Cambodia, land of the ancient rich and powerful Khmer Empire that dominated much of Southeast Asia for over 600 years from 800AD and built the famous Angkor Wat temples, is today a country full of some of the most amazing people you could ever encounter, rich in history, delicious food, beautiful coastline, and a lively nightlife.
One can ascend to the realm of the gods in Angkor Wat, or descend to discover the hell of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng. Thanks to a history both inspiring and depressing Cambodia delivers an intoxicating present for adventurous visitors.
Top Things to See and Do
Phnom Penh: The trail from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh blends local life with the nature in a most spectacular and very unique way. The vibrant and elegant city of Phnom Penh is a gateway to beautiful experience and an insight into the realm of Khmer people.
Phnom Penh is the best place to shop in Cambodia, with traditional markets selling everything from beautiful silk sampots to myriad hand-crafted wooden, stone and silver-crafted trinkets.
Contemporary woodcarvings and marble statues make bulky souvenirs, but are so evocative of Cambodia that it is hard not to pick up one or two and you will see hundreds of intricate, usually low-grade, silver pots in the shape of animals on sale, which tuck more neatly into backpack or suitcase.
Jewelry is sold in abundance too, gold and silver set with stones and gems in all imaginable designs and colors, and there are wonderful antiques and curios to be discovered, both originals and replicas of old wooden pagoda statues and a huge assortment of decorative boxes and trunks.
Haggling is an essential part of Cambodian market shopping, with prices starting ludicrously high, and it is worth checking around a few stalls as they will often sell identical pieces. Street 178 is known as ‘Art Street’, as dozens of little warehouses sell an array of paintings and small sculptures, created for the tourist market.
Siem Reap: Lying in north western Cambodia, Siem Reap is a popular resort town as the gateway to Angkor region. The city has colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter, and around the Old Market. In the city, there are museums, traditional Apsara dance performances, Cambodian cultural village, souvenir and handicraft shops, silk farms, rice-paddy countryside, fishing villages and a bird sanctuary near the Tonle Sap Lake.
Angkor Wat: Too many people visit Cambodia only to visit its Angkor Wat, UNESCO World Heritage site, for the mysteries and history that are buried in Angkor. An exhilarating way to see the Angkor area is from the air. Although over-flying of the temples is not permitted, you can still get a wonderful overview by balloon, helicopter or microlight planes. Angkor passes are not required for any of these aerial excursions.
Sailing down this river would get you a close look at how Cambodian life is tied to this major waterway. A boat or a cruise all the way down the lively riverfront – a wide grassy promenade that runs beside the Tonle Sap for nearly 2km – is the city’s focal point.
Sihanoukville: Once with a ghetto vibe, this place is now a backpacker's paradise. Sihanoukville could be a good base to visit the nearby quiet and serene islands. It also has some amazing diving experiences to offer, great food and a mix of heavy nightlife.
Kep: For Kep one can say that Sihanoukville found its match. This beach is the quieter version of Sihanoukville and is shut out from all crazy party goers at its notorious sister beach. This city is famous for its pepper crab and empty beaches to relax.
Bokor National Park: An outdoorsy person, who also has a soft heart for French old-style ruins, can go hiking the park's rainforests and wander along the atmospheric ruins of former French aristocrat homes.
Battambang: Known as a farming area and famous for its rice production as well as its fading French colonial architecture, Battanbang is the place to get a real taste of Cambodian life. There are great temples, a bamboo train, and stunning architecture from long past here. This destination sees few tourists except for those who like to get off the beaten path and off the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh trail. It is Cambodia without the tourism.
Visit a river village: There are three floating villages to choose from in the country. The houses are built on bamboo stilts and there are always boats filled with people selling trinkets, food, and hanging out. The Chong Kneas is the most visited in the country but popularity has made it a bit of a tourist trap recently.
Visit the pepper farms: Outside the city of Kampot on the way to Kep are vast pepper fields. This southern region of Cambodia is filled with pepper farms where you can learn about the history of the spice, see how it is grown, and pick up what is considered some of the finest pepper in the world.
Koh Kong: A city near the Thai border in the Cardamom Mountain district, Koh Kong offers great opportunities for jungle trekking, as well as a chance to relax on the white sand beaches. Koh Kong Island is reputed to be one of the best beach spots in Southeast Asia. It is illegal to spend the night there, but it makes for an easy day trip.
Witness the Cambodian Ramayan: The famous Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana, a popular theme in Cambodian art and culture, has its many episodes depicted in temple carvings, pagoda art, classical dance and shadow puppetry. A simplified Cambodian version, the Reamker, also exists, more often portrayed in dance than in visual art.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus: An impressive combination of art, acrobatics, gymnastics, street art, break dance and much more, the big top atmospheric settings of Phare is surrounded by lanterns and a stylish open air cafe. The show itself is a blend of drama, dance and acrobatics, all presented with uplifting energy, grace and humor by some highly talented performers.