First Time Cambodia: 8 Things Not to Miss
Featured destinations: Cambodia, Phnom Penh
Published 19 April 2016
Best known for the temples of Angkor, Cambodia draws visitors from far and wide to its intriguing culture, lush countryside and fascinating yet turbulent history. A backpacker staple also frequented by luxury lovers, Cambodia’s warm smiles, friendly inhabitants and treasure trove of attractions, not to mention its flavourful (and might we say, underrated) cuisine, can’t fail to leave an impression on even the most hard-hearted of visitors. Here are our top eight favourite things to do while you’re here:
Temples of Angkor
Voted number one by a considerable margin on Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist, the incomparable temples of Angkor have been inspiring visitors since António da Madalena became one of the first westerners to tour the complex in 1586. He declared it as being “of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” Angkor’s crowning glory is of course Angkor Wat itself, best appreciated at sunrise or sunset when it reflects majestically in its own moat. But my personal favourite is the multi-faced Bayon, and I could spend many hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the jungle-claimed sanctuary of Ta Prohm.
Many travellers rush through Phnom Penh or bypass it altogether, drawn instead to the Angkor gateway of Siem Reap. It would be a shame to miss it though, as Cambodia’s understated capital offers a fair few attractions of its own. Number one on your list should be the glittering Royal Palace, with its golden-spired roof and regal Throne Hall, and just next door the Silver Pagoda is filled with diamond-encrusted statues and the impressive Emerald Buddha. If you’ve had enough of all the extravagance, browse the Khmer sculptures and artefacts in the National Museum, or take a gentle stroll along the palm-lined banks of the Tonlé Sap River.
Cambodia may not be the most obvious beach destination, especially when Thailand is just a short flight away, but head down to Sihanoukville and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. With a number of pillow-soft sand beaches and warm waters, Sihanoukville is at the heart of Cambodia’s burgeoning beach scene. For peace and quiet by the sea try the pretty Otres Beach, or for true rest and relaxation, set sail on a paradise getaway to the outlying islands, many of which are so secluded that they don’t even have electricity.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Along with the harrowing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek offer a sombre yet fascinating insight into the depths of depravity to which the human race will stoop. Although not an obvious holiday stop-off, and by no means an uplifting experience, the Killing Fields tell the history of the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime that ruled here in the 1970s. Once housing the mass grave of over 9,000 people, this peaceful spot is now home to a contemplative flower garden and is a touching memorial to those who died here.
Taking a boat ride on the Tonlé Sap is a wonderful way to appreciate everyday river life in Cambodia. Choose from a short sunset cruise in Phnom Penh or a full day’s sailing trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (or vice versa). Pass traditional floating villages, observe the fishermen at work and watch out for birdlife on the riverbanks – this definitely beats the bus.
If you’re not experiencing temple fatigue after Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, up on the border with Thailand, makes for a worthwhile detour. Atop a 525-metre cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, the temple offers lush countryside views in all directions as well as a collection of crumbling gopuram (monumental towers), stupas and sanctuaries. To reach the ruins, you’ll have to climb 162 stone steps, but it’s worth it, and there’s a cool breeze waiting for you at the top. Note that in the past Preah Vihear has been the subject of various disputes between Cambodia and Thailand and there is still a strong military presence in the area. Check the current security situation before you travel.
Battambang Bamboo Train
Battambang is a pretty riverside town with a smattering of colonial architecture. But it’s most loved attraction is the quirky bamboo train, a small raft-like structure that rides along winding train tracks through the pretty Cambodian countryside, at speeds of up to 9mph. Its ingenious design allows it to be dismantled and placed by the side of the track when a carriage comes from the opposite direction. Sit back and enjoy the ride!
Hungry Southeast Asia visitors are usually hankering after a Pad Thai, noodle soup or spring rolls, but while these tasty dishes are certainly worth a try, don’t miss out on the aromatic Khmer cuisine found all over Cambodia. Start with the most famous Khmer dish, fish amok, a curry made with lemongrass and shrimp paste and often served in a banana leaf. Take it from someone who ate it every night of their Cambodia trip except one, amok is completely delicious, especially when washed down with a cool glass of Angkor Beer. For the more adventurous, Cambodia is also the place to try bizarre local delicacies such as deep fried tarantula, duck embryo and snake meat, which I bravely sampled on the only non-amok night of my trip.
If you’d like to take in the very best of Cambodia, try our Cambodia Encompassed small-group Journey, which takes in the sights of Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap, and includes a tour of the temples of Angkor.