Where to Go in Cambodia: A Guide to the Top Destinations

Cambodia, known as the Kingdom of Wonder, has been emerging on the radar for in-the-know travelers. Tourism was virtually nonexistent in the ’70s and ’80s due to genocide and civil war; the Cambodian people, called Khmer, suffered through this conflict that decimated the societal infrastructure and eliminated one-quarter of the population. Despite these atrocities, the Khmer spirit endures, and today, many visitors are amazed at being met with such warmth -- it’s not uncommon for travelers to be invited into a family’s home for dinner out in the countryside. Cambodia packs a punch in attractions for such a small nation (it’s the size of Oklahoma). Ancient temples, lush forests, bright green rice fields, idyllic islands, and many more surprises await those willing to cross the globe for adventure. You’ll likely want to take plenty of vacation days to explore the country, and we’ve broken it down into the nine top cities, towns, and regions for you to discover. 

1. Siem Reap and Angkor

Juan Antonio Segal/Flickr

Juan Antonio Segal/Flickr

Siem Reap receives the majority of Cambodia’s tourism due to its close proximity to famous temple Angkor Wat, just one of many in the Angkor complex, which is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple under the Khmer Empire in the early 12th century, but transitioned into a Buddhist temple by the end of the century. The sheer size is impressive, but the intricate carvings throughout the entirety of Angkor Wat and the other temples are astoundingly beautiful, too. Other popular temples in the complex include Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. The former was once the site of the Khmer capital and is home to the iconic Prasat Bayon temple, which features large carved faces into the sandstone towers. Ta Prohm is easily identified by the immense trees and roots emerging from the ruins. Of these three temples, Ta Prohm is by far the smallest, so it’s advisable to make it one of the first stops once inside the complex to avoid the hordes of selfie-sticks.

There are numerous other temples that are well worth a visit, including Thommanon for its ornately carved adornments, and Banteay Srei for its magnificent red sandstone. Another tip: Check out the Angkor National Museum before making the trip to Angkor. It’s helpful to have some historical background on the Khmer Empire and architectural styles before exploring the massive temples.

Where to Stay: The centrally located Rambutan Resort in Siem Reap and its refreshing pool provide the perfect recovery spot after a full day of clambering over ancient ruins.

2. Phnom Penh

Fred Bigio/Flickr

Fred Bigio/Flickr

Cambodia’s bustling capital merits more attention than it’s usually given by visitors. Many travelers who do choose to visit Phnom Penh come to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are extremely chilling, but learning about them is essential in grasping the full picture of Cambodia. That being said, Phnom Penh has many cheerful attractions as well. Behind the Royal Palace, you’ll find Cambodia’s National Museum. From Monday to Saturday, Cambodia Living Arts puts on traditional dance and music performances on the museum’s stage, ranging from the traditional and ornate Apsara dance to upbeat local folk dances.

Phnom Penh’s markets are a chaotic sight to behold. Tailors, fishmongers, jewelers, and other sellers crowd under the domed structure that is the central market. Plenty of delicious Cambodian street food is available for prices around one dollar. Some more elaborate local dishes can be had at Romdeng restaurant. Favorites include fish amok (coconut curry) and crispy tarantulas for those feeling courageous. If you have several days, you can consider having some Cambodian-style clothing made at one of the tailors. Bold colors and patterns are the fashionable choice on Phnom Penh’s streets.

Where to Stay: For a centrally located and comfortable stay, the boutique Plantation Hotel is a great bet.

3. Battambang

James Antrobus/Flickr

James Antrobus/Flickr

Cambodia’s second largest city has a much more relaxed feel than Phnom Penh. Those who choose to visit Battambang often come in search of a more authentic side of Cambodia than what’s found in the touristy town of Siem Reap. A top attraction? There’s a talented acrobatic performance at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a prestigious French arts school that typically puts on multiple weekly performances, mixing traditional Khmer music and dance with surreal storylines and acrobatics.

The city is also well known for its colonial architecture and local arts scene. You can head over to Romcheik 5 Art Space to see some of the best local works. Other attractions include the bat caves at Phnom Sampov, where over 1 million bats depart the cliffside cave every day at sundown. Visitors can also take a ride on the (somewhat gimmicky) bamboo train, which is basically a joy ride on a bamboo platform, powered by motor, down abandoned railroad tracks. Battambang’s sleepy streets are easily navigable on foot or by bicycle, with plenty of tuk tuk drivers ready to jump at the chance to take you to some of the more distant attractions. 

4. Kampot

Phil Whitehouse/Flickr

Phil Whitehouse/Flickr

Kampot boasts some excellent colonial architecture and a scenic setting on the Preaek Teuk Chhu River. A sunset cruise up the brackish river is the best way to admire the peaks of Bokor National Park to the west. The park’s high elevation offers some respite from the heat, which can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the hot months in the lower elevations of Cambodia. Arranging for a motorbike and private car to explore Bokor’s forests, waterfalls, and abandoned casino is highly recommended. The Kampot region is renowned for its pepper, and it can be found in shops or purchased directly from one of nearby plantations. The town’s riverfront and quiet back streets are lined with plenty of cafes and bars. You can head to Epic Café for a tasty breakfast and Khmer coffee (with sweet milk), and you can browse the local craft shop. The cafe is operated by Epic Arts, a local NGO that uses the arts as empowerment and a form of expression for those with and without disabilities. Epic Arts also puts on monthly musical and dance performances.   

5. Kep

William/Flickr

William/Flickr

This seaside town was the former retreat for the French aristocracy during colonial times. Many shells of these former estates can be seen just outside the national park and along the coast. Nature has largely reclaimed these once ornate homes, with wide tree trunks sprouting from the concrete facades. The main draw to Kep, though, is the bustling crab market, which sells a wide variety of seafood. Fishermen lay out that day’s catch while vendors grill squid, stingray, and other less recognizable creatures in the labyrinth of stalls. For those not brave enough to nibble their dinner right off the stick, many nearby restaurants also prepare Khmer and western seafood dishes. Although Kep doesn’t have much of a beach, a 20-minute boat ride to Rabbit Island makes for a tranquil afternoon swimming in warm waters and relaxing among a band of lazy beach dogs.

6. Sihanoukville

Benecee/Flickr

Benecee/Flickr

Named for the late King Sihanouk, this town is still referred to as Kampong Som by nearly all Cambodians. It’s the largest settlement on the Cambodian coast with regional flights available from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The town itself is a backpacker hot spot -- and a bit on the seedier side. Nearby, the beaches of Otres 1 and Otres 2 offer a more tranquil setting with seaside bungalows just a stone’s throw from the calm gulf waters. Sihanoukville is also where the ferries depart from for the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. If a party is what you’re looking for, you’ll find it on Sihanoukville’s Ochheuteal Beach.

7. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

ilf_/Flickr

ilf_/Flickr

These two islands are becoming increasingly popular among travelers. Koh Rong was recently the set for two seasons of the TV show “Survivor.” However, we expect that you won’t find the island life here quite so challenging. Both islands have exceptional stretches of white sand, especially Saracen Bay on Samloem and Long Beach on Koh Rong. Long Beach can be reached via a rigorous one-hour hike or by boat, while Saracen Bay is where the ferry from Sihanoukville drops off passengers. For those deciding between the two, consider whether a social party scene or something more peaceful is desirable. Koh Rong has become somewhat of a backpacker party destination, with dozens of guesthouses packed near the sand on Koh Touch beach. However, other Koh Rong beaches, such as the quiet village of Sok San, maintain a tranquil atmosphere that feels a world away from the rowdy bars on Koh Touch. For those that opt for Sanloem’s quieter vibe, check out the accommodation on Lazy Beach for a more secluded setting. If you need a break from the beach, make your way down to the southern end of Saracen Bay and you’ll find a path near the last guesthouse veering into the forest. A one- to two-hour hike will bring you to an old lighthouse kept by a man and his dogs. For one dollar or a can of Angkor Beer, he’ll grant you access to climb atop for a spectacular view.

8. Mondulkiri

Tom Curt/Flickr

Tom Curt/Flickr

The sparsely populated, mountainous forests of Mondulkiri are a sight to behold. Sadly, illegal logging and land grabs have stripped a significant region of forest, but there are still many pristine landscapes to explore. Mondulkiri is still home to a wild elephant population, as well as two ethical elephant projects: The Mondulkiri Project and the Elephant Valley Project. Both organizations strive to protect the elephants’ habitat while supporting the local community through their ecotourism initiatives. The health and happiness of the elephants is prioritized during visits, thus there are no elephants’ rides or forced commands. Many of these elephants were employed by their former owners to carry passengers and bulky loads for decades. At these respective organizations, the elephants now wander freely throughout the large protected zones. Most of the elephants will gladly accept a banana from your hand and linger for a photograph, especially one by the name of Princess at the Mondulkiri Project. Visitors can participate in one-day visits or stay on for longer terms as volunteers at the Elephant Valley Project. For those looking to stretch their legs a bit, the Mondulkiri Project offers an overnight trip that includes visiting the elephants followed by a 12-mile hike past three waterfalls in the lush forest.

9. Koh Kong

Marc Uhlig/Flickr

Marc Uhlig/Flickr

Koh Kong is Cambodia’s most southwesterly province, covering the Cardamom Mountains down to the Gulf of Thailand. This region is home to some of the largest swaths of intact forests and mangroves in mainland Southeast Asia. As a result, Koh Kong maintains thriving wildlife populations and beautiful landscapes. For an authentic experience, head to Chi Phat, a village located in the Cardamom Mountains. With the help of Wildlife Alliance, a conservation NGO, the people of Chi Phat have established a community ecotourism project. Visitors have the choice of staying in a homestay, guesthouse, private bungalow, or forest camps. Forest camps are utilized on multi-day treks out into the jungle. Other on site activities include kayaking, fishing, bird watching, and mountain biking. The whole community is involved, whether as guides, cooks, or hosts for homestays, so you know your tourism dollars are making an impact.

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