Be awestruck by Angkor Wat
Angkor, the former capital of the ancient Khmer Empire, is one of the greatest and most spectacular religious sites in the world. Construction of this elaborate temple complex – built in honour of the Hindu god Vishnu – began in AD 879 but the site was lost to history for centuries before being rediscovered by Frenchman Henri Mahout in 1860.
Be bowled over by the Bayon
Angkor Wat takes centre stage at Angkor, but the Bayon is perhaps the most magical of all the structures here. From its monumental towers, a series of colossal stone faces, depicting the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara, gaze out serenely across the temples and jungles. The atmosphere is mesmerising, particularly at dawn, when the faces loom dramatically out of the mist.
Cruise the Mekong
The boat trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is one of Asia’s legendary traveller journeys, and by far the most atmospheric way of reaching the Angkor temples. On the journey along the Mekong River and out onto Tonle Sap lake, you’ll absorb some of the spirit of Cambodia's life-giving waterways. The trip upstream to Battambang is even more scenic.
Cycle to Angkor’s outlying temples
The Angkor complex sprawls for miles through the jungle, but roaming to outlying temples is part of the magic. Hire a bike and spend magical days exploring the temples, shrines and palaces, from the famous spires of Angkor Wat and the magnificent Bayon, to overgrown Ta Phrom and the remote temples of Bantaey Srei.
Dive into Cambodia’s Water Festival
As in neighbouring Thailand, the changing seasons in Cambodia are marked with major festivals, and the biggest of all is Bom Om Touk, held in October or November, when the flow of the Tonle Sap River changes direction. Alongside three days of merry-making, rainbow-coloured boats race each other along the Tonle Sap.
Encounter the wild in Cambodia’s national parks
Large areas of Cambodia have been set aside as national parks, and several are easily accessible from Phnom Penh. Kirirom National Park, southwest of the city, has walking and mountain bike trails and cascading waterfalls, while Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary provides a safe home for tigers, elephants, gibbons and other animals rescued from poachers and traffickers.
Feast on fresh seafood
Cambodia's coastline offers the full sun, sea and sand experience, but for many visitors, the big appeal is Cambodia’s ocean-fresh seafood. The stretch of coast around Kampot and Kep is famous for just-caught crab, and all along the coast menus are graced by fresh fish, prawns, squid and lobster.
Fire some artillery
Firing a weapon of war is probably not your standard tourist activity, but then Cambodia's not your standard tourist destination. For a price, visitors can take control of high-grade weaponry on countryside shooting ranges all over the country, from machine guns and hand grenades to rocket launchers.
Go dolphin spotting
The claim to fame of the Mekong town of Kratie is its population of Irrawaddy river dolphins, one of the rarest of all aquatic mammals. Various tour operators organise early-morning boat trips to observe these peaceful creatures in their natural habitat, but time is running out for these graceful animals – only 80 are thought to survive in the Mekong River.
Imbibe history at Bokor Hill Station
An abandoned French hill station in the south of the country, Bokor was built originally as a weekend sanctuary for settlers stuck in stifling Phnom Penh. Like a Wild West ghost town, it’s best known for its derelict hotel, which stands as an eerie reminder of the extravagant final years of French Indochina.
Kick back in Kampot
A sprawl of shophouses on the riverbank, the southern town of Kampot provides a gateway to Cham villages, national parks, cave temples at Phnom Chhnork and Phnom Sorsia and the lush green countryside of the Gulf coast. Travellers love Kampot for it’s laid-back atmosphere and relaxing pace of life.
Marvel at Khmer art in the National Museum
Staggering amounts of Khmer art were looted during the Khmer Rouge years and sold on the international art market, but some of the finest examples of Khmer artistry now take pride of place in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Amongst the impressive collection are statues and sculptures and ceramics. The building was constructed by the French in 1917.
Move to Khmer rhythms
Classical Khmer dance is one of Asia’s great dance traditions and displays have become a popular tourist attraction. Many international hotels around Siem Reap stage tourist shows, but you can see spontaneous dances across the country during monastery feast days. Also listen out for the haunting psychedelic rock of Ros Sereysothea, who vanished during the conflict.
Pay your respects at Tuol Sleng
Set in the former Phnom Penh high school that would later become the notorious S-21 detention centre, Tuol Sleng today acts as a haunting memorial to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge era. Torture instruments remain in some rooms and the walls are lined with photos of the tens of thousands of victims who passed through before vanishing in the Killing Fields.
Relax on the sands of Sihanoukville
Cambodia’s main port city was already a backpacker beach hangout when the Khmer Rouge was active. It still retains its relaxed beach atmosphere, a laid-back counterpoint to the more visited beaches of neighbouring Thailand. It takes its name from King Norodom Sihanouk, one of the main agitators for independence from France.
Shop for silver
Prized across Southeast Asia since the 11th century, silver is one of the most sought-after Cambodian souvenirs, and it is made into a remarkable range of objects, from anklets and jewellery to elegant bowls and betel nut storage tins. Most items are decorated with intricate designs, applied using the repousse technique, with tiny hammers and punches.
Swing by Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace
Phnom Penh's showpiece attraction was built in the 1860s, and it cuts a handsome figure on the skyline, crowned by a series of stupas and towering spires. The royal family were driven from the palace during the Khmer Rouge era, but the monarchy was restored in 1993. The adjoining Silver Pagoda houses a number of ancient and revered Buddha statues.
Take a heart-rending journey through history
To get a clearer understanding of Cambodia’s darkest hour, visit the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh. It makes for a sobering experience that will stay with you long after you leave the country. Most people also visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, set in the former school used as a brutal prison by the Khmer Rouge.