Cambodia is a land that time forgot. Coming here for the first time may feel unnerving, especially if you spent the previous days in an adrenaline rush through the more exciting locales of Thailand and Vietnam. Life flows at a slower pace in sleepy Cambodia, and while you can get some heart-racing action in a few places here, you will need to match your own pace with everyone else’s while you’re here.
It won’t matter, though, because you won’t really want to hurry your way through the magnificent ruins that mark this country as the heart of an ancient and once-great civilization, nor through its largely untouched natural landscapes. You will want to savor every minute of your stay in Cambodia, and here are 12 places you need to see to make the most of your Cambodian holiday.
Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” the capital city of Cambodia was once one of the most beautiful cities built by the French in their former Indochine territories. Phnom Phen has retained much of its beauty, which you’ll see in its collection of French mansions standing alongside its grand Buddhist temples.
The main reason why people visit Cambodia is to see the ancient ruins of Angkor, the heart of the once-mighty Khmer Empire. Before you get to Angkor, you have to pass through the gateway city of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a destination in itself, though, a charming city full of life and color.
Cambodia’s second largest city isn’t as busy as Phnom Phen or as touristy as Siem Reap, but it’s certainly a town full of quirks. It has its own collection of French- and Chinese-style architecture, and while its Khmer ruins aren’t as grand as those of Angkor, you won’t regret seeing them. Battambang’s active art scene, however, is considered to be the soul of Cambodia and, as thus, is worth experiencing.
In Banteay Chhmar, you will find one of the most fascinating Khmer temple complexes in Cambodia. Unlike Angkor and other similar temple complexes, Banteay Chhmar was never excavated, and there is little known about its history or purpose. The remote temples of this complex are famous for their beautiful bas reliefs and carvings that depict battle scenes as well as scenes from what must be daily life back in the city’s heyday.
The great lake of Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It has also enabled the existence of much of Cambodia’s population, right back to the days of the Khmer Empire. Aside from its picturesque views, Tonle Sap is worth visiting for its lovely floating villages and marine sanctuaries.
At first glance, Kompong Cham seems to lack character. A bustling port town by the Mekong River during Cambodia’s French colonial period, Kompong Cham is now a shadow of its former glory. But never underestimate its small-town charm. You can hang out at the cafes near the riverfront. You can explore the nearby temples and enjoy their spectacular views. You can visit the nearby villages along the river.
Kratie is yet another town situated on the side of the Mekong. But unlike many of Cambodia’s rural towns, Kratie has managed to preserve its colonial French heritage well. But people don’t go to Kratie just to look at old buildings. Mostly they’re there to watch the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins endemic to the Mekong. Kratie also boasts of some of the best sunsets in Cambodia.
Cambodia’s charms aren’t limited to old, crumbling ruins and quiet, sleepy towns. If eco-adventures are what you’re looking for, you need to head to Koh Kong City. Once a no-man’s-land, Koh Kong has transformed itself into an eco-tourist hotspot, serving as the gateway to the hiking trails of the Cardamom Mountains and the rapids of Koh Pao River.
Sihanoukville also breaks the mold of the typical Cambodian town; it’s the country’s party central, Cambodia’s answer to Thailand’s Phuket. While the city and its beaches aren’t as lovely as its Thai counterpart, Sihanoukville makes up for it with its lively bars and pubs.
If you’re looking for an isolated beach paradise in Cambodia, Koh Rong is the place to go. This jungle island off the coast of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand has yet to see some major building developments and offers many opportunities for diving, trekking and wildlife. Koh Rong also played host to two seasons of the Survivor reality show.
Kampot may seem like yet another sleepy town in Cambodia, but it’s a popular tourist destination in its own right, precisely because there’s little to do here. Many tourists find the slow pace in this town utterly relaxing. But that doesn’t mean Kampot has totally nothing to offer. It’s the entry point to trekking the Elephant Mountains. Cruising down the Praek Tuek Chhu River on which the town stands can be romantic. Also, Kampot is foodie destination. The countryside around Kampot is famous for producing the best fruits and produce in Cambodia. It’s particularly well-known for durian and the Kampot pepper, said to be the best pepper in the world.
Kep is a seaside resort a short distance from Kampot, known for its restored French colonial houses, its long and narrow brown beaches, and its outlying islands. But while the relative isolation of the beach does attract people, tourists don’t go to Kep for the beach. Instead, they go for Kep’s fantastic seafood.
Traveling through Cambodia is like traveling through the past. Book your time-traveling adventures to Cambodia right now.