When thinking about Cambodia, what comes to mind? Most people would think of ancient temple ruins embraced by tree branches, or a giant stone-carved Buddha face with a mysterious smile.
Such images are symbolic scenes from the Angkor temples in Siem Reap; but the country has much more to offer than simply the temples. The following suggestions may give you some inspiration and help you develop your hit-list of things to do in Cambodia.
Why visit: Siem Reap is a top-rated destination, for seeing the magnificent Angkor temples and experiencing the chic and authentic Cambodia.
How to get there: by air, 45 minutes from Phnom Penh; 1 hour from Ho Chi Minh City; 1 hour from Bangkok.
What to Experience
The temple complex at Angkor is enormous, and constitutes one of the most impressive religious sites on earth. The vast temples can broadly be categorized into three groups: inner circle, mid-circle and outlying temples. Inner circle temples include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Phnom Bakheng, Thommanon and Ta Keo. Mid-circle temples include Sras Srang, Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan and Ta Som. Outlying temples include Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Beng Mealea and Roluos. Each temple has its own special characteristics.
It may take three days to see most of the important sites. Spend the first two days visiting the classic sites of the inner and mid-circles, along with some enjoyable alternative exercise such as cycling or driving a quad bike. Leave the final day for admiring other further-flung sites such as Banteay Srei or Kbal Spean. If you only have one day, better explore two or three of the mighty temples in the inner circle. Just don’t try to pack in too much at one time. Check the following guide which may help you develop your plans for visiting Angkor Wat.
Other possible outings include taking a boat ride on Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages, setting off on a street-food adventure to feast on the enticing Cambodian cuisine, or boarding a tuk tuk to begin your culinary tour at a cookery class in a rural village.
Why visit: Phnom Penh once shone as the “Pearl of Asia”, before being hit by war and revolution. Over recent decades it has slowly been modernizing. It’s considered one of the friendliest capitals in Asia, with much infrastructure catering for tourists. Spend a day learning about the past and present of Phnom Penh, by delving into its dark history and experiencing its modern everyday life.
How to get there: by air, 50 minutes from Ho Chi Minh City; 45 minutes from Siem Reap; by speed boat, 5 hours from Chau Doc.
What to Experience
Visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda to sense the spirit of traditional Cambodian culture. Standing majestically in the city centre off the riverfront area, the Royal Palace is the official residence of King Sihamon. Visitors are only allowed to visit the throne hall and a clutch of buildings surrounding it.
Adjacent to the palace, the Silver Pagoda complex is also impressive. Its floor is covered with five tons of gleaming silver. Its highlights are a gorgeous Emerald Buddha perched on a gilded pedestal and a life-sized solid-gold Buddha adorned with 2,086 diamonds.
Visit the Killing Fields of Choeung EK and the S21 Museum to learn about the dark history made by the Khmer Rouge and how the country is rising from the ashes. The Killing Fields is a memorial where more than 17,000 civilians were once killed and buried, between 1975 and 1979. This place now is acting as a chilling reminder of the brutalities of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
The Security Prison 21, also known as S21 or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was once a detention and torture center, home to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. You will be impressed by how a country with this dark history has evolved into the Cambodia of today. You’ll learn something of current politics during a guided tour. The guides are well-trained and have courage to face the past and explain history honestly.
Be amazed by the largest collection of Khmer works at the National Museum of Cambodia. As the leading historical and archaeological museum in Cambodia, the National Museum is housed in a traditional terracotta structure with a graceful courtyard, and is devoted to preserving Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
Why visit: Battambang is a riverside town in northwestern Cambodia with ancient temples, well-preserved French-period architecture and classic bamboo trains. A perfect blend of modernity, small-town tranquility and charming colonial styles makes it a popular destination for tourists.
How to get there: by car, 5 hours from Phnom Penh; 3 hours from Siem Reap; by boat, 5 hours in the wet season and more than 9 hours in the dry season from Siem Reap.
What to Experience
Much of Battambang’s small-town charm lies in its fine colonial architecture, created in the early 20th century. Most of the buildings can be found along the waterfront, especially south of Psar Nat. The two-storey Governor’s Residence is the most impressive. Its interior is closed, but visitors can stroll around the grounds. Some travel agencies offer walking tours and bicycle tours to explore the historic town center.
A bamboo train journey is a classic experience. The train consists of bamboo slats with a wooden frame and a gasoline engine. It can bear the weight of 10 people and travel at about 15km/h. The journey from O Dambong to O Sra Lav is a unique experience, along warped rails and vertiginous bridges.
An amazing circus show, with the philosophy that art is a tool for human development and social change, is also worth a visit. It’s operated by Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit Cambodian association working on 3 interwoven fronts to meet the needs of underprivileged young people: arts schools, social support and educational programs. Their brand of “new circus" incorporates artistic prowess and social awareness, and every year the troupe tours both in Cambodia and abroad. There are at least two shows a week, normally at 6.15 pm on Mondays and Thursdays, and sometimes on Saturdays.
Why visit: Sihanoukville is named in honor of the then ruling prince of Cambodia. It is well-known for its white-sandy beaches and has a reputation for backpacker hedonism. It’s more appropriate for the leisure time of young backpackers and locals, than a luxury tour.
How to get there: by air, 1 hour from Siem Reap; by car, 3 hours from Phnom Penh.
What to Experience
Ochheuteal Beach is the most developed tourist beach. It has many hotels, guest houses and beach huts providing good service and amenities on this long and narrow beach. It’s easy to rent beach chairs and grass umbrellas, under which to enjoy sunbathing. A wide selection of meals and drinks is also available. The growing nightlife makes this one of the party beaches.
Serendipity Beach lies at the northwestern end of Ochheuteal. It’s a tiny and easy-going beach with a string of mellow mid-range resorts.
Otres Beach is less crowded and more relaxed with cleaner water. Located about 5 km south of the Serendipity area, it’s a great place for sunbathing and for varied activities such as diving, snorkeling, boat trips and cycling. Popular day tours to the nearby island and the surrounding countryside can be booked at local travel agencies.
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