Find out the best things to do in Cambodia, from visiting Angkor Wat to dining in Phnom Penh restaurants, flying through the jungle to wandering “Art Deco space robot” markets.
It bills itself as the Kingdom of Wonder, and rightly so. Boasting the world’s largest religious monument, a warm and welcoming people, and an aura of peace after decades of strife, Cambodia is a layered and rewarding destination.
Many holidays centre around a single city, but visiting Cambodia’s two main cities, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, is best. They make for a perfect pairing, combining nature, history and culture in one amazing package. Ready to start exploring the best places to visit in Cambodia?
Explore Cambodian History — in a Work of Art
Many people head from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap without much knowledge about Angkor Wat. A visit to the National Museum of Cambodia is a great way to remedy that, and bulk up your grasp on Cambodian history as a whole. But even if you don’t want to bone up on culture, the red-walled museum itself is a thing of beauty, boasting gorgeous gardens. Tip: sidle up to one of the staff members, who will likely hand you a sweet-smelling stick of jasmine — an offering you can place at the foot of the religious statue of your choice.
Stroll Through a “Space Robot” Market in Phnom Penh
Even if you’re far from a shopaholic, Phsar Thmei, also known as the Central Market of Phnom Penh, is a must-visit. Wander the stalls here and you’re likely to spend half the time gawping upwards at the gorgeous ventilated dome, said to be one of the largest in Asia. As one blog cheerfully puts it, it looks as if an “Art Deco space robot planted itself in the middle of the city”. Plus, it’s a good place to snag souvenirs or peer at exotic fresh produce.
Visit the Scars of a Nation
From the outside, it looks like a school — and indeed that was the building’s original purpose. But S-21, also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has a far darker history. It was here that the Khmer Rouge tortured, interrogated and executed some 14,000 people in the 1970s. Only seven victims survived. Today you can wander the chilling interrogation rooms and see the walls papered with thousands of portraits of the victims. It makes for a disturbing visit, but a necessary one if you want to understand Cambodia’s recent past.
You can follow this up with a visit to Choeung Ek, site of the infamous killing fields where thousands of people were murdered between 1975 and 1978. This isn’t an excursion for the faint of heart, though. Not only will you see 8,000 disinterred skulls of victims at the memorial stupa, but the audio tour includes chilling details of the executions.
See a Temple That Will Light up Your Feed
You’ll likely visit Wat Phnom, one of the biggest temples in Phnom Penh, but there are plenty others worth exploring. Some, like Wat Langka, even offer free meditation classes. Others are a treat for the eyes. The Wat Moha Montrei complex is popular with visitors because of its pastel façades in powder blue, peach and pink — the perfect spot for a cheeky #nofilter photo.
Give Back While You Get Your Nails Done
What’s better than self-care? Self-care that helps others. That’s exactly what Nailbar at the Friends n’ Stuff Shop, near the National Museum, offers. Many of the staff offering fab manicures and pedicures are ex-street children who have dutifully trained for a new vocation in the beauty industry.
Chill Out Like a Local Couch Potato
Need a place to escape the heat? For just a few dollars, you can watch unlimited movies all day at The Flicks. Get a drink at the bar, settle into a rattan sofa and chill. This air-conditioned spot is also a great place to meet other travellers and swap tips.
Toast the Sunset
In Cambodia nightlife starts slow. As the sun sets, the capital gets swathed in golden light, and the peaceful vibe cranks up even further. So it’s worth finding a good perch to enjoy the golden hour in style. One fine spot to do so is Sundown Social Club in Tuol Tom Pong. Relax, sip a Mai Tai so delicious that staff have dubbed it “the cornerstone of our Sundown Tropicana Cocktail menu”, and toast the sky at the rooftop bar. Bonus: they also do US$5 mains all day, every day. No wonder this Phnom Penh restaurant is so popular.
Be Awed by History
Cambodians are so proud of Angkor Wat, the sprawling temple complex that was home to the 12th-century Khmer empire, that its outline is even emblazoned on the nation’s flag. To give you an idea of its breathtaking scale, consider this fact: when archaeologists undertook laser surveys of the area in 2012, they discovered that the complex was even larger than originally thought — larger, in fact, than modern-day Paris. But its scale and architectural beauty have immense metaphorical meaning too. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the complex was laid out to mirror the Hindu understanding of the universe.
And like a universe, there’s a lot to see. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure day. You can cycle around the compound, cherry-pick certain temples like Angkor Thom (the largest site in the complex) and Bayon, the location filled with smiling statues that featured in the Lara Croft:Tomb Raider movie, or resolve to take in the whole area over several visits. Don’t forget to fit in a climb to the top of the Phnom Bakheng temple during sunset. Yes, you’ll be surrounded by scores of other tourists, but for good reason — it’s the kind of awe-inspiring view that bucket lists are made of.
Find yourself asking “are there other things to do in Siem Reap besides visit temples?” Don’t worry: the answer is a resounding yes.
Rumble in the Jungle
Return to the Angkor area for a dose of adrenaline. Angkor Zipline runs several tours, including the opportunity to zip from tree to tree inside Angkor Park itself, and soak up the view on breathtaking sky bridges. Siem Reap attractions don’t get more high-octane then this.
Scout out Spectacular Wildlife
The largest natural lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap is also home to a multitude of beautiful birds, including the spot-billed pelican and black-headed ibis. You’ll see these and more during a tour from the Sam Veasna Centre, as well as a paddle-boat tour of a picturesque floating village. Note that you’ll be picked up at your hotel very early — around 5.30am. The early bird catches the worm, after all.
Did you know? Stop off at a village and you may be surprised to see people plonking a cast-iron fish into the wok before cooking traditional Cambodian food. Why? These curious trinkets were deliberately moulded into a shape that is thought to bring good fortune. Thousands of these fish have been distributed by a charity, who created the fish to stop people from getting anaemia — the iron leaches into the food and keeps blood levels healthy.
Shop Like a Night Owl
The Angkor Night Market is a popular Siem Reap attraction, and for good reason. After a long day in the sun, wandering this outdoor market with thatched roof stalls is a pleasant experience. You’ll find shops selling paintings made entirely of grains of rice, handicrafts crafted from eco-friendly materials, traditional scarves and more. If all that shopping works up a powerful thirst, stop at the Island Bar for a cold beer or two — or wander to the livelier Pub Street a few blocks away.
Sample Sublime (and Scary) Dishes
Don’t leave without trying a signature dish of Khmer food: fish amok. Delicate lake fish steamed and smothered in curry on a soft bed of rice — it’s a dish so satisfying you’ll run amok just to get a second plate. You’ll find it on plenty of Siem Reap menus, including at Khmer Kitchen, a cosy eatery specialising in Cambodian cuisine that also runs cooking classes.
But in Cambodia food won’t just tickle your taste buds. It will sate your sense of adventure, too. Get audacious by snacking on tarantulas, crickets and snakes, all beloved local treats you can find in market stalls or menus. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. You might find a palmful of deep-fried crickets as snackable as a bowl of potato chips — and if not, they certainly make for a good selfie.
Make Your Cambodia Holiday Magical with the Perfect Hotel
Whether you want to stay at a historic hotel that has been an icon of luxury for nearly a century, or wake up every morning to a peaceful garden sanctuary, there is a perfect hotel for you. Find yours today.