Cambodia is painted as a one-trick pony, home to the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and little else. Tourists whizz through between Thailand and Vietnam, ignoring the fact that beyond the crumbling temples there is an entire country. A Cambodia vacation is a chaotic, crumbling, life-affirming shock to the senses, and far from being a detour, it could end up being the highlight of your Southeast Asia trip. Delving into Cambodia – by boat, ox cart or tuk tuk – reveals hidden pre-Angkor temples, floating villages, pepper fields, strange river dolphins and faded French architecture. Find out more in our Cambodia travel guide.
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Best time to go to Cambodia
The dry months of November to February would seem like the best time to visit Cambodia, and they certainly are if you’re heading to the beach, particularly December and January. However, the monsoon season from June to October offers dramatic skies and wonderful reflections in the pools around Angkor Wat. You’ll find fewer crowds and cheaper prices, and the air is clearer at this time, as the rain washes away haze and smoke. Heat-fearers should head down during the second half of the rainy season, when temperatures are lower and sightseeing is more pleasant. Find out more about the best time to go to Cambodia.
Map & highlightsPhnom Penh, Cambodia’s hectic capital, is a starting point for many tours. On the way out of the city most visitors will make a stop at the Killing Fields where Pol Pot’s regime massacred over a million people in the seventies. Cambodia’s countryside beyond the city is green and pleasant, including the evocative Cardamom Mountains, but Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most famous site by a mile. The temple complex was built in Cambodia’s mighty Khmer Empire. Angkor Archaeological Park also contains Angkor Thom, built on an even bigger scale. Afterwards, cruise down the Sangker River to the nearby city of Battambang.
1. Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom – meaning “great city” – is shielded by a moat and an imposing 8m-high wall, which protected its many monuments. Its central temple, the Bayon, celebrates all the religions of the Angkor kingdom, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Ascend to the terraces to get a bird’s eye view of the epic layout – this complex is far more expansive than nearby Angkor Wat.
2. Angkor Wat
As the subject of photos and guidebooks around the world, you’d think Angkor Wat needed no introduction. However, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is more than just a jungle-clad temple; it’s the 160 sq km center of an empire dating back a thousand years, complete with complex irrigation systems, and far-flung ruins hidden in the forest which are just as worth exploring as its main showpiece.
3. Cardamom Mountains
The evocatively named Cardamom Mountains have a less than fragrant past; the Khmer Rouge took refuge here after Pol Pot was overthrown and battles raged in the hills until the 1990s. Today, more enticing creatures lurk in the forests, including elephants, gibbons and leopards. There are also some lovely community tourism projects – visit stilted Khmer huts and fishing villages, with the commentary of a local guide.
The Killing Fields
4. The Killing Fields
Visiting mass-graves and sites of torture may not be on your vacation wish list, but Cambodia’s past is still very present and the memorials are a sensitive tribute to the millions who were killed. Tuol Sleng – a former execution center – and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields monument are distressing yet highly educational, and essential for those who wish to understand modern Cambodia and its people.
5. Phnom Penh
The gateway to Cambodia is often just seen as a departure point for the wonders of Angkor Wat. But Phnom Penh offers a unique chance to discover real Cambodian life, with its hectic markets, crazy tuk tuks and gorgeous French colonial architecture – as well as its museums and palaces. Siem Reap is a town for tourists – but this is a town for locals, and people-watchers will be in heaven.
The towers of Angkor Wat seen across their placid water surroundings at sunrise are a high point of a Cambodia vacation. Angkor Wat is the crowning centerpiece of a wider archaeological park filled with temples built in what was the city of Angkor, the capital of the magnificent Khmer Empire. Their statues and carvings are enhanced by their evocative jungle setting, where vines and trees slowly replace the walls and floors. A lot of tours also spend time seeing Angkor Thom and the rest of the park. You could spend at least three days here, basing yourself in the resort town of Siem Reap, 6km away.
The Killing Fields
Under the extreme Khmer Rouge communist regime in the 1970s, some 24 percent of Cambodia’s population was believed to have been killed – and a million of them were executed in the Killing Fields, a series of sites in an area just outside Phom Penh. Visit the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes, a former school which became the regime’s torture center, and the village of Choeung Ek, where a stupa made of 8,000 human skulls marks the place where countless atrocities took place. It’s a sober portion of recent history, and a distressing visit, but the government encourages tourists to make the stop.
Bringing the kids
Indiana Jones has nothing on your intrepid kids, especially when it comes to clambering all over temples – you’ll be surprised to find that kids are allowed to explore as they please around some of the remoter and more ruined temples in the Angkor Archaeological Complex. In fact, Cambodia is all-round excellent for family vacations. The Khmer people are very welcoming, and little kids will love the colourful food markets (watch out for durian fruit) and the ‘floating’ fishing villages at Tonle Sap. There are few long car journeys. Instead, enjoy gentle cruises down the Mekong River and rattling rides in Battambang’s bamboo train.
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More about Cambodia
Cambodia isn’t a challenging place to cycle. Fuelled by healthy rice and fish dishes, you’ll enjoy wheeling through brilliantly green paddy fields, and passing through little fishing villages and crumbling temples. Going by bike takes you off the usual tourist trail, and gives you a better chance of immersing yourself in local life. What’s more, bike is a great way to explore Angkor Wat. You can get from Siem Reap under your own steam, pass through places too narrow for tuk tuks, seeking out the less crowded parts of the park with ease.
Types of vacations
Traveling as part of a small group can be a great option if you’re going solo, and it’s useful having some fellow taste-testers at the food markets so you know what to try next. Tailor made tours can be adapted to suit your needs and budget, and for something a little different, consider a cycling vacation. Cambodia is a great, friendly place to explore by bike, and you can even go into Vietnam on your adventure. You don’t have to be particularly fit to take to two wheels. Expect to plunge off the beaten track, and discover some lesser-visited parts of the country.
Cambodia & Vietnam
For those who want to see more of Southeast Asia, there are plenty of tours that combine Cambodia with Vietnam, its neighbour to the east. Most Cambodia and Vietnam tours start with Vietnam, seeing Halong Bay, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, before entering Cambodia by simply crossing the Mekong River at Chau Doc to reach Phnom Penh. The countries are similar – but different. The limestone karsts that you find at Vietnam’s Halong Bay make a natural counterpoint to the man-made towers of Angkor Wat. The Mekong River, which divides the two nations, is a great place to cruise and compare.