Bucket List Worthy Hot off the Press
It has been said that Cambodia‘s Angkor Wat can only be rivaled by a few of the world’s greatest historic sites, such as Petra in Jordan or Peru’s Machu Picchu. But once you’ve paid visit to the famed temple complex that has become a symbol of the country, you’ll realize that Cambodia’s magic extends far beyond the walls of Angkor Wat. From the country’s inviting people greeting you with with wide smiles to its bustling beaches, charming cities and rich culture, these 20 reasons to visit Cambodia will probably help you understand why I never wanted to leave.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arrival in Cambodia is the friendliness of the people who call it home. In fact, my favorite thing about Cambodia, even more than the historic sites and gorgeous scenery, is the genuine people. Their giant smiles, respectful greetings (known as Sampeah) and hospitality are infectious. There’s no doubt the people of Cambodia will make your travels more fulfilling.
Angkor Wat is the national symbol of Cambodia and the reason most tourists travel to the country. The park includes the remains of the Khmer Empire, which date as far back as the 9th century. The awe-inspiring Temple of Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, and Angkor Thom are the most iconic ruins you’ll see, but you’ll find even more if you spend some time wandering the trails through the jungle. I chose to use the same tuk tuk driver for my entire visit to Angkor and Siam Reap, which was incredibly handy when it came to fending off the hoards of other drivers hoping for business at the temple.
Cambodia’s Koh Kong Conservation Corridor is a special treat for travelers who venture away from Siam Reap. This region, stretching from Koh Kong to the Gulf of Kompong Som, offers some of the country’s most impressive natural wonders. The Cardamom Mountains, with thousand-meter-high peaks, nearly 20 major waterways, massive virgin rainforest and roughly 60 threatened animal species, offer natural sightseeing that is tough to rival anywhere else in the world.
Ta Promh is a part of the Angkor complex that warrants special attention. Unlike many of the archaeological park’s restored temples, Ta Promh has been left to endure the harmful effects of jungle vines, trees, other plants and the environment. Construction of the Ta Promh Buddhist temple started in 1186 AD, and the trees that now tower above it, roots strangling the stone structures and impassable paths show its age. The raw beauty of this temple and its 39 towers make it a must-see for everyone visiting Angkor.
Cambodia’s 3325-square-kilometer Virachey National Park is so large that it has never been fully explored. The park is located in northeastern Cambodia and stretches all the way to the borders of Laos and Vietnam. Visitors have the chance of seeing rare animal species like elephants, tigers, sun bears, giant ibises and clouded leopards. The national park offers one of Cambodia’s top ecotourism programs, so you can embark on adventurous treks safely with knowledgeable, English-speaking guides.
Cambodia’s rich culture is guaranteed to captivate you the moment you arrive in the country. The country’s traditions date many centuries back, and the combination of Buddhist and Hindu customs create unique rituals that are distinctly Cambodian. The Robam Apsara, known as Apsara dancing to visitors, is a classic Cambodian dance form that was once performed in the courts of the royal palace. It is said that the dances have been part of the Khmer culture for more than 1,000 years. Visitors can now see Apsara performances in popular tourist cities, and no visit to Cambodia is complete without catching one.
Cambodia isn’t just a place to admire ancient ruins; it’s home to a number of modern, trendy towns that tourists have grown to love. Battambang is a riverside city with stunning French colonial architecture, mellow cafes and a unique mix of classic Cambodian style and modern upgrades. If you’re not in a hurry to reach the city, opt for the eight to 10-hour boat trip past floating villages and breathtaking scenery from Siem Reap to Battambang.
Cambodia’s unbeatable natural settings are home to some of the rarest animals in the world. The Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins, characterized by their short beak and bulging forehead, call a nearly 200-meter stretch of the Southeast Asian river home. It is expected that only 78 to 91 Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins still exist, and a number of specialized tour companies in Kratie will take you on scenic river rides to spot one of the world’s rarest species.
A sweaty day exploring the temples of Angkor is often followed by a relaxing night out in Siem Reap. Visitors can find everything they’re seeking, whether it’s a luxury resort, affordable motel, fine dining restaurant, low-key bar, happening nightclub or Apsara performance. If you’re planning on spending a few days in Angkor, you’ll want to reserve a couple of extra days for dining, shopping the night market and letting loose in Siem Reap.
After visiting the Angkor complex and experiencing the culture of Cambodia, you’ll want to dive deeper into the country’s history. The National Museum of Cambodia, north of the Royal Palace in the capital city of Phnom Penh, is one of the best places to get a glimpse of the country’s turbulent history. It offers one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer sculptures and cultural material. The museum successfully preserves Cambodia’s rich heritage while educating and inspiring its visitors.
Cambodian cuisine, or Khmer cuisine, gets much less international recognition than Thai or Vietnamese, but the diverse dishes passed down through generations rival other Southeast Asian fare. Most meals include an array of dishes with varying flavours and textures. The use of sauces, herbs, pickled vegetables, leaves and other condiments are common. Rice is consumed with nearly every meal, but it’s the seasonal herbs, fresh vegetables, tropical fruits and local fish that truly make the meals stand out.
You get a lot of bang for your buck in Cambodia. Budget-minded travelers can stay in tidy, charming accommodations and eat three delicious meals for roughly $25 per day. So when you factor in the country’s vibrant culture, breathtaking historic sites, natural wonders, smiling faces, and ridiculously low prices, it’s a tough travel destination to resist.
Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, and its size changes with every wet season. Hire a guide and a boat from Siem Reap, Kompong Khleang, Phnom Penh, Battambang or a number of other lakeside towns to explore the floating villages and admire countless bird, fish, reptile and plant species. If you’re looking for a more in-depth experience, have your driver take you to Kompong Luong, where you can stay overnight in the floating village.
It’s impossible to truly understand the culture of Cambodia without acknowledging the torture that occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime’s rule from 1975 to 1979. During those years, the Khmer Rouge regime captured and killed more than 1 million people they believed to be associated with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, located southwest of Phnom Penh, are one of the best places to educate yourself on these horrific years of Cambodia’s recent history through enlightening tours, exhibits and memorials.
A trip to Cambodia’s Bamboo Island could easily be the highlight of your trip. It’s located about a half hour off the coast of Sihanoukville. Bamboo Island is tiny, with just two beaches and a handful of bungalows, but it’s what the island lacks that makes it so special. Take a couple of days to fall completely off the grid with restricted power use, no hot water, no internet access, no televisions and hardly any tourists.
The majestic crater lake Boeng Yeak Lom lies at the heart of the protected Yeak Lom area of northeastern Cambodia. It is considered a sacred place to the indigenous people remaining in the area, and one look at its peaceful, clear waters will help you understand why the lake is so cherished.
Some people may see bugs as a negative part of visiting hot and humid southeast Asia, but many Cambodians (and daring tourists) see them as a tasty treat. Adventurous eaters can try an array of worms, spiders, crickets and other insects that have been fried or simply seasoned everywhere from street carts to marketplaces and upscale restaurants throughout the country.
It’s hard not to enjoy yourself in the backseat of a tuk tuk with the wind in your face and friendly Cambodians waving hello. Tuk tuks are one of the least expensive ways to get around in Cambodia, so you’ll likely find yourself hitching a ride multiple times per day. Unlike the traditional tuk tuks in India or Thailand, Cambodian tuk tuks are typically towed behind a motorbike, making the experience even more photo-worthy.
Some of Cambodia’s beaches have become less desirable for visitors, because they’re overcrowded with tourists and hawkers, but several island paradises still remain. Rabbit Island lies off the coast of southern Cambodia and is a tropical oasis for beach-goers who are willing to set technology aside and enjoy the serenity of an island that only has power at limited times of day.
Don’t forget your most comfortable pair of walking shoes when heading to Phnom Penh’s massive central market. The art deco building dates all the way back to 1935, but it’s the selection of shops inside that will blow you away. It’s arguably the best place in the country to get dirt-cheap prices on souvenirs like clothing, sunglasses, art and watches. Skip your hotel breakfast and opt for dining at the countless traditional Cambodian food stalls inside.