In the last couple of decades interest in Cambodia as a travel destination has grown exponentially. It may be less developed than Thailand, but it is catching up quickly, and it still remains authentic—just like Thailand was couple of decades ago.
It’s no wonder, given the fascination the country yields on its visitors, with her unique Khmer architecture harping back to the captivating history of the ancient empire. Yet, the enchanting ruins were the backdrop to Cambodia’s harrowing 20th century history, when one of the most terrible genocides in human history took place.
Decades later, Cambodia is raising from the ashes, quickly becoming one of the most exciting and fascinating locations to explore in Southeast Asia.
1 Marvel at the Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the largest, the most magnificent and the best-known of all Angkor temples. It’s the jewel in the crown of Cambodia’s attractions. So quintessential is the site to the image of Cambodia that even the country’s flag features it.
We recommend visiting early—or late, and taking it easy: start before sunrise and take three or four hours to take in the raw scale and delicate beauty of the ruins. For more detailed guide check out our Sunrise at Angkor Wat article.
2 Visit the Bayon temple
The Angkor Wat may be the most famous, but to many it is Bayon temple that remains the instantly recognizable icon of Cambodia. Or more precisely, the icons are the Bayon’s giant stone-carved Buddha faces. Their massive silhouettes jut out from the intricate towers of the temple, their mysterious smiles enchanting all who come to see the silent witnesses to the centuries of history.
3 Soak in the atmosphere at local markets
Siem Reap, being the touristic capital of Cambodia, is also one of the best places in the country for shopping. The Old Market or Central Market offers everything from the famous Cambodian silk to freshwater pearls and glassware—no doubt your haggling skills will come in handy.
If you’re short on time however, head to Artisans d’Angkor, where prices are higher—but often so is the quality. Classic Cambodian checkered scarves, luxurious silk and sculptures, or premixed spice packets make fantastic gifts and souvenirs.
4 Witness the passage of time at Ta Prohm ruins
As the remnant of the world’s largest pre-industrial city, Angkor Wat covers a vast area and comprises hundreds of extraordinary temples. They are surrounded by and often taken over by forests, and the best example of such take-over is Ta Prohm—otherwise known as the “Tomb Raider Temple”.
The roots and branches clasp the massive walls, reducing them to rubble: Ta Prohm’s trees and stones, forever embraced in the slow dance of entropy
Made famous by the popular blockbuster featuring the scantily clad “archeologist” Lara Croft, the 12th century ruins’ most distinctive feature is the roots and branches of trees that clasp the massive walls of the temple, slowly reducing them to rubble. Deliberately left in a maintained state of neglect, Ta Prohm is a nostalgic, picture-perfect sight.
5 Enjoy Khmer Food!
The tantalizing Khmer cuisine will introduce an extraordinary variety of taste and flavour to your palate. Healthy and delicious, the traditional recipes have been influenced by Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Chinese and even French culinary trends.
To create the succulent dishes, Khmer cuisine utilizes an array of zesty herbs and spices: galangal, lime, garlic, turmeric, lemon grass, ginger and tamarind, and fish sauce—bringing about great culinary experiences—at fine restaurants and street food stalls alike.
6 Explore Siem Reap on a Bicycle
We think one of the best ways to see the sights of Siem Reap and around is by bicycle. All the major sights in the area are within easy biking distance from the town, but more importantly—given the tropical climate—the terrain is flat as a pancake, making cycling simply fun. No pedaling up steep hills in the heat!
Many hotels offer bike hire and some include it in the cost of the room—like Amansara, where we stayed. But there are lots of cheap bike hire places dotted around the city.
7 Experience the traditional Apsara dance show
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The apsara dance is an ancient art form that have played a major part in Khmer culture for more than thousand years. The tradition has seen a great revival in the last decades. The quality range from cheesy to well-executed and many places have regular shows in Siem Reap (Apsara Theatre in Angkor Village has two performances every night). If you have a chance to see a good troupe then it’s an absolute must.
We were lucky to see it in Amansara, performed by a visiting troupe from Phnom Penh. Their exquisite performance of a legend that featured a scene of resurrection, took on a new symbolism in the light of the country’s rebirth after the Khmer Rouge regime.
8 See the Great Lake Tonle Sap & Floating Village
Close to the southwest part of Siem Reap lies Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Itineraries typically feature cruises on the lake past floating villages, which are a bit of a tourist trap—but also cover a visit to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
Part of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, it’s one of the most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for large water birds. Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican and Grey-Headed Fish Eagle can all be spotted here.
9 Ride in a tuk-tuk
There is no more authentic Southeast Asian experience than hitching a ride in a Tuk-Tuk. It’s also the best way to get a feel for Cambodia: Tuk-tuk is our preferred method of transportation in the country.
It’s an open-air taxi: simply a two or four-seat cart pulled by a motorbike—but it’s perfect for traveling through towns where the roads are forever congested and traffic lanes are just a suggestion. Tuk-tuks are as fast as a regular taxi and easily half the price.
10 Explore the beautiful tropical beaches of Cambodia
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As far as the beach destinations go, Thailand and Vietnam get most of the credit, with stunning stretches of sand and wonderful coastlines—but such things can be found in Cambodia too, made more alluring by the fact that they remain largely undiscovered by mass tourism.
The port city and beach resort town of Sihanoukville is the best place for discovering this side of the Cambodia experience. Sihanoukville is surrounded by white-sand beaches and remote islands, including the Song Saa Island, occupied by the newly opened boutique all-villa resort. As we wrote in the hotel review, Song Saa Private Island “offers the style and quality comparable and often surpassing any top resort in Thailand and Vietnam”.
Photos by Laskowski & Zadros, © TravelPlusStyle.com