Cambodia is known for its vibrant culture, ancient temples and spectacular natural scenery. From exploring the majestic temple complex of Angkor Wat to relaxing on the pristine beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia has many of the finest activities to suit a variety of interests. Whether you are a history enthusiast or an adventurer, there are a variety of the best things to do in Cambodia that will leave you captivated and eager to return.
1. Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh
The extravagant Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, in the heart of Phnom Penh, are home to fabulous murals and a treasure trove of Khmer sculpture. The palace was built in Khmer style with French assistance in 1866. It functioned as the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk from the time of his return to the capital in 1991, followed by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, who ascended to the throne in 2004.
Leaving the main northern compound of the palace by a marked gateway in the southeastern corner, proceed along a narrow southwesterly route that leads to the North Gate of the celebrated Silver Pagoda compound. Commissioned by King Norodom in 1892, and then extensively rebuilt by Sihanouk in 1962, the floor of the pagoda is lined with more than 5,000 silver tiles weighing more than 1kg each, or 5 tonnes in total.
Prepare for the best things to do in Cambodia on this tailor-made Cambodia Cultural Discovery. Tour the capital, Phnom Penh, with its romantic cafes and haute cuisine, discover ancient, awe-inspiring temples, and stunning countryside and explore one of the greatest wonders of the world.
2. Learn about the past at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh
Harrowing monuments to Cambodia’s grisly past during the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule. Not for the faint-hearted, just over 1km (0.6 miles) from Tuol Tom Pong Market, to the north of Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, stands the former Tuol Sleng Prison, now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum I. Here, during Pol Pot’s years in power, around 20,000 people were interrogated under torture and murdered, generally together with their families.
Finally, for those with the stomach for the experience after visiting Tuol Sleng, about 12km (7.5 miles) southwest of the town are the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here victims of the Khmer Rouge were executed and buried in mass graves. Many of these graves have now been exhumed, and a stupa-shaped mausoleum has been erected in the victims’ memory.
3. Shop at the marker at Psar Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh
Visiting the wonderful Phnom Penh city market, packed with vibrant silks and curios is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh. Psar Toul Tom Poung is called the Russian market because all of its goods used to come from Russia. The country provided aid to Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation.
This market remains the place to buy textiles, antiques, silver and even motorbike parts. At the south end of the market, you’ll find vendors selling silver jewellery, handicrafts and piles of multicoloured silks.
- For central location: Plantation Urban Resort & Spa
- For amazing city views: The Peninsula Hotel & Residences
Where to stay in Phnom Penh:
4. Explore Kampot
Kampot, the capital of the eponymous province, is a small, relaxed town of around 50,000 people. Just 5km (3 miles) inland, by the banks of the Sanke River, there is a coastal feel to the place which adds to its rather languid appeal. “Downtown” Kampot centres on a large roundabout space of about 400 metres (1,300ft) east of the river. This area is the main commercial hub and also the location of the two best hotels.
The road north from the roundabout leads out past a large covered market – a favourite with visitors from Phnom Penh, who stop off here to buy the fresh seafood for which Kampot is renowned. One of the best things to do in Cambodia here for the foreign visitor, however, is the series of narrow, collonaded streets leading west from the roundabout to the riverfront.
- For boutique stays: Kampot Sweet Boutique
- For a charming atmosphere: Rikitikitavi
Where to stay in Kampot:
5. See the beautiful temples of Banteay Srei
One of the smallest but most perfect of all Angkor’s temples, constructed from delicate rose-pink sandstone and covered in a positive riot of intricate carvings. The justly famed temple of Banteay Srei lies about 30km (20 miles) northeast of Siem Reap. While Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon impress by their sheer size, Banteay Srei inspires through meticulous detail.
It is, indeed, a scrupulously executed miniature temple complex carved in fine pink sandstone – and in the quality of the stone and the soft, almost mellifluous charm of the colour lies much of the temple’s appeal. The central complex consists of several structures including, most importantly, shrines dedicated to Shiva (the central and southern buildings) and Vishnu (the northern building).
6. Exploring Angkor Wat - one of the essential things to do in Cambodia
This unforgettable temple, crowned with soaring towers and embellished with intricate bas-reliefs, represents the zenith of Khmer architecture and is one of the coolest places to visit in Southeast Asia. From Phnom Bakheng hill continue south to Angkor Wat. By any standards, visiting Angkor Wat is one of the best things to do in Cambodia – the great temple is simply unsurpassed by any other monument.
Construction of this masterpiece is thought to have begun during the reign of Surayavarman II and to have been completed sometime after his death. Authorities claim that the amount of stone used in creating this massive edifice is about the same as that used in building the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, though Angkor Wat has more exposed surfaces, nearly all of which are elaborately carved to a remarkable standard.
This tailor-made Cambodian Family Adventure is an ideal exploration for all the family, it allows the chance to experience the majestic region of Cambodia’s Angkor region from an insider angle.
7. Relax at Otres Beach
Set on a headland jutting into the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville was the original heart of Cambodia’s “Riviera”, and the first coastal resort to redevelop. Although certain neighbourhoods had a slightly sleazy reputation, the fine beaches drew in large numbers of backpackers and mid-range travellers, and visiting Sihanoukville became one of the essential things to do in Cambodia
The far southeastern end of the beach is known as Otres Beach, which itself is divided into Otres 1 to the west and Otres 2 to the east. This is the area in which Sihanoukville still retains at least a dash of its original charm, and is the best place to head for guesthouse-style accommodation and laid-back bars and restaurants.
8. Spot the Irrawaddy dolphins
It’s possible to charter a boat or take a taxi to travel the 30km (20 miles) north of Kratie to the peaceful riverside village of Sambor, with its attractive Temple. If you travel on the river there is a chance of seeing the rare Mekong dolphin, an endangered species which is making something of a comeback in the waters near Kratie, and which has become a major attraction.
More correctly known as the Irrawaddy dolphin, this is a delightful and sociable mammal. It has been driven to the verge of extinction by fishermen using explosives and nets, collisions with rafts of teak logs, and fatal encounters with the sharp propellers of speeding long-tail boats.
9. Discover the "Great City" of Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom or “Great City”, encompasses a huge, square area of the land enclosed within an 8-metre (26ft) -high defensive wall and outer moats approximately 100 metres (330ft) wide. Each side of the wall is about 3km (2 miles) long, and it has been suggested that, at the height of its wealth and power, the city may have supported as many as 1 million people.
There are five gateways into Angkor Thom, each approached by a causeway built across the moat. As you approach from the south the view of the fortifications is impressive. The causeway is flanked by 108 large stone figures, 54 gods on the left and an equivalent number of demons on the right. In the distance, at the far end of the causeway, the southern gateway bears four huge enigmatic faces facing in the cardinal directions.
See the best of beautiful Cambodia on this amazing tailor-made tour of Cambodia’s Beaches and Temples. Explore the busy capital Phnom Penh, laze on the golden sands of the south coast beaches, and discover local villages and Cambodian cuisine before you lose yourself among the mystical temples of Angkor.
10. See the town of Siem Reap
Siem Reap, the base town for people visiting the nearby temples of Angkor (just 5km/3 miles away), is a relaxing and pleasant place located by the shady banks of the eponymous river. The town itself has few sights, though with Angkor so close at hand this is perhaps a good thing – the visitor will certainly feel the need to relax after a long day’s sightseeing.
At the northern end of town is the celebrated Victoria Angkor Resort, and next door the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which has been sensitively restored by the Singapore-based Raffles Group. Over the years many well-known visitors to Angkor have stayed here, including such luminaries as W. Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Angelina Jolie.
This is a tailor-made trip to Cambodia for the adventurer. This trip takes you from the glorious temples and rolling countryside of Siem Reap to the attractive riverside capital of Phnom Penh where you can explore the city’s broad boulevards, new restaurants and myriad sights.
11. Art of the Khmer Empire
Some of the country’s most stunning art, including ancient statues, are on display in Phnom Penh’s National Museum and the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap.
Phnom Penh’s National Museum housed in a red pavilion that opened in 1917, holds a wonderful collection of Khmer art, including some of the finest pieces in existence. As you enter, buy a copy of the museum guidebook, Khmer Art in Stone, which identifies and discusses the most important exhibits.
Angkor National Museum, formerly known as the Angkor Conservatory is situated on the road between Siem Reap and the main entrance. The well-equipped galleries provide an excellent introduction to Angkor and the civilisation that built it. Many visitors, however, give it a miss – being either impatient to see the real thing in situ or baulking at the relatively expensive entrance fee.
12. Spend time by the beautiful Tonle Sap lake
One of the best things to do in Cambodia is to take an excursion from Siem Reap to the nearby Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s Great Lake. The road from the town leads towards Phnom Krom the only hill in an otherwise completely flat landscape. Phnom Krom – which is gradually being quarried away – is surmounted by a 10th-century sandstone temple of the same name which may be reached by a long flight of steps.
The climb, while tiring, is well worth it for the view over the nearby lake and north towards Angkor. The scenery varies greatly from season to season, as during the rains, the Tonlé Sap expands considerably. The best-known of Tonlé Sap’s floating villages, Chong Khneas, is about 5km further on. From here you can hire a boat with a driver to get out to the lake. Choose a boat with a good roof as a sun shield.
On this tailor-made trip to Khmer Cultural Treasures, you will discover the wonders of Khmer architecture through temple tours around ancient Siem Reap, explore the Cambodian countryside, the floating markets of Tonle Sap and see all the cultural highlights of Phnom Penh.
Khmer classical dance at its most elegantly stylized, with beautifully costumed performers evoking the legendary apsaras of Hindu mythology. Cambodian mythology and, more particularly, Cambodian temples are both richly endowed with bas-reliefs and murals of apsara or celestial dancing girls. These nymphs are graceful, sensuous females who dance to please the gods and to keep the cosmos moving in an orderly fashion.
In technical parlance, the term apsara refers to celestial females who dance or fly, while their sisters who merely stand, albeit with amazing grace, are called devata or “angels”. Almost every temple has its quota of apsara, but it is generally agreed that the finest examples are to be found in the bas-reliefs at Angkor and that the best apsara is in the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” in Angkor Wat’s East Gallery.
14. Tour the natural beauty of Chi Phat
Chi Phat Village is located in the Cardamom Mountains and is a popular destination for tourists who want to enjoy the local natural beauty. It is inhabited by a wide range of wildlife including elephants, tigers, and a variety of bird species. A visit to this area is one of the best things to do in Cambodia - here you can explore the surrounding forests and waterways while hiking and kayaking under the guidance of local guides.
In addition, Chi Phat provides visitors with the opportunity to experience the local culture and community. Visitors can stay with local families where they can enjoy traditional Cambodian food and experience daily life in the village.
15. Wildlife and birdwatching
Walking with the elephants in Mondulkiri, gibbon-spotting in Rattanakiri or birdwatching around the Tonle Sap – should be on your list of things to do in Cambodia if you are into nature. Prek Toal Biosphere on the northwestern shore of Tonlé Sap is sometimes billed as the premier birdwatching destination in all of Southeast Asia. It is home to a plethora of rare species and is easily accessible by boat from Siem Reap.
The Ministry of Tourism is keen to promote both Rattanakiri and the adjoining province of Mondolkiri as destinations for eco-tourism and trekking, but this project remains in its infancy. As a part of this drive, and to protect threatened wildlife, almost half of Rattanakiri has been designated a protected area, including Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary and Virachey National Park.
16. Try Cambodian cuisine
Khmer cuisine is often said to be like Thai food, but less spicy. This is partially true. Cambodian cuisine developed more than 1,000 years ago, before the local introduction of the chilli pepper by the Portuguese, or the founding of the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century. Unlike their neighbours to the west, the Khmer cooks kept chilli to the side, as a condiment rather than a central ingredient.
Of course, other cultures have, in turn, strongly influenced Cambodia’s food. Central in the nation’s cuisine are soups and fish sauce from the Vietnamese and the Chams; Indian curries; stir-fries, fried rice and sweet and sour dishes from the Chinese and spices from the Far East. Even so, Khmer cuisine has combined these elements with a distinct set of flavours and ingredients to form a unique taste.
17. Roam Ream National Park
Abundant wildlife, secluded beaches and bays, and the beautiful mangrove-fringed Prek Touek Sap River. After crossing the Chuor Phnom Damrei, Route 4 forks as it drops down to the coast; the southern fork leads to Ream National Park, while the western route continues to Sihanoukville.
Just 18km (12 miles) from a town near the airport, Ream includes 210 sq km (81 sq miles) of coastal forests, including the Prek Tuk Sap estuary, mangrove forests, and two islands, as well as coral reefs. English-speaking rangers lead guided hikes and boat trips around the park, though the resident macaques, pangolins, sun bears and muntjac are most likely to be seen after dark when the park is closed.
18. Trekking in Rattanakiri
Trekking into the forested highlands of Rattanakiri, home to tall trees, rare wildlife and the indigenous chunchiet is one of the best things to do in Cambodia for witnessing the local wildlife. Half of Rattanakiri has been designated a protected area, including Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary and Virachey National Park. Lying along the southern frontier of Laos and the western frontier of Vietnam, Virachey is very remote.
Fauna which may be seen includes the slow loris, pig-tailed macaque, gibbon and douc ur, as well as wild elephant, gaur, bintang and sometimes even tiger. The area is also home to some of Cambodia’s smallest and least assimilated minorities. Despite its remoteness, Virachey is among Cambodia’s best-administered national parks, offering organised tours from the park headquarters at Ban Lung.
19. See the view from Preah Vihear
Set high on a cliff on the edge of the Dangrek Mountains overlooking Cambodia, Preah Vihear (known to the Thais as Khao Phra Viharn) is remarkable both for its interesting Khmer architecture and its stunning location. Access to the site is from Siem Reap via Anlong Veng, or from Kompong Thom via Preah Vihear City. The road up to the temple is very steep.
Visitors are required to purchase a ticket and use local transport (jeep or motorbike) and are not allowed to walk or use their transportation. The temple itself is best visited on a day trip. Be sure to leave early in the morning to allow enough time to explore it properly.
20. See the sunset from Koh Rong Samloem
Since the ugly transformation of Sihanoukville, many visitors seeking sun, sea and sand have turned their attention to the islands that lie offshore. Koh Rong is the largest island, accessed in around 45 minutes by fast ferry from Sihanoukville, and home to a wide array of accommodation. The main village, Koh Tuch, has a plethora of accommodation options and eateries and attracts young partiers.
Other coasts are far more sedate and the interior remains undeveloped. To the south, smaller exotic Koh Rong Samloem attracts a different crowd, seeking relaxation rather than beach parties. The main accommodation cluster is on the east coast at Saracen Beach, but there are other bungalow resorts and beachside guesthouses scattered around the coast, particularly on the west-facing Sunset and Lazy beaches.
- For stunning surroundings: Sara Resort
- For remote beach location: Robinson Bungalows
Where to stay in Koh Rong Samloem:
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