Cambodia is a country fairly new to tourism, having been subject to brutal genocides and wars until only a couple of decades ago. There are so many things to see and do in Cambodia, however many people just come here for a quick visit to the stunning temples of Angkor near the former village and now full-size city of Siem Reap. But there is a lot more to discover. If you want to see most of what the country has to offer, plan at least two or three weeks. Whether you’re here for ancient temples or secluded stretches of white sand beaches… You’ll be left with a wide smile on your face.
Here are the top things to see and do in Cambodia:
The temples of Angkor
Despite the entrance fee getting more and more expensive, there’s no doubt here. The temples of Angkor are the key attraction why most people hear of Cambodia in the first place. And that’s for a reason. Not only the all too often pictured Angkor Wat, but also the neighbouring temple ruins are more than fascinating. Our favourite one is Ta Prohm, which you can see on the picture below.
Tuk-tuk drivers offer to hire them for a half day or even a full day tour for usually 15 to 30 USD. You can split that between up to four people.
Tip: If you go in the morning, ask your driver to go around the temples anti-clockwise. That way, you’ll be able to escape the largest groups of tourists.
For the duration of your stay, you’ll be based in Siem Reap. It’s beautiful city which seems smaller than it actually is, with a picturesque river flowing right through its heart. Like most touristy places, Siem Reap has a lot to offer day and night…
Floating villages near Siem Reap
Just over an hour drive south-east of Siem Reap, right on the edge of Tonle Sap (largest lake in South East Asia), you’ll find a few beautiful floating villages. There are day trips offered, you can go on your own motorbike, or even stay overnight with local people offering home-stays.
Be aware the closest one of them (Chong Kneas) is extremely commercial nowadays. Tourists are often talked into buying overpriced stuff for the local children. It’s mainly frequented by large amounts of Chinese and Korean group tourists.
You should go to either Kompong Phluk, which is a bit further away, or Kompong Khleang. Kompong Khleang is the furthest from Siem Reap and thus the least frequented by tourists. It’s a 60km drive each way, but well worth it!
Koh Rong / Koh Rong Samloem
Cambodia is not necessarily known for pristine beaches, but on Koh Rong and neighbouring Koh Rong Samloem you’ll find exactly these. The islands are about one or two hours from Sihanoukville on the fast boat, which departs three or four times a day between morning and afternoon hours.
Once on the island, choose a nice place to stay and just relax – internet connection is not existing or not really working in most places. If you’re into walking, you can discover some beautiful and secluded beaches that almost no one else would ever be able to see.
Tip: If you choose to stay at the Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, book a few days in advance on their website. Otherwise, just go to the islands, walk around and see what you’ll find. There usually isn’t much information online anyways.
Otres Beach is a long and laid back stretch of beach, a fair bit outside of Sihanoukville. There are many cheap to mid range bungalows and restaurants dotted along the coast line. While you’ll have to use Sihanoukville as a transit point to both Koh Rong and Otres Beach, the city itself is a rather dirty place with some dirty things going on. Worth a look for sure, but not much more than that.
Battambang bamboo train
Just a short tuk tuk ride outside of the town Battambang, the only leftover part of the former bamboo train is still in operation. The original tracks were laid when Cambodia was a french colony. Today it’s merely a tourist attraction, but it is definitely a unique experience. You’ll be riding on a board made from bamboo across tracks that’ll get your bum hurting with an engine whose best years have long gone… It’s single track, so if another „train“ comes your way, the lighter one will have to dismount and get off the track. There are actually plans of refurbishing the tracks to allow passenger traffic from Phnom Penh via Battambang to Thailand. Be quick if you want to snag a ride on these unique vehicles!
Bamboo bridge & hammock camp
Quite a cool and off the beaten path experience is to visit the island Koh Pen in the middle of the Mekong river, that is only connected to the mainland by a bridge made from bamboo. A very impressive construction, that gets washed away by the rain every year between May and July. It’ll be rebuilt around November. You can still visit the island by boat during wet season, but you’ll only get the full experience by crossing that wobbly bridge.
On the island there is a couple running a hammock camp, in which you can sleep for US$2 a night. It’s called Mekong Bamboo Hut. They have good army hammocks and offer great freshly cooked food as well. There should be a few homestay options around the island, if you like to see the local way of life.
Walking around the island in dry season, you might come across some nice locals, a little party, or even a Cambodian wedding. People might invite you to celebrate and drink with them, it’s great fun!
Kampot / Kep / Bokor Hill / Caves
Kampot is a nice little riverside town with quite a bit of french influence still visible. The town of Kep is by the beach and a lot smaller. Both are very popular for backpackers and have a laid back vibe.
Driving along the road to either of them, it’ll be hard to miss the massive mountain range to the north-west. Near the top of the highest peak lies Bokor Hill Station, a very interesting complex originally constructed in the early 1920s. Almost 1,000 workers died on the construction site within just three years. It was built mainly for recreational purposes of the french colonial government members and has now been deserted for almost 80 years, despite temporary occupation by the Khmer Rouge.
There are plans for the casino to be redeveloped, and also the Bokor Highland Resort, which opened in 2012, offers a little sort of Macau or Las Vegas on top of a mountain in Cambodia. Therefore, a modern road has been built all the way up to the very top. If you have your own motorcycle, it’s an absolutely fantastic drive up there!
The views from the top on a clear day are unbeatable: You can see the entire coastline below, as well as Phu Quoc, the popular Vietnamese island, just off the coast.
Roughly a 15 minute drive east of Kampot, there is a little cave which you can explore completely on your own. It’s called Phnom Kbal. Local tuk tuk or motorbike taxi drivers should know where it is. The ride is quite nice and takes you through a sleepy little village just outside of Kampot.
Rent a motorcycle
There’s not really a practicable way of getting up to Bokor Hill (and many other places around the country) without an own motorbike. In Siem Reap and Sihanoukville there are no scooter rentals permitted, so you’d either have to get a dirt bike in Phnom Penh (that’s what we did) or find one of the few scooter / bike rentals near Kampot / Kep.
It’s worth it just for the drive up and down the mountain, but there are lots of other places around Cambodia waiting to be discovered. We took the bikes across the bamboo bridge for example, and to a few national parks way outside of the normal paths a tourist could go.
Experience the outskirts (tour, etc.)
Don’t only go to the tourist hotspots or cities. The outskirts and landscapes make it really interesting. That’s especially the case around Siem Reap. If you can’t rent your own bike, you should go on a guided tour. There are a few operators in Siem Reap offering walking-, bicycle-, motorcycle-, quad-, you name it tours. It’s a great way to see the country, scootering along the dirt roads between buffalos walking around the streets, kids coming home from school, families preparing their dinner and much more. Sunset is magical out there in the rice paddies!
Phnom Penh & Killing Fields
Last but not least, the Cambodian capital city: Phnom Penh lies right at the point where the Mekong meets the Tonle Sap river and has a fairly nice promenade with lots of inexpensive options for dining and drinking. The city has a lot of history to offer. While this is mostly sad history, it’s still very interesting. The killing fields and Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 prison) are a must see when in Phnom Penh. They greatly help understanding the development of Cambodia. At the killing fields, you can actually still see bones and clothing of the murdered people sticking out of the ground…
Also go to one of the popular markets. You’ll get the newest movies before they’re even out in cinema for a dollar or less. A beautiful silk tie, including accessories, will set you back no more than three to five dollars.
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