Cambodia is a small country with a big heart. Though recovering from a troubled past, Cambodians maintain a positive spirit and rich soul.
Cambodia is famous for the unparalleled Angkor Wat, but many visitors leave just as deeply impacted by the fortitude and courage of the Cambodians themselves. Come to Cambodia with an open mind: it provides at once a connection to an ancient past and a perspective on the modern challenges of the developing world. In short, though it is not the easiest country to explore, it is one of the most rewarding.
Simply put, nothing in the world can be compared to Angkor Wat. The towering gopuras that top the city’s temples are so famous that they adorn the Cambodian flag. The massive temple-filled city seems to contain an infinite level of mysteries and wonder.
Though built as a Hindu temple, as evidenced by the scrawling Sanskrit that adorns the ancient stones, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple during the height of the Khmer empire. The temple mountains have no equal in the world and provide an open and expansive format that allows you to explore for hours or days.
Built between the years 1130 - 1150, the temple of Angkor Wat is the most famous and well known perhaps because it is still in use today. Most historians agree that the temple was used both as a tomb and temple, a fact supported by its western facing carvings and doors, and the bas-reliefs were designed to read in a counterclockwise direction.
To protect this magnificent site, be respectful of areas that are off limits, dress appropriately, and take your time. The many gorgeous carvings along the walls reveal epic stories, myths, and describe a people close to their religion and extremely devoted. Breezing through to check the site off your bucket list will ultimately leave you disappointed and rushed - this is a site which begs to be examined and appreciated for all its historical significance and beauty.
Top Temples in Cambodia
Angkor Wat itself is the main temple and the single largest religious complex in the world. However, it is but one of dozens of elaborate and fascinating ancient temples in the area. The “city of temples” boasts more than ten unique architectural styles spanning over a thousand years. Going to the different temples, some brick, some sandstone, some laterite, is like walking through time.
Boasting realistic and iconic faces pointed in the cardinal directions, Bayon is a spectacular and mysterious temple. Take your time exploring the different levels of Bayon, as there are 214 of these iconic faces to be found. Built in approximately 1190 AD, Bayon is a Buddhist temple which incorporates Hindu elements as well. This is probably one of the more commonly visited temples in Angkor, other than Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm Temple. Be patient with the crowds and go at your own pace - there are many details here you don’t want to miss by feeling rushed.
Ta Prohm Temple
Built in 1186, Ta Prohm is one of the only Angkor temples to provide inscriptions within the stone walls that give an indication of why it was built, and a record of its inhabitants. It was built in dedication to the mother of Jayavarman VII.
With its crumbling walls and jungle setting, visitors will have the sense that they have stumbled upon the ruins of a lost city. Gigantic trees entangle themselves among the rocks, and some of the best photo opportunities can be found here.
This is also the famous “Tomb Raider Temple”. A famous shot from the entertaining franchise featuring Angelina Jolie took place here. This also means, however, that it is quite overrun with tourists seeking their own version of the movie still. For a similar looking temple, where nature seems to be overtaking the man-made stone elements, head to Preah Khan - farther away, but worth it to escape the crowds of “Tomb Raider” fans.
Preah Khan Temple
Serving the needs of Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, Preah Khan was dedicated to over 500 divinites. You could say that Preah Khan was the Mykonos of ancient Cambodia - the party temple, hosting no less than 18 festivals during the year. To keep the space maintained during its heyday, thousands of people lived and worked here.
Phnom Bakheng Temple
If you’re looking for the perfect place to watch the sunset from at Angkor, this is your spot. This is a popular activity - for good reason - but it gets crowded extremely early by eager tourists jostling to find a good place to sit or set up their camera. If you have the time to spare and are ok waiting around, try to settle in around 4pm to beat the crowds. A maximum of 300 people are permitted into the temple for sunset viewing.
This is also a great temple to visit for those interested in Hinduism. There are seven levels at Phnom Bakheng, each representing one of the seven Hindu heavens.
From the beaches on the gulf of Thailand to the majestic Elephant Mountains to the biodiversity hotspot of Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia has a host of natural gems.
Natural landscapes are dotted with charming “real Cambodia” towns like the relaxing Kampong Cham, a countryside village that takes pride in its natural beauty aside the Mekong. Close by is Yeak Lom, a near perfectly spherical crater lake that was formed by a meteor impact 700,000 years ago and is endowed with mythical legends by the local town.
Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and a unique wonder. Nature lovers often stay on floating villages to discover the superlative diversity of fish, birds, reptiles, and other wildlife that call the UNESCO-protected lake home. The bird sanctuary at Prek Toal, in particular, provides a unique opportunity to watch abnormally large storks majestically take off in flight.
Cambodia’s landscape is punctuated by reminders of its long and complicated history.
Preah Vihear, a temple which predates Angkor Wat, summits a hilltop vista that will mesmerize you. Climb the 162 steps to explore the gopuras that adorn the temple. After exploring Preah Vihar, you can fast forward to the French colonial period at Bokor National Park. The park’s natural beauty is centered around the ruins of the Bokor Palace, a former hotel that has been made famous as a popular set for Hollywood movies.
You cannot fully visit Cambodia without coming to terms with the raw, emotional vestiges of the country’s turbulent 20th century. Close by Siem Reap is the Cambodia Landmine Museum, which plays a role in helping people understand the true cost of war. The killing fields museum also causes pause for reflection on the nature of humanity.
However, it is not hard to find a strong and courageous side of Cambodia, determined to learn from the scars of its past. The best way to see modern Cambodia and its resolve is in the vibrant Phnom Penh. Once known as the “pearl of Asia,” the French-built capital is full of national architectural monuments. Temples and colonial villas compete with high rises and commercial centers to make for one of the more unique Asian capitals.
After seeing the terra-cotta structure that houses the national museum, you can appreciate the local Khmer-inspired architecture of the royal palace. Most notable, however, is the steely resolve and warm hospitality of the Cambodians themselves, the most likely reason why you will be so glad you journeyed to this vibrant, dynamic, and beautiful country.
Food in Cambodia
Fish is a huge staple in Cambodian cuisine. Much of it comes from enormous Tonle Sap Lake, situated in the middle of the country. Tonle Sis is an important source of this commodity, and a key element in the daily lives of the many Cambodian communities who make their home on Tonle Sap.
Among the dishes you may have that feature fish, one of the most popular is Fish Amok. Fish mousse (really) combined with coconut milk, and Khmer curry paste with flavors of lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal, and fingerroot (chinese ginger).
Many Southeast Asian countries near Cambodia have their own versions of this traditional dish. Cambodian Fish Amok stands out due to their use of a local herb called “slok ngor” which adds a delightful bitterness to the dish you won’t find elsewhere.
Fish Amok is popular from street venders, where it often has more of a soup consistency than its fine dining counterpart, where it is often served in a banana leaf.
Grilled fish and other seafood is also popular in Cambodia, and it’s always very fresh, considering with Cambodia’s close proximity to fresh-water from Tonle Sap and the ocean to the south west.
BBQ is another huge cooking style in Cambodia. A popular breakfast dish is bai sach chrouk - BBQ’d pork. This is a traditional meal, so every household has their own way of making it. But the essentials are always the same: pork that’s been heavily marinated in garlic, soy, and coconut milk and served over rice. Often accompanied by green tomatoes and a side of pickled vegetables it’s the perfect way to start your day!
Noodle soups feature prominently throughout Cambodia, typically featuring light broths, rice or egg noodles, a variety of vegetable toppings and usually a protein of some sort.
Cambodian food exhibits strong contrasts - one dish or item may be full of tremendous combinations of sweet and savory, spicy and cool. For most meals you receive side plates of condiments; peppers, different sauces, limes...these serve to help draw the flavor profiles out and provide incredible depth to the dish.
Mangos are another very popular item in Cambodian cuisine, used at all stages of ripeness in salads, sauces, and sweet dishes.
You also may have heard of “Balut” a Southeast Asian delicacy which nevertheless can cause even the most adventurous western traveler to squirm. This dish consists of a partially fertilized egg, and while the taste may be very similiar to simply eggs, the visual cues can be enough to dissuade many.
What to Wear in Cambodia
You’ll be visiting a lot of temples during your Cambodia tour. Dressing appropriately is important. Respectful attire will include covered knees and shoulders at the minimum. Most temples will allow you in with sandals, though close toed shoes are generally more accepted.
Lightweight long sleeves can be helpful protection against the sun, but dressing for humidity as well presents unique challenges. Basically its pretty difficult to be one hundred percent comfortable in one hundred percent (or close to it) humidity. Temperatures often reach into the hundreds during Cambodia’s dry season, December through April. The hottest months are January and February.
Wearing breathable materials, that don’t cling, is advisable. Avoid denim or tight shorts - long, flowy and light material for pants or skirts will be extremely helpful in staying comfortable. Remember that your knees should be covered for visiting Cambodia’s many temples.
The rainy monsoon season is between May and November, with the most heavy rains occurring between July and September. During this time, it’s also extremely warm and humid, though not quite as unbearable as during the dry season. Dress in water resistant layers, and carry a light poncho if you want to avoid getting drenched. Be very careful climbing temple steps - they can be slippery!
The rainy season in Cambodia is a great time to visit to avoid crowds, and the roads are also less dusty after all the rain. Lightning storms are common, so be cautious, but also have your camera ready, especially if you happen to be exploring the countryside or Angkor when a lightning storm hits. The dramatic effect and clouds creates incredible photographs!
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