Centuries have passed, but we can still feel the magic of the Khmer era in Cambodia. In the heart of South East Asia, the Land of the Khmers is the sort of country that captures the hearts of those who visit and never lets go.
The Mekong River courses throughout, connecting the north to south. As you travel, you’ll see the landscape change and change fast. Bookended by sparkling ivory beaches and towering jungle peaks is an ancient culture that defies imagination.
The stunning temples of Angkor are the obvious draw for most tourists, but there are many other things to do in Cambodia: tropical beaches, colonial buildings and an abundance of natural sights.
But it’s not just the tourist attractions in Cambodia that make a visit to this Southeast Asian country so rewarding. It’s the smiles of those who live there. It’s the richness of their food. It’s the culture that stems from a reign that brought the world some of the most remarkable temples.
In this post, we'll cover:
18. Beng Mealea
The first of our favorite temples is Beng Mealea. Just over an hour northeast of Siem Reap, Beng Mealea is a giant complex. Where other temples have fought against the surge of nature, this temple has all but been swallowed up by the jungle.
It creates a literal Indiana Jones experience for all who visit. It’s based on the same plans as the famous Angkor Wat and is also surrounded by a vast moat.
Built in the 1100s, it’s a portal back to the time of the Khmer. Just outside of the complex are remnants of ancient roads, including bridges. The engineering is equally captivating inside, including the main tower, barays, and libraries.
17. Koh Rong
All this adventure, the sites and history would wear down even the most seasoned traveler. If you’re looking to kick back for a day or two and reset, then be sure to add a trip to Koh Rong.
Upon arrival to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, take a ferry to the small island. You’ll arrive at the aptly named White Beach. The vibe then splashes over you and you’ll know you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
You can rent scooters to get around the island fairly quickly. But you’ll want to stop at each beach you see. Some can stretch up to 14 kilometers. Add on a trip to Sok San Waterfall and you’ll feel in heaven.
16. Chi Phat
Deep in the Cardamom Mountains, Chi Phat is a remote traditional village. It’s a wonderful place to experience that helps you discover and understand the country outside of the major attractions in Cambodia.
The town operates under the protection of an ecotourism project that allows locals to improve their lives. This is without having to depart from their heritage and culture.
Surrounded by mountains, sprawling mangroves and flowing rivers, the landscape is something to behold. A trip along the Stung Proat River will confirm that. However, time spent riding through the village opens will be something you remember most from your Cambodian adventure as you interact with locals, learn about their culture and enjoy the local cuisine.
15. Pub Street, Siem Reap
You’ve come to Siem Reap to experience the magic of Angkor. But at night, there’s no point sitting still. Instead, head to Pub Street, where you can take part in arguably the best nightlife scene in Cambodia.
Bustling crowds gather here are the sun falls across northern Cambodia. Yes, it’s touristy. But travelers from across the globe, and plenty of locals too, gather on a nightly basis to share tales of the day gone.
See also: Where to Stay in Siem Reap
The street is covered in bright neon. The atmosphere is equally electric. Bars and restaurants trade places, shops sell goods into the late hours and the Night Market is just around the corner.
14. Battambang Bat Caves
Cambodia is a land of cultural and natural wonders. The Battambang Bat Caves are, of course, a natural wonder, yet they’re enveloped in cultural mythology.
Each evening, as the sun reaches the horizon, millions of bats burst out into the skies. The beaming rapture of black contrasts with the mix of oranges and purples. It’s an enthralling sight. However, the caves are a short jaunt from the killing fields of Phnom Sampeau, leaving some to believe the bats are the souls of those who died. It’s a fascinating historical and spiritual connection.
For the best view of the bats, head up into the mountains behind them for a breathtaking experience.
In southern Cambodia, Kampot lies in opposition to the busy streets of Phnom Penh. But this sleepy, dusty town home to the Kampot River provides an authentic experience which many travelers seek.
Small and irrevocably charming, Kampot presents a lovely collection of both traditional architecture and French colonial designs. Among them all are homely guesthouses, genuine local cuisine and residents simply going about their daily lives.
Its diminutive size makes it a great place to explore on a bike. On two wheels go from market to market, explore plantations and cool off with a dive into the Kampot River.
12. Choeung Ek Memorial
Under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia went through a four-year period of unimaginable horror. Mass graves were dug, schools became torture prisons and the exact number of deaths can merely be speculated.
The Choeung Ek Memorial ensures these events are remembered. The memorial is a Khmer-inspired Buddhist stupa and mausoleum that stands in the center of the infamous Killing Fields, where approximately 1.7 million lost their lives. This number could easily be more.
Combine this experience with the equally provoking visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Day tours can take you to both. Such was the recent nature of these events, that the memories and stories remain fresh for those that lived through them.
11. Ta Prohm
It’s an odd thing that an 850-year-old temple can jump back into the worldwide consciousness because of a movie. But that’s exactly what happened to Ta Prohm, aka the “Tomb Raider Temple”.
Encased in equally ancient root systems and towers that are quickly entering “ruin” territory, there’s something eerily magical about Ta Prohm. Its age is appropriately on display, allowing visitors to sense just how much time has passed since it was first completed.
Ta Prohm is a combo of incredible engineering and the sheer might of Mother Nature, with both now having their time in the sun. As you explore, you’ll still be able to discover the many towers, enclosed courtyards where thousands once gathered.
Bas-reliefs dance among the moss, branches and leaves, while corridors draw you further into the maze-like complex.
10. Tonle Sap
As the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia, Tonle Sap is a vital waterway. Providing irrigation to the surrounding farms and food countrywide, it’s arguably Cambodia’s heartbeat.
Along the shorelines of the enormous lake are over 150 floating villages. The colorful homes bobble on the lake, with the backyard being their main source of food and income. The back porches link to short piers and fishing boats that come and go in the early hours.
Despite the complications from their position, these villages have expanded into vast communities. As you explore, you’ll stumble upon schools, shops, churches and even temples.
The best way to appreciate the sheer size of the lake and the villages it supports is to take a boat trip. Choose between the fascinating Kompong Luong on the western banks or head north to the vibrant Chong Kneas.
9. Preah Vihear
A long, uphill climb stands between you and the historic gates of Preah Vihear. Encased in spectacular winged walls, narrow hallways with a balustrade of windows, you’ll soon forget all about the hike. Ancient archways then guide you down passageways where carvings of warriors and gods are laid out in mesmerizing detail.
Its remote position creates a distinct aura, separate from those in Angkor. Cambodia’s jungle landscape is inevitable, and it combines with the temple’s location to have you feel miles from anything.
The views, too, are just as memorable as you stand in the heart of the Dangrek Mountains, looking down at your kingdom below. You could even gaze into neighboring Thailand. Such was the proximity to Thailand. Both nations claimed Khmer’s highest shrine as theirs.
8. Silver Pagoda
Set inside Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda is an elegant temple, otherwise known as Wat Preah Keo. The pagoda received its moniker thanks to the 5 tons of silver at its base. The shine immediately captures your attention.
As you wander closer, you’ll see several of the 5,000 gleaming tiles that cover the base. Most are covered for protection, leading you to wonder just how spectacular it would be completely unveiled.
After making your way up the Italian marble staircase, you’ll head inside, where opulent statues welcome you. The most memorable is the Emerald Buddha, a crystal sculpture that stands on a gilded pedestal.
7. Spot the Irrawaddy dolphins
Cambodia has wonders of the ancient world but also plenty of the natural kind. In Kratie, along the Mekong River, you can see the beloved Irrawaddy dolphins in the wild.
These dolphins have unique personalities. They’re unlikely alongside the boats and they can be quite shy. But if you spot them, you’ll notice they’re full of expression. Tours take you along the Mekong towards the Kampi Rapids, where you’ll need to keep your spidey senses alert to spot these beautiful creatures.
Patience is key, and the best time to visit is in the early afternoon. They come and go with great speed, so it’s handy to have a camera with a good zoom and quick shutter.
6. Koh Ker
Deep in the heart of Koh Ker stands an architectural gem that has stood the test of time. The ancient, 10th century Koh Ker Temple once marked the capital of the Khmer empire and is a veritable journey back to the 900s.
The serene complex is an enriching adventure that showcases a unique blend of Hindu and Khmer styles. Pyramid buildings are a clear difference to the Angkor region, divulging a shift between the different eras.
Deities and mythological figures are displayed in bas-reliefs. These tell stories even older than the temples, while central temples provide epic views of the surrounding jungle.
5. Banteay Srei
As the sun climbs over the Angkor complex, it splashes against the rose-colored sandstone of Banteay Srei. This early morning light showcases the ancient complex as it was at its height. The smooth, inviting colors provide Banteay Srei with a captivating charm.
This temple is about an hour north of Siem Reap, close to Phnom Kulen National Park. Compared to Bayon and Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei is much smaller. But therein lies the appeal. The incredible detail shines through evoking a longing to further understand both the process and the culture behind it all.
Everything used to create the temple from the sandstone to the bas-reliefs is meticulous. The best example being the evocative shrines of Shiva and Vishnu.
4. Elephant Valley Project
For travelers, ethical elephant riding is a bit of an oxymoron. While the experience was once popular, times have certainly changed. And for the better. But there are still ways to have that classic South East Asia elephant experience at Mondulkiri’s Elephant Valley Project.
The sustainable organization helps to re-home and rehab overworked elephants and those searching for a retirement home. Spanning an enormous sanctuary in northeastern Cambodia, visitors can discover the important work that has led to the “walking with the herd” project.
Rather than ride the elephants, you can walk among them as you explore a vast mountain valley in unison. It’s an emotional experience that combines the region’s natural beauty with one of the world’s best gentle giants. Among it all, you can learn about the indigenous Bunong culture.
3. Otres Beach, Sihanoukville
There are some amazing beaches in Cambodia, especially considering its relative lack of coastline. At the top of the list for travelers seeking some sun-soaked sand is Otres Beach.
Otres Beaches stares out into the Gulf of Thailand and is based along Cambodia’s Riviera. Its golden sands inspired travelers to flock to Sihanoukville and saw the development of the region’s first resorts.
But don’t worry. Towards the southeastern end of the beach, charm and beauty remain. The warm waters splash against the ivory sand where low-key guest houses provide travelers with a chance to recharge their batteries.
Aside from cracking open a fresh book and a cold Angkor beer, grab some snorkel gear and jump on a night tour. This will showcase a vibrant underwater world where phytoplankton burst to life after dark.
2. Bayon Temple
As you explore the vast temple city of Angkor, there are several sites you can’t miss. Yes, Angkor Wat is the most celebrated, but you must also explore Bayon Temple.
The initial construction of Bayon Temple was hurried to ensure King Jayavarman VII would see it before he passed away. Now, 800 years later, we can see the effect of that decision compared to other temples.
However, Bayon Temple’s incredible reliefs and carved creations make it a must-see. It’s known as the Temple of Faces, and you’ll quickly see why as you gaze upon the many faces of Buddha.
With fifty towers, each with four faces, there are over 200 spread throughout the vast complex. Some also depict themes of the day, from battles to trade.
1. Angkor Wat
No site captures the sheer brilliance, beauty and skill of the ancient Khmer quite like Angkor Wat. The driving force behind much of Cambodia’s tourism has stood for a thousand years and its inspired design continues to captivate.
Surrounded by a glistening moat, the complex rises over 50 meters above the jungle floor. It’s punctuated by a towering structure that connects hundreds of meters of bas-reliefs, creating a spectacular architectural ensemble.
The temple, appropriately, is a representation of the ancient Hindu gods and heaven on earth. History, culture, spirituality and intricate design all combine to fester an incredible feeling within every visitor.
Arrive at sunrise for the most poignant experience. As the sun rises over the darkened surroundings, it bounces over Angkor Wat, splashing it with golden light as it stands like a deity above those who view it.