Thailand is known for its spicy curries, the Philippines for its white sand beaches, and Vietnam for its lush landscapes, but there is something about Cambodia that draws one in and compels one to stay. What is it about Cambodia that I find so appealing?
Cambodia is a country of contrasts: a country of ancient civilization and adolescent citizens, local markets and foreign boutiques, of homegrown circus performers and international film stars, of old line politicians and avant-garde artists. Read on to discover the experiences that await you in Cambodia!
Siem Reap is the most touristy and my least favorite city in Cambodia, but is worth a visit because it is home to the Angkor ruins, an ancient complex dating back nearly a thousand years. From 900 to 1200 A.D., Khmer kings ordered the construction of thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples.
If you have one day, make sure you see sunrise over Angkor Wat, the smiling faces of Bayon, the sandstone carvings of Preah Khan, and The Tomb Raider tree at Ta Prohm. If you have three or more days, you can admire the intricate carvings at Banteay Srei or reenact scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark at Beng Melea. After a long day at the Angkor temples, unwind at ABBA Café’s rooftop lounge, eat a tasty vegetarian meal at Banllé Vegetarian Restaurant or Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant, or sample the homemade ice cream at The Blue Pumpkin. For more information on the Angkor temples, suggested sightseeing itineraries, and accommodation and restaurant recommendations, read my guide to Siem Reap.
Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but I had a lovely time wandering around town, going on self-guided tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.
Travelers interested in Cambodia’s history can browse the ancient Khmer artefacts at the National Museum of Cambodia or listen to guides’ stories about life under the Khmer Rouge at Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison). Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Botum Vatey, and Wat Ounalom. For those interested in people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or participate in a group exercise class in Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Travelers looking for more relaxing activities can attend a movie marathon at one of The Flicks Community Movie Houses or experience a 4D movie at Aeon Mall. For more details on the sights, entertainment choices, and international dining options Cambodia’s capital city has to offer, read my guide to Phnom Penh.
While the bulk of international tourists’ exposure to Cambodia is limited to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the country has much more to offer. In my mind, no visit to Cambodia is complete without a visit to Battambang. Cambodia’s second largest city, it feels much more like a small, sleepy town and, as such, is easy to explore on foot. Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Attend a performance of Phare the Cambodian Circus or take a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries.
The attractions around the city can easily be seen by way of a one-day tuk-tuk tour. Don’t worry about booking transportation in advance, as a horde of tuk-tuk drivers offering tours will mob you the moment you step off the bus from Siem Reap. You will start your tour with a fun ride aboard the Bamboo Train before climbing the 360 stairs to the top of Wat Banan Temple. After lunch, your driver will take you the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, one of the sites of the Khmer Rouge’s mass executions. You will end the day by witnessing the breathtaking phenomenon of thousands of bats flying out of the Bat Cave at sunset. Look at my guide to Battambang to hear about the city’s emerging art scene, read restaurant recommendations, and learn which celebrity was directing a movie during my visit!
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, Kampot is the place for you! Kampot, a charming town famous for its pepper and riverside setting, was my favorite place to visit in Cambodia. My friends and I spent four wonderful days eating terrific food, dining at cute cafés, watching movies at the cinema, chilling by the river, and exploring the 19th century French colonial architecture.
For great views of the river and terrific food, stay at Samon’s Village. Stop by Wonderland for Belgian ice cream and homemade popsicles or spend a lazy afternoon brunching, snacking, and reading at Epic Arts Café. Enjoy Mediterranean tapas with local, nutritious, and vegetarian ingredients at Deva Café or grab bread and croissants on the go at L’Epi D’or Bakery & Café. If you’re missing watching movies at home, you and your friends can rent a private movie room at Ecran Movie House or buy a day pass to watch the three movies it screens daily. Hungry? You can order hand-pulled noodles and homemade vegetable dumplings from Ecran’s restaurant. For more detailed travel recommendations, read my guide to Kampot.
Travelers looking to experience the “real Cambodia,” should arrange a stay with the Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Pat village, located amidst the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Provice. CBET aims to protect the Cardamom rainforest and provide inhabitants income-generating opportunities by transforming former loggers and wildlife poachers into tour guides, guest house owners, and taxi drivers. CBET offers travelers trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and camping expeditions through the jungle, as well as opportunities to stay at homestays in Chi Pat village. For detailed information about how to get to Chi Pat, what to do there, and what to expect, read my guide to Chi Pat.
As Cambodia’s top beach destination, Sihanoukville is much more expensive than the rest of Cambodia. While I do not find its beaches as beautiful as those in Thailand or the Philippines, they have white sand, warm water, and calm waves which make them ideal for sunbathing and swimming. Plus, with fewer crowds the only sounds you’ll hear are the breeze blowing, waves lapping against the shore, and the occasional snack seller hawking her wares.
Travelers wanting to get away from it all can stay on one of the islands off of Cambodia’s coast, such as Koh Rong Samloem (not to be confused with the party island of Koh Rong) and Koh Ta Kiev, but beware as the islands have limited hours of electricity, bucket baths and Asian-style toilets, and no wifi. Personally, my top choice in Sihanoukville for fun in the sun is Otres Beach because of its many shade-providing trees, laid-back environment, beachside restaurants, and Cambodian vacationers. You don’t have to leave the sand to enjoy a brunch of Eggs Florentine or Baked Eggs at Sea Garden or appreciate the homemade pizza, pasta, and cheesecake at Pappa Pippo. Other nice beaches include Sokha Beach and Independence Beach. You can use Holiday Palace Resort’s day beds if you buy a drink from Palais Coffee; Palais makes a yummy Ferrero Rocher Frappe.
Last but not least, travelers interested in developing or deepening a yoga practice can attend a yoga and meditation retreat at Vagabond Temple. Retreats are open to beginners and advanced practitioners alike. The Temple also offers detoxification programs, Reiki courses, and healing sessions.