Cambodia is a country like no other. Once the home of the mighty Khmer Empire, this Southeast Asian country is a confounding juxtaposition of ancient and modern – a place where infectious optimism and unbreakable resilience have triumphed in the face of wars, bloodshed, and political instability.
Today, Cambodia attracts millions of visitors every year, and with pristine beaches, dense jungles, fabled temples, and colonial cities, this is a country that has something for everyone.
If you’re thinking about visiting Cambodia, here’s everything you need to know to plan the perfect getaway – from the must-visit attractions to useful travel tips.
To get the most out of your visit, it’s helpful to understand a bit about Cambodia’s history before you go. While you’ll learn a lot about the country when you’re out there, knowing a bit about Cambodia’s unique background might help you decide which places you want to visit most.
From the 9th century to the 15th century, Cambodia was one of the most prosperous civilisations in Asia. The Khmer Empire ruled much of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos – and the Khmer kings famously fought off numerous foreign armies and constructed hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples. These temples were unrivalled in scale and size, and today they remain just as impressive.
After this long, healthy and wealthy period of history, Cambodia came under pressure from European colonial powers, and from 1863 it was under French rule. In 1953, Cambodia won its independence and for the next few decades, it was a prosperous and self-sufficient country. However, its stability was shaken by the Vietnam War, and in 1975 the government was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge (a radical communist movement).
The following years are known as the “Reign of Terror”, and it’s a painful chapter in Cambodia’s history. Under the dictatorship of Pol Pol, academics were forced into farm work, erasing an entire generation of creativity and talent. It’s also estimated that 1.7 million people were killed – a quarter of the population. In 1979, the Khmer Rouge were finally overthrown and Cambodia regained its independence.
Being aware of Cambodia’s history and understanding what it’s gone through in relatively recent years is fundamental to experiencing what the country is all about. Not only does it give context to a lot of things (you might notice, for example, that there are very few elderly people), but it also highlights what’s so special about this country and their people.
Years of bloodshed and poverty haven’t damped the spirit of the Khmer people, and it’s impossible to leave Cambodia without feeling enormous respect and admiration for this captivating kingdom.
Where to go and what to see
So what are some of the ‘must-visit’ sites and attractions in Cambodia?
1. The temples of Angkor
The legendary temples of Angkor are Cambodia’s most popular attraction, and millions of visitors flock here every year. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat, but the Angkor Archaeological Park is home to 72 fabulous temples in total.
It’s not hard to see why Angkor Wat is the main drawer. As the largest religious monument in the world, it’s considered to be one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of The World. Crowned with soaring towers and decorated with intricate sculptures, Angkor Wat represents the peak of Khmer genius.
Watching the sunrise over the temples is something you won’t ever forget – plus, getting here early means you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds. When you’ve had your fill of exploring here (the site is huge so it can take a while!), there are plenty of other temples to visit nearby.
With enormous tree roots snaking over crumbling walls, and dark, mysterious corridors to walk through, Ta Prohm is one of the most beautiful and photogenic sites; Angkor Thom is decorated with sculptures showing ordinary Khmer life; Banteay Srei has complex sandstone carvings of celestial dancers; and Ta Nei is like a smaller, less touristy Ta Prohm, with a mystical, atmospheric appeal.
To find out more about Angkor’s most beautiful and fascinating temples, head over to Lonely Planet.
2. Siem Reap
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s second city and the gateway to Angkor. But this lively tourist town is a destination in its own right. Packed with hotels, bars, shops, and markets, Siem Reap is like nowhere else in Cambodia – and in spite of the millions of visitors who pass through every year, the city has somehow managed to retain much of its small-town charm.
While there are few major attractions in the town itself, there’s still lots to do here. You can feast upon excellent Cambodian food in the many cafes and restaurants, enjoy drinks in the lively bars, treat yourself to some pamper sessions in luxurious spas, wander through bustling markets picking up souvenirs, or enjoy tuk-tuk tours of the local area.
To find out more about Siem Reap, have a read of this guide by Wanderlust.
3. Phnom Penh
As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is another must-visit. Once viewed as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, the city was hit hard by war and revolution – and this is the place to learn about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. However, in the decades since, Phnom Penh has risen spectacularly from the ashes, and today it’s an alluring city that has a thriving art scene and world-class restaurants.
Walking around this sprawling city can feel overwhelming at first – tuk-tuks and motorbikes whizz past scarily quickly! – but Phnom Penh is deceptively laidback. The pretty riverfront is perfect for strolling along, and there are countless cafes and bars to take a break in if you get tired.
Phnom Penh is also home to two of the country’s most harrowing sites: the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum, both of which are must-visits for anyone who wants to learn more about what the people of Cambodia endured under Khmer Rouge.
While Phnom Penh’s painful past hasn’t been swept under the carpet, the capital today encapsulates modern Asia. This is a trendy city where the skyline is made up of both glittering palace spires and towering cranes, where locals and tourists relax in bustling bars and cafes, and where French colonial houses sit beside classic Khmer architecture.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in your element here, as there are an astounding number of restaurants in Phnom Penh, and the city is known for its excellent food scene.
To find out more about making the most of Phnom Penh, check out this guide by Along Dusty Roads.
4. Sihanoukville and the Southern islands
If you’re interested in hitting the beach and enjoying plenty of sun, sea, and sand, you’ll want to head to Southwest Cambodia, where you can take advantage of its miles of unspoiled beaches, hidden coves, and idyllic islands. Unlike other Southeast Asian islands, Cambodia’s islands have a lovely understated charm, and they should definitely be on your itinerary.
The beach resort of Sihanoukville is the gateway to the Cambodian islands of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloe, and Koh Ta Kiev. While for many years Sihanoukville itself was the country’s most popular beach destination, intense development in recent years has led many tourists to head straight to the islands instead (the islands have no banks, so make sure you bring cash!).
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in nature, you might want to head to Ream National Park, which is just a short drive east of Sihanoukville. The park is packed with dense mangrove forests, beautiful coral reefs, sweeping sandy beaches, and small islands – and it’s a wonderful place to come to soak up the natural environment.
To find out more about getting to the islands from Sihanoukville, have a read of this article by Along Dusty Roads.
Located on the Northern bank of the Teuk Chhou River, Kampot enjoys one of the prettiest settings in Cambodia. Surrounded by the cloud-wrapped mountains of Bokor National Park, it’s not hard to see why this charming riverside town is so popular with travellers – and though Kampot was once a bustling trading port, today it’s a lazy, laidback town that feels built for relaxing.
Crumbling colonial houses line wide, dusty roads, Khmer stilt-houses rise up from the river, and the sunny, leafy riverfront is packed with shops, cafes, and bars. Life goes by slowly here, and Kampot’s sleepiness is part of its charm. In the day, you can swim and kayak in the river, and in the evening, locals and tourists head to the promenade to enjoy cocktails while watching the sunset.
Kampot also makes an excellent base for exploring the many nature-based attractions in the area. You can hurtle down wild rapids, visit the fascinating temple caves, and check out the famous pepper plantations. Kampot produces some of the best pepper in the world, so if you’re looking for a souvenir, there are countless shops selling just about every type of pepper product you can imagine.
Things to know before you go
If you’re planning a Cambodia getaway, there are several things it’s helpful to know before you go.
When to visit
Cambodia is warm throughout the year, but it does have a rainy season. The dry season is between November and March, so if you’re planning lots of outdoor activities, you shouldn’t have to worry about tropical storms ruining your day. However, this time of year is also peak tourist season, so there will be big crowds at sites like Angkor Wat, and hotels will be more expensive.
Between March and May, the temperatures and humidity are higher. But if you’re thinking about a beach holiday, this can still be a good time to visit, providing you don’t mind a few showers.
Even in the rainy season, Cambodia is still a joy to explore, particularly if you’re planning on immersing yourself in nature – as this is when the countryside is at its most beautiful and lush. Rain tends to fall in the afternoon, so you can plan to do your exploring and sightseeing in the mornings. It’s a lot quieter at this time too, so if you want to avoid the crowds that’s something to consider.
There are two currencies used in Cambodia: the US dollar ($USD), and the Cambodian riel (៛KHR). The riel is the official currency, but most tourists exclusively use the dollar. If you’re paying for hotels, accommodation, tours, food in tourist restaurants etc, prices will almost always be in dollars – and if you withdraw money from the ATM, it’ll also be in dollars.
If you’re buying food from markets, street food stalls, or local restaurants, prices might be quoted in riel, but you can still pay in dollars.
In spite of its rising popularity as a beach destination, Cambodia is a conservative country, so it’s important to be mindful about dressing appropriately. Unless you’re at a beach resort, it’s best to avoid skimpy clothes and shorts – and if you’re visiting temples, it’s respectful to cover your shoulders and legs.
When you arrive in Cambodia, it’s a good idea to buy a krama, which is a traditional checked scarf. These are used by locals in many different ways, and it can be helpful to keep one in your bag in case you find yourself unexpectedly visiting a temple.
If you’re passionate about food, the good news is that Cambodian cuisine is absolutely delicious! Similar to Thai food but milder, Cambodian food is also influenced by many other countries, especially Vietnam and France. Coconut milk curries are a staple, and many dishes are flavoured with lemongrass and coriander.
The national dish is bamboo leaf fish amok, which is a steamed fish curry with a mousse-like consistency. Noodle dishes, stuffed baguettes, and stir-fries are prevalent wherever you are, and it’s not hard to find veggie or vegan dishes.
All visitors except those from some Southeast Asian countries need a visa to enter Cambodia. Visas are valid for 30 days, and if you’re planning a longer trip, tourist visas can be extended once for one month. Most travel agencies and hotels can help you extend your visa for a small fee.
To buy your initial 30-day visa, you can either apply online and pay in advance, or sort it out when you arrive. The latter option is cheaper and more common, and though you might have to wait in line a little while, the process itself is quick and simple. So, if you forget to sort out your visa before you leave, it’s definitely not the end of the world!
Cambodia is a country that captivates like no other. Beautiful, fascinating, and haunting, it’s home to vibrant cities filled with life, tropical islands with white-sand beaches, mesmerising ruins and ancient temples – and lively markets and unique colonial architecture.
This is a place where you can find adventure, culture, and relaxation in equal measure, where you can see how the ancient and modern worlds collide – and above all, where you can witness the wonderful resilience and optimism of the human spirit.
If you’d like more travel inspiration, you might want to visit the relevant section of our site.