Today (June 1, 2020): Top 10 best things to see & do in Cambodia.
Cambodia was once the home of the powerful Khmer kingdom, and to this day, the country dazzles with its timeless architectural treasures, rich cultural offerings, and breathtaking natural landscape. Of course, the main reason for traveling to Cambodia is Southeast Asia’s most magnificent archaeological treasure, Angkor Wat. But Cambodia is an undiscovered gem of a country, and there’s much more to it than just the Angkor temples. A blend of rice paddies, remote jungles, and white sand beaches, as well as a fascinating history combined with delightful culture and welcoming people make Cambodia a must-visit travel destination. Here’s my list of the best things to see & do in Cambodia.
Visitors are often surprised when making a stop in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh heading to or from Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat or Sihanoukville’s tropical beaches. The city is divided into three sections – the north, an attractive residential area; the south or the French part of the city with its ministries, banks and colonial houses; and the centre or the heart with its narrow lanes, markets, foods stalls and shops.. Khmer-era temples, wildlife sanctuaries, and interesting museums are all easily accessible and tours are reasonably priced. The capital’s highlight is the Royal Palace, which was built in 1866 to serve as the residence of the King of Cambodia and his family. It also hosted foreign dignitaries and served as a venue for the performance of court ceremonies and rituals.
Cambodian cuisine may be lesser known than the world-renowned dishes of its neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam, but it’s just as delicious. The main national staple is of course rice, but French colonial influence has dictated that the Cambodians eat more bread, generally French-style baguettes, than any other Southeast Asian country. Cambodian cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups, stir-fried cuisine, and as dippings. Coconut milk is the main ingredient of many Khmer curries and desserts and curry dishes known as kari, shows its ties with Indian cuisine. A typical Cambodian meal consists of fried or steamed rice mixed with pieces of salted, dried, or cooked white fish, seasoned with chilies or garlic, often accompanied by spicy soup.
The Apsara Dance is an iconic Khmer cultural performance that you shouldn’t miss on your visit to Cambodia. Khmer classical dance derived from Indian court dance, which traces its origins to the apsarases of Hindu mythology, heavenly female nymphs who were born to dance for the gods. At the heart of classical form is the Apsara, the joyful, almost wanton dancer whose images are everywhere. The graceful movements of the Apsara dancers, adorned with gold headdresses and silken tunics and skirts, are carved on the walls of many of the temples at Angkor. Estimates are that there were 3,000 Apsara dancers in the 12th century court of King Jayavarman VII. There are several venues in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh where you can attend a traditional Apsara dance performance.
Ratanakiri became a province of Kingdom of Cambodia in 1960 under King Norodom Sihanouk’s reign. A sparsely populated province, it is renowned for its unique natural beauty and wealth of natural resources. The physical and environmental characteristic of the province forms an impressive range including undulating hills and mountains, a level plateau, watershed lowlands, crater lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Forest cover varies from area to area, from the dense impenetrable forest in the northern reaches, which are still rich in wildlife, to the drier and sparser forest, found in the southwest. Similarly, the soil types present range from rich volcanic soil to the sandy soil found near rivers. Ratanakiri province offers wonderful hiking opportunities.
Tonle Sap Lake, located near Siem Reap, is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. Its dimension changes depending on the monsoon and dry season. During raining season from June to October, the lake is filled by water flowing from the Mekong with 14 m (46 ft) in depth; in dry season from November to May the lake is only 2 m (7 ft) deep and water flows out from the lake to the Mekong. The flooded forest surrounding the edge of the lake is the best shelter and also very important for all kinds of fishes spawned and breeding babies. This lake has one of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems, with over 300 species of fresh water fishes, as well as snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, turtles and otters. It’s also famous for its fascinating local communities and their floating villages.
The iconic Mekong is the world’s twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia. The trans-boundary river runs through six countries as it makes its way from Tibet to Vietnam. In Cambodia, the Mekong enters at the northeastern province of Stung Treng from Laos, passing through the capital Phnom Penh on its way to Vietnam. Trans-country cruises are available that take passengers along the Mekong from Laos to Cambodia and onto Vietnam. The most luxurious cruise option is a trip on the Aqua Mekong, which showcases modern architecture and interiors by renowned architect Noor Design. The ship’s 20 spacious, air-conditioned suites feature full-length windows that offer spectacular panoramas of the ever-changing Mekong scenery.
Created by world-famous Bangkok-based designer and architect Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani Wild is a radical new ‘glamping’ hotel concept in Cambodia, combining world class hospitality and conservation. The property is located in an unprotected wildlife corridor connecting the Bokor National Park with Kirirom National Park, and aims to protect this 350 hectares river valley from poaching, mining and logging. Fifteen custom designed tents are perched over swift moving waters and waterfalls, providing a view and experience unlike any other resort in Asia. Each tent is meticulously designed to invoke the feeling of what it would have been like to be on a luxury safari in the jungles of Cambodia with Jacky O.
With powdery white sands, turquoise waters and emerald rainforest, the islands of the Koh Rong Archipelago are picture-perfect, both on land and underwater. Ranging from barefoot luxury to raucous party-scene, the islands offer something for all travelers. As a restoratively indulgent stay at the end of a tour around Cambodia, the pristine beaches and desert-island feel of the Koh Rong islands are hard to beat. Unwind on the sugar-fine sands and laze by the pool, or take a kayak out to explore the islands and snorkel through the exceptional coral reefs and vibrant marine life. The area is home to three ultraluxe private island resorts: Song Saa (which offers the only over-water villas in the region), Six Senses Krabey Island, and Koh Russey (the latter is the only one with a real beach).
Commonly known as The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek is a reminder of Cambodia’s horrific years during the highly autocratic, xenophobic, paranoid, and repressive Khmer Rouge under leader Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1978, about 17,000 men, women, children and infants were tortured at S-21 prison (now Tuol Sleng Museum) and exterminated. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at nearby Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and are now on public display. Choeung Ek is just one of the thousands of recorded mass gravesites throughout the country, and is by no means, the largest. On May 9th each year a memorial service is conducted at Choeung Ek’s central Bhuddist stupa, in memory of the estimated 1.7 million people who died during the genocide.
Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Asia’s most famous archeological site and the principle draw card to the Kingdom of Cambodia for many savvy tourists from around the globe. Angkor stood once at the center of the mighty Khmer empire (9th to 15th century) and grew to become the largest known pre-industrial settlement, spanning a site roughly equivalent to nowadays Paris. It was believed that the Khmer king had a divine role, and an appropriate temple had to be constructed by each king to consecrate the symbolic relationship between ruler and divinity. The site comprises dozens of iconic temples, including Angkor Wat itself (with its world-famous silhouette, best observed at sunrise); Bayon (a temple famous for its smiling, serene faces carved onto gigantic towers) and Ta Prohm (a magnificent temple ruin engulfed by the jungle).