Cambodia Travel Guide
Modern day Cambodia is the successor kingdom of the powerful Khmer Empire which ruled most of what is today Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 9th to 14th centuries. Although the country does not have the same volume of famous attractions as some of its neighbours, the Cambodian people are incredibly friendly, providing a warm welcome for travellers and authentic glimpses into their culture. This friendliness is amazing in itself given the suffering that Cambodians had to endure during the three-and-a-half year reign of Pol Pot, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, altered the face of the country. Overnight cities were emptied and property destroyed, the economy was left in tatters, and so were the lives of countless families. This period between 1975 and 1979 represents a particularly dark one in the nation's history.
For some travellers the horrors of the Khmer Rouge prove fascinating and the museums and sites commemorating this tragic chapter are an important part of the Cambodian itinerary; however, those who shy away from exploring the infamous Killing Fields will find that the country offers many more peaceful and cheerful diversions. Pleasurable moments can be had in the snatches of friendly conversations, in the tranquillity ushered in by Buddhist prayer, or in the sounds of workers in the rice paddies. One can also search out the charms of the French-flavoured capital city Phnom Penh, drift past sleepy riverside locations on a traditional boat and, best of all, explore the illustrious ancient history of the region at sites like Angkor Wat.
The scenery is beautiful and abundant, shaped by landscapes of lush green forests and jungles, banana plantations, agricultural fields and mighty rivers. People here live modest and simple lifestyles and the populace is largely rural. It is not a place of fast and efficient transport or luxurious hotels and resort pleasures. Infrastructure is basic and travelling between destinations can be quite an experience - fun for some and frustrating for others. The country's world-class attractions and less-explored reaches, golden beaches and islands beckon the enterprising traveller, and make Cambodia a unique travel destination.
The Royal Palace
Address: 63, Street 348, Sangkat Toul Svay Prey II, Khan Chamkamorn, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace is one of the principal attractions of Phnom
Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer
architecture in the city. The palace is the official residence of
the king. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find
the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's
elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya
Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical
Although much of the palace complex is off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda can be visited. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, in tribute to the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha that sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds.
Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are frowned upon within the complex.
Address: Next to the Royal Palace, on Streets 178 and 13 Phnom Penh
The National Museum is a striking and famous example of the
Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most
important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and
Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics,
sculpture, art and crafts covering history from the prehistoric,
the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of
Cambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological order
and the already impressive collection continues to grow as new
treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered.
The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the temples
of Angkor and visiting the museum is a good accompaniment to
exploring the temples.
There is a gift shop which sells books, souvenirs and replica sculptures. The museum was built in 1917 (and extended in 1924) and today it has a beautiful central garden with lots of water and greenery which is a lovely serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extra but they are worthwhile because, although the artefacts are impressive, the printed information in the museum is minimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building.
Tuol Sleng Museum
Address: Corner of Street 113 and Street 350, Boeng Keng Kang Phnom Penh
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered
and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they
detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary
behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were
imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The
building appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it,
and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the
organisation. It is a tremendously depressing experience, and the
photographs, instruments of torture and bloodstained walls give a
thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the
Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here
to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing
Fields), to be executed. There are some first person accounts on
display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated
20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)
Address: Just over nine miles (15km) southwest of Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the
great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated
1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were
either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of
starvation. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the
prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were executed. Also
known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, this
football-field-sized area contains the mass graves of about 20,000
people, many of whom were tortured before being executed.
A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead and more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is harrowing - and not suitable for young children - but it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.
Address: Phnom Penh
Rantanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the Wild West.
Situated in the northeast of the country, along the border with
Vietnam, it is rather inaccessible but definitely worth the extra
effort as it is an area of stunning natural beauty. Visitors
travelling to Rantanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests,
volcanic lakes, pristine waterfalls and abundant wildlife including
Asian elephants, monkeys, guar and many endangered bird species.
The province also boasts slightly cooler weather than most of the
country. Close to half of Rantanakiri province is a protected area
in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. One of the key
tourist attractions is Yak Loum, a perfectly round crater lake with
crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense jungle foliage. The lake
is great to swim in and a relatively short distance from the town
of Banlung. There are interesting villages to visit which allow for
authentic cultural experiences.
Be aware that the roads in this region are not great; they are very muddy when it is wet and covered in thick red dust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats are a popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination for the eco-tourist or adventure seeker Rantanakiri is a paradise.
Villages on Stilts
Address: Siem Reap
Most tuk-tuk and moto drivers in Siem Reap will be only too
happy to take you on a tour of one of the area's famous 'villages
on stilts'. Many of the houses lining Tonle Sap Lake are built on
ten foot (3m) poles, so that when the water rises - as it does
every year during the monsoon - the homes are not flooded or washed
away. The closest floating village is situated in Chong Khneas,
just an hour's drive from Siem Reap, though there are a number of
these floating villages located around the Tonle Sap Lake should
you wish to make a real trip out of it. Villages closer to Siem
Reap tend to be touristy, while those further away are far more
picturesque and authentic.
A two-hour boat trip through Chong Kneas village costs about $8 per person or around $20 for a boatload. Although during the wet season the stilted homes come into their own from a practical point of view the villages are most visually spectacular during the dry season, when their long stilts rise up eerily out of the mud or shallow water. Be aware that there have been tourist scams in the villages and that the poverty witnessed can be disturbing.
Address: 115 miles (185km) southwest of Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
While this beach town isn't nearly as famous as those found
along Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great tourist
getaway. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port,
making much of the town industrial and unattractive to tourists,
but Sihanoukville is surrounded on three sides by the Bay of
Thailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with all
the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses and
smiling hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the
extra money to stay in the quaint beachside accommodation.
Daytime activities include swimming, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the nearby islands. There are also several Buddhist temples to be explored in the area and the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Most hotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visiting the National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which may well ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three- to four-hour journey to and from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.
Address: Phnom Penh
From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerly lavish resort
town of Krong Kep. Although once a famous high-society destination,
called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of a rustic fishing
village; a peaceful and charming destination for those who like to
travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this
town, but the ruined villas of the rich now add to Kep's crumbling
mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers of beaches, jungled
mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island provide present day
visitors with a beautiful setting.
For the best restaurants in town, and arguably the best seafood in Cambodia, try the shack-like buildings near the water and order the crab. The Crab Market, made up of a number of these shack-like restaurants, is delightfully relaxed and friendly. For an authentic experience it is best to avoid the more expensive places and dine where the locals do. There are also wonderful, rustic picnic platforms at Kep Beach where you can settle down and be served freshly caught seafood from vendors, most of whom speak at least a little English. Kep is around a three-hour taxi ride from Sihanoukville, or a four-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh.
Address: Kratie, about five or six hours from Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118-mile (190km) stretch
of the Mekong River. These odd and delightful creatures are in
danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently
estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins
were killed in now illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the
Khmer Rouge for sport, but they are now fully protected under
Cambodian Fishery Law and their appeal to tourists is bringing in
welcome foreign dollars to the region. The dolphins have become a
symbol of hope for the sleepy northeastern town of Kratie and the
money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the
conservation of the dolphins.
The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimes easily spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
Central Market (Psah Thmay)
Address: Neayok Souk, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without a visit to
Central Market. Phnom Penh's most obvious landmark looks like a
Star Wars trading post and its quirky architecture is part of the
appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a
huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls.
Psah Thmay contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000
merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said
to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years
of serious renovation with the newly improved Central Market
reopening in 2011.
Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stock the same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find the real value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almost anywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roads but, if necessary, all taxis know Central Market.
Foreign Correspondents Club
Address: 363 Sisowath Quay Phnom Penh
A pleasant way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is on the wide
balcony of the Foreign Correspondent's Club. This well-located bar,
restaurant and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riverside
overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap. The spectacular
view is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides with
the FCC's happy hour. The FCC can be more expensive than its
neighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the place
gives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in the
heart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popular
nightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era French
villa and is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes,
famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists covering
the last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most Foreign
Correspondent's Clubs it is not private but members from other
clubs do get a discount.
Address: Phnom Penh
Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnal
pleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic
rifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are usually on offer.
There are about four well-known shooting ranges in Phnom Penh, and
the city is known to be a good destination for those who enjoy
exploding things and handling weapons that are probably unavailable
to them at home. The ranges are generally run by the military and
there are safety measures in place but it is still a remarkably
casual and free environment. It does all come at a cost though and
at more than a dollar a bullet, make sure Rambo instincts are kept
Upon arrival you should be able to see all the weapons on display and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how much handling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that you visit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites like the Killing Fields because thinking too deeply about Cambodia's violent past has been known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range. Most guesthouses and taxi drivers can recommend a good shooting range but it is best to check online reviews to make sure you are going to a respected establishment. The Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range is a favourite with travellers and has been awarded certificates of excellence by review sites like TripAdvisor in recent years.
Tonlé Sap Lake
Address: The lake is about nine miles (15km) south of Siem Reap Siem Reap
Boeung Tonlé Sap (Tonlé Sap Lake) is one of the largest
freshwater lakes in Asia, and boasts a rich and diverse eco-system.
Inhabitants include multiple bird and fish species, crocodiles,
turtles, macaques and otters, as well as villagers living in
stilted or floating houses. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in the
Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve is home to ibis, stork, pelicans and
fish eagles; the best time to view these birds is in the dry
season. There is also a Tonlé Sap Exhibition in Siem Reap,
showcasing Khmer heritage through a display of the local people's
culture and environment.
Boat tours on the lake are popular and an enthralling way to see the riverside villages and interact with the locals. Be aware, however, that while the majority of guides are friendly and competent there have been reports of some trying to scam tourists and charge ridiculous rates for boat trips. It usually costs well under $20 to hire a boat and you can share it between a few people. Tips for the guides are also expected.
Temples of Angkor
Address: Three miles (5km) outside Siem Reap Siem Reap
The magnificent Temples of Angkor are a must-see on any trip to
Cambodia, taking the visitor into the heart of the ancient Khmer
Empire. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 100
temples have been uncovered as evidence of this impressive ancient
civilisation and one of the biggest cities of its time. Angkor Wat
is the largest religious monument ever built, an impressive Hindu
temple surrounded by a moat, and acknowledged as one of the wonders
of the world. The walled Royal City of Angkor Thom is home to the
Bayon Temple and its huge stone faces, another fascinating
attraction. Khmer architecture is unique and although it evolved
from that of the Indian subcontinent, and borrowed from
neighbouring traditions, Angkor Wat stands as testament to the
power and individuality of the Khmer's ancient oriental art
The complex includes ancient ruins, well-preserved temples, religious sites, monuments and lots of stone work and will take you a few days to explore in entirety. If your budget allows, you can see Angkor from the air in a hot air balloon or helicopter. It is particularly special to see the temple complex at sunrise and sunset, and it is best to avoid going during the midday heat. Don't forget hats and drinking water and wear comfortable walking shoes. Also note that visitors are expected to dress respectfully and ticket vendors may refuse entry to those showing too much skin.
Aki Ras Landmine Museum
Address: Located four miles (6km) south of Banteay Srey Temple, within the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park Siem Reap
The Aki Ra Museum, often simply called the Cambodian Landmine
Museum, provides a jarring counterpoint to the ancient Khmer
glories on display at Angkor Wat by showcasing the more recent
horrors of Cambodia's political and social upheavals. This museum,
founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, provides a
clear and compelling account of this troubled time, and the
appalling legacy of landmines and unexploded ordinance that are
still a blight on the lives of Cambodian people today. Despite
ongoing efforts to find and defuse these sleeping weapons, it is
estimated that about five million still remain. Aki Ra himself
deactivated over 50,000 of them, many on his own initiative. The
museum contains hundreds of these landmines, and many other
weapons, and provides a useful service by teaching visitors and
locals how to recognise these devices and what to do should they
encounter them. The museum exists primarily to tell Aki Ra's
fascinating story, and to gain exposure for the Cambodian struggle
with landmines, but it is also home to a number of children
supported by the museum, who are all victims either of landmines,
disease or simply poverty.
Psar Chaa - Old Market
Address: Siem Reap
Psar Chaa, the Old Market, is Siem Reap's most popular shopping
experience for visitors. The outside stalls sell souvenirs such as
silk, carvings, stoneware, faux vintage items, clothes, paintings
and photos of Angkor Wat temples. You can even get very reasonably
priced haircuts at the market. Further inside are fresh produce and
seafood stalls. The food stalls are an excellent opportunity to
sample authentic Khmer food, invariably served with the distinctive
local prahok, a type of fermented fish paste. A good accompaniment
is coconut milk drunk directly from the fruit. The ubiquity of
baguettes and frog legs is a clear, and delicious legacy of the
French colonial era.
Be aware that some merchants have learnt to exploit naive tourists; you are expected to bargain and can get up to 75 percent off the asking price if you do so well. Be patient and good-natured and maintain your sense of humour and you can get wonderful deals. The Old Market is very central and conveniently located close to the river and the popular Pub Street.
Address: 45 miles (70km) from Siem Reap Siem Reap
For those visitors especially charmed by Tah Prom's jungle-clad
stones within the Angkor Wat complex, it is well worth making the
five-hour round trip to visit Beng Mealea, a little-visited
sandstone temple, now fused with the surrounding jungle. Built in
the 12th century as a Hindu temple, and long since abandoned, this
sprawling complex is on a similar scale, and built in a very
similar style, to Angkor Wat, and closely approximates what the
first western visitors there must have experienced when stumbling
upon these forgotten wonders.
Little is known about the temple's history but it was probably once the centre of a town long ago overtaken by the dense Cambodian jungle. If you prefer to travel off the beaten track then Beng Mealea, overgrown and largely unrestored, will captivate you with its mystery and the relative freedom of the experience of exploring it. You are allowed to climb and investigate and the peaceful atmosphere encourages many visitors to spend time reading, writing or relaxing in a chosen spot among the ruins. Many of the carvings have been desecrated by earlier souvenir hunters, but in other ways the integrity and atmosphere of the structure has benefitted from the small number of visitors.
Angkor National Museum
Address: No.968, Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Phoum Salakanseng, Khom Svaydangum, Siem Reap Siem Reap
This museum is a convenient and useful stop-over en route to the
temples of Angkor. It allows visitors to gain some insight into the
centuries of history, culture, rich symbolism, and myth associated
with the temple complex which often remains hidden when viewing the
Angkor temples without a guide. The museum's main attractions are
its archaeological treasures, including the lion and demon heads
missing from the temple statues, Khmer artefacts predating the
Angkor period, and a fascinating collection of ancient Khmer and
Sanskrit inscriptions on stone tablets. There is a striking gallery
dedicated solely to images of Buddha and a gallery featuring the
ancient costume of the Angkor period, including jewellery and
The museum uses multimedia displays and various artefacts to evoke the golden age of Khmer culture and to give insight into its history. Displays are colourful and vibrant and the information is informative and accessible. The building itself is quite new (opened in 2007) and is ultra-modern, lavishly air-conditioned, and enormous, with over 20,000 square metres of floor space and some dramatic fountains. There is also a museum gift shop for souvenirs. Allow at least an hour for a visit. In addition to the entrance fee, and the optional extra cost for taking in a camera, visitors can pay for an educational headset.
Cambodia Cooking Class
Address: Phnom Penh
It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a
skill you didn't have when you left home, and Cambodian cooking
classes are one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions.
Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine
with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create
finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweetness, to
saltiness, sourness and spiciness.
Favourites include the Cambodia Cooking Class operated from Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, which prides itself on 'small classes, maximum attention' (space is limited to 16 participants per day). During the full day lesson visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as getting some useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price is transportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market to buy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in a beautiful riverside setting.
Address: Corner of Street 163 and Street 444, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh
Not to be confused with the Central Market (Psah Thmay), the
Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is best reached via tuk-tuk or
car. It is located south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers
tourists a great range of bargains. The array of silk scarves is
impressive and they are dirt cheap; the silk hammocks are also
justified in their fame. Apart from these treasures, which make
wonderful gifts for people back home, it is easy to find curios,
souvenirs, jewellery and almost anything else you might want. There
are some very good tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits
and shirts for very reasonable prices (although you will have to
wait about three days to collect them). There is also wonderful
local food on offer and the fish soup is particularly tasty.
Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you get tired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining the market for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains the city's most popular market for tourists.