Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, vast Angkor Wat (Buddhist/Hindu temple) and dozens more magnificent structures in the Angkor Archeological Park between 6 to 30 kilometres of Siem Reap. Photo by Samgarza.
In fact there are plenty of tourists out there, including myself, who would put other temples at the top of the Angkor Greatest Hits list, though Angkor Wat sports the biggest land area.
Cambodia main attractions
***Angkor Archaeological Park
Lining up to visit Angkor Wat level 3, about 1 hour’s wait in very hot sunshine, January. Level 3 (the top) was one of our least exciting Angkor experiences so if you’re short of time or have malfunctioning legs give it a miss! Level 2 was no big deal either, come to think of it, though easy to get to. Level 1’s superb, interesting and occasionally bizarre wall carvings are the main attraction.
Angkor Wat opens at 9am, but the first stop for new visitors is the massive ticket office on the way to Angkor Wat to buy the Angkor Pass.
Angkor Archaeological Park is the destination for 99.99% of travellers. In fact those who are short of time can (and do) just fly in for Angkor and not bother about the rest of Cambodia. To be honest Phnom Penh is missable and the beaches, while good (except for Sihanoukville obviously!), are not wildly better than places around the world – unlike Angkor which is unique.
Angkor Wat (and grounds) is by far the busiest temple complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park but others have plenty to offer in terms of different styles, sculptures, environments and all with far less visitors. Angkor Wat is just one of many hundreds of temples in the 400 sq km complex that is Angkor Archeological Park.
Siem Reap’s ‘Pub Street’, a very lively block stretching from the Old Market south, busy with all kinds of eating and drinking experiences.
These range from stalls selling fried ice-cream (looked awesome but I couldn’t try it as I was in non-dairy mode), deep fried scorpions and generic burger restaurants to very stylish cocktail bars and street music by mine-damaged local musicians.
An ideal base for the country’s prime attraction, Angkor Park, which is situated just 6 km north of the town, Siem Reap is developing fast and becoming a lively and popular destination.
In spite of the rough sidewalks, lack of pedestrian crossings (just wander across the road flapping a hand!) and random parking, Siem Reap has a nice laid-back air with little crime in evidence but lots of big smiles and wai (a kind of bow/prayerful hands).
Siem Reap offers an excellent choice of accommodation, from a few dollars budget hostels to a thousands dollars a night lavish spa resorts. There are varied and interesting dining options particularly just north of the Old Market area where the streets are traffic-free at night and awash with cool cafés and odd restaurants.
**Phnom Penh attractions
Part of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Most tourists visit Cambodia to see Angkor, but this busy and not very attractive capital city is just about worth a couple of days. It has a couple of impressive sights, an interesting street life and the riverfront is laid back with trendy shops, restaurants and cafes.
• The Royal Palace. The residence of King Sihanouk contains a magnificent sight, the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo) and its gold and jeweled Buddha statues, especially the two most outstanding, a 17th century crystal ‘Emerald Buddha’ and the gold Maitreya Buddha covered by over 9500 diamonds.
• Prison 21 (Tuol Sleng Museum), the former high school turned prison for the Khmer Rouge victims, more than 14, 000 met their death there.
• Wat Phnom, a hilltop pagoda, was the origin of the city and is one of the most important spiritual places in the country.
• The National Museum of Arts, an imposing Khmer style building in red brick built by French shows extensive Angkorian crafts (picture top left).
• The Central Market (also known as New Market) and the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung) are worth visiting.
• The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Memorial), 17 km from the city centre were the final destination for the Khmer Rouge victims.
Tonle Sap riverside traffic and pleasant walkway, Phnom Penh.
Koh Rong Samloem pier and main beach, half an hour by fast boat from Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville, 230 kms southwest of Phnom Penh, is the hub for getting to some spectacular white powder-sand beaches. Sadly Sihanoukville’s own beaches – though large and golden sandy – are tiresomely commercial and poorly maintained while the town is a mess of half-built, poorly-executed structures gaily entangled by heavy black cables. The streets ring with the endless mating call of the ballcap-crested-tuktukmon: “Mister, where you go, where you go?”
Otres 2 beach bar, near Sihanoukville.
It’s pretty clear where every foreign tourist is going – elsewhere! Either take a short tuktuk ride down to Otres 1 if you’re young/backpacker/neo-hippy/poor/sociable. Or Otres 2 if you’re affluent/family/like a bit of luxe style in your life. Alternatively take a 30 minute/1 hour boat ride to Koh Rong (more developed) or Koh Rong Samloem (less developed).
Thanks to recent de-mining and a new road, this once remote, inaccessible temple complex of 42 structures, is becoming a popular outing from Angkor. The star monument is Prasat Thom, a 40 m high, Mayan pyramid looking temple. It is located 100 km northeast of Angkor, 2-3 hours by car from Siem Reap. It worth spending a night even though a day-trip is doable. Photos
Known for its spectacular sunsets over the Mekong River, Kratie is booming as a place for a break during an overland trip between Phnom Penh and Laos’ Champasak. The star attraction here is to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong.
A laid-back riverside town with some fine but shabby French architecture, Kampot offers great views across Bokor and Elephant Mountains which form Bokor National Park (also known as Preah Monivong National Park).
This is mostly jungle and home to varied wildlife including endangered tigers. It’s supposed to be free of land mines but stick to well-beaten paths. Bokor is easily accessed from Kep (30-60 minutes by road depending on the transport).
This small town is used as a base to explore Cambodia’s largest national park, Virachey, that lies between Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri Provinces. The park encompasses rainforest, mountains, lakes (particularly Yak Lom crater lake), waterfalls and ethnic mountain tribes.
The best time to visit Cambodia is during the cool, dry months November – February. November- mid December especially benefits from pleasant, dry, warmth and vegetation that is still verdant after the rainy reason, but remember that the Christmas/New Year period will be crowded and pricey.
Cambodia has a tropical climate and four seasons
Hot & rainy, June-August
Cool & rainy, September, October
Hot & dry, March-May
Cool & dry, November-February
The most uncomfortable time to visit is the ‘green’ season June – August, when it’s hot, wet and humid. Going in the late wet season is not a bad idea from September and October with less heat, less crowds and lower prices. At this time the beauty of Angkor is reinforced by lush greenery.
Floating villages of Chong Kneas and Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia.
Apart from Angkor sightseeing, activities are still relatively limited and primitive, though Cambodian tourism is rapidely developing and booming.
• Hiking, elephant rides with guides and boat trips along Tonlé Sap River and Mekong River are possible at various locations.
• Snorkelling, diving, beaches and nature walks are on offer at Sihanoukville coastal town (see beaches above).
• Eco-tourism at wildlife sanctuary and nature consavation area in the Cardamom Mountains and protected forest (the second largest virgin rainforest on mainland of South East Asia) in Koh Kong province. It is home to many threatened animal species including tigers and over 100 species of endemic vegetation.
• Rare Irrawaddy dolphin watching happens at Kratie along the Mekong River.
Visas are obtainable on arrival at the both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap International airports for most visitors.
Visas are also available for people crossing by land from Thailand at Poi Pet, Banteay Meanchey and Cham Yeam.
However, you need visas prior to arrival if you are entering from Vietnam at Bavet (Moc Bai in Vietnam) and Ka-Om Samnor (Chao Doc in Vietnam). Visa availability may vary at other crossing points, always check the latest situation before you go.
Typical mid range hotels in Siem Reap, 8 minutes walk to the core of Old Market and Pub Street.
Hotels on a budget big or small can be found easily in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Sihanoukville area beaches including the Rong islands. Phnom Penh is quite foreigner-friendly and Siem Reap is replete with a wide range of hotels.
A wide range of excellent Southeast Asia cuisine – with a French twist – make eating out a great experience in the capital and Siem Reap.
Splendid seafood and plump mangoes are available from pretty fruit sellers at beaches in Sihanoukville.
Take $US cash. No need to change money and you’ll pay much the same as paying with the local currency (Riel). Take a lot of small dollar bills.
Thai baht are also accepted.
Travellers cheques can be a problem outside tourist areas.
Credit cards can be used in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang, but with an extra charge.
ATMs charge a flat fee ($6 in 2017) to deliver of any amount of US dollars at one time so don’t use the machine for small withdrawals.
Shopping and Tipping
The usual souvenirs are only found in major tourist places such as Siem Reap or Phnom Penh with nothing elsewhere, even in Sihanoukville.
Popular items are silver jewellery, replica carvings, antiques and kramas (cotton scarves). Bargaining is essential.
Not a tradition in Cambodia, but service personnel in any area with tourist connections will be expecting something. A small donation on visiting a wat (temple) is appropriate, especially if a monk gives you a guided tour.
240v, flat 2 pins or sometimes round 2 pins.