Touch and Long Set Beach to see the mesmerizing glowing plankton.
By far the most sobering experience you will have on your vacation, visiting the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields form an important, but harrowing, education into Cambodia’s history. The country’s dark past is prevalent no more so than at these two sites located in and around the charming city of Phnom Penh.
S21, also known as Tuol Sleng, was originally a high school but was used as a prison during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. Nowadays, it is a museum that details the country’s terrible history, recounting the very darkest stories of approximately 20,000 prisoners who were kept there between 1975 and 1979.
The Killing Fields are an eerie oasis in the middle of the dusty capital. Once used for murdering opponents of the regime, it is now a touching memorial to those approximately 2 million people who were killed in the Khmer Rouge atrocities that took place in the early, which led to the loss of approximately 2 million lives.
The pride and joy of Khmer cuisine, fish amok is a mouth-watering curry made with fragrant spices, coconut milk, and fresh fish. It is served with soft, sticky rice and will definitely have you hooked after the first bite. Fortunately, this dish can be found in various different forms all over the country. Of course, the closer to the water you are, the better the fish will be.
A Mekong River Cruise is a great way to enrich your Cambodian vacation. The river offers a unique perspective to travelers and allows them to explore parts of the country that would otherwise be inaccessible. Keep your eyes peeled, as you float along this powerful waterway, for rare Irrawaddy dolphins and other marine wildlife that dwell in the sandy waters.
There are many ways of cruising the Mekong – a sunset dinner cruise in Phnom Penh or several days on one of the beautiful boats. The Mekong is very much affected by rainfall and water levels so cruise itineraries often change with seasons so be sure to check with our Asia destination specialist when to go.
Kampot is a lovely town on the west coast of Cambodia, just under 100 miles from Phnom Penh. It’s a delightful French colonial city, one of the former ports and administrative centers, and so as you’d expect there is a great deal of colonial architecture to admire. The art deco Royal Cinema in the city center, today converted into a lovely hotel is a prime example.
As charming as the town itself is, we will strongly recommend making it your base for the exploration of the surroundings, especially the Kampot pepper plantations and the Bokor National Park.
Kampot pepper is known for its quality and taste, and for a long time was Europe’s first “pepper choice”. There are multiple plantations you can visit and learn about the process of growing and harvesting one of the best-known spices in the world.
Bokor National Park was established by the French as a getaway location in the 1920s. Today it is home to several wildlife species. The picturesque sites in Bokor are the abandoned structures – the church, the resort, and the residences. A trip to Bokor can prove a surprising insight into the complicated history of Cambodia.
If you’re a lover of the great outdoors and want to immerse yourself in the flora and fauna native to Cambodia then Virachey National Park is a must. It is one of the largest conservation areas in the country and is home to a number of exotic creatures, including sun bears, elephants, gibbons, clouded leopards, and great hornbills. The park is only accessible via organized treks, led by guides who know the park inside out.
Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and essentially the source of all life in Cambodia. Thanks to its biodiversity and the floods that help to grow rice, the lake, and the namesake Tonle River feed the whole country. There is a very curious case of reverse water flow at play – the current in the Mekong in the rainy season is so strong that it pushes the water back upstream into the lake.
Its water levels, amazingly, can vary from 1 to 10 meters, but what is most worth seeing is the life on the lake. There are multiple floating villages with hundreds of people living in their floating houses, occupying themselves with fishing and farming. Observing how they have integrated their life with the body of water is quite an experience.
If you happen to spend some time in the area with locals, you might be served wild rats and snakes for dinner! As well as these delightful dishes, Tonle Sap is famous for its unique types of catfish, and fishing trips on the lake are very popular with keen anglers.
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