Cambodia is a country made up of picture-postcard images: orange-robed monks, tropical fruit, lush rice paddies, tuk-tuks, and of course awe-inspiring temples. This country is also home to what is widely considered the most advanced civilisation of its day and an architectural masterpiece: the Temples of Angkor – one of the seven wonders of the world.
Cambodia only recently emerged from 30 years of violence and despair as a result of the Vietnam War, and it is a true testament to the Khmer people that, despite three decades of turmoil, there is an emanating feeling of optimism wherever you go. In fact, one thing most remarked upon by any visitor is the lasting impressions of the people and the stories they have to tell.
This history-laden kingdom is full of surprises and there is so much to see and do. So, we thought we’d share our top nine attractions to help you plan your Cambodia holiday itinerary so you have a trip of a lifetime.
You can’t come to Cambodia without visiting this city – it’s the gateway to the ancient world and the starting point of temple tours to Angkor Wat. Located just a couple of miles down the road from the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor, Siem Reap is the perfect base for exploring. It’s the centre of ‘chic’ Cambodia – perfect for adventure-seekers, or those after stylish accommodation, relaxing spa days and top foodie tours.
While Siem Reap may be struggling to retain its small-town charm, its opulent resorts, sophisticated restaurants, chic bars and exclusive shops are evidence that it has become a destination in its own right; it has a creative cultural scene and is even home to the country’s leading contemporary circus.
Tonle Sap Lake
Stretching across the northwest of the country, the Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater in southeast Asia, covering an area of around 250,000 hectares in the dry season. There are even floating schools, markets and churches! Along this lake, locals live on floating villages – which are built on stilts to survive the rainy seasons – alongside over 300 species of freshwater fish, snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, turtles, and otters.
You could meet the locals on a private boat tour through this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where your guide will take you through the village as you get a glimpse into the community’s unique way of life. Make sure you look out for the local bird life too: the reserve is home to a bird sanctuary which attracts an array of different species, from painted stork to spot-billed pelicans.
Phare Cambodian circus
If you’re in Siem Reap for a few days, we’d definitely recommend getting tickets to see the Phare Cambodian circus. This attraction is so much more than a conventional circus; the performance has an emphasis on subtle yet striking social messages, where dance, music and movement tell Cambodian folk tales, history and modern society stories. A unique form of entertainment, the Cambodian circus doesn’t use any animals within their performance. What makes this circus so amazing is that many of the performers have deeply moving personal stories of hardship, making their talents in the show extraordinary. It’s definitely one to put on your Cambodia holiday itinerary to get a feel for the country’s history and culture.
Angkor Archaeological Park
Needless to say, the Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the most popular attractions of Cambodia. Home to the most spectacular temples, this park has two circuits, both covering the must-visit monuments; the small circuit is 17km long and the grand circuit is an extension of that, at 26km long.
Start your tour at the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which is encircled by an eight-metre-high wall and surrounding moat. Enter through the ancient South Gate, an impressive stone gate carved with elephants and four giant faces. From here, continue to Bayon Temple, which is in the centre of the city. This 12th-century masterpiece is well known for its 54 towers with enigmatic faces representing the 54 provinces of the Great Khmer Empire. The Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King are also must-visits, as they are both known for their intricate bas-reliefs.
Continue on to Ta Prohm, a unique, untouched temple overgrown by jungle trees and vines, with many parts of the temple crumbling to the ground. Once you’ve finished exploring this ancient temple, it’s time for the highlight: Angkor Wat. Inside this temple, the walls are covered with stone carvings and bas-reliefs depicting Hindu mythology. Angkor Wat is well known for the more than 2,000 Apsara dancers decorating the temple. We’d recommend catching Angkor Wat at sunset, when it is less visited, to see the Apsaras shimmering in the late afternoon light.
Prasat Preah Vihear
If you want to discover more magical temples, why stop a Angkor Wat? Prasat Preah Vihear is dramatically perched on top of a cliff near the Thai border. The temple is known to have been dedicated to the god Shiva and thought to have been constructed in the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-50), with further significant additions by Suryavarman II (1113-50).
From here, you’ll see incredible views over Cambodia and Thailand’s fertile plains more than 500m below. The spectacular carvings and lintels in the temple are a sight to be seen, and it is this unique design, paired with the amazing location, that makes Prasat Preah Vihear a World Heritage Site – and one of our top attractions!
Phnom Kulen National Park
Situated 48km from Siem Reap (about two hours by car) is Phnom Kulen National Park. Khmers believe that this is the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, and it’s easy to see why – there are hundreds of lingas carved into the riverbed that winds its way through the park, an impressive waterfall, remote temples and a giant reclining Buddha.
Upon your arrival at Phnom Kulen, you’ll wind through spectacular jungle scenery as you ascend to the top, eventually emerging on the plateau 12km above. At this point, the road splits in two – the left will lead you to an idyllic picnic spot, waterfalls and ruins of a 9th-century temple, while the right will take you over a bridge to Wat Preah Ang Thom at the summit of the mountain. This is where you’ll see the infamous giant Buddha carved into the sandstone boulder.
Koh Kong (Cardamom Mountains)
Your Cambodia holiday itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Koh Kong. Discover the unexplored peaks of the Cardamom Mountains for a spot of adventure, hike through the mountains, or kayak along the river – whatever you’d like to do, there’s something for everyone. As one of the world’s most prominent biodiversity hotspots, ecotourism is on the rise.
Conservation and sustainability are not a priority in Cambodia. Illegal logging, mining, overfishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture still happens in this country. However, here in the Cardamom Mountain region, people are doing everything they can for the environment. The Chi Phat community-based ecotourism project has reduced forest burning by 100% and wildlife hunting by 80%, so you’ll do good by just visiting this stunning place!
Elephant Valley Project ‘walking with the herd’
The Elephant Valley Project is an ecotourism project that provides an alternative approach to elephant care, rehabilitation and conservation. This sanctuary looks after overworked and abused captive elephants in Mondulkiri province. There are 12 elephants here, who roam the project’s 650 hectares of natural forest, munching on vegetation and bathing in water.
This is a must-visit attraction in Cambodia and definitely one to put on your Cambodia holiday itinerary – you’ll observe the elephants’ natural behaviours and learn more about their individual stories as you follow them around the jungle. It’s definitely one for animal lovers!
Finish your holiday on the relaxing shores of Koh Russei, Koh Rong, or the private island of Song Saa. Great for some much needed R&R, Cambodia’s beaches are absolutely beautiful – and the picture perfect shorelines are the ideal place to wind down before your journey home. If you’re up for more action, you could go snorkelling or kayaking at Song Saa, before staying in the luxurious accommodation where you can walk right out of your room and onto the beach. A true paradise island!
Start building your Cambodia holiday itinerary…
If you’d like to travel to Cambodia to experience these amazing attractions, we can help. At Holiday Architects, we have years of experience in designing holidays that suit the individual needs of our customers. We believe in creating a holiday for you – so you can choose anything you’d like to do, and we’ll make it work. Just get in touch with our Cambodian experts today to see how we can help you build a trip you’ll never forget.