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.