Fancy stepping back in time and exploring the ancient cities of the Angkor Empire, dipping your toes in clear turquoise waters on deserted tropical islands or roaming through the jungle in the shadows of elephants – and plenty in between? If so, then Cambodia has got it all. Here are some of the best things to see and do in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Angkor Wat Archaeological Park
It’s impossible to visit Cambodia without taking a trip to its number one attraction, Angkor Wat. Dating back to the 11th century, the sprawling site was once the capital of the Angkor Empire, which ruled most of the region from the 9th to 15th centuries. While Angkor Wat remains the site’s main draw, Bayon and Ta Prohm fit into the popular one-day circuit. However, the park, which spans 400 square kilometres, takes in hundreds of other ancient structures that are well worth getting off the beaten track for.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh serves as the official residence of King Sihamoni, meaning parts of the vast complex are off limits to visitors. Paying testament to classic Khmer architecture, visitors to the palace compound have access to the immaculately manicured gardens, the Throne Hall, which is topped by a 59-metre tower inspired by Bayon temple, and surrounding buildings. Visitors will only be allowed entry if clothing covers the shoulders and knees, and those choosing to ignore the dress code will have to get a sarong at the ticket booth.
Koh Rong Samloem
If lazing on powder white sands flanked by palm trees and crystal-clear waters, with hardly another person in sight, is your idea of heaven, then this Cambodian island is a must on any trip. Located about 45 minutes from mainland Sihanoukville by fast ferry, Koh Rong Sanloem boasts beaches you’d expect to find on postcards. The paradise island is also home to a variety of water activities, from snorkelling and stand-up paddle-boarding to kayaking and boat trips.
The Mekong River forms the lifeblood for many Cambodians, who rely on the fish it provides to feed and its water for crops. Slicing through the country, the mighty Mekong is a must on visitors’ lists, because it gives a glimpse into local life. Kratie is a top spot to visit the river, because this stretch is home to a cluster of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins as well as a hive of community-based tourism projects.
Tonle Sap Lake
If the Mekong is the main lifeblood, then the Tonle Sap comes in a close second. The giant freshwater lake in Siem Reap province feeds through to the Mekong River in Phnom Penh via the Tonle Sap River. This huge expanse of water increases five-fold, from 2,500 square kilometres to 12,500 square kilometres, with the water depth in some areas rising from 1 to 10 metres. The lake is home to floating villages, nature reserves and bird watching.
Prasat Preah Vihear, or temple of the sacred mountain, has been at the centre of conflict for decades. Sitting on the edge of the Cambodian-Thai border, ferocious fighting between the two countries over ownership of the sacred site continued 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, with unparalleled views from its peak.
For true tranquillity, nothing beats slumping into a hammock or swing, ordering a beer and looking out onto mangrove-lined Kampot River, on the outskirts of Kampot town. Bird song rings in the air, followed by the faint call of monkeys, the cock-a-doodle-do of roosters and the chug of fishing boat engines in the distance. Great places to hang out include GreenHouse and Champa Lodge. If you want to take the party into the early hours, then Bodhi Villa and Naga House often play host to DJs and live music.
Hang out with elephants
Cambodia is also home to dense tropical jungle that hugs gently rising mountains in the form of Mondulkiri. The area is also known for its elephants, with various projects operating in the area to try and boost the mammals’ population, while offering respite to over-worked and rescued elephants. Elephant Valley Project gives visitors the chance to spend the day alongside the elephants as they roam through the jungle, tearing up trees – well, saplings – with their trunks along the way.