Cambodia’s greatest draw is easily the otherworldly temple complex of Angkor Wat. From its legendary sunrise view to its ancient and awe-inspiring carvings to its featuring in the Tomb Raider films, the world’s largest religious monument deserves all the attention it gets. While Angkor Wat is rightfully one of the Wonders of the World, however, there is more to be seen in Cambodia. The country’s heartbreaking history and lack of development may make it a challenging destination, but it’s the challenging trips that are often the most rewarding.
Siem Reap should be an easy town to put on any Cambodian itinerary. This northwestern city is the base for all excursions to Angkor Wat, so it’s a simple matter to schedule an extra day or two to explore Siem Reap in its own right. Le Khmer Rouge drove much of traditional culture out of the country, so today Les Chantier Ecoles teaches silk painting, stone and wood carving, and more on the front lines of restoring Cambodia’s artistic heritage. Visitors can take a guided tour or simply browse the shop. In the performing arts, the Phare circus puts a social justice spin on the awe-inspiring acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil.
Across the country from Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor lies the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Gritty may be an understatement for the recovering Pearl of Asia. This city is certainly not for the faint of heart. But travelers after the unadulterated truth of the world, warts and all, can find no better place to tug their heartstrings and challenge their world views than Phnom Penh. Top attractions focus on Cambodia’s history. The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes, housed in the Khmer Rouge’s largest detention center, displays photos of the victims of the 1970s revolution, while the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek remain open as a chilling look at Pol Pot’s extermination camp.
The southern parts of Cambodia seem worlds away from the country’s larger cities. Sihanoukville is gaining popularity among the backpacking set for its beachfront fun. Kick back in a bohemian bungalow on Otres Beach, or go bar hopping along the white sands of Serendipity Beach. For a scenic photo op, you can’t beat the waterfalls at Kbal Chhay Cascades, featured in one of Cambodia’s most successful modern films Pos Keng Kong or The Giant Snake.
Lying near the Thai border, Battambang may be Cambodia’s best kept secret, a hidden gem of the western provinces. A far cry from the well-touristed bars of Siem Reap and the frantic swirl of motorbikes in the capital Phnom Penh, the city is a quiet colonial outpost where the most action you’ll find is whiling an afternoon away in a café. Top attractions include the bat cave at Phnom Sampeau temple and the scenic views at Wat Kor Village, whose eponymous temple rises above the Sangker River.