After the fall of the terrifying and violent Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1990s, Cambodia has slowly re-established itself as a popular backpacker and off-the-beaten-path tourist destination. As the region stabilizes, more and more travelers are flocking to the area to marvel at the country’s world famous ancient structures and ruins, as well as explore the many virtually untouched beaches and natural wonders. For anyone heading to South East Asia, these are EscapeHere’s top eight things to see and do in Cambodia:
1. Spend Days Getting Lost at the Angkor Wat Complex and Surrounding Area
The largest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap remains Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. Occupying an area of about 500 acres, the main temple was built in the early 12th century in the Khmer architectural tradition, and is now inscribed as a UNESCO World heritage Site along with the other structures in the greater Angkor Archaeological Park. Seeing this ancient site in person is a mind-boggling experience that causes an overwhelming realization and appreciation of grandeur, architecture, history and nature. Many of the area’s overgrown temples, structures and ruins have remained relatively untouched (save conservation efforts) and getting lost among them is truly a mystical, life changing experience.
2. Wander Around the Day and Night Markets in Phnom Penh
For a chance to purchase absolutely anything and everything and to explore the unique structure of a Phnom Penh landmark, check out the city’s Central Market, open daily from 7 AM to 5 PM. The art-deco structure housing the market was originally designed by French architect Louis Chauchon and is basically a large dome branching out into 4 large hallways. For tourists, the market is a must-visit location to witness the bustle and energy of Cambodian daily life, with the modern interior seemingly clashing with the old-world style stalls animated but the bargaining for merchants and customers. For a more exotic (and less chaotic) market experience, visitors can check out the riverfront Night Market, open on Friday and Saturday nights, and grab some unique souvenirs, sample delicious street eats and experience the city’s awesome nighttime vibe.
3. Marvel at the Beauty of the Royal Palace
The ornately constructed, gilded structures of the Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh are arguably the most beautiful in the country. The royal residence of Cambodian Kings since the 1860s, the complex is divided into 4 distinct areas separated by walls: the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall and the private Inner Court. While over half of the property is closed to the public (it is the current King’s residence), visitors are still able to get a feel for the intricate and luxurious beauty of the complex and explore the history that is has witnessed by visiting the Silver Pagoda, the Throne Room and several other outbuildings that remain publicly accessible.
4. Get a Sobering History Lesson at the S-21 Prison Museum
Although not a typical light-hearted vacation outing, many would agree that making time to learn about the history of a country you’re visiting is a sign of respect, as well as a unique opportunity to gain some insight into the nation’s cultural identity. With that in mind, a visit to the former S-21 Prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is a heartbreaking (but necessary) experience for anyone visiting Cambodia. Located just outside of Phnom Penh, the exterior of the complex looks just like any other high school in the area, but the inside depicts the brutal reality of the blood-thirsty Khmer Rouge regime. A visit to the property reveals the stark original furniture or the prison/torture/death facility as well as hundreds of haunting victim photographs that plaster the interior walls (an initiative part of the meticulous record keeping of the regime). Spend some time here learning about the inner workings of the ultra-Communist regime and pay your respects to the lives lost and the gruesome history endured by the Cambodian people.
5. Escape to the Beach Paradise of Koh Rong Island
After countless hours spent journeying on rickety buses, navigating ruins and traumatizing your mind with the brutal history of this region, a vacation from your vacation might be just what you need. The peaceful and laid-back island vibe on Koh Rong Island is the perfect place to recharge you wanderlust battery, as well as get a golden opportunity to see one of the most idyllic natural landscapes in the world.
6. Sample Authentic Khmer Cuisine
Though significantly less famous than the culinary delights of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, the Khmer cuisine of Cambodia deserves foodie recognition in its own right. It is here that visitors can find immeasurable quantities of food stalls lining city streets and selling enormous plates of food for often, as little as a dollar. Especially worth trying are the humble bai sach chrouk (pork and rice), fish and meat amok (fish/meat mousse that sounds scary but will delight your taste buds) and lap khmer (a lime marinated beef salad dressed with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, green beans and green peppers). Given a fair shake, even picky eaters will be won over by the delightful balance of sweet and bitter that form the main characteristics of authentic Cambodian cuisine.
7. Check Out the Villages on Tonle Sap Lake
From floating and stilted villages to a rare bird sanctuary, Cambodia’s only freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, has plenty of interesting sights for those willing to venture out to find them. The lake also has the unique quality of flowing in two directions after the heavy rainy season, an event that is marked by the annual water festival (October/November) which features colorful boat racing and general merriment.
8. Visit Prasat Preah Vihear
Found on the obscure Thai-Cambodian border, visiting the ancient Hindu temple of Prasat Preah Vihear is akin to attending a field study on Cambodian political history. The temple dates back to the Khmer Empire under Yasovarman I (889-910) and has witnessed everything from centuries of Thai-Cambodian tensions to the modern aggression of the Khmer Rouge; the Communist regime that terrorized Cambodians until the late 1990s. Though heavy with the implications of history (the site is still plagued by patrolling military personnel) the temple is a beautiful example of Hindu architecture devoted, as was common for the time, to the deity Shiva. The stunning location atop the Dangkrek Mountain escarpment gives visitors an unparalleled view of the low country, visible some 550 meters below, and various sets of steps edging the complex and seemingly descending into an unknowable abyss make for one of the most hauntingly beautiful sites in the world.