Cambodia still manages to straddle the line between tourist hotspot and untrodden eastern destination. Without the crowds of Thailand to the west, enclaves like the deep north and the wild Cardamom Mountains have remained off-the-beaten-track, with visitors now slowly revealing their tribal villages and mysterious Khmer temples.
That said, there are – of course – some visitor magnets in this corner of Southeast Asia, ranging from the lichen-spotted halls of UNESCO-attested Angkor Wat to the shimmering beaches of the Kep Peninsula. Meanwhile, places like Sihanoukville and Battambang tick over to the hubbub of backpackers, or the slosh of the Thai Gulf, and the capital at Phnom Penh offers an informative and enlightening glimpse at the horrors of Cambodia’s 20th-century past besides its temples and royal court rooms.
So, if you’re in search of a destination that fuses adventure, adrenaline, history, culture and tropical relaxation in one, this might just be the perfect spot.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Cambodia:
The home of the famous Angkor Wat is unquestionably one of Cambodia’s must-see places.
Unfortunately, thanks to the legendary pagodas and vine-dressed stupas that are tagged by UNESCO, it’s also one of the busiest spots in the country.
Still, it’s definitely worth braving the crowds and hopping out of Siem Reap for a spell to see this world wonder.
Encompassed by wetland rice paddies and dense jungles, it emerges from the canopy in a medley of historic Khmer towers and enchanting erstwhile Hindu shrines.
Today, it’s the chants of Buddhist monks and gasping travelers that dominates, as they weave between the intricate base reliefs and the great sandstone sculptures of mythic beasts.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s answer to the backpacker beach towns of Thailand just across the gulf.
A ramshackle place of tin-roofed hostels and bamboo beer bars spilling onto the sands, it oozes a laid-back vibe that’s a welcome break from the country’s other urban centers.
The beaches are the place to be both day and night, with the establishments of Ochheuteal offering loungers and water sports aplenty.
For something a little quieter, you could also make a beeline around the headlands to less-trodden Otres Beach, or pay the entry fee for secluded Sokha Beach nearby.
3. Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a city in flux: a place where barrios of haphazard shack homes mingle with gilded temples of gold leaf and straight-laced highways of the 21st century.
That means it’s also a fine spot to get to grips with the nature of Cambodia as a whole; a country neatly balanced between the old and the new.
The piece de resistance is surely the opulent Royal Palace complex, which shimmers with the spires of the Silver Pagoda at its center.
For a taste of local life, be sure to hit the buzzing Sisowath Quay, which runs along the Mekong in a medley of markets and picnic spots.
And – of course – there are the so-called Killing Fields just on the edge of town: sobering and stark reminders of the horrors of Cambodia’s 20th-century past.
Defined by the meanders of the Mekong River as it gushes towards the delta and the South China Sea in the south-east, this laid-back spot is slowly but surely raising itself to become one of Cambodia’s bona fide backpacker hubs.
It’s easy to see why the shoestring travelers love it too – think cheap timber longhouses and earthy guesthouses, really old ruins at Sambor and traditional craft markets on the water.
But that’s not all, because Kratie has also become famed as one of the top places to see the Cambodian river dolphin.
Excursions to stalk these majestic mammals in the Mekong leave from the docks every day.
5. Siem Reap
It’s true that most people flock to Siem Reap to hop across to the UNESCO wonder of Ankgor Wat.
However, thanks largely to the influx of folk coming in recent decades, this one has developed into a fine place to visit in its own right.
You can delve into an old town of elegant French mansions and enchanting Chinese shops, all of which are punctuated by the heady fray of Psah Chas market (perfect for sizzling noodle soups!) and countless backpacker bars (look for appropriately-named Pub Street). There are also some really great museums in Siem Reap, like the sobering Cambodia Landmine Museum and the (equally sobering) War Museum Cambodia.
6. Koh Ker
Koh Ker is the smaller, lesser-known brother of Angkor Wat.
Located deep in the jungles of northern Cambodia, the spot reigned as the capital of the mighty Khmer Empire for a measly 20 years.
However, those two decades of glory still show, with elaborate stupas protruding from the canopies and the 1,000-year-old rises of the stepped Prasat Thom temples soaring more than 30 meters above the ground.
You’ll also be able to see an elaborate array of fortifications dating from the 10th century, and crumbling ruins of shrines now almost entirely claimed by the roots of giant teak trees.
In short: this one’s a fine alternative to bustling Angkor.
7. Koh Rong
This eight-shaped island that sits out where the waters of the Thai Gulf meet the South China Sea is a picture of tropical perfection.
It boasts a whopping 23 individual stretches of sand, all of which are far quieter and untouched than their compadres across the straits in Sihanoukville.
Rustic, salt-sprayed bungalows line the coast sporadically, and there are plenty of opportunities for trekking through the forests, or hitting the coral-colored sea for a bout of snorkeling.
Koh Rong is also famed for its bioluminescent waters, which glimmer under the dark skies at night – you’ll spot them if you aren’t too busy guzzling beers in nearby Koh Tuch Village!
The provincial capital of Ratanakiri is hardly on the tourist radar at all – at least for the moment, that is.
Slowly but surely, more and more adventure seekers and outdoorsy types are waxing down the walking boots and heading to this remote corner of the country, where macaques meet slinking snakes between the jungle canopies.
The town itself might be a dusty, hectic affair, but there are plenty of tour organizers there who can put together trips out to the beautiful Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake, the colossal cataract of Cha Ong, or the sweeping rubber plantations that surround the province.
Kampot might seem tantalizingly close to the coast for it not to be about beaches, but this river town on the delta waters of the Praek Tuek Chhu offers something totally different than just sand, sea and sun.
Start with a trip to the pepper farms that blanket the local flatlands – they are not only the primary economic driver here, but also responsible for the unique peppercorns of Kampot.
The town is also home to a series of earthy fishing villages, where seafood fries come doused in chili and lemongrass.
And then there’s the array of dilapidating colonial builds in the center, along with the rusting shells of old locomotives in the Kampot railway station.
Asian elephants stalk the fields and bushlands of far-flung Mondulkiri Province; water buffalo and timber longhouses ring the wetlands, as peaks of forest-clad rock rise to meet the border with Vietnam.
This eastern jewel is a far cry from the sun-scorched lands and steamy tropical climes that dominate the rest of the country, and is slowly becoming famed for its second-to-none elephant conservation project.
Cultural encounters with the earthy Bunong tribespeople are also possible, and ecotourism of that sort is now the main driver here.
Statue-dotted Battambang is perhaps something of an unusual favorite on the backpacking circuit around Cambodia.
Why? Well, there’s not really all that much to see in the town itself, and the temples hardly live up to the majesty of Siem Reap.
Still, folk continue to flock to this second city, and we’re hardly complaining.
Lively traveler bars line the streets and there are some great hotels to choose from, all of which hide between the occasional Buddhist temple and the throbbing Central Market.
Around Battambang is where you’ll find the Wat Baydamram (filled with fruit bats) and the eerie Wat Samraong Knong, which was once used as a Khmer Rouge prison!
Poor little Kep is just a shadow of the jet setter resort for Cambodian dignitaries it was in the early 20th century.
Yep, decades of war and Khmer Rouge destruction took its toll on the country’s top seaside retreat, and today remnants of that dark age can still be seen in the form of ruined villas and burned out hotels along the shore.
However, Kep is rebounding, and today the pretty stretches of powdery yellow sand along the Kep Peninsula are alive once more with seafood restaurants and bars.
Oh, and don’t leave without sampling the famous Kep crab – one of Cambodia’s most legendary staples!
13. Koh Thonsay
Rabbit Island (as it’s known in English) is one of the jewels of Kep Province, set just out in the waters of the Thai Gulf from the southern coast of the country.
Fringed with softly sloping yellow sands and rows of swaying coconut palms, it’s got all the tropical beauties you’d expect from a tropical island.
However, Koh Thonsay also comes with far fewer crowds than its compadres across the waters in the Land of Smiles, and the prices are cheaper too! The best thing to do is strap on the walking boots and hike the coastal trails.
Sooner or later you’ll discover a secluded cove of shimmering shore waters, totally empty save for the occasional bobbing fishing skiff.
14. Koh Kong
The rugged, salt-sprayed rocks of the Koh Kong coast mark the point where the primeval woods of the Cardamom Mountains Rainforest cascade down to meet the Indian Ocean.
Undeveloped and untouched by the onset of modern tourism, the place remains a picture of wild Southeast Asia.
A smattering of casinos and sleazy massage parlors do still linger on from the days when Krong was a smuggler passage town on the Thai border, but the real pulls are surely the gushing waterfalls, the wild jungles, and – of course – the legendary white-sand beaches of Koh Krong Island.
Pailin can be found deep in the Cardamom Mountains of western Cambodia.
Surrounded by hills of green bush and dominated by the serrated tips of the high hills on the horizon, it was once known as the prime gem mining center of the country.
Consequently, it was a hot point of conflict during the years of the Khmer Rouge in the last century, and there’s something of a dark history to unravel here.
Today the place is pleasantly walkable and sleepy though, with good access to the wild and untrodden Roneam Daun Sam Wildlife, and a series of lookout pagodas and waterfalls on the menu to boot.