Cambodia is a country steeped in history, stretching back to the glorious Angkor Empire to its recent tragic era of the Khmer Rouge. With sites revealing the country’s highs and lows, discovering the Kingdom of Wonder’s diverse past is an intriguing adventure. Here are some of the top places to remember Cambodia’s past.
Standing at the centre of Khmer national pride, Angkor Wat was once the jewel of the almighty Khmer Empire’s crown, which ruled large parts of Southeast Asia. Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple, it later switched to a Buddhist monument. The temple and surrounding city served as the capital of the empire, as well as a sacred place of worship. Today, Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s main tourist draw, attracting a record 2.2 million people in 2016. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park is spread across 400kms, and takes in hundreds of ancient temples and religious monuments, including Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Prasat Preah Vihear (Temple of the Sacred Mountain) has been at the centre of conflict for decades, making it precious in the hearts of many Cambodians. Sitting on the edge of the Cambodian-Thai border, ferocious fighting between the two countries over ownership of the sacred site persisted until recent years. In 2015, the destination was deemed safe and taken off many foreign offices’ watch lists. While military presence remains strong, the temple is well worth a visit. With none of the crowds that plague Angkor, Prasat Preah Vihear is a series of impressive structures, built between the 9th and 12th century by several kings. It teeters atop a 1,722ft cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains, boasting stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Phnom Kulen and its sprawling national park is considered by locals to be Cambodia’s most sacred mountain. Located in Siem Reap province, the area becomes a hive of activity during public holidays and religious festivals as Cambodians flock to the site to worship, picnic and enjoy some family time at the waterfalls. It is home to a giant reclining Buddha who sits at the mountain’s peak, waterfalls perfect for swimming in, remote temples and The River of a Thousand Lingas, featuring ancient carvings on the stone riverbed. Steeped in history, it was at Phnom Kulen from where Jayavarman II declared himself a devaraja (god-king) in 802AD.
To take a glimpse into Cambodia’s faded glitzy past, a trip to the coastal resort of Kep is in order. Once reserved for the rich and famous, during Cambodia’s Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s, Kep – dubbed Kep-sur-Mer – was a seaside escape for French colonials and their families, as well as wealthy Cambodians. The peaceful town, which was given a make-over by revered architect Vann Molyvann on the request of King Father Sihanouk, was once home to premium villas boasting the latest contemporary designs. However, due to its proximity to the Vietnamese border, the town was one of the first to fall to – and the last to free from – the Khmer Rouge, leaving the jet-set destination to crumble. While Kep is quickly regaining its reputation, remnants of its past can be seen in the dilapidated, and restored, buildings that dot the area.
Bokor Mountain in Kampot is another spot that offers an interesting insight into Cambodia’s heyday. A trip up the mountain, which sits about 40 kilometres away from Kampot, takes in a series of dilapidated buildings that hark back to the past, including a crumbling church which served the colonial French who frequented Bokor Hill Station – once a retreat for the country’s elite. Atop the mountain sits the former hotel, which is now an eerily derelict shell. This can be explored, with Insta-worthy shots from its terrace, which offers views out across to the nearby Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc.
For a really harrowing look at Cambodia’s recent past, Tuol Sleng – or S-21 – is a former prison camp in Phnom Penh city centre. During the Khmer Rouge reign of 1975 to 1979, it is estimated 17,000 people were sent to Tuol Sleng, and ultimately to their deaths. This was a torture centre and many died at the site. The remainder were rounded up and sent to nearby Choeung Ek to be executed. Today, visitors can walk around S-21 – which ironically was a school prior to the Pol Pot-led regime. Having been pretty much left undisturbed after being discovered by the liberating Vietnamese troops in 1979, blood remains on the walls, torture tools dot the site, and a moving exhibit showing the portraits taken of each prisoner – young and old – as they entered Tuol Sleng takes up several of the rooms. Only seven men are said to have survived S-21.
Cambodia is littered with killing fields, with an estimated two million people perishing under the Khmer Rouge regime. Choeung Ek – or The Killing Fields – is one of the largest sites, sitting about 20km outside of Phnom Penh. As well as being the place where those detained at S-21 were murdered, swathes of other Cambodians were killed here. The remains of 8,985 people – many were bound and blindfolded – were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Bone fragments and scraps of clothing litter the site, with more than 8,000 skulls arranged at a memorial stupa to the dead. Visitors are given an audio tour, featuring informative stories from Khmer Rouge survivors and former soldiers.
This hill about 11km outside of Battambang is also steeped in tragic history. Here, visitors can enter the Killing Caves, where thousands of Cambodians were bludgeoned to death before being tossed 20-metres into holes in the roof of the caves. A memorial containing some of the recovered bones and skulls sits inside. Visitors to Phnom Sampeau should time their trip so it rounds off at dusk because every evening, crowds gather at the mouth of the cave to watch the stream of bats fly out. It really has to be seen to be believed.