The Top 10 Things to Do in Cambodia

Biking tourist in Angkor park, Cambodia
Biking tourist in Angkor park, Cambodia.

Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

The Angkor temples may have overshadowed Cambodia’s other wonders, but going off the beaten path will reward intrepid travelers with a far richer local experience.

Yes, there’s already plenty to see if you stick close to civilization—whether it’s the capital Phnom Penh, the Angkor-adjacent settlement of Siem Reap, or the bucolic Kampot—but none of these will get you dazzling white-sand beaches, close encounters with rare gibbons, or glamping in a forest clearing. Read on to find out what you can do in Cambodia and how much better it gets when you go further afield.

01 of 10

Get Your Temple Fix at Angkor Wat

Exterior shot of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Pakawat Thongcharoen / Getty Images

Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia

Everything about Angkor Wat is massive but curiously balanced. The site boasts a 500-acre square temple surrounded by walls, a wide moat crossed by an 800-foot causeway, and five stone towers that rise from the temple’s center, the highest standing some 700 feet above the ground.

The whole structure was conceived as a depiction of the mythical center of the universe, Mount Meru. That explains the temple’s symmetry and the amazing amount of detail on the temple’s walls and other surfaces, most notably the 160-foot-long gallery depicting the churning of the sea of milk in Hindu mythology.

Angkor Wat, together with nearby temples like Angkor Thom and Bayon, is part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, a major Cambodian tourist draw that (in good years) drew up to 2.2 million international tourists and earned $99 million in ticket sales.

Getting There: Angkor Archaeological Park is easily accessible by tuk-tuk from Siem Reap.

02 of 10

Meet Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie

People Dolphin watching in a long wooden boat at Kratie

John W Banagan / Getty Images

In a tiny section of the mighty Mekong River that runs through Cambodia, you can find the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins living in their natural habitat, a hundred-mile stretch between the province of Kratie and the Lao border.

To see these unusual aquatic mammals in the wild, visit the town of Kampi in Kratie and take a motorboat across the river—not just to see the swimming cetaceans at play but also to skirt the flooded forests along the riverbanks.

About 20 dolphins make their home in Kampi’s stretch of the Mekong, where the waters are unusually slow-moving and surprisingly clear.

Getting There: Kampi is about 150 miles northeast of Phnom Penh, making it a five-hour drive by car or bus. Time your visit for the dry season between January and May, ideally during Khmer New Year.

03 of 10

Witness Khmer Rouge Atrocities at Tuol Sleng

Room in Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Image courtesy of Cormac McCreesh / Getty Images
សង្កាត់​បឹង​កេងកង​៣ ខណ្ឌ​ចំការ​មន, រាជធានី, St 113, Phnom Penh 12304, Cambodia
Phone +855 77 252 121

Formerly a Phnom Penh high school, then a Khmer Rouge detention and torture camp, Tuol Sleng has since become a somber yet essential memorial to Cambodia's dark, genocidal past.

Renaming the school Security Prison 21 (S-21), the Khmer Rouge converted classrooms into interrogation chambers and prison cells. Getting at the truth was secondary to making prisoners confess to almost any crime the Khmer Rouge imagined—innocent teenagers, office workers, and even Communist intellectuals were forced to disclose to working for the CIA, which, in the end, cost them their lives.

Many reminders of the Khmer Rouge's inhuman cruelty can still be seen at Tuol Sleng: photographs of the facility's doomed men, women, and children, their eyes staring blankly into space; torture chambers and their instruments, mainly as the Khmer Rouge left them; and cases of skulls belonging to S-21's unfortunate victims.

Getting There: Tuol Sleng is easily accessible by tuk-tuk from Phnom Penh. The entrance fee costs $5 for non-Cambodian adults.

04 of 10

Take a River Cruise up the Mekong to Tonle Sap

Pelicans on the water at Prek Toal Sanctuary
Image courtesy of Cambodia Tourism
Tonlé Sap, Cambodia

Tonle Sap Lake is the centerpiece of various interconnected ecologies, all tied up with the ebb and flow of the Mekong River.

As the Mekong’s water volume rises and falls with the monsoon seasons, Tonle Sap expands and contracts—at its maximum extent, Tonle Sap covers 6,200 square miles. Residents around the lake live by this seasonal rhythm, setting up floating villages that help catch about half of all the fish consumed in Cambodia.

Getting There: Tonle Sap is easily accessible from both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Wherever your starting point is, you can book a river cruise that takes you up close to the floating villages and nearby nature reserves like Prek Toal, a scenic spot for viewing Cambodia’s endemic and migrating birds.

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05 of 10

Discover Khmer Food

Amok, a popular fish curry in Cambodia
Elizabeth Beard / Getty Images

Cambodia's culinary spread might not share the spiciness and range of Thai food, but comparisons hardly do it justice.

The dishes you'll find when dining out at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap reflect the local "terroir"—white rice underpinning wholesome fish and chicken dishes cooked with local herbs and spices like garlic, shallots, galangal, and lemongrass.

Fish is a major part of the Khmer diet, given the easy access to rivers, lakes, and coastlines. You can eat it fresh or prepared as amok, a curry-like favorite made from freshwater fish steamed with coconut milk, spices, eggs, and the local fish paste called prahok.

06 of 10

Uncover the Mystery of Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar face tower 18

Mike Aquino

Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

Banteay Chhmar was constructed in the 12th century to memorialize a Khmer king’s son who had fallen in battle. It sat squarely at the heart of the Khmer Empire when it was built. But bad foundations and shifting borders left Banteay Chhmar forgotten for centuries, allowing natural deterioration and human theft to take a toll.

Today, archaeologists and adventurous tourists can visit this massive temple—presently being reconstructed—as an overnight stay from Siem Reap. Visitors will find a large, rectangular city enclosed by a 200-foot wide moat, crossed by a causeway to the east.

Reconstruction is ongoing, and visitors can see the structures that remain. Wall carvings showing battles and the God of Mercy Avalokitesvara still stand, as does a single “face tower” with enigmatic smiling faces.

Getting There: Banteay Chhmar is a three-hour drive north of Siem Reap.

07 of 10

Go Glamping in Botum Sakor National Park

People Kayaking in Botum Sakor National Park

Courtesy of Yaana Hospitality

Phnhi Meas, Cambodia
Phone +855 88 959 9396

Cambodia’s largest national park covers 660 square miles between the Cardamom Mountains and the coastal wetlands on a peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Thailand. The thick, evergreen rainforest cover shelters many of Cambodia’s most endangered animals, including the Asiatic black bear, pileated gibbon, Asian elephant, and the clouded leopard.

Beyond the forest cover, hikers can also explore the coastal mangrove habitats, the grassland clearings, and the Preak Tachan river, a perfect setting for an afternoon of kayaking.

Nearby accommodations range from simple homestays to luxe glamping getaways like the Cardamom Tented Camp, composed of nine safari-style tents within the park borders. The tents meet three-star hotel standards and are an excellent launching pad for the Camp’s multi-day nature tour packages.

Getting There: Travel by bus from Phnom Penh takes four hours over Highway 48 to Andong Teuk village in Chi Phat; alternatively, your local resort can book your transportation as part of your stay.

08 of 10

Enjoy Phare Circus’s Big Top Experience

Phare Circus performers taking a bow

Courtesy of Mike Aquino

Ring Road, south of the, Intersection, Sok San Rd, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phone +855 92 225 320

Inspired by their heritage, eight Cambodian performers returned to their hometown Battambang to establish Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). This charitable organization uses the performing arts to educate and rehabilitate children and youth.

You need only attend Phare's grandiose acrobatic show in Siem Reap to contribute to this worthy enterprise. Located on Phare Circus Ring Road south of Sok San Road, the 400-seater big top converts Cambodian folklore and culture into a frenetic performance reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.

Phare Circus guests sit on bleachers surrounding a single circular stage within the Phare Circus' red tent. The acrobatic performances you'll see here are as authentically Khmer as the Apsara dance and, for many, far more entertaining. Speaking parts are performed in Khmer, though subtitles in three languages are projected on a screen to help non-speakers.

Getting There: Phare Circus is easily accessible by tuk-tuk from Siem Reap.

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09 of 10

Go Scuba Diving in Koh Rong

Boat around reef in Koh Rong, Cambodia

Tony Calandruccio / Getty Images

The island of Koh Rong, one of the country's handfuls of islands on the Gulf of Thailand, offers a more secluded and off-the-beaten-path beach feel. Its miles of white-sand beaches have a more laid-back feel, but Koh Toch's party scene is always an option if you feel it's too quiet.

Under the sea around Koh Rong offers a real treat to tourists—a diverse marine life full of amazing fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures. On any given day, all year round, you'll find yourself swimming alongside blue spotted rays, schools of barracuda, and the occasional sea turtle. And thanks to the shallow reefs, scuba diving and snorkeling are relatively easy.

Getting There: From Sihanoukville on the mainland coast, motorboats take 40 minutes to get to Koh Toch, the key entryway for tourists to Koh Rong.

10 of 10

Trek Untamed Jungle Trails in Ratanakiri

Boat tied to the shore in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

Karin de Mamiel / Getty Images

The hiking trails in the remote province of Ratanakiri, bordering Vietnam and Laos, are a sight to behold due to the area’s seclusion and wildness. You can easily imagine you’re the first to visit, whether walking through the Ochum district’s tribal villages or tracking down gibbons in Virachey National Park.

Many treks begin at the town of Banlung and can go as long as you like—some of the deeper jungle treks can take over a week to complete. The treks often include homestays in a Chunchiet tribal village, visits to local Chunchiet cemeteries, and riding bamboo rafts down the Sesan River.

Treks to Virachey National Park offer a fair chance of seeing rare northern yellow-cheeked gibbons, among other native animals.

Getting There: Buses and shared taxis take up to eight hours from Phnom Penh to Banlung, with a stopover at Kratie.  

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The Top 10 Things to Do in Cambodia