Top 5 places to visit in Cambodia

As a child, I saw myself as Indiana Jones, a tiny blonde fugitive in quest of a fresh world hiding under the veneer of an ancient one. My bedside was cluttered with novels like The Jungle Book, Myths and Mythologies of Ancient Egypt, and Arabian Nights, and my daydreams were filled with jungle enthusiasts, Jane Goodall figures, and moustached guys in khaki safari hats.

I spent days and months coming to grips with the fact that my trips to locate ancient civilizations beneath expanding woods would have to be updated after I grew out of my play period and learned that all the corners of the Earth had already been found.

I went around my house in misery for a time, my black woolen adventure hat never leaving its hook on my wall. My mother then took me on a trip to my favorite hangout, the local public library, to examine the new acquisitions in the hopes that it would help me get out of my depression.

Image Pietro Bevilacqua

That’s when I found it: A National Geographic photo essay on Cambodia.

From verdant woods to golden temples, lively alleys brimming with food sellers and breathtaking animal views, it was as if the adventure spirit within had been reignited, recommitted, and was ready to pull the hat off the wall once again.

So, ever since that day, Cambodia has been at the top of my list, and my journey into the depths of its hidden stories and cultures has satisfied all of my childhood fantasies.

Don’t believe me? Check out my list of places not to miss in the land of Kampuchea, and then embark on your own journey—it’s too good but it is true! These are top 5 places to visit in Cambodia.

1. The Temples of Angkor

best places to see in siem reap

Even though I was desperate for an authentic, non-tourist trek into Cambodia’s great unknown (and rural) areas, I couldn’t resist the draw of the great Angkor Wat Temple (part of the world’s largest religious complex), so I made my way to the center of Cambodian civilization for a walk through the diverse and complex history of this Southeast Asian nation.

The sites designated as world heritage UNESCO status is secured for a variety of reasons, including incredible advanced ancient waterways systems, such as canals, dykes, and basins, as well as villages, priceless works of art, and for housing a sizable portion of the world population during a period when Western Civilization was progressing through what is aptly referred to as the Dark Ages. In stark contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia, Cambodia was establishing its own architectural competence and distinct style in the East.

Image by Brad Grove

The temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, features large paintings and elaborate sculptures, and the northern reflecting pool is a favorite spot for travelers to view the dawn. Make sure to reserve a seat at each of the four buddhas beforehand; you’ll be rewarded for your efforts! Aside from Angkor Wat, go for a day bike ride across the countryside or take a side excursion to Phnom Kuhlen and the lost city of Mahendraparvata. Just don’t try to take this trip on your own; it’s necessary to have a guide into the city because there are still active landmines!

To travel about the city on a tight budget, I started by purchasing a three-day temple pass for 24 euros, which allowed me to tour Angkor at my leisure for a bit longer than a rushed 1-day pass. If you want, it is also available in 1- and 7-day increments. I also hired a bike because riding is my favorite method to see a city, and it’s far more convenient than waiting for a tuk-tuk every time you want to go someplace (and saves a couple of coins).

Angkor Wat – Once you get in the main entrance this is the long path to the temple

I avoided the pricey hotels and all-inclusive resorts in Angkor and instead stayed at the Jasmine Family Hostel. This joint hostel is family-owned, has boutique-style accommodation, and has beyond excellent hospitality, just like its more expensive counterparts, but it’s available for a fraction of the price (a couple of euros for a bunk in the dorms was perfect for me). It also has the added benefit of being single-traveler friendly, so there’s no reason to eat or go on an adventure alone unless you want to, and they have a wonderful list of one-of-a-kind activities you may participate in.

2. Preah Vihear

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Another great religious site, Preah Vihear is situated on top of a vast cliff in the north of Cambodia and it comes with killer views and a little controversy, making it perfect as a sightseeing destination!

A little background: When France demarcated the borders between Thailand and Cambodia in the early twentieth century, the hilltop temple was on both the Thai and Cambodian sides. Of course, this sparked many disagreements about who could actually lay claim to the property, but when Cambodia gained independence in the 1950s, a court ruled that the entire Hindu temple was Cambodian rather than Thai, making it a little safer for visitors but no less contentious between the two countries. To fully grasp the Cambodian stance, familiarize yourself with the country’s recent history; it’s very fascinating and a fantastic way to pass your in-flight time.

preah-vihear 2

preah-vihear 2

How to get there and where to stay: The temple’s position makes it difficult to get, but don’t let that stop you. At the foot of the hill, there is a Cambodian military checkpoint (you can also see the flag of the Thai checkpoint), so have your passport ready. The entrance is free, so make your way to the top of the hill to see the collapsing ruin. Book a stay at the Javier Guesthouse for around 13 euros per night. It is located in Preah Vihear City, and you may take a motorbike taxi from your hotel to the top of the temple if you like. It’s more distant and less visited than Angkor, but that’s part of the appeal.

3. Otres Beach

otres beach cambodia

Otres is a traveller’s haven; it’s where the tourist experience goes to get away from the massive crowds of Angkor, and where you’ll truly get to enjoy an exotic beach paradise. Unlike many of Cambodia’s more well-known beaches, the guesthouses along the coast here occupy only a tiny portion of the beach, leaving the remainder open for fantastic sunbathing, swimming, and simply admiring the scenery. The water is warm, the hammocks are hanging high, and the most commonly heard phrase when relating tales of this paradise is the ever-used (but accurate in this case): “Go now before everything changes.”

otres beach cambodia

Do: Get a meal and a beverage every night to watch the sunset — it may appear fancy, but it’s the location to view a sherbert-colored vista (and to take great photographs if that’s your thing). Stay at the Moonflower Bungalow; the average price per night for two is around 20 euros (it was a little cheaper when I stayed because I went in the off-season, but it’s still great value), and there are scooters for rent at 5 euros per day, which is great if you want to spend a day or two exploring the island. If you want to spend the entire day swinging in the hammock, that’s also an excellent option; it’s all up to you, and you can’t go wrong either way.

4. Ream National Park

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Ream National Park is in the same province as Otres Beach (the beach is in Sihounoukville, only 18 kilometers from the park), so it makes a great day trip or side trip, and I highly recommend paying a visit to this Southeast Asian natural marvel.

ream national park 2

The easiest way to go is to rent a scooter from the house and go at your own speed. It’s the great day to spend the day, with the fishing cats (hard to see, but they’re there, and if not, check out the beautiful otters), mangrove swamps, and fantastic birding (anything from fishing eagles to kingfishers). If you’re searching for something a little more in-depth, travel to Koh Thmei; it’s almost deserted, with no villages and only one “resort” with a dozen beach huts. Not only will you appreciate the tranquility, but the snorkeling is fantastic, and if you visit between December and April, you may be able to observe migratory dolphins.

5. Tonle Sap Lake

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One of the best parts of staying at the Jasmine Family Hostel was learning about an excursion trip to Tonle Sap Lake. I got to go around the lake, which has a fantastic ecology, and get a nice long look at the rural regions of Cambodia that I had been looking forward to with the Floating Forest package (2 days + 1 night).

tonle sap lake 2