Travelling to Cambodia but don’t know what to see and do? Begin with this guide to the top five attractions and experiences in Cambodia for every visitor.
1. Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap
The Angkor Archaeological Park contains the remnants of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in South-east Asia and is the location of the famous Angkor Wattemple, which is the symbol of Cambodia.
Angkor Wat receives visits from thousands of tourists a day, so the trick is to arrive early at sunrise and start your exploration of the park from Angkor Thom, a quieter end of the complex. Then, make your way through Banyon and eventually head to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. At the right time, the afternoon sun casts a golden hue over the temple complex.
One of the best ways to enjoy this vast archaeological site is to cycle along the narrow tracks around the temples. For the more adventurous, take a hot-air balloon ride to view Angkor Wat from above.
2. Kampong Khleang, Siem Reap
Of the many water communities on the Tonle Sap lake, Kampong Khleang is the largest. While the residents here mostly rely on the lake to make a living, due to overfishing issues in Tonle Sap, the community is slowly opening up their streets for tourism.
About 55km east of Siem Reap,Kampong Khleang is an intriguing experience in any season. Visit during the wet season on a charter boat and experience the ‘floating’ community. Similar to other water villages surrounding the lake, travel between houses and shops here is done by boat.
However, to truly appreciate why Kampong Khleang is special, a visit during the dry season is a must. This is when the waters of the lake retreat to shallow depths, exposing the forest of bamboo stilts that support the homes in this community, sometimes as high as 10m in the air. Hire a driver to get there by road and tour on foot to enjoy this sleepy town’s laid-back atmosphere.
3. Bamboo Train, Battambang
Image: CC2.0 by ronan crowley
The norry, or bamboo train, is an ingenious invention. It’s a form of railed vehicle that runs on one track, which is easily disassembled and reassembled when required to let other trains go by. The trains have steel frames with bamboo slats and rattles along at around 40km per hour, making it a rather bumpy ride.
Bamboo trains used to be the main form of transport between villages during French colonial times but have since been abandoned by the Khmer Rouge.
Today, a short distance service operates between the cities of Battambang and Poipet, mostly for tourists’ enjoyment and occasionally for transporting villagers and market goods along the way.
3. Ream National Park, Sihanoukville
The coastal region of Cambodia is graced with natural beauty, and is where Cambodia’s old colonial elites used to go for holidays and play. While westernised resorts and hotels still line the beaches of Sihanoukville, it is easy to escape the materialism and find inner peace in Ream National Park.
Nature lovers especially will enjoy a day spent hiking in the park, for its environment is a combination of rivers, forests, mangroves, beaches and wildlife, including both land and marine animals. Those taking a leisurely walking tour may chance upon rhesus monkeys, mouse-deers, cranes and pelicans, and in the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, turtles and dolphins. With 155 bird species reported to have been found in Ream, the park is a must-visit for bird watchers, too.
Visitors can also go to Wat Ream, a Buddhist temple in the national park, as well as enjoy the seafood stands along the seaside.
5. Genocide Museums, Phnom Penh
It is hard to go to Cambodia without being confronted by its woeful political history. Visitors are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit the two museums set up to educate the public about what happened – and what should not happen again.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school which was used as a prison camp by the Khmer Rouge, ironically for class criminals such as intellectuals and academics. Classrooms were turned into cells where prisoners were tortured and often left to deteriorate. The museum now has photographs on display of those who perished here.
Farther afield from the city centre is the Choeung Ek memorial remembering those who died (some killed here were prisoners of the Tuol Sleng detention centre). Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed over one million people. Around 5,000 human skulls found in mass graves are on display here in a Buddhist stupa, signifying the terror endured during the dark days of Cambodia’s history.