Cambodia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to (and I’ve seen quite a few). It’s easy to lose yourself in the rich history and culture of this Asian country, from the sun glinting off the rice paddies to the mystery of the crumbling temple ruins. If you’re planning your first trip, it can be difficult to narrow down just exactly what you want to see during your time there.
Whether you’re visiting for the food, the history or the elephants, Cambodia has something for everyone.
I’ve put together a list of my thirteen top attractions in Cambodia, so grab a pen and add a few of these places to your itinerary.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
To truly explore all the beauty to be found at the Angkor Wat temple complex, you’ll want to dedicate a few days of your trip solely for this site. But, a trip to Angkor Wat wouldn’t be complete without making it there before sunrise.
Watching the sky burn in hues of orange and pink against the dark shadow of the main temple is completely breathtaking, especially when coupled with the mirror effect by the man-made lake surrounding it. There will be a crowd of people there, even at 5 a.m., and experiencing the spectacular sunrise will put you in the perfect mindset to explore the majesty of the main temple ruins.
While you’re at the Angkor Wat complex, be sure to spend a couple of hours amid the ruins at Ta Prohm. If you’re a movie buff, you’ll probably recognize the crumbling Buddhist monastery as one of the filming locations of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.
Unlike many other sites in Cambodia, the ruins have been left mostly the way they were found, with giant trees and vines seeming to grow right out of the stone. The wild foliage, combined with birds and other wildlife roaming the site, make this temple particularly fun to explore. Just be sure to go earlier in the morning before the huge crowds arrive.
Sunset tours at Siem Reap
After you’ve seen the sunrise at Angkor Wat, you’ll want to watch it set during a tour through Siem Reap. Hopping on an ATV tour through the city will take you through 16 kilometers of beautiful countryside, at the end of which you’ll get to watch the sun set over the rice paddies.
Once you’ve completed your tour, take a walk through Pub Street, the hub of nightlife in Siem Reap. No matter your taste, you’ll easily find a restaurant to fill your belly, then you can finish off the evening strolling through the night markets for clothing, art and souvenirs.
Visit the Killing Fields
Visiting the “killing fields” outside Phnom Penh that were a large part of the genocide the country suffered in the 1970s is heartbreaking, but also moving and educational. While not the most pleasant trip to take, understanding the history of the places you visit is an important undertaking.
Learn about some of Cambodia’s darker days as you walk through the fields among the slightly sunken mass graves, and you can also visit the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide — an old high school that was turned into a torture camp and execution center during the Pol Pot regime.
The Bayon Temple
Another famous site at the Angkor Wat complex is the Bayon Temple, which sits at the center of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The temple is most famous for the large stone faces carved into many of the temple’s towers.
The three different levels make for a maze of galleries and passages through the towers, connecting the ruins in an organized way that can’t be see from afar. There is some debate as to who the faces supposedly represent, but many believe they are a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist compassionate and enlightened being) or a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ruled the area when the temple was built.
Phnom Penh Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
The royal palace was constructed more than a century ago as home to the king of Cambodia. The beautiful compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda, so named because of the five tons of silver covering the entire floor. You may be able to sneak a peek at the tiles in the very front of the pagoda, though many are covered to protect them from the elements.
The temple is also home to a life-sized golden Buddha statue that is covered in more than 2,000 diamonds, on either side of which sits a bronze and silver Buddha, through these are smaller in size.
If snorkeling and diving are your thing, Koh Tang island is well worth the trip. The island is a five-hour trip from the mainland, so it’s best to find a two-day trip on a liveaboard to take you out there. With nine different dive sites around the island, you’ll be in awe of all the marine life you encounter.
There are also a couple of sandy beaches (most are rocky) you can relax or stroll down when you need a break from the water. Or, you can head to the nearby Koh Prins to dive one of the shipwrecks off the coast.
Apsara Dance Performance
Several restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap offer a dinner show where you can watch a traditional apsara dance, one of the traditional Khmer dances. An apsara is a female spirit of clouds and water in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, known for being excellent and graceful dancers.
The apsara dance is similar to a ballet, and the dancers’ movements are meant to tell a story based in religion or classical myth. The costumes the dancers wear are beautiful and intricate, and the dance itself is mesmerizing to watch.
Resting along the banks of the Sangker River is Battambang, a charming colonial-era town. While there isn’t much to do in the town as far as tourist attractions (although there are a number of smaller temples just outside the city), the joy in visiting Battambang comes from simply enjoying your surroundings.
When you’ve had your fill of the area’s laid-back cafés and you’ve caught a circus performance from the Phare Ponleu Selpak school, the trip from Battambang to Siem Reap along the river is one of the most scenic in the country.
Walking with the Herd, Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project northeast of Phnom Penh is a sanctuary home to elephants that have been rescued from less-than-ideal conditions throughout Cambodia. Many families in the country use elephants to move timber and other products, or the elephants are kept as tourist attractions so they can be ridden.
At the Elephant Valley Project, you can spend a day “walking with the herd” and getting to know the different elephant families. There are several visiting options, from spending your day trip with the elephants to staying for an entire week of elephants and volunteering in the valley, and getting to know the elephants this way gives a truly unique look into their lives.
Prasat Preah Vihear
This mountain temple is perched atop the Dangkrek Mountains, standing as a border between Cambodia and Thailand. You’ll have to climb a set of steep stairs (more than 100 of them) and trek up a slight hill to reach the temple complex, but you’ll be well-rewarded.
Some visitors who have also seen Angkor Wat may see some resemblance in the architecture, although Prasat Preah Vihear was built roughly 100 years before the famous temple. The real treat, however, lies at the end of the complex. The temple stretches all the way to the edge of a cliff, where the views of the northern Cambodian jungle are breathtaking.
Though not specifically a “sight to see,” the traditional Khmer cuisine is certainly something you won’t want to miss while you’re in Cambodia. Most people have tried Thai and Vietnamese food at some point, but Khmer food isn’t well-known in other areas of the world.
Expect a lot of fresh fish dishes with some typical Asian flavors, like lemongrass and chilies, but don’t forget to try some of the street food as well. Sticky rice in bamboo shoots and noodle pots are pretty tame (but still delicious), or you can opt for the fried tarantulas and roasted crickets if you’re feeling adventurous.
Prasat Beng Mealea
This jungle temple sits an hour outside of Siem Reap and is far enough away to leave behind the crowds of Angkor Wat. Nature has taken its course here, and the entire site is overrun by plants, vines and huge trees towering over the ruins (similar to what you’ll find at Ta Prohm, but without as many tourists).
The secluded nature of Beng Mealea makes you feel as though you’re discovering the temple yourself as you adventure through the jungle. Head out this way if you want a little extra adventure — you’ll need to scramble over collapsed walls, swing around trees and climb through the ruins to get the full feel of the ancient temple.
Whether you choose to hit every place on my list or travel off the beaten path a little more, you’ll certainly want to document your time there, and maybe even share some experiences with loved ones back home.
The best way to do this is to get your phone unlocked and use a local SIM card while you’re in Cambodia. Then you can share as many photos as you want, video call back home and keep in touch with friends and family without paying exorbitant international roaming charges.
Have you visited Cambodia? Did you enjoy any of these stops as much as I did? I’d love to hear all about your must-see places in the comments — I’m always looking for new sights to see!