Things to Do in Cambodia
Rising from the jungle as the star of the UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, the Angkor Wat temple complex is a 12th-century engineering marvel that tops many adventure travelers’ bucket lists and justifies a trip to Southeast Asia all on its own. Every surface is covered in intricate carvings and details that don’t disappoint—nymphs dance on columns in shadowy hallways, serpent-topped balustrades line the moat, and huge, chiseled bas-reliefs wrap the outer walls, depicting Khmer Empire battles. The site’s colossal size reflects its ambition, intended as a microcosm of the universe. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to get lost here, with the complex arranged on three tiers.
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government killed and/or starved around 1.7 million of their citizens, roughly 20% of the population. Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), a former high school that served as a torture and detention center, documents their atrocities through films, photos, and artifacts.
With its distinctive art-deco dome, Phnom Penh Central Market (Phsar Thmey) attracts visitors with hundreds of traditional Khmer stalls, selling everything from antique coins and brightly colored fabrics to traditional crafts and medicinal products. No first-time visit to Phnom Penh is complete without stopping, and shopping, here.
The official home of Cambodian royals is located in the heart of Phnom Penh, where the gilded rooflines of the Royal Palace preside over manicured grounds. It’s a gem of Khmer architecture and one of the city’s most popular sites. Follow in royal footsteps as you explore the intricate Throne Hall, visit the Silver Pagoda, and more.
This great lake covering 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) is not only the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia, it’s also a UNESCO-designated biosphere due to its remarkable natural features. The flow of water in Tonlé Sap changes direction twice during the course of the year, expanding and contracting with the seasons.
The geographical and spiritual center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the Bayon is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the Khmer king Jayavarman VII. Around 200 giant faces look down from around 50 towers, while beautifully crafted reliefs depict everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia.
This untouched temple is one of Cambodia’s most important—and least visited—making it the perfect destination for travelers seeking to experience the beauty of the nation’s past without the chaos of tourists. Some 56 towers decorated with faces and religious scenes stretch up to the sky through the thick jungle.
This impressive temple dates back to the Angkorian period and offers iconic examples of Buddhist images and bas-reliefs. The natural forest overgrowth and somewhat crumbling remains lend a haunting feel to this truly beautiful historic wonder, which offers travelers a perfect mix of beauty and decay temples like Banteay Chhmar are known for.
Perched on the floodplain of Tonle Sap Lake—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia— Kampong Phluk is a floating community of around 3,000 villagers. Visit to see how the residents live—in stilted homes and depending on fishing as a livelihood.
Phnom Kulen National Park, which sits north of the famous temples of Angkor Archeological Park, features Khmer landmarks in a gorgeous natural setting. Visit to see waterfalls streaming from a holy mountain, natural pools, the phallic carvings at Kbal Spean (the River of a Thousand Lingas), and a popular Buddhist shrine.
The best known of the “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge executed over a million innocent Cambodians, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center sit just outside Phnom Penh. A memorial stupa contains the skulls of around 8,000 victims; bracelets decorate killing sites; and a museum documents the atrocities.
More Things to Do in Cambodia
A place of magic, where it’s conceivable that almost anything can be found for sale, Phnom Penh Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung Market) is a haven for tourists, displaying a wide variety of goods—most notably, designer brand knock-offs. The Russian Market got its name from the Russian tourists that frequented it in the 1980s; these days, you can hear a wide range of languages being spoken in its stalls.
For those looking for souvenirs, “real designer clothes” at a huge discount and some remarkably fantastic food, you’re in the right place. As factories for such big name Western brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are located in Phnom Penh, stock that is deemed unfit to be shipped abroad due to some flaw are then sold at the Russian Market. Stick to the eastern side of the market for clothing; the northern side sells a utilitarian mix of tools and household goods and the other two sides are a mixture of jewelry and watches, antiques and not-so-antiques, pirated videos and various crafts. The middle of the market is the jackpot–-it’s a veritable Mecca of jet-fuel-grade iced coffee, noodle shops and snacks of both the savory and sweet persuasion.
A 60-foot (20-meter) tall Angkor-style monument built in 1958, the Phnom Penh Independence Monument was constructed to commemorate the Cambodians winning back their independence from the French in 1953. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann designed the monument; the architecture is patterned after a lotus flower and adorned with five levels of Naga heads, which gives it a very distinctive look. Located in the heart of busy Phnom Penh, the Independence Monument attracts many visitors, not only for its unique architecture, but also for its location: it’s in the middle of a busy intersection and the eastern side features a large, open park that is a popular spot for locals to gather and jog or practice tai chi and aerobics.
More than just a monument commemorating Cambodia’s independence, it also serves as a memorial to Cambodia’s war casualties and is a symbol of the end of Cambodia’s war. In remembrance, families place large wreaths at the foot of the monument for war veterans. At night, the monument is illuminated by red, blue and white floodlights, the colors of the Cambodian flag. It’s also the site of celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence (January 7) and Constitution Day (September 24).
Opened in 2007, this modern, interactive museum showcases Khmer civilization and the Angkor era. Eight different galleries put the period in context with artifacts gathered from sites including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Topics covered include religion and belief, the great Khmer kings, the pre-Angkor period, and ancient costume.
Boasting a hilltop location overlooking the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is one of Cambodia’s most-visited temples. Originally built in 1373, the sanctuary was reconstructed in 1998 and now provides a place for locals to celebrate Khmer festivals and make sacred offerings.
When Aki Ra, founder of the Cambodia Landmine Museum, was a child, he was recruited as a child soldier in the army of the Khmer Rouge and spent much of his formative years fighting. After the war he returned to try and remove and defuse by hand many of the thousands of mines he planted during his time with the army. In 1997 he founded the Cambodian Landmine Museum and School to care for kids wounded by landmines.
Today, the facility houses more than three dozen kids from throughout Cambodia who've endured various forms of physical, emotional and familial hardships. They're all given an education, including English language classes, and eventually a university or trade school scholarship.
While visitors aren't allowed into the children's home, they are encouraged to visit the museum, where proceeds go toward supporting the kids' relief center. Museum exhibits include mines, guns, mortars and other weaponry from Cambodia's 35 years of war, as well as a mock minefield where guests learn the difficulties of locating and deactivating mines.
At the northern end of the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Preah Khan is among the park’s most striking temples. The evocative ruins of the temple, built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, lie tangled amid the roots of silk-cotton trees, its perimeter guarded by 72 stone garudas (mythological bird creatures).
Beng Mealea is located 40 kilometers east of the main Angkor Wat complex. The temple was mainly constructed from sandstone, with its architectural style identical to that of Angkor Wat. Because of this, it is thought that Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century under the reign of Suryavarman II.
The temple grounds are surrounded by a gigantic moat and was once entirely consumed by jungle. This atmospheric temple is oriented toward the east, with entranceways from the other three cardinal directions also. If entering from the south, visitors will find themselves amid piles of chiselled sandstone blocks, sweeping vines, and mysterious dark chambers.
The layout of the temple consists of three enclosed galleries situated around a central tower, which has now completely collapsed. There’s a well-preserved library in the northeastern quadrant, plus extensive carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology and long balustrades formed by bodies of the seven-headed Naga serpent.
The prolific King Jayavarman VII was behind the creation of numerous temples in Angkor, but Neak Pean is one of his most unusual. A bit off the trodden tourist path, the temple sits on a small island in a reservoir, flanked by four smaller ponds fed by carved gargoyles. Scholars believe that in building the temple, the king was trying to recreate the sacred Anavatapta Lake in the Himalayan Mountains, which is believed to be situated at the top of the universe.
At the time Neak Pean was built, devotees would come to the temple to bathe in the waters, which were believed to have healing powers. This site in particular is an interesting example of one of many “hospital” temples and structures Jayavarman was famous for building.
While the central temple itself is blocked off, a wooden platform takes visitors out toward it and makes for a beautiful stroll, especially in the evening when the light of the sunset reflects off the water.
Explored by Angelina Jolie in 2001’s Lara Croft:Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm is ubiquitously known as “the Tomb Raider temple.” A 12th-century Buddhist monastery and temple complex enmeshed in a web of towering tree roots, it’s one of Angkor’s—and Cambodia’s—signature sights and stands as an eerie symbol of the transience of human endeavor.
Home to one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world, the National Museum of Cambodia focuses on the country’s ancient history and distinctive architecture. Galleries are categorized by material—stone, metal, wood, and ceramics—and feature artifacts that date back as far as the Neolithic period.
The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Thom, an ancient Khmer capital formerly ringed by a crocodile-infested moat, surpasses the world-famous Angkor Wat in both size and scale. Each of the site’s five gates are heralded by avenues lined with 108 deities that represent good and evil, which provide spectacular photo opportunities before you even step inside.
Small but perfectly formed, the delicately carved rose pink temple of Banteay Srei is a masterpiece of Angkorian art. The name means “Citadel of the Women,” likely because of its many carvings of “apsara” nymphs. First built in 967 AD, long before Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, it’s about an hour’s drive from the main archaeological area.
While the decaying structures and overgrown temples of Angkor Wat remain among the most popular destinations in Siem Reap, the rare collection of stone carvings along the Stung Kbal Spean River, typically known as simply Kbal Spean, continues to bring art and archaeology lovers outside the city and beyond Angkor.
The impressive carvings that line the riverbed, also known as the "River of a Thousand Lingas", pay homage to the Hindu god Shiva. During the 11th and 12th centuries, artisans chipped away at delicate sandstone leaving intricate phallic symbols, mythological creatures and religious images along the shores. Visitors must trek two kilometers up rocky, uneven terrain to spy the hand-carved statues. Some argue the hike is more trouble than it’s worth, but most agree that travelers seeking to connect with nature and explore Cambodia’s rich and colorful history will appreciate a trip to Kbal Spean.
While visiting the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, it’s almost impossible to miss the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo), an impressive, opulent structure. With a floor that’s covered with five tons of silver, a Baccarat-crystal Buddha perched on a gilded pedestal (known as the Emerald Buddha) and a life-sized solid-gold Buddha that weighs almost 200 pounds (90 kg) and is covered with 9,584 diamonds (the largest is 25 carats), a visit to the Silver Pagoda is one that is not easily forgotten. Though they’re hard to get a peek at (they’re covered up for protection), see if you can get a look at one of the more than 5,000 silver tiles that were inlaid during King Norodom Sihanouk's pre-Khmer Rouge reign and are the reason for the temple’s nickname.
Though the temple’s true name is Wat Preah Keo Morokat, which means Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the moniker The Silver Pagoda the more common name. Built between 1892 and 1902 under King Norodom, it’s an interesting structure—it’s actually separated from the Royal Palace by a walled walkway, but it’s still located on palace grounds, in the larger complex. Unlike most pagodas, no monks live here—instead, it’s the pagoda where the King meets with monks to listen to their sermons and where some Royal ceremonies are performed. Be sure to check out the gorgeous Ramayana frescoes that are painted on the walls and see the Buddha relic from Sri Lanka, which is housed in a small gold and silver stupa in front of the life-sized gold Buddha.
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