Cambodia is an amazing country, one that’s always been popular with backpackers (less so with regular tourists). It offers its visitors a rich history and an unvarnished travel experience. One where they can explore wondrous temples that are truly fit for the Gods, enjoy beautiful quite beaches and learn about its painful past and admire its people’s fortitude for overcoming it. Below is my list of the 5 reasons why you must visit Cambodia.

Reason #1: The Temples

Any list involving Cambodia MUST start with its incredible temples.

Historically Cambodia was part of the Angkorian Empire, which ruled much of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The temples of Angkor were built as a representation of Mt Meru (home of the Hindu Gods). Words can't properly capture their majesty and grandeur. They're bigger and more awe-inspiring than anything the Egyptians ever built for their Gods.

The most famous temple is Angkor Wat, which is believed to be the largest religious building in the world. When I saw it for the first time, I stood in disbelief at how an ancient culture was able to build such an intricate and magnificent structure. Many people visit during sunrise and sunset, which is considered to be magic hour for capturing the perfect picture. Other temples you must visit include: 

- Bayon: A trippy temple holding 216 stone faces, which follow you wherever you go. 
- Ta Prohm: Made famous in the movie "Tomb Raider", it's been overrun by the jungle's trees which have fused with the buildings. Making for an eerily beautiful scene.   
- Neak Pean: The entrance to this temple is stunning. This temple is designed as an artificial island. You'll cross a wooden pathway and the water that surrounds it shimmers like a mirror. 
- Angkor Thom: Set over a 10 km sq area, there's much to explore in this temple ground. Just like Neak Pean, the entrance is a showstopper. It's lined with mythic statues of Gods and will give you chills as you enter the grounds. 

Reason #2: Siem Reap

Revitalized by tourists visiting the Angkor Temples, Siem Reap has become a funky and fun backpacker's town. A great way to get a scenic view of the city is to rent a bike and ride around town and near the Siem Reap river. When the sun goes down, the town comes to life with different markets and an impressive nightlife. Areas you must checkout include:

- Pub Street (pictured above): This place is impossible to miss. There's so many neon lights, it's probably visible from the moon. It's the heart of the city, where most tourists congregate to eat, drink, listen to live bands and have a good time. 

- Old Market: Is a popular market with a wide selection of vendors selling clothing, spices, housewares, jewelry and food. I strongly recommend you visit the food market during the day, it's an interesting experience. But not for the faint of heart. Here vendors sell live fish (squirming in buckets), freshly cut bacon and pork (the heads of pigs are put on display) and other unique local delicacies.
- Night Market: This is slightly more upscale than the Old Market. You’ll find more modern knickknacks, Cambodian folk art and jewelry.

Finally, while in Siem Reap you should also try a fish foot massage. It's kitschy, but I enjoyed it. You get to have small fish eat the dead skin off your feet. You'll find plenty of these stands near the night markets.

Reason 3: The Islands & Beaches

Most people don't associate Cambodia with beaches or island getaways, which has meant they're less trafficked than Thailand's islands. In a way this is a good thing. The islands here are less developed and offer a quieter environment to decompress. 

Sihanoukville: This is easily Cambodia's most popular beach destination. It has a hedonistic backpacker party reputation, but it also offers plenty resort options and is a great base to explore nearby islands (like Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem)

Kohn Rong Samloem: This is an island paradise that's relatively unscathed by development. It offers the simple pleasure of enjoying its stunning beaches and sea without the crowds. In this day and age of over-commercialized tourism, that's a rare and beautiful thing. 
Koh Rong
: Not as stunning or as peaceful as Samloem, Koh Rong is still a pretty little island. The shoreline here is lined with accommodations, ranging from backpacker dorms to private huts to private villas. 

Reason #4: Learn About Cambodia's Dark History

Visiting the Killing Fields and S21 prison in Phnom Penh is a chilling and gut wrenching experience. You'll learn how Pol Pot rose to power and through his army (the Khmer Rouge) systematically eradicated the educated class and anyone he saw as a threat. By the end of of Pol Pot's reign it's estimated that between 740,000 and 3,000,000 people died (no one knows the actual figure). More than 20,000 mass graves have been uncovered. It's not an overstatement to say that Cambodia was literally destroyed by one mad man. 

The visit to S21 is horrifying. What was once a school was converted into a building of horrors. Just like Auschwitz, most of the poor souls sent here were killed. Walking through S21 you'll see the pictures of the victims, the torture devices used to inflict unimaginable pain and learn about humanity's capacity for depravity.

While in the Killing Fields, you'll walk past mass graves and just mourn the spirits who were so cruelly extinguished here. No one was spared, not even babies. Many were killed against a tree that's now referred to as the "Killing Tree". Soldiers would grab the babies by their legs and viciously slam their heads against the tree trunk.

The murders and torture were done face to face. Not from a distance or behind a barrel of gun. Face to face. There's no understanding what happened. It can only be used as a cautionary tale for what happens when we allow ourselves to blindly follow leaders and abdicate our power to the state.  

Reason #5: Phnom Penh

Once known as the "Pearl of Asia", Phnom Penh was swallowed into the pit of darkness under Pol Pot's rule. Today though, Phnom Penh is a reborn city. Having rebuilt what was destroyed, it's in the midst of a boom. Anyone visiting Phnom Penh has to allocate time to learn about its dark history, but this city is more than just the Killing Fields and S21.

Royal Palace And Silver Pagoda:  The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda sit together in a royal compound near the riverfront. These are two stunningly beautiful buildings that will take your breathe away. 

National Museum of CambodiaThis is the world's largest collection of Khmer art that includes sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and ethnographic objects. I loved this museum. The historical pieces on display are breathtaking and the museum's design is unique. It has a outside terrace area in the middle of the museum.   

Courtyard Inside The National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Courtyard Inside The National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Plae Pakaa: This was probably one of the most inspirational stories I came across in Cambodia. Hosted at the National Museum of Cambodia, this is a troupe that performs traditional Cambodian dances. Before starting their performances, they give an introduction on how they started. They explain that as a result of the Khmer Rouge this piece of Cambodian culture was almost lost. They had to go looking for the last remaining dancers that still remembered this folk art, to pass it along to another generation. The story's very powerful and moving. The performances where exquisite and engrossing. 
The Markets: Like all other Asian cities, Phnom Penh has an interesting selection of day and night markets. You can shop for clothes, trinkets or whatever your heart desires. Probably the most famous is the Russian Market. This market got its name from the Russians that used to frequent it in the 80's. Today it firmly part of the Phnom Penh's must-do list.
The Elephant Room: Ok, I know it's wrong to have this item on this list  ....  but  ....  if you have the budget, then I strongly recommend the Elephant Room Bar in the Raffles hotel. They serve some of the best cocktails I've come across in Asia, and the hotel is to die for.  

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