8 Things to See and Do in Cambodia

After the fall of the terrifying and violent Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1990s, Cambodia has slowly re-established itself as a popular backpacker and off-the-beaten-path tourist destination. As the region stabilizes, more and more travelers are flocking to the area to marvel at the country’s world famous ancient structures and ruins, as well as explore the many virtually untouched beaches and natural wonders. For anyone heading to South East Asia, these are EscapeHere’s top eight things to see and do in Cambodia:

8. Visit Prasat Preah Vihear

Found on the obscure Thai-Cambodian border, visiting the ancient Hindu temple of Prasat Preah Vihear is akin to attending a field study on Cambodian political history. The temple dates back to the Khmer Empire under Yasovarman I (889-910) and has witnessed everything from centuries of Thai-Cambodian tensions to the modern aggression of the Khmer Rouge; the Communist regime that terrorized Cambodians until the late 1990s. Though heavy with the implications of history (the site is still plagued by patrolling military personnel) the temple is a beautiful example of Hindu architecture devoted, as was common for the time, to the deity Shiva. The stunning location atop the Dangkrek Mountain escarpment gives visitors an unparalleled view of the low country, visible some 550 meters below, and various sets of steps edging the complex and seemingly descending into an unknowable abyss make for one of the most hauntingly beautiful sites in the world.

Prasat Preah Vihear Cambodia

7. Check Out the Villages on Tonle Sap Lake

From floating and stilted villages to a rare bird sanctuary, Cambodia’s only freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, has plenty of interesting sights for those willing to venture out to find them. The lake also has the unique quality of flowing in two directions after the heavy rainy season, an event that is marked by the annual water festival (October/November) which features colorful boat racing and general merriment.

Villages on Tonle Sap Lake Cambodia

6. Sample Authentic Khmer Cuisine

Though significantly less famous than the culinary delights of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, the Khmer cuisine of Cambodia deserves foodie recognition in its own right. It is here that visitors can find immeasurable quantities of food stalls lining city streets and selling enormous plates of food for often, as little as a dollar. Especially worth trying are the humble bai sach chrouk (pork and rice), fish and meat amok (fish/meat mousse that sounds scary but will delight your taste buds) and lap khmer (a lime marinated beef salad dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, green beans and green peppers). Given a fair shake, even picky eaters will be won over by the delightful balance of sweet and bitter that form the main characteristics of authentic Cambodian cuisine.

Khmer Cambodian Cuisine

5. Escape to the Beach Paradise of Koh Rong Island

After countless hours spent journeying on rickety buses, navigating ruins and traumatizing your mind with the brutal history of this region, a vacation from your vacation might be just what you need. The peaceful and laid-back island vibe on Koh Rong Island is the perfect place to recharge you wanderlust battery, as well as get a golden opportunity to see one of the most idyllic natural landscapes in the world.

Beach Koh Rong Island Cambodia

4. Get a Sobering History Lesson at the S-21 Prison Museum

Although not a typical light-hearted vacation outing, many would agree that making time to learn about the history of a country you’re visiting is a sign of respect, as well as a unique opportunity to gain some insight into the nation’s cultural identity. With that in mind, a visit to the former S-21 Prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is a heartbreaking (but necessary) experience for anyone visiting Cambodia. Located just outside of Phnom Penh, the exterior of the complex looks just like any other high school in the area, but the inside depicts the brutal reality of the blood-thirsty Khmer Rouge regime. A visit to the property reveals the stark original furniture or the prison/torture/death facility as well as hundreds of haunting victim photographs that plaster the interior walls (an initiative part of the meticulous record keeping of the regime). Spend some time here learning about the inner workings of the ultra-Communist regime and pay your respects to the lives lost and the gruesome history endured by the Cambodian people.

chris kolaczan / Shutterstock.com
chris kolaczan / Shutterstock.com

3. Marvel at the Beauty of the Royal Palace

The ornately constructed, gilded structures of the Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh are arguably the most beautiful in the country. The royal residence of Cambodian Kings since the 1860s, the complex is divided into 4 distinct areas separated by walls: the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall and the private Inner Court. While over half of the property is closed to the public (it is the current King’s residence), visitors are still able to get a feel for the intricate and luxurious beauty of the complex and explore the history that is has witnessed by visiting the Silver Pagoda, the Throne Room and several other outbuildings that remain publicly accessible.

Royal Palace Cambodia

2. Wander Around the Day and Night Markets in Phnom Penh

For a chance to purchase absolutely anything and everything and to explore the unique structure of a Phnom Penh landmark, check out the city’s Central Market, open daily from 7 AM to 5 PM. The art-deco structure housing the market was originally designed by French architect Louis Chauchon and is basically a large dome branching out into 4 large hallways. For tourists, the market is a must-visit location to witness the bustle and energy of Cambodian daily life, with the modern interior seemingly clashing with the old-world style stalls animated but the bargaining for merchants and customers. For a more exotic (and less chaotic) market experience, visitors can check out the riverfront Night Market, open on Friday and Saturday nights, and grab some unique souvenirs, sample delicious street eats and experience the city’s awesome nighttime vibe.

Day and Night Markets in Phnom Penh Cambodia

1. Spend Days Getting Lost at the Angkor Wat Complex and Surrounding Area

The largest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap remains Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. Occupying an area of about 500 acres, the main temple was built in the early 12th century in the Khmer architectural tradition, and is now inscribed as a UNESCO World heritage Site along with the other structures in the greater Angkor Archaeological Park. Seeing this ancient site in person is a mind-boggling experience that causes an overwhelming realization and appreciation of grandeur, architecture, history and nature. Many of the area’s overgrown temples, structures and ruins have remained relatively untouched (save conservation efforts) and getting lost among them is truly a mystical, life changing experience.

Banyon Temple Angkor Wat Cambodia

8 Things to See and Do in Cambodia

Over the last two decades or so, Cambodia has lost its dark, dangerous reputation and memories of Khmer atrocities have faded enough to let the beauty of the country and its people shine through. The Khmer culture fascinates its visitors with enticing street food, white sand beaches offering salty sea air, and the steamy, emerald jungle is filled with outdoor endeavors. Cambodians are peaceful and receptive, the history is unlike anywhere else on earth, and the vistas are backed by kaleidoscopic sunsets. Lacking travelers en masse like in Thailand, Cambodia is still unmistakably authentic.

8. Kampot

Travelers are captivated by Kampot, an endearing, sleepy waterfront village with a magnetic, laid-back feel and one of the country’s most impressive examples of French colonial architecture. Anyone hoping to explore the beautiful Elephant Mountains and Bokor National Park will find Kampot not only advantageous, but an interesting and fun base from which to enjoy outdoor adventures. Nearby, the seaside town of Kep, with its magnificent caves and lush, eastern coast, is just another reason to stay. This old trading hub saw its heyday until the 1950s when Sihanoukville gained a favorable position and took over. Kampot is for those looking to enjoy a varied backdrop that’s interesting to explore and perfect to relax in. The Old Market, an aging landmark, has recently seen some gentrification and now features many interesting restaurants and shops—they themselves are attractions, filled with interesting families who begin as strangers but end up good friends.

Kampot, Cambodia

7. Otres Beach

Along the southwest coast of Cambodia is beautiful Otres Beach, the country’s most beautiful stretch of sand. Lining the waterfront are small, traditional bungalows fronted by loungers and brightly hued papasan chairs, with hammocks hung from most big palms and other native trees. There really isn’t any one major attraction here; the biggest sell is the easy-going atmosphere. Most other Cambodian beaches are filled with early morning partiers hanging on to whiskey-filled buckets, looking to get their groove on. Otres is decidedly different. There’s a promising social scene-and plenty of cocktails available—but owners collectively agree to shut down music by 10 pm, making later evenings relaxing rather than rowdy. Though not a hidden gem, Otres Beach is still a little-known favourite among those in the know, but it won’t last so be sure to park yourself on Otres for a few days of pure relaxation and incredible sunsets.

Otres Beach, Cambodia

6. Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake is south of Siem Reap, Southeast Asia’s biggest freshwater lake, and a UNESCO biosphere designated site. When ancient Angkor’s people were thriving, it had much to do with the lake: it’s one of the world’s most productive and varied ecosystems and therefore a central hub for Cambodia’s food production. The most interesting scene here is the series of lakefront villages, both stilted and floating, bustling with life. The bulk of residents are fishermen, mostly Vietnamese immigrants who have been living here for dozens of years. Tourism is on the rise at Tonle Sap, which is producing an essential stream of revenue, but it’s evident traditional life is slowly ebbing away. To avoid the thick of things and enjoy a more authentic experience, skip groups en masse and ride a long tail boat to villages Kampong Khleang and Kompong Phluk, where friendly locals are still fond of curious onlookers.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

5. Sisowath Quay

In Phnom Penh’s pretty riverside area is the historic quay called Sisowath, part of Chamkarmon district and adjacent to Sisowath Boulevard. The Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet here which is also near the Royal Palace of Cambodia. In the old days of mighty kings and men, the palace was a vantage point for area events such as river races during the annual Water Festival. Being relatively small, Phnom Penh is an easy place to merge eating, temple-spotting, sightseeing, and shopping into a relaxing walk through the city—the dots are all connected by the three kilometer waterfront promenade hugging Tonle Sap’s west bank. This is the social center of Phnom Penh, where locals and visitors mix easily, ambitious artisans and vendors sell their wares, and bars, restaurants, and cafes are abundant. The quay is also the place to find authentic French baguettes and explore magnificent Wat Ounalom.

Kenneth Sponsler / Shutterstock.com
Kenneth Sponsler / Shutterstock.com

4. Chi Phat

Once a poacher’s haven, Chi Phat has been impressively transformed into a conservationists paradise, where reformed poachers are the guides who will show you some of Cambodia’s most beautiful, natural treasures. Set in the misty Cardamom Mountains, you’ll be far-flung from the crowds but close to lots of amazing scenery. Take a jungle trek to some of Chi Phat’s best attractions: waterfalls, mountains, and grasslands which are filled with incredible flora and fauna. The village of Chi Pat sits along a river, home to more than 600 families, and also to CBET (community-based ecotourism foundation). Travelers can enjoy the rare opportunity to delve into the ecosystems of the Cardamom Mountains while subsidizing an incredibly worthwhile project. The once logged and poached landscape has enjoyed a much-needed change becoming a reliable source of income and jobs for local villagers aiming to conserve this essential part of Cambodia.

Photo by: Chi Phat Eco Tourism
Photo by: Chi Phat Eco Tourism

3. Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is by far the most famous, historic landmark in Cambodia, and arguably the most popular attraction in Southeast Asia. The complex of ancient temples near Siem Reap is one of the biggest religious masterpieces in the world. Originally built for the Khmer Empire as a Hindu temple, the compound was slowly altered into a Buddhist wat, or temple, near the 12th century. Rivaling the great temples at Bagan in Burma, Angkor Wat is an architectural wonder with stonework to be explored in depth. Khmer kings based out of Angkor ruled the lands from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal, and held reign for centuries. Over 100 astonishing temples of stone are today’s remnants of a massive social, religious, and administrative center. Some of Angkor’s most unforgettable sights include the faces of Bayon, Banteay Srei temple, and Ta Prohm, each living up to their world famous reputations.

Angkor, Cambodia

2. Ream National Park

Established in 1993 by King Norodom Sihanouk, Ream National Park is one of seven major conservation efforts in Cambodia. Home to more than 205 square kilometers of earthy and marine habitats, Kep is another place to kick off dusty city boots and get out into nature. Less than 20 kilometers from Sihanoukville, Kep boasts rich mangrove swamps, breathtaking coastal panoramas, and flourishing forests of evergreen—the islands of Koh Ses and Koh Thmei are also here. Birders relish in spotting a host of birds—there are more than 150 species in Kep—and exploring Prek Toeuk Sap River where kingfishers, storks, and fishing eagles are common. From December through April spot playful dolphins in almost any season. Day trips by boat through mangroves and rivers, ending in the Gulf of Thailand, are most popular. Safaris and mountain walking tours are more options for scouting the area.

Ream National Park

1. Koh Rong

Anyone who’s explored Thailand’s vast network of islands will love the quiet beauty of Koh Rong, Cambodia’s premier paradise island. Reachable only by a small ferry, not too many tourists make the trip to this small, but gorgeous spot. With more than 20 different beaches to check out, the temptation to stay awhile and laze away the days is overwhelming. Treehouse resorts, traditional beach huts, and a cluster of small hotels will keep any budget traveler on track while still living the good life. Tech junkies will have to put away their devices—there’s only power from dinner time through midnight—but that’s part of the peacefulness here. Lazy hammock days, sunbathing on quiet beaches, eating your weight in delicious Khmer specialties—it’s all readily available on Koh Rong. If you really need some adventure in your island schedule, head out hiking, snorkeling, or diving in the Gulf.

Koh Rong, Cambodia