The largest religious monument in the world and Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction, Angkor Wat draws over 2 million visitors annually. The site is a short tuk-tuk ride away from the city of Siem Reap (best taken in the dark just in time to catch the sunrise over the temple complex).
Tourists looking to learn about the history and significance of particular aspects of the temple typically hire a guide for the day. Others prefer to get their daily exercise, roam around, and lose themselves in the nooks and crannies of the complex. Whichever way you go, you won’t leave disappointed. Well, maybe just a little when the ‘seasonal’ scaffolding and green tarps prevent you from getting that picture-perfect sunrise photo of the temple’s facade.
After checking out Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver you’ve hired for the day will suggest you continue on to Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple.” While not of Angkor Wat’s scale, Ta Prohm is rather unique — you’ll see moss-covered blocks, trees climbing over walls, and so many passageways you won’t know which direction you’re headed. Make sure to snap a photo of the famous doorway engulfed in roots, or you’ll be the odd person out.
Another popular Khmer temple in close proximity to Angkor, Bayon is known for the immense stone faces on the towers of its upper terrace. The temple completes the trio of the “most famous” temples near Siem Reap. Once you’ve had enough of the giant faces, stroll around Bayon and take a look at the reliefs depicting historical events, which adorn much of the temple.
A Cambodian temple dedicated to Shiva, Banteay Srei, meaning “city of women,” sits 16 miles north of the main complex at Angkor. The temple is miniature in scale and composed of red sandstone, which lends itself to elaborate carving. Indeed, decorative motifs can be found all over the temple walls. For those tourists with more than a day or two to visit temples, Banteay Srei is always on the to-see list. And it’s more than worth it.
After your long day(s) visiting the Angkor archaeological complex (and getting up early for that damn picturesque sunrise over Angkor Wat), you’ll likely end up in the town of Siem Reap trying to find dinner, as most tourists do. Grab a bite of amok trei, or steamed curried fish, to get a taste of Cambodia’s cuisine. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous (not in the culinary manner), go for the “happy” pizza. What makes it so happy, you ask? Special herbs that slow down time. A lot.
Sihanoukville’s beaches are a main attraction for tourists in Cambodia — especially for backpackers looking to drink their body weight in alcohol. Travelers need to be wary of potential crime, but with 75-cent beers, cheap liquor, and people playing with fire at night beachside, Sihanoukville holds an undeniable allure for plenty of young backpackers. The experience is memorable. Or not, depending on how much you drink.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one of the most somber ‘tourist attractions’ a traveler will see, and just about every tourist visiting Phnom Penh with any interest in Cambodian culture (you better have some if you’re visiting) will make the trip.
The museum is a former high school that was used as a prison, known as S-21, by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Over 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, where the Khmer Rouge committed an unmentionable number of atrocities. Only 12 people are known to have survived imprisonment. A visit to the museum provides a sobering in-depth look at what the Cambodian people had to endure in the not-so-distant past.
Also known as Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol, the palace serves as the residence of the King of Cambodia. It’s a complex consisting of the Silver Pagoda, the Throne Hall, the Khemarin Palace, and the Inner Court. Much of the palace has been rebuilt, due to deterioration. Though the king’s living areas, which take up nearly half the palace grounds, are closed to the public, the (rebuilt) Royal Palace remains a major tourist attraction in Phnom Penh.
Tonlé Sap, translated as “great lake,” is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Situated between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the lake often sees boat-bound tourists targeting the country’s “greatest hits.” Tonlé Sap is unusual in nature — its flow changes direction twice a year, and the lake fluctuates in size rather dramatically with the seasons. A festival called the Celebration of the Seven-Headed Snake marks the changing of the Tonlé Sap’s flow as well as the opening of the fishing season.
Found in the village of Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields are now a Buddhist memorial to the victims of the genocide that occurred in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are the site of a mass grave of thousands of victims. Like the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, this site provides tourists powerful and disturbing insight into the extent of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. Many mass graves have yet to be excavated, and evidence of their presence can still be seen above ground.
Kep is Cambodia’s smallest province, but it brings in no shortage of tourists. It’s home to Kep National Park, which has great hiking and mountain biking. The seaside area is less “party” and more “relax” than Sihanoukville nowadays, though you can visit on any budget. Fresh seafood, friendly locals, and warm water abound.
Cambodia’s largest museum of cultural history is the first place many tourists visit to learn about the country they’re about to explore. Found in Phnom Penh, the museum houses over 14,000 items related to the country’s history (dating from prehistoric times to the current day). If history museums are your cup of tea, the National Museum of Cambodia will be on your list.
Phnom Penh’s Central Market, known as Psah Thom Thmey in Khmer (which translates to “new grand market”), is Cambodia’s most popular market. It underwent a US$4.2 million renovation from 2009 to 2011. A wide range of goods are sold there — pretty much everything you could want or even think of. If bargaining is what you’re visiting a market to do, this is the place to do it. If you can’t get the deal you’re looking for at one vendor, try and try again to your heart’s content.