Obviously you could spend months, or even years exploring Cambodia, seeing all it has to offer. But if your travels only allow you a few weeks to see this great country with its amazing sights and tragic recent history, then this guide will help ensure you visit the must see sights of Cambodia.
The Temples of Angor Wat
These are undoubtedly the highlight for many visitors to Cambodia. Even if you are in Southeast Asia and have no plans to visit Cambodia, I recommend you find the time for a quick trip to the largest religious monument in the world. This is a vast collection of temples and constructions which you could spend many days and even weeks exploring.
Despite the large number of temples to see here, we only came to Angor Wat for one day. You can see the highlights in a day and if you are pushed for time, as we were, it is probably enough, although many people do two or three days here.
Top Tip: hire a guide. Once you start walking around you will be approached by a freelance guide. We declined the services of the guide that approached us, but he started following us, giving a commentary of the buildings. After hearing his descriptions, we quickly realised that without a guide we’d just be looking at things without knowing what they were or why they’d been made. So we hired the guy, for about $20 for the day. I’m glad we did as otherwise we wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on!
The City of Temples, as Angkor Wat is known, is a few kilometres from the town of Siem Reap, which has its own airport so you could just pop in and out for a few days in order to see the amazing sights of Angor Wat.
Killing Field of Choeung Ek
Located outside of Phnom Penh, the capital city, these are the most visited killing fields in Cambodia, although the whole country is filled with them, due to the Khmer Rouge bringing about the deaths of between 1.4 million and 2.2 million people during their short reign. With that many dead, it is no wonder there are estimated to be 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era dotted all over Cambodia.
Upon arrival you can hire a guide who will explain the history of the site and guide you around the Buddhist stupa, built in memorial to the 8,895 bodies buried here in mass graves. Due to the recentness of these atrocities the guides, despite being fairly young in some cases, were touched by what happened here. The short time frame from now to when this was an active mass burial site becomes apparent when you look at the ground, as you can see bits of clothes and bones pocking through the topsoil. When it rains and the earth gets soft, the remains gradually rise up out of the ground to the surface once more. There are just too many human remains here to excavate the whole place.
As all this only happened a few years ago, I asked our guide what happened to all the soldiers, many of them children, who carried out the executions and burials here, once the regime was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979. He chillingly replied “They just went back to their farms and back to their old lives”.
S-21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
I must confess that we didn’t actually visit this Phnom Penh high school turned torture centre on our trip through Cambodia. We had plans to, but after you’ve spoken to some locals about their experiences, seen a few mass graves and read up on the recent history of this country, it can all get a bit much. However, if you’ve got the stomach for it you really should go and see the S-21 Genocide Museum. If people stop going to these memorial sites, I’m sure the government wouldn’t hesitate to allow developers to bulldoze them and build a condo or a shopping mall in their place.
I loved the town of Siam Reap, gateway to the Angor Wat temples. Compared to the dirty and depressing capital city of Phnom Penh it was a breath of fresh air, although still very rough around the edges. One attraction, apart from the amazing food in Siem Reap, is the Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake. It takes about an hour to get to the ferry point by Tuk Tuk although the driver will tell you it’s not that far, before you agree to the journey!
Once there you pay about $10 per person for a boat trip out onto the lake to see the floating village. People here live on the boats and there is even a floating school for the kids. It is pretty touristy but people do actually live here for real so it is worth doing this day trip to see something different.
I’ve read reviews of people being ripped off and such but we didn’t have any problems. We did stop off at a restaurant for lunch but when you are paying less than $1 for a delicious, freshly cooked Khmer dish, what is there to complain about?
One surprising part of the tour occurred while we were en route to the village and our little boat was approach by some young children in a smaller boat. They looked cute, though quite dishevelled, until they pulled out some massive live snakes and started waiving them in our faces until we gave them a dollar. Despite being armed with killer snakes, they weren’t that threatening and it wasn’t as bad as it sounds!
However, if you are on a strict budget, and aren’t very good at fending off the advances of children trying to make a quick buck and adults trying to sell you stuff then this probably isn’t the day trip for you.
The Beaches at Sihanoukville
While most of Cambodia’s main attractions are found around the towns and cities, it does have a thriving coastal region that is known as Kampong Saom, or Sihanoukville. The area contains a busy port city, about 185 kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh, but it also has some of the best beaches in Cambodia, making it a must see destination on any trip to the country. There are five or six main beaches in Sihanoukville, with the stretch that contains Serendipity Beach and Occheuteal Beach being the most popular with foreign visitors, although there are much quieter, less developed beaches further along, such as Otres Beach; while Victory Beach might be better suited to those travelling on a more modest budget.
There are lots of nightlife spots along here and many bars serving cheap drinks. People say this stretch of coast is how Thailand was back in the day, and it certainly feels like that could be true. You can choose to stay right on the beach, in basic huts for a few dollars a night, something you can’t do in Thailand anymore. While the sea is dirty at times and the ecosystem is obviously taking a pounding, this can still be a fun place to stop off for a few days of downtime after the horrors of the memorial spots around the capital.
I’m sure it will all be five star resorts in a few years, so see it while you can!
Cambodia is an amazing place to visit. Parts of it feel like you’ve gone back in time 100 years or more. Parts of it are dirty and depressing, but it has so many highlights that is should be part of anyone’s trip to Southeast Asia. While Thailand is fully established and modernised, for the most part, Cambodia is still in transition and gives you a chance to see the awakening of an Asian Tiger.