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The Kingdom of Cambodia, tucked between Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand, is one of the most adventurous Asian destinations. Too often, Cambodia is touted as a second-class Southeast Asian getaway, a substitute for visitors bored with Thailand. This is a mistake, as Cambodia has much to offer on its own merits. It is possessed of a gorgeous coastline, rich heritage, and plenty of amazing attractions. There are rugged hills and mysterious jungles, rushing rivers and tranquil lakes, and plenty of beaches.
Of course, the star of any Cambodian vacation is the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex. Alive with history, this is one of Asia’s great must-sees. It is not the only one, though. Lovely palaces and temples dot the Cambodian landscape, along with lush green rice fields and delightful rural roads begging to be biked and explored. Thrillseekers will enjoy themselves mightily here, but there’s also plenty to entertain those who delight in quieter pleasures.
Cambodia’s history has not always been a happy one—the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields is a weighty one, and is likely to remain so for generations—but you wouldn’t know it to interact with Cambodians on a daily basis. The people are cheerful, welcoming, and always positive, one of the country’s great treasures. It’s easy to get carried away on the sheer positivity that suffuses life in Cambodia, a “don’t worry, be happy” vibe that fits more easily in your luggage home than any souvenir.
Top Sights in Cambodia
Witnessing the sun rise over Angkor Wat is not just the top Cambodian travelers’ must-see: it should be on the bucket list of a whole lifetime. This tenth-century temple complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), discovered gloriously undisturbed in the thick of the jungle, is nothing less than a wonder of the world. The temple here is the single largest religious monument in the world. You’ll find carved rock images of Heaven and Hell, along with the hundreds of famous dancing maidens. Beware the monkeys of the Wat—they have nimble little fingers and will poach the contents of your bag more quickly than you could imagine! Be sure to take a peek at Angkor Thom, the rootbound temple made famous by the Tomb Raider films.
Siem Reap is the traditional gateway to Angkor Wat, and an entertaining stop on your Cambodian getaway all by itself! In Wat Bo Village, you’ll bask in the serenity of the world’s oldest Buddhist temple. Your trip would be incomplete without a quad bike tour of the knotted, bumpy dirt roads outside town! You’ll bisect rice paddies and startle herds of cattle as the sun sinks towards evening. This is one of the most popular ways to tour Siem Reap, and is a guaranteed exhilarating, filthy good time. Or begin a night out with a tuk-tuk ride downtown! There, you can wander Pub Street, peruse the Night Market for deals, or indulge in a ticklish fish pedicure. Don’t miss traditional Apsara dance performances!
Years of French influence led to the Cambodian capital once being dubbed the “Paris of the East.” The colonial buildings and lovely riverside walk will remind you why. If the King isn’t in town, one can tour the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. Nearby, check out the National Museum, which contains tens of thousands of artifacts spanning from ancient history all the way to the modern era. Luxury accommodations in Phnom Penh invite you to take a dive in sparkling pools, read a book on a private balcony, or catch a drink at a rooftop bar. Down on the street, the food venders will vie for your attention! The nightlife is excellent here, and the bartenders of the capital are true mixologists. On a more sobering note, the S-21 Genocide Museum is well worth a visit. In the 1970s, Pol Pot (Cambodia’s very own answer to Hitler) and the Khmer Rouge carried out the systematic killing of millions. Today, the museum reminds us just enough of these atrocities to kindle the spark of hope for humanity.
The Killing Fields
Just outside Phnom Penh are the notorious Killing Fields.. The Cambodian government chose to, for the most part, leave the buried human remains here undisturbed as a sign of respect. This, therefore, is hallowed ground. It’s not easy to visit this place, but always educational—we remind ourselves of great atrocities, after all, so that we can ensure they never happen again. Audio guides will lead you through the tour here, explaining as much as is necessary to understand what you are seeing. A great glass stupa contains thousands of human skulls. The mood is somber for certain, but offerings of flowers and incense scattered throughout the memorial are small tokens of light and life amid the sadness.
Relaxation is high on the menu in “Snooky,” the top Cambodian holiday retreat. Sugary sands and clear waters invite beach bums to settle in and let the sun melt their cares away! There are six distinct beaches, each offering their own attractions and benefits. You’ll fall for the unspoiled shores, which are significantly less busy than others in Southeast Asia. Watersports like scuba diving and snorkeling are popular, along with windsurfing and kayaking. You can also rent a jet ski and blaze the waves! In the evenings, the town comes to life with outstanding nightclubs, bars, and restaurants for visitors to explore. Don’t miss a traditional massage, the small beachside restaurants, or the outdoor market.
Perched on the banks of the Mekong, Kratie is best known for its population of endangered river dolphins! It’s estimated that fewer than one hundred Irrawaddy dolphins remain, so spying them is a rare treat. French Colonial buildings surround the central market. Because Kratie is so small, most landmarks are a brief walk away. Bike tours are common as well, however! Don’t miss the Phnom Sombok temple, with its visceral scenes of the tortures of Hell, or the pre-Angkor settlement of Sambor. Concrete animal statues are situated throughout town - you’ll have a blast taking your picture with each one! The Turtle Sanctuary is another excellent stop.
|Capital: Phnom Penh|
|Primary Airports: Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH), Siem Riep International Airport (REP), Sihanoukville International Airport (KOS)|
|Government: Constitutional monarchy / Multiparty democracy|
|Currency: US dollar (USD)|
|Population: 14,860,000 (2012 est.)|
|Language: Khmer, French, English|
|Electricity: 230V/50Hz (British)|
|Time Zone: UTC +7|
Cambodia Travel Reviews
Our Travels: Siem Reap, Angkor, and the Khmer Culture
My husband and I have traveled extensively around Southeast Asia, and Siem Reap, Cambodia was by far our favorite place. We spent five days discovering the area and could have spent five more. We bought three-day passes for Angkor and explored the major cluster of structures and one much farther out. We brought our one-year-old daughter, so we toured by tuk-tuk set up through our hotel, which I recommend as you will get the best price and a reliable, competent driver. We agree that bicycles also would have been an interesting way to travel around Angkor. All the ruins are unique and each one is worth exploring, but the sunrise over Angkor Wat should not be missed. While we could have seen the main ruins in one exhausting day, having extra time allowed us to discover the countryside and get to know the Khmer people. On the days we were not at Angkor, we walked around Siem Reap. The city is built for tourists, so it is easy to navigate, find places to eat and shop for local products. The Khmer cuisine is an amazing blend of Southeast Asian flavors, and each restaurant is a bit different, so we tried new places for every meal. After dinner, we had fish massage our feet and were intrigued by the many "happy" foods available. Our trip was truly memorable as we took it slow, soaked up the culture, and rewrote what Khmer means to us.
Eye openener of a Trip
Visiting The Killing Fields and learning what these people went through, not only during the Pol Pot period, but before and after... one wonders at their resilience, smiles, happiness, and genuinely willing to help.