Cambodia’s 10 must-see places and must-do things
1. Visit the most-spoken-of attraction in Cambodia – Angkor Wat
Of course, Cambodia is famous for one thing – the intensely beautiful Angkor Wat. You cannot be blamed for having this as your sole reason for visiting. After all, it is on their flag. It is the largest religious monument in the whole world, built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Today, the temple has become overwhelmingly popular with tourists all over the world. Over two a half million people come to lay their eyes on the temple every year.
The temple is definitely something that every traveller needs to see. The experience is somewhat surreal, tickling every sense and almost giving you the feeling that you have been there before. The tickets, though not dirt cheap at USD37 for 1-day – are totally worth the money spent and nearby accommodation is very affordable. If you want to document your experience with a breath-taking photo, get there before sunrise and wait for the sun to make its way up behind the temple.
There are many temples throughout the country that have historical and cultural significance. If you enjoy understanding the folklores, ideals and shared meanings of foreign cultures, then these are great places to start. Beyond Angkor Wat, both Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom are worth visiting.
2. Have a look at Angkor from a different angle
Those who need a higher level of stimulation will not be disappointed. For around KHR210,000/USD50, you can be whizzing over the wondrous temple on a zipline. Well, you’ll in fact be travelling across ten ziplines, four hanging bridges and up seven staircases. If this doesn’t sound exhilarating enough for you, then you have but one option left. Pay all the money in your bank account, hop aboard a helicopter, and go soaring above the temple, viewing it from a perspective otherwise beyond your normal reach.
3. Get chills – literally! – at Bokor Hill Station
Bokor hill station is an interesting monument that is testament to the occupation of both the French colonialists in the early 1930’s, and the Khmer Rouge in the late 70’s. The town was intended as a respite from the extreme heat and harsh weather conditions for soldiers of the French Army. Without giving away all the juicy details that make this a place worth visiting, you should know that the eerie ghost town has been abandoned twice. It now stands barren, nothing more than the bones of what once was. The station is very much a symbol of the countries recent history, tied to the ghosts of men and regimes passed. It makes for a great day out adventuring and allows for some really dramatic photo opportunities.
4. Have a glimpse of the country’s eerie history at the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau is a spine chilling affair. You’ll find the cave after a moderate walk halfway up the mountain, through limestone caves and canyons, passed many monkeys, and even the odd bat if you’re lucky. A cage full of bones and skulls, and another glass box of human remains really drives home the dreadful reality of the past.
5. Do not miss the Toul Sleng Museum of Genocide
This high school, turned torture and execution centre of S-21 is possibly the most haunting of all the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners’ interrogations were meticulously transcribed, and their photos taken in order to compile a dreadful catalogue of those who have passed through. While seeing these things is not easy, it is also very impactful and humbling. So, if looking back in time is something you’d like to do, this is a really powerful place to do it.
6. Learn more about the country at the National Museum of Cambodia
History and culture buffs will be well stimulated in the National Museum of Cambodia. Over 14,00 pieces of Khmer art and ethnographic objects will have you feeling like your eyes are being stretched in opposite directions. The museum itself is something to behold. While your camera will not be allowed inside, be sure to grab a shot of the incredibly designed architecture. Pinks, greens, and blues and an appreciation for all those people who themselves appreciate people.
7. Explore the wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains
The Cardamom Mountains really are one of the undiscovered jewels of Southeast Asia. The area is populated with an incredible array or rare species of animals, so many beautiful waterfalls, and virtually no people.
The rainforest is massive and extremely dense. It is for the more adventurous travellers out there – those who feel that a day hasn’t been done properly until they have ripped their pants, scratched their knees and fallen asleep in an almost involuntary collapse.
Tours through the mountains will have you hiking through the thick of the forest and across freshwater streams. You will spend nights at rustic campsites beside waterfalls and rivers. Spend all your moments with your jaw agape, wondering how the world and everything in it could possibly be so beautiful.
8. Discover the wonders of Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap lake is Southeast Asia’s biggest lake, by a long shot. It is also an ecological marvel, a UNESCO protected site, and the home to the most fascinating kind of people. Should you have the time to spend, a tour of the lake should be a non-negotiable.
The locals who live on and around the lake provide an incredibly special opportunity to witness their way of life. It is so distinctly different from the ways of the Western world, so far removed from the ideas and practice that we take for granted. There are homes that are built from slats of wood and sheets of corrugated iron. They are poised on barrels that rest on the surface of the water, or have as their foundation the underside of a boats hull. Small wooden boats float amongst the houses, long poles and strong arms propel them forward. Long shirts, big hats, fishing nets, and warm smiles on the wrinkled faces of locals. This is a scene so delicately beautiful, a scene that is sure to change the heart and mind of one witnessing it.
The most untouched and uncorrupted village to visit is Kompong Khleang. However, there are a host of tours that will take you to various highlights of the lake. Another treat is the Flooded Forest. Grab your camera, hop onto a tiny wooden boat, and go exploring!
9. See how the best pepper in the world is grown in Kampot
The Kampot pepper industry dates back to as early as the 13th century, if you can believe it. It is renowned all over the world, and is the first and only choice of high-end chefs. It is exported in the tens of tonnes currently, which is just a shadow of its once astonishing 8000 tonne annual export.
A tour of the farm will introduce you to the fascinating knowledge and methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. While you may not have the most refined pallet in the world, and a bit of pepper tasting maybe slightly lost on you, it will remain a wonderful opportunity to understand what makes the pepper so unique, as there will be no spoilers here. It will also allow you to get a decent amount to take home with you and show off at your dinner parties – you know, because you’re real cultured.
10. Beach-bum on some of the most pristine beaches in SEA
Beaches are, of course, an essential part of a holiday to these parts of the world. Somehow, Cambodia’s beaches are largely overlooked. While this may not be the best thing for the tourism industry, its great news for tourists.
There are many kinds of beaches that lay in wait. There are some that have very little on it beside the shadows of overhanging trees, while others are populated with hammocks, beach chairs, nearby resorts and vibey bars.
Koh Tonsay is easily one of the best islands with one of the best beaches in the whole of Cambodia. The island allows for authentic exposure to locals, incredible seafood, picturesque palm trees that tower over the empty stretch of golden sand, all the hammocks and absolutely no motor vehicles. It even has frequent, spirited Karaoke sessions that you are most welcome to get it on. Indeed, the beach is something out of a dream.
Sokha Beach is on the mainland of Cambodia, making it very accessible to anyone in Sihanoukville. The beach may well be the most picturesque of all the ones on the mainland, and for this reason, there is a small fee to step your feet onto its sand. Well, this is what you should tell yourself. The resort that owns it are really the pesky people behind the fee. Do not let this put you off though, as you will spend your hours on one of the other beaches regretting it. There is some fantastic snorkelling to be done at the coral reef just off the left end of the beach. After spending time in the water and maybe too much time on your towel, grab a plate of seafood at one of the restaurants just off the sand. There is also a brilliant hike that takes you right along the coast through to Serendipity beach when you feel that it’s time to leave.
Koh Totang and its unbelievably quiet and natural beach is something that will appeal so strongly to some, and not at all to others. In a world that is becoming ever more connected, the value of complete seclusion is increasing every day. There are now but a few spots on earth that still allow for a level of seclusion this powerful. The island has absolutely nothing on it. The existential void screams out in desperation when you arrive, staring hopelessly into the expanse of nothingness before you. However, after a few days of connection to nature, people and the animals around you, you will feel rested, full, and content. A trip to this beach is more like a pilgrimage, or workshop for the soul than it is a spot to kickback with a book for a few hours.
Should you go?
If reading this has not made you jump around the room in a sort of childlike anticipation, or at the very least, sit up and pay strong attention, then you may have read it wrong. Cambodia is a wondrous land with amazing possibilities. People from all walks of life and with all kinds of interests will find something here, and will no doubt leave feeling better off for having come.