Many places in Southeast Asia are at once affordable and breathtaking. One nation in particular, Cambodia, boasts lush scenery and notable cultural landmarks. Filled with evidence of past turmoil and violence, the kingdom has many opportunities for tourists to reflect on Cambodia’s volatile history. Locals put a great deal of energy into fielding guided tours of ruins like Angkor Wat and Buddhist temples, but remember before visiting that U.S. dollars are far more appreciated than Cambodian currency. In terms of safety, be careful when crossing busy city streets—locals on motorcycles stop for no man. Stay for a bit or stay a while; this pocket of civilization is an endless source of joy and adventure.
Where to Go in Cambodia
1. Phnom Penh
French colonial rule ended here in 1953, but Cambodia’s capital truly benefits from the residual French architecture and food left behind in a cultural fusion. Phnom Penh sits on the west side of the Mekong River, a relatively clean waterway for a river that begins in southern China. Bustling with pedicabs (“tuk-tuks”), carts carrying bushels of live chickens and, of course, a flurry of motorcycles, even traveling a short distance can feel overwhelming. The bravest and least queasy of tourists should take a stroll around the “killing fields” at Choeung Ek, where a monument holding five thousand skulls behind glass windows illustrates the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Its surrounding grounds resemble an arboretum, yet the beauty hardly obscures what occurred in the ‘70s. Those interested in ancient, rare artifacts ought to explore the National Museum, right across from the Royal Palace; busts of Buddhist and Hindu deities tell a story about the exchange of ideas between Cambodia, India and China. Thirsty for action? Schedule a high-intensity experience with the Phnom Penh Shooting Range, in which military personnel will escort you to an outdoor shooting range complete with AK-47s, M-16s and even hand grenades and bazookas, starting at a minimum of $150. While out on the range, you may shoot at dinner plates, coconuts and even barrels of gas (for a higher price). Bombs away!
2. Sen monorom
Near the Vietnam border, this small, rural town has incredible opportunities to see natural wonders. It takes somewhere between five and eight hours to find this gem, but there is a direct route by car from Phnom Penh that costs less than $20. Once there, it’s recommended that out-of-towners rent a bicycle or motorbike to get around the spread-out village and bring warm clothing, as the area’s elevation makes this destination slightly colder than the rest of Cambodia. Witness the bustling Sen Monorom marketplace in the morning, as local vendors put out an array of fresh fish and vegetables with each new sunrise. Many dishes in this border province are either Vietnamese or inspired by neighboring Vietnam’s cuisine. Near the main drag, the Mondulkiri Project regularly picks up guests to embark on day and overnight trips to a protected forest area, a waterfall and most importantly, an intimate set of encounters with Asian elephants. Unlike some other facilities in Southeast Asia, Mondulkiri does not allow guests to ride the elephants; instead, you may take photos with the creatures, feed them bananas and watch them splash and swim in the water. Shockingly reasonable, day trips and overnight stays at the Jungle Lodge are priced at $50 and $75, respectively. For a more independent adventure, head 45 minutes out of town to the Boursa Waterfalls, a tourist-friendly spot with a gorgeous pool in which to get wet, take photos and go zip lining across the waterfall with Mayura Zipline (at $69 a person).
3. Siem Reap
Angkor Wat is arguably one of the most well known temples in the world, let alone in Cambodia. This must-see UNESCO World Heritage Site lies just north of Siem Reap’s colorful and charming city center, within a larger group of temples known as Angkor Archeological Park. In order to get in, you’ll need to take a photo for a $20 entry pass and travel through a long thicket of jungle. As you walk around the temple moats, look out for monkeys and one-of-a-kind souvenir carts. The more famous temple (Angkor Wat) is manicured and well preserved, but is much smaller than its untamed neighbor, Angkor Thom—a short walk across the park. Angkor Thom was once a capital of the Khmer Empire, with most of the former city now in ruins. Venture to the middle of Angkor Thom to view and explore Prasat Bayon, a thousand-year-old Buddhist temple with large faces carved all over its exterior. Be sure to take pictures of trees wrapped around ruins and a panorama on the top of any temple. After getting back into town, consider treating yourself to a fish pedicure, which involves tiny carp swimming around your feet and nibbling off the dead skin. It leaves the feet feeling soft, but taking the plunge into a tank of fish isn’t for the faint of heart; luckily, many of these spas in town offer a cocktail with the price of a pedicure.
Lovers of architecture, spirituality and the mixing of cultures should flock to the northwestern city of Battambang, where vibrant temples and statues catch one’s eye walking down any given street—to the point that it becomes difficult to pay every landmark a visit. For those able to climb up steep steps and get ten miles out of the urban center, spend some time at the “killing caves” of Phnom Sampeau, where, tragically, Pol Pot murdered many Cambodians and tossed their remains between 1975 and 1979. The memorial and stack of human skulls (much like that of Cheoung Ek) bring about troubled feelings, but luckily the mountain that houses this horror also has plenty of gold Buddha statues and pleasant temples (remember to take off your shoes). Most everything else to do in Battambang is walkable and concentrated between several blocks; this bodes well when deciding between coffee shops, French-Khmer traditional restaurants and hip contemporary art spaces. To see some of the countryside in a fun, unorthodox mode of transport, ride the seven-mile “bamboo train” (a rickety bamboo platform powered by a go-kart engine and cruising along an old railroad track) to a small village and back. The “train” picks up speed quite quickly, much like a very flat rollercoaster—hold on tight and wear sunscreen.
5. Krong Kep
Krong Kep is a coastal town with a story to tell: before the Khmer Rouge took hold, this relaxed provincial capital served as a seaside resort for French and Cambodian elites. Yet when trouble hit the country, locals looted the opulent villas for items to trade for rice—hence why tourists may notice many structures are in shambles. Thankfully, the boulevard along the water is in good shape and the town’s palm tree-lined still gives off a resort feel. A highlight of the waterfront would be the Kep Crab Market, where squid is roasted on a stick and fresh crab is served with rice…all in generous portions. Love farms? Look no further than Sothy’s Pepper Farm, which grows the geographically protected Kampot variety of pepper, along with mangoes and durian. At no cost, the seasoned farm staff will take you on a tour of the sustainable facility (Sothy’s only uses wind and solar power), but we strongly recommend you buy some pepper to take back home. If you crave a little exercise and a great view, rally a tuk-tuk for a ride up into the hills of Kep National Park, where a steep set of steps take visitors to the Samathi Pagoda. It’s a temple in good condition and surrounded by rare animals, but the real highlight is watching the sunrise from the top of the park’s 400-foot-tall hill.
This article was written by Juliana Cohen.