The coastline of sandy white beaches tempts every sun sloth. The jungle-swathed countryside is geared up for the more intrepid, and the buzzing capital of Phnom Penh envelops visitors in the frenetic pulse of contemporary Cambodian city life.
Beyond the temples, and recovering from the atrocities that rained down on the country in the late 20th century, Cambodia is an emerging destination for Southeast Asia travels that manages to charm all who come.
Angkor Wat (Angkor Archaeological Park). This temple city is Cambodia’s number one drawcard. Accessed from the town of Siem Reap, the temples of the Angkorian period are so ambitious in scale and in the majesty of their construction, that Angkor Wat is rated as one of the world’s must-see ancient sites.
Built between AD 802 and 1432, this was the largest city in the world during the medieval age and the vast powerhouse of the Khmer kings who endeavored to outbid their predecessors in the beauty of their construction. As the city’s wooden dwellings were encroached and then decayed by the surrounding jungle, what remains today, are just those mighty temples.
The temple of Angkor Wat itself, the world’s largest religious building, is only one sliver of the site in total, and the sprawling circuit of temples deserves three days to explore if you want to understand the scope of the Angkorian period’s architectural achievements.
For those short on time though, the main highlights after Angkor Wat are the tree-root clasped temple of Ta Prohm (which first found international fame as a location used in the movie Tomb Raider), the Bayon Temple for its 216 stone-carved faces, Angkor Thom, and Preah Khan.
Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s capital is the frenetic heartbeat of the nation; a city of chaotic streets abuzz with motorbikes and car horns that can frazzle at first glance. Deserted completely during the Khmer Rouge madness and left to wither and decay, Phnom Penh has bounced back to become one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities.
For visitors, this is Cambodia’s most cosmopolitan destination, with a café and restaurant scene unrivaled in the rest of the country. It’s also home to a scattering of important historic sites that help unravel both Cambodia’s modern and ancient history.
Sihanoukville Beaches. In Kompong Som Province, Sihanoukville is a tale of two halves, with a bustling but drab central district and its shoreline area home to a vibrant beach resort. The beaches here are Cambodia’s top destination for sand and sun holidays and are popular with both local and foreign tourists.
There’s something for every kind of beach-goer here. Sokha Beach and Independence Beach boast luxury hotels.
Brash Ochheuteal Beach and the Serendipity Beach area are the most popular sandy strips and in recent years have emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s backpacker party areas.
Ratanakiri. This is outback Cambodia, and the endless red-dirt roads of the region, leading to ethnic minority villages, are an intrepid traveler’s delight.
For those with an adventurous streak, the province is one of the best places in Cambodia for trekking, from spotting gibbons at Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, where overnight trips involve sleeping in hammocks and early rises to track buff-cheeked gibbons, to hiking in Virachey National Park, home to elephants, tigers, and sun bears.
Prasat Preah Vihear. The temples of Angkor Wat may gain all the glory, but Prasat Preah Vihear wins the prize for the most dramatic location. Sitting atop the Dangrek Mountains, on an escarpment with dizzying views across the Cambodian floodplains, Prasat Preah Vihear is a monumental temple complex of intricately carved pavilions linked by long causeways, built originally to honor the god Shiva.
The temple is snug against the border with Thailand and has historically been a point of contention between the two nations, who both claim it as their own. The International Court of Justice ruled in Cambodia’s favor in 2013, which led to border disputes flaring up between 2008 and 2011.