Cambodia is a country with a fascinating story to tell its visitors. Its valleys and hills were the unlikely foundation on which one of history’s greatest civilisations, the Khmer Empire, rose and fell. The relics of this glorious period are still a cultural centrepiece for the nation, and stand as a proud testimony to its past. And with a recent past splintered by war and tragedy, these cultural icons represent the humbling resiliency of the Cambodian people. Beyond Angkor Wat and the pristine southern coastlines tropical islands, it’s the uncompromising kindness of Cambodia’s people that leaves the most lasting impression on visitors.
Top Destinations in Cambodia
Angkor Archaeological Park
Far more than a simple assemblage of stone edifices and artefacts, Angkor was the beating heart of the world’s largest pre-industrial society. The urban sprawl of its vast historical territory extends some 1,000 kilometres out into the surrounding countryside. Even to this day, archaeologists continue to uncover surprising evidence of ancient Khmer sophistication.
Taking a walk among its mind-bogglingly vast and intricate temples is like taking a step back in time. Crumbling remains seem to mend themselves as the grandeur of this once-thriving city comes to life around you. Since it came onto the Western world’s radar in the late 19th Century, Angkor has held an almost mythical status among those interested in history and adventure.
Angkor Wat is often mentioned in the same breath as iconic bucket list destinations such as Peru’s Machu Picchu and India’s Taj Mahal – and rightfully so. As the largest religious monument on earth, Angkor Wat is at the heart of Cambodia’s archaeological allure and one of the region’s most iconic destinations.
Angkor Wat is only the beginning, though. It’s the centerpiece of a sprawling complex consisting of dozens of temples at the heart of a once-thriving ancient city. Each temple within the archaeological park is equally impressive and deserving of a visit in their own right. To visit them all could easily fill the space of a few days. Highlights include Bayon Temple – known as the “temple of 200 faces” – and Ta Prohm, the “jungle temple” made famous for the Hollywood hit Tomb Raider. Those with a bit more time should put lesser-explored Angkor Thom and Banteay Srei on their list.
How to get there:
By Plane: Siem Reap International Airport is Cambodia’s second largest and is served through direct flights internationally from Bangkok, Pattaya, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Singapore, Manila, Luang Prabang, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Hong Kong, Kunming and Guangzhou. The airport is about seven kilometres from the city-centre and most hotels offer free pickup if booked in advance.
By Bus: Phnom Penh is accessed easily by bus from virtually anywhere in Cambodia, as well as most major cities in neighbouring countries. Most buses terminate at an out-of-town bus station on the east side Siem Reap. From there, grab a tuk tuk to get into the town centre.
By Train: Getting to Siem Reap by train is perhaps the cheapest and most scenic route. Trains regularly depart from Hualamphong Train Station and take between 90 minutes to two hours. From Ayutthaya Station, simply take a ferry across the river or take a tuk tuk there.
By Boat: Siem Reap can be accessed via hydrofoil along Tonle Sap Lake from Phnom Penh or Battambang. Although a bit costly and time consuming, it’s a great way to see areas of the lake that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Sleepy and relaxing despite it being Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang is a bastion of the country’s historical allure. With its charming French colonial architecture and abundant Buddhist temples and shrines, it’s also a go-to destination for those interested in history.
Battambang is easy to get around in on foot or bicycle, making it a great place for urban exploration. The city boasts a captivating blend of small-town friendliness and post-colonial charm, Battambang is an impressionable city worthy of a visit.
Most that come to Battambang will do so for the promise of a ride aboard the Bamboo Train. Built by the French in the 1920’s as simple metal-and-bamboo “trains”, this oddball attraction is a rattling, lurching joyride through the Cambodian countryside.
Head just outside the city proper to Pheam Ek Village and you’ll be treated to a rolling patchwork of rice fields punctuated by rickety traditional stilted houses. Here you can spot local women rolling rice paper by hand and, in nearby Sonrong Knong, you can pick up a sample of sticky rice from roadside vendors. AtPrahoc Factory, see how Cambodia’s famous fermented fish paste is manufactured.
History buffs will love the 11th Century Phnom Banan – though a challenge to get to, its crumbling ruins offer commanding views of the surrounding area that make the trip worthwhile. Afterwards, head to Phnom Sampeau Complex for a glimpse at the colourful collection of temples and stupas at the top of a mountain. En route, you can also visit the macabre Killing Caves which, like Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, are a somber reminder of one of humanity’s darkest hours.
How to get there:
By Bus: Battambang is accessed by bus from Phnom Penh (four hours), Siem Reap (three hours) and Sisophon, near the Thai border (one hour). The bus station is about three kilometres outside the city-centre. From there, take either a tuk tuk or motorbike to travel the rest of the way.
By Boat: A scenic and interesting journey from Siem Reap departs once daily, and can take between four and 12 hours, depending on the season and the state of the river. During the peak of dry season, the boat is unable to make it all the way to Battambang, and instead will be used in combination with a shuttle bus to take you the rest of the way.
Well enough off of the tourist track to maintain an adventurous vibe, Kampong Cham is the third largest city in Cambodia but usually treated as a stopover town for travellers. Those that stick around longer will find Kampong Cham a charming secret along the Cambodia travel route, and are in for a cultural surprise that makes the city well worth a visit. Though most of the city is inhabited by ethnic Khmer people, a significant population of Cham people means a bit of cultural discovery is likely in store for your visit here.
One of the most pleasant places to visit in Kampong Cham is the rural island on the Mekong River, Koh Paen. Connected by an elaborate bamboo bridge during the dry season or by ferry during wet season, the island offers unique local experiences and the closest thing to a “beach” that you’ll find in this part of Cambodia.
There’s also the fascinating fusion temple of Wat Nokor Bachey. It combines a modern Theravada Buddhist temple with a stone-walled 12th Century Mahayana Buddhist temple creating a unique environment that’s undeniably charming and a bit bizarre.
For a peak at the area’s unique colonial heritage, head over to the Old French Lighthouse. After abandonment, it has since been renovated – and its towering view over the Mekong offers a fantastic base for the area’s amazing sunsets.
If you’ve ever wondered where rubber comes from and how it’s made, Kampong Cham is a great place to learn. As the heart of Cambodia’s bustling rubber industry, Chup Rubber Plantation Factory lets visitors take a peak around its facilities to see just how the inconspicuous rubber tree is turned into one of the world’s most useful materials.
How to get there:
By Bus: Most arrivals by bus come from Phnom Penh or Kratie. Buses arrive near Kampong Cham Market. From there you can easily find a tuk tuk or motorbike taxi to your hotel or simply walk.
Kampot (and Kep)
Located on a river near the Gulf of Thailand, Kampot is known more for its peppers than it is for tourism. The black peppers in Kampot are world-renowned for their unique flavour, and are sought after by gourmet chefs from around the world. But beyond its culinary allure, Kampot’s rustic post-colonial aura and fascinating French architectural facades are a growing draw for travellers. Kampot is considered the gateway to Bokor National Park, so visitors here can expect lots of opportunities for boating, rafting and caving. Because of its uniquely languid charm, Kampot makes for a great breather during a whirlwind visit to Cambodia.
Given the Kampot’s fame for producing the world’s finest peppers, don’t leave Kampot without paying a visit to its pepper farms. Most of the taxis in either Kampot or nearby Kep will know where to go.
Much of Kampot’s architecture is a remnant of its French colonial heritage, so if the friendly people of Kampot don’t endear you to the town during your visit, the shady boulevards will. Be sure the check out the old Governor’s Residence, and Department of Mines Building.
One of the main draws to Kampot during colonial times was the pleasant cool relaxing climate at Bokor Mountain. The Bokor Hill Station founded there in Bokor National Park is one of the area’s most well-known attractions. Some locals insist that the deteriorating buildings of Bokor Hill Station are haunted, especially the former Casino – so keep a sharp eye out!
The Kampot River offers visitors a great way to cool off and embark in outdoor adventures. Well-known for its scenery, it’s a popular place for stand-up paddle boarding, and rafting. Just across the river from Kampot are the Tek Chhou Falls. They may not be the tallest or most spectacular falls in the world, but it’s a pleasant place to visit and a popular weekend haunt for locals looking to escape the heat and relax.
Phnom Chhnork is a surprisingly beautiful area full of caves and limestone formations. The quarry there was used to mine gravel used in the construction industry, but the surrounding area feels pristine and off-the-beaten path.
As with most places in Cambodia, Kampot also has its fair share of temples. The most beautiful of these isWat Treuy Koh. The beautiful decorations and illustrations of Buddha’s life make it one of the most iconic and worthwhile places to visit in Kampot. During your temple hopping, be sure to check out Prasart Phnom Ngok. Although it’s tiny, it’s considered to be the oldest temple in Cambodia at more than 1600 years old!
How to get there:
By Bus: Most buses to Kampot arrive either from Phnom Penh (three hours) or Sihanoukville (two hours). The roads into Kampot have recently been repaved, so the experience is smoother than other rural destinations in Cambodia.
Kratie is a small town on the banks of the Mekong River with clean lush villages surrounded by palm, banana and mango trees. Known for its charming colonial architecture, Kratie is said to have some of the best sunsets in Cambodia. Kratie’s main claim to fame, however, are the critically-endangered Irawaddy dolphins that you’re likely to catch a glimpse of here. Kratie is also an excellent base for exploring the Mekong River and surrounding areas, and a popular stopping-off point for journeys from northern Cambodia to southern Laos.
The star attraction of Kratie is undoubtedly the population of Irawaddy dolphins living here. The best spot for seeing them is around the village of Kampi, about 15 kilometres north of Kratie. Here, about 60-85 dolphins continue to swim freely in the wild.
Roughly 10 kilometres north of Kratie is the hilltop temple of Phnom Sombok, which features fascinating but macabre depictions of what happens when one doesn’t lead a holy life, and probably a few monkeys as well. There’s also a fascinating pre-Angkorian settlement and temple (Wat Sorsor Muoy Roi) at Sambor, about 40 kilometres from Kratie.
Within about 15 kilometres south of Kratie are three basket weaving villages. The largest of these is Chheu Teal Ploch, inhabited by about 4,000 ethnic Cham people. This unique ethnic group is descendant of the Kingdom of Champa, which stretched across parts of Cambodia and Vietnam in around the same period as the Angkor Kingdom.
In addition to having excellent kayaking possibilities, Kratie is also the beginning of the Mekong Discovery Trail. For those adventurous and ambitious enough to follow it, the trail snakes through some 180 kilometres of lush natural scenery surrounding the Mekong River as it makes its way to the Laos border.
How to get there:
By Bus: Most buses to Kratie arrive from Stung Treng. Accessed from Phnom Penh, it takes about three hours. There are also direct buses from Siem Reap.
The vast majority of Cambodia’s landscape is characterised by endless rice fields, sugar palms and jungle. Head far enough east though, and eventually you’ll run into the rolling hills of Mondulkiri. Mondulkiri is Cambodia’s wild east, and despite being the largest region by land area, Mondulkiri is the country’s least populated region with just four inhabitants per square-kilometre. Home to the hardy Bunong people, Mondulkiri is famous not just for its human residents, but its wildlife as well. The Bunong have a close connection and partnership with elephants, while majestic waterfalls and lush jungles in the area play host to birdlife and the black-shanked duoc – a unique and rare primate.
They don’t call Mondulkiri the Wild East for nothing. Sen Monorom is the area’s closest approximation to a town, where you’ll find roughly 20 guest houses, a few restaurants, and a pub. It serves as the main launching point for adventures throughout the province.
Within Seima Protected Forest, you’ll find some of Cambodia’s most pristine forest reserves. Because the area is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a collection of tour operators can help you sustainably contribute to conservation while getting up-close and personal with some of the park’s exotic wildlife.
For a more intimate encounter with the elephants that make Mondulkiri famous, consider a visit to theElephant Valley Project. The organisation endeavours to provide sanctuary and rehabilitation to injured and retired working elephants. A visit does have a steeper price tag than other elephant camps, but the sanctuary’s high welfare standards makes it a worthy destination for anyone who loves and appreciates these gentle giants.
Contributing to the wild allure of Mondulkiri is the proliferation of gorging waterfalls in the area. The newly-accessible Kbal Phei Waterfall requires a challenging 20-kilometer journey, but its well worth it for the pristine natural scenery. Other must-see waterfalls include Bou Sra Waterfall, Dak Dam Waterfall, Monorom Waterfall and Romanear Waterfalls 1 and 2.
For a chance to meet face-to-face with some of the charming hill tribe communities living in Mondulkiri, visitPou Lung Village, Koh Nhek Village or the market in Sen Monorom where, in the early hours of the morning, locals from surrounding villages come to sell their wares.
How to get there:
By Bus: Most arrivals to Mondulkiri travel from Phnom Penh, arriving in Sen Monorom after a journey of between seven and eight hours. It’s also possible to get to Mondulkiri from Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province via private shuttle-bus.
Many consider Phnom Penh an obligatory stopping point on their way to more famous destinations in Cambodia – but the former “Pearl of Asia” is an alluring travel destination in its own right. Part of the capital’s appeal is in how its charm slowly reveals itself to visitors. From its colonial architecture to its picturesque riverside promenade and glittering Royal Palace, sooner or later most visitors acquiesce to the undeniable charm of this rustic city. While it may not have the frenetic nightlife of Bangkok or the sophistication of Singapore, it leaves visitors with a sense of intimacy otherwise absent from Asia’s more metropolitan destinations.
The attractions of Phnom Penh run the gamut between dazzlingly ornate and deeply sobering. The regalRoyal Palace is a sparkling example of Cambodia’s past, along with the Silver Pagoda that shares its compound.
Beyond the Royal Palace, there’s no shortage of options if you’re interested in Khmer architecture. The iconic Independence Monument is a great backdrop for photos, while Wat Phnom, Wat Oanulom andWat Botum are great places to dive into the local Buddhist culture.
Phnom Penh’s post-colonial charm is on full display at Sisowath Quay, boasting a peaceful riverside ambiance. This promenade runs along the west bank of the Tonle Sap River and is a great place for walking around, discovering local live music or grabbing a cocktail for sunset.
Though sobering and not a natural inclusion for a holiday itinerary, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 Prison, and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are an important visit for those who visit Phnom Penh. These places offer insight into one of humanity’s darkest hours, and provides context for Cambodia’s development and the importance of travelling responsibly here.
How to get there:
By Plane: Located just seven kilometres outside of the city, Phnom Penh International Airport is the country’s largest and most well-connected airport. Direct international flights here arrive from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Taipei, Kunming and Nanning.
By Bus: Because of Phnom Penh’s central location within Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a popular waypoint for travellers coming from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is easily accessed from virtually anywhere within Cambodia.
By Boat: Phnom Penh is easily accessible by riverboat from Chau Doc in Vietnam, a journey of about 5 hours. There’s also a ferry link from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh.
As the gateway to the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap is the epicentre of Cambodia’s burgeoning tourism industry, and the fastest growing city in the country. Having transformed from a sleepy town to a bustling tourist hub, Siem Reap is now the country’s most developed city without losing its distinctly rustic charm. Most that come to Siem Reap will rush headlong toward the Angkor temples without ever looking back, but those that do will miss out on central Siem Reap’s own fascinating culture. Now a flourishing hub of live music, cafes, bars and restaurants, this artistic and cultural hub is worth a dedicated day of wandering for anyone heading in the area.
Aside from the temples of Angkor that most people come to Siem Reap for, the area is home to a collection of attractions and destinations that are well-deserving of their own visits. Foremost is the Angkor National Museum. The museum houses thousands of delicate artefacts from the temple complex that provide fascinating insight into Khmer civilization. A great way to enhance an Angkor Wat experience is to come here first.
Siem Reap was heavily affected by the Khmer Rouge. Just beyond the walls of Angkor is Wat Thmei, which was built to commemorate victims the area’s victims. Behind a glass stupa are the bones of those who had fallen. It’s not all gloom, though. There’s also a large monastery with abundant monks and a working orphanage.
For those interested in performance art, Aspara Dances are one of Siem Reap’s biggest must-see attractions. These beautiful and hypnotic performances recount ancient myths and tales of the Khmer civilisation, and are even depicted on the walls of Angkor temples.
For a more modern take on culture in the area, head to Pub Street to take on the area’s vibrant nightlife – or head to Old Market, where you can find some outstanding handicrafts and souvenirs at a bargain.
How to get there:
By Plane: Siem Reap International Airport is Cambodia’s second largest airport and is served through direct flights internationally from Bangkok, Pattaya, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Singapore, Manila, Luang Prabang, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Hong Kong, Kunming and Guangzhou. The airport is about seven kilometres from the city-centre and most hotels offer free pickup if booked in advance.
By Bus: Phnom Penh can be accessed easily by bus from nearly everywhere in Cambodia, and also from most major cities in neighbouring countries. Most buses terminate at an out-of-town bus station on the east side Siem Reap. From there, grab a tuk tuk to get into town.
By Train: Getting by there by train is perhaps the cheapest and most scenic route. Trains regularly depart from Hualamphong Train Station and take between 90 minutes and two hours. From Ayutthaya Station, simply take a ferry across the river or take a tuk tuk to Siem Reap.
By Boat: Siem Reap can be accessed via hydrofoil along Tonle Sap Lake from Phnom Penh or Battambang. Although a bit costly and time consuming, it’s a great way to see areas of the lake that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, is a Cambodia’s most bustling beach town and port city. Sitting on the Gulf of Thailand, it may not be home to the region’s most photogenic beaches – but the beaches that it does have are vast, white and nearly uninterrupted. This makes Sihanoukville an easy getaway from the crowds of beach holiday-makers. The combination of its beaches, bohemian vibe, and rapidly expanding infrastructure make it the perfect place to relax and unwind. Its proximity to the southern islands also make it a convenient launching point for more exotic destinations in southern Cambodia.
The most popular beach in Sihanoukville is Occheuteal Beach. This four-kilometre stretch of sand and rock is a major stop-off point for those visiting the area. At the north-western end is Serendipity Beach, where a slew of restaurants, bars and boutique resorts sit mere meters away from the gently lapping waves of the Gulf. While you’re there, be sure to drop by the M’Lop Tapang Shop to support an outstanding initiative to protect local children by purchasing beautiful and unique handmade handicrafts.
To escape the crowds of Occheuteal Beach, head to the southern end where it’s less crowded. Just south beyond Phnom Som Nak Sdach (Hill of the King’s Palace) is Otres Beach. Despite being only a short distance away, Otres Beach feels like a world apart from Occheuteal Beach. The water is much cleaner, and it’s not difficult to find your own patch of sand.
For spectacular panoramic views of the city and surrounding area, head to Wat Leu. Situated on a peaceful forested hilltop a kilometre and a half from the city-centre, it’s the perfect place to catch sunset.
Sihanoukville is also a great launching point to Cambodia’s gorgeous Southern Islands. The star of this bunch is undoubtedly Koh Rong. The pearl-white sands, laid back atmosphere, and crystal-clear waters here make it a favourite for beach-goers. Beyond Koh Rong, there’s also Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Thmei, and Koh Totang.
How to get there:
By Plane: Located about 17 kilometres east of the town is Sihanoukville Airport, which can be accessed via flights through Cambodia Angkor Air three times a week from Siem Reap.
By Bus: Most buses to Sihanoukville come from either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. The bus station is fairly far from the city-centre, so you’ll need to take a tuk tuk or motorbike the rest of the way.
Tonle Sap is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique ecological wonders. The shape-shifting lake swells and evaporates with the seasons, which gives rise to one of Cambodia’s most fascinating natural sights. During wet season, it’s the largest lake in the region – expanding to approximately 15,000 square-kilometres. During this time, the Mekong River becomes so powerful that it reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap River, causing surplus rain water to surge into Tonle Sap Lake. This creates a vast natural reservoir where stilted homes rise above the pulse of the lake – which is perhaps one of Cambodia’s most fascinating cultural experiences.
Because of Tonle Sap’s unique ecosystem, the are is a great place for bird watching. For a great chance to spot rare and exotic birds and other wildlife, head to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.
Likewise, Tonle Sap is dotted with fascinating floating communities that can be accessed by boat during wet season. The most famous of these is Kompong Phluk Village. This community of some 3,000 Khmer people have inhabited unique stilted and floating homes in this area for centuries.
How to get there:
By Boat: The ferry from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap travels up the Tonle Sap River and travels straight across the lake. It is a good way of viewing the Tonle Sap in a hurry.
The ferry between Battambang and Siem Reap crosses the north western corner of the Tonle Sap. Although a sizeable portion of the journey is spent along the Sangke River, it is considered by many to be the best boat trip in Cambodia.
The Tonle Sap and its many floating villages can be accessed from Siem Reap, Kompong Phluk, Kompong Khleang, Phnom Penh, Kampong Chhnang, Kompong Luong, and Battambang. At all these locations on the lake, it’s possible to rent boat and driver.
Things to do in Cambodia
Experience Cambodia’s Spirituality
Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country where locals’ lives are deeply intertwined with spirituality. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating and distinctive cultural elements to see in Cambodia, as Buddhism is more enduring in Cambodia than many of its neighbouring countries. Consequently, many of its historic temples and wats are still very much in regular use by pious locals, and it’s hard to go more than a few meters down the road without passing by a Buddhist monk in saffron robes. Those that want to get a true sense of Cambodian culture would do well to explore the complexities of Buddhism in local culture. Some great ways to do it is with a meet-and-greet with a Buddhist monk, taking part in traditional Buddhist ceremonies or simply exploring pagodas alongside a knowledgeable local – or all of it in a single journey!
Buddhism is a profound cultural element nearly everywhere in Cambodia, but some places offer better hands-on experiences for visitors to learn about it. Our favourite place to do so is Siem Reap – which maintains a strong spiritual grounding despite rising tourism. Not far outside of the Angkor temple complex, a small but significant monastery welcomes international visitors interested in learning about the monks’ way of life here. With an overnight stay, you can truly experience the cadence of monastic life – including rising at 4AM for morning meditation, a last meal around 11AM and one-on-one discussion with a monk.
For a monastery visit, it’s best to plan these visits outside of major Buddhist holidays. However, if an overnight monastery visit isn’t in your itinerary, planning a visit to Cambodia around major Buddhist holidays offers unique insight into how the locals celebrate. The best and most vibrant Buddhist holidays includeKhmer New Year in April, and Visaka Bochea Day in May. Both showcase the fascinating traditions carried out by locals and monks alike at pagodas.
It’s important to respect religious customs during these important holidays – and especially within monasteries. Nearly all pagodas will require you to keep your knees and shoulders covered, and it is best to come prepared with long but lightweight clothing.
Explore Cambodia’s Temples
One of the biggest tourism draws to Cambodia is the spectacular temples of Angkor, bastions of an ancient empire centred around modern-day Siem Reap. Often the focal points of any visit to Cambodia, the Angkor Temples are usually a must-see destination for any first-time visitor – but many stop short of exploring all of Cambodia’s temple complexes. Those that commit time and energy to exploring temples either in greater Siem Reap or in other parts of the country are rewarded for their efforts. Smaller crowds coupled with fascinating back-stories make Cambodia’s temples a mesmerising glimpse into the ancient history of the country and its people.
No visit to Cambodia would be complete without a thorough exploration of Siem Reap’s Angkor Temple Complex, one of the largest temple complexes in the world. While you’re here, make sure to visit its gems:Angkor Wat, Bayon, Elephant Terrace, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm Temple, considered its highlight temples. With a bit more time, head further out to Pre Rup – a great temple to catch sunset – and Banteay Srei, a pink sandstone temple located about 30 kilometres north of Angkor.
Just outside of Phnom Penh, Phnom Chisor Temple is far enough outside of the city that most won’t make the trek to see it – but those that do are happy they did. Built in the Angkorian era, the temple is reminiscent of the Angkor temples in Siem Reap. Tonle Bati, set near a lake about 30 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, is a popular weekend getaway for locals and makes for a great escape from the city.
In Battambang, make sure to put the temple ruins at Phnom Banan on your list, along with Ek Phnom, an 11th Century Angkorian ruin.
Exploring Cambodia’s temples can be taxing, as many require a significant amount of steps to ascend. Consequently, exploring any of Cambodia’s temples isn’t recommended for the middle of the day during dry season, when temperatures are at their highest. Most will set off early in the morning to explore a set of temples, before taking a long break in the afternoon for lunch and heading out again in the late afternoon to catch sunset.
Don’t show up to Cambodia’s temples in shorts and a tank top and expect to get in. Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country that takes their temple ruins seriously, so most require that both your knees and shoulders are covered. Plenty of the temples don’t allow you to simply cover up with a scarf, so bring along a light button up shirt to throw over a cooler top, and skip the shorts for some light-weight longer pants or skirt. Keep an eye on your footwear as well – some temples with steps won’t allow you to ascend if your shoes do not have a strap around your heel, so ditch the flip flops.
Explore the Waterways
Though Cambodia may not have the 3000 kilometres of coastline like its neighbour Vietnam, Cambodia does share Vietnam’s penchant for fascinating river lifestyles, with the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River feeding much of the country’s agricultural industry. Its importance in the lives of Cambodians is what makes rivers and waterways such a spectacular experience while in the country. The rivers’ flood pulse is also the reason why many riverside communities are suspended on stilts, which is especially fascinating to witness firsthand. All in all, exploring Cambodia’s waterways is a fascinating and unique way to explore local culture.
Those that have a bit of extra time and are travelling to or from Vietnam should put a river cruise on their list. Many of these Mekong River cruises connect Ho Chi Minh City with Phnom Penh, taking a leisurely route through some of the delta region’s most spectacular scenery.
Those with less time can still get a taste of water-bound living at Tonle Sap Lake, a massive lake that expands and shrinks with the annual flood pulse of the Tonle Sap River. The community here lives in homes that stand metres above the water on stilts to cope with rising and falling water levels, so the experience of gliding through these “avenues” is a stand-out experience for many Cambodia first-timers.
The best times to visit Cambodia’s waterways are during the dry season from October to April, since this means lower water levels that centralize Tonle Sap’s bird population and less rain. However, lower water levels can cause unexpected changes in itineraries if they drop below a certain level, so the beginning or tail end of dry season (October to November and March to April).
Being on the water in Southeast Asia inevitably means more mosquitoes, so having some bug spray or lotion for river experiences is exceptionally important. Battle both the bugs and the reflected sunlight off of the water with loosely-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers.
Learn About the Khmer Rouge Era
Though Angkor Wat is arguably the most iconic cultural element of Cambodia, most that come to the country will have heard of the horrific atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when nearly a quarter of the population was killed in what is still one of the world’s most devastating instances of genocide. Though Cambodians are eager to move past this dark time in recent history, well-managed museums demonstrate the importance this event plays in the lives of modern Cambodians. To get a true and sincere understanding of the country and the context for its struggles, understanding the Khmer Rouge era is absolutely imperative. Though difficult to witness, learning more about this period of time enriches any visit to Cambodia.
The whole of Cambodia was affected by the Khmer Rouge era, but much of its remnants are centralised in a few significant locations in the country. In Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison Museum are perhaps the most illuminating places to explore the history.
In Battambang, a lesser-visited but nonetheless significant destination is the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, where a portion of the three million people victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed. Now marked with a small memorial holding the bones of victims and a large, reclining Buddha statue, the killing caves are important historical landmarks for the country.
There’s no particular time of the year that is best to visit the Khmer Rouge museums and landmarks, but inclement weather during the rainy season can sometimes make the ascend to the Killing Caves impossible. Avoid the worst of the heat and rain between October to November and March to April.
It’s a popular tradition among locals to place bracelets on the fences marking mass graves in reverence for those that perished here – so if you do buy small, locally-made bracelets during your visit to Siem Reap, bring along one or two to leave behind at the Killing Fields in homage to its victims.
Relax on the Beaches
Though certainly not its most stand-out feature, Cambodia is home to a small collection of beaches that are a great place to sum up a journey. Because most in search of sand and sun will head to more developed beaches in Thailand or Malaysia, the beaches in Cambodia still retain an off-the-beaten-track vibe that adventurous travellers love. Don’t expect too much in the way of creature comforts – with its relaxed atmosphere comes the bare necessities and less-developed tourism infrastructure.
Southern Cambodia has a few great destinations for some coastal relaxation – the most famous beingSihanoukville. Here, favourite places to kick back and relax include Ochheuteal Beach, Serendipity Beach and Otres Beach – all popular with budget travellers and thus devoid of loverly-ritzy beachside hotels.
Those looking to head even further off of the beaten track should head to Kep, located not far from Sihanoukville, but a world away from its backpacker vibes. Quiet and little-developed, Kep has a more exclusive feel and is located not far from the fascinating township of Kampot, famous for its peppercorns and crumbling French colonial architecture.
Mild weather year-round makes Sihanoukville and Kep great destinations for any time of year, but short blasts of rainfall between the months of May and October can sometimes scare away those searching for endless summer sun. Dry season (November to April) means the best weather for beach relaxation, but also bigger crowds. We recommend a happy medium, either in late October or mid- to late-April.
Like any good beach-side destination, you’d be missing out if you didn’t try Sihanoukville and Kep’s spectacular seafood – but eating in Sihanoukville is surprisingly diverse. An interesting blend of restaurants and culinary styles vying for the appetites of visitors means Sihanoukville has a great combination of Japanese, Vietnamese and Khmer restaurants. Some swear that Sihanoukville’s sushi is the best outside of Japan, so make sure you carve out some time to sample it.
Support Khmer Traditional Arts
In any country, supporting and understanding traditional arts is a wonderful way to sustain a local culture through your travels – but in no country is this more important than in Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge era, many of Cambodia’s traditional arts were nearly lost, and only now has the resurrection of traditional Khmer arts brought many art forms near extinction back to life. This was driven largely by increased tourism, but sustaining local art and crafts is still crucial to the cultural tapestry of Cambodia. Making an active contribution to these fascinating art forms – either through your travel dollar or through your choices of experiences – is a cause that will be rewarding both for you and for the local community.
Nearly everywhere in Cambodia is a great place to support traditional arts, but artisan villages and NGOs inSiem Reap and Phnom Penh make it even easier for international visitors to support worthy initiatives.
In Siem Reap, Artisans d’Angkor is a great place to pick up souvenirs crafted by skilled local artisans, while also supporting its arts education and training programs.
In Phnom Penh, pay a visit to Silk Island (Koh Dach) to see skilled textile workers in action, and pick up a few keepsakes to take a bit of Khmer culture back home with you.
There’s nothing wrong with a little bargaining when buying souvenirs (it’s expected), but if you’re investing in handmade textiles or other handicrafts, the cost will be higher than other mass-produced souvenirs you’ll find in other shops. Consider the time and energy that went into creating each item you’re buying before bargaining too hard. If you’re in a brick and mortar shop where prices are marked, don’t expect to get any discounts from bargaining.
Visit a Local Village
One of Cambodia’s most alluring characteristics is its people, and the rustic rural communities in which they live. Despite the fact that most of Cambodia is made up of agrarian communities, these unique communities are usually far enough outside of the tourist track that many visitors will leave Cambodia without having ever experienced what life in rural Cambodia is really like. Don’t make the same mistake –a dedicated day to get off of the beaten track is worthwhile to get a more accurate sense of how spirituality, history and culture informs the lifestyles of most Cambodians.
A vast majority of Cambodia is made up of rural villages and little-developed countryside, but the best experiences with enough tourism infrastructure to make a visit possible are just outside of the major cities, including Siem Reap and Battambang. One village just outside of Siem Reap, Chansor Village, is equal parts a village experience and a feat of community-based tourism. A visit here means the chance to learn from locals the tricks of farming and fishing, while also supporting the sustainable income of an entire community.
Nearly any time of year is a great time to visit a local community, but if you plan to stay overnight in a homestay, milder weather will make the absence of creature comforts more bearable. Cambodia’s monsoon season from May to October means cooler weather but also the likelihood of rainfall. Aim for a time outside of its heaviest rainfall in the months between July and September to avoid the highest precipitation. To see much of the village’s rice crop just before harvest, aim for late September and October when most harvests take place.
If you’re keen to avoid the rain rather than the heat, a visit between November and March means drier weather but often soaring temperatures accompanied by draught, which can leave villages dustier than usual. Like everywhere in Southeast Asia, weather is unpredictable and you can be either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by unexpected changes in the skies.
Though visiting a local village through a reputable travel company has a profoundly positive effect on local income and sustainable tourism, you will likely experience some level of poverty up-close and personal during some of your visits. This often leads visitors to feeling obligated to give gifts like money or candy to children. Fight the urge and instead commit your energy to building connections with the locals. Community-based tourism projects promote self-reliance, and short-sighted handouts are a detriment to this ultimate goal.