To travel through Cambodia is to travel back in time. You’ll get to visit amazing temples, built during the Angkorian empire that flourished during the 9th and 15th centuries. These were mega cities and an earthly representation of the abode of the Gods. Standing at the foot of Angkor Wat, you’ll understand what it means to be in the presence of the divine.

To travel through Cambodia is to travel to a dark and painful chapter in humanity’s history. In Phnom Penh you’ll discover a city reborn out of the ashes of Pol Pot’s destruction. This journey will uncover the evil and depravity that all men are capable of. It’s a lesson in what could happen when we abdicate our freedoms and follow our leaders blindly. Yet, Phnom Penh is also a symbol of hope. It proves that the human spirit is capable of surviving the worst evil this world holds.

This unique country is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression on you. Below is my recommended guide to Cambodia.

Siem Reap ( Three Days )

Siem Reap’s primary attraction is as a gateway to the incredible Angkor temples. Once your done exploring those hallowed grounds, you can return to town and enjoy Siem Reap’s markets and active nightlife.

Angkor 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 magic hour for capturing the perfect picture.

Other temples you must visit include:

  • Bayon: A trippy temple holding 216 stone faces, all of 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 simply stunning. The 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.
The beauty of Angkor Wat can not be exaggerated. It's stunning.
The beauty of Angkor Wat can not be exaggerated. It’s stunning.

The Night Markets and Pub Street

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 the Siem Reap river. When the sun goes down, the town comes to life with different markets and a impressive nightlife. Make sure you check out:

  • Pub Street: 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 its 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 market is slightly more upscale than the Old Market. You’ll find more modern knickknacks, Cambodian folk art and jewelry.
  • Aspara Dance Show: Several restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap offer dinners that include a traditional Aspara dance show. A good choice is the one held at Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor in the French Quarter. The performances are held in their garden surrounded by traditional Cambodian boundary stones.
Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia
Aspara dance show at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor

Phnom Penh ( One Day )

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.

The Killing Fields

Walking thorough the killing fields is chilling, to see so many mass graves that swallowed thousands of lost souls. You’ll learn that Pol Pot instructed his soldiers not to waste bullets. So victims where hacked to death, had their throats slit by sugar cane branches and then there’s the “Killing Tree”. Soldiers had a preferred method to dispose of babies. They would grab them by their legs and then savagely slam their heads against the tree trunk.

The Killing Fields has a stupa filled with remains of Khmer Rouge victims
The Killing Fields has a stupa filled with remains of Khmer Rouge victims

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S21)

This museum is infinitely more upsetting than the Killing Fields. You’ll get to see photos of the victims, how and where they were tortured and walk the untouched grounds that retains its dark internment camp qualities.

In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces. It became an infamous detention and torture center that processed thousands of victims. Just like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping on who passed through the center. This has created a sick archive of black and white images of men, women and children, proof of their existence and death.

Visiting S-21 will haunt your dreams. You'll see photos of victims, their torture and learn about other horrors carried out by the Khmer Rouge.
Visiting S-21 will haunt your dreams. You’ll see photos of victims, their torture and learn about other horrors carried out by the Khmer Rouge.

Other attractions in Phnom Penh include:

  • The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda: This is opulence personified. The Silver Pagoda is a stunning Buddhist temple that’s bedazzled with thousands of silver tiles and houses several impressive bejeweled statues. The Royal Palace (which has been the residence of Cambodia’s kings since 1866) is equally stunning.
  • National Museum of Cambodia: Close to the Royal Palace is the National Museum of Cambodia. This 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 beautifully serene terrace area in the middle of the museum
  • Plae Pakaa (Cambodian Living Arts Center): 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 Silver Pagoda

Sihanoukville & Surrounding Islands ( Two Days )

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.


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