An old brick archway partially painted provides beautiful views of royal palance in Phnom Penh

Our lowdown on Cambodia

Why visit Cambodia? This is what we love about the country.

When you think of Cambodia, what springs to mind? Cutting-edge contemporary arts? Jewel-like tropical islands with brilliant-white, deserted beaches? The largest, most unspoilt tracts of rainforest in continental Southeast Asia? Probably not — yet these are just some of the reasons to fall in love with this underrated gem.

Bayon Temple, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
The intricate faces of Angkor's Bayon Temple

Cambodia is best-known for two things: the temples of Angkor, and the Khmer Rouge genocide. One a remnant of its former glory; the other a record of its darkest hour — neither is representative of Cambodia today: a place of low-key, laid-back charms, rural villages surrounded by palm trees and rice paddies, untamed jungle filled with the hoots of gibbons and tropical birds, and some of the most glorious and overlooked beaches in Southeast Asia. That’s not to say that they’re not important. Both have done their part in shaping the country and both will shape any trip to Cambodia, but to let them define it would be to ignore what really makes this country special.

So, what do we think of when we think of Cambodia?

For a start, we think of the people. Forgive us if we get a little mushy here — but we’ve rarely met people with such endless reserves of generosity, such infectious enthusiasm, and such refreshingly genuine and easygoing frankness. It’s almost like there’s something in the air here. It’s impossible to go anywhere without being befriended, invited along, and generally enveloped with warmth and good humour. Most Asian countries are friendly, it’s true — but seldom to this extent. Neither proudly Communist like neighbouring Vietnam nor reserved like Laos to the north, Cambodians invite you into their lives as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, and it makes travelling here an unmitigated joy.

Village life on the outskirts of Siem Reap
Village life of the outskirts of Siem Reap

Perhaps it’s surprising that a country which has suffered so much should be so open and welcoming to outsiders. Cambodia lost about a quarter of its population between 1975-9, during the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the effects of that trauma will ripple through society for generations to come. The place to begin to grapple with these events is in Phnom Penh, where the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields tell the story of the Khmer Rouge era through a combination of artefacts and haunting photographs. Visiting these sites is a profoundly disturbing experience, but if you want to begin to understand the sheer horror of what Cambodia went through in the 1970s, they can’t be missed.

How does any country or individual wake up from such a nightmare? How do you heal and move on, while respecting and remembering what went before? Part of the process, in Cambodia’s case, has been through the arts – which are now experiencing an extraordinary renaissance across the country, providing hope and opportunity to young people.

The flourishing contemporary arts scene is just one sign of modern Cambodia’s vitality.

Dancer for Cambodian living arts
Cambodia Living Arts, Phnom Penh,
© Dennis Drenner

It's why Cambodia doesn’t feel like a place encumbered by the past. Far from it. Cambodia today practically crackles with optimism and forward motion. Though still poorer and less developed than neighbouring Vietnam or Thailand, there’s a real sense that Cambodia is on the up. You can feel it just walking around the streets of Phnom Penh: an ever-shifting, ever-exciting melting pot of micro-bars, restaurants, music venues, galleries, and innovative social outreach projects.

We should note here that Phnom Penh is only a small corner of a country that’s otherwise overwhelmingly rural and undeveloped. In Cambodia, only 25% of the population lives in urban centres, compared with over 50% in Thailand and 70% in Malaysia. Phnom Penh is the only city — everywhere else, it's rolling farmland, tin-roofed villages, and sleepy towns with crumbling, French-colonial buildings. In this bucolic world of endless palm-fringed dirt roads and paddy fields, life is still timelessly traditional and devoutly religious. And yet as conservative as rural Cambodia can be, it’s certainly far from austere. All you need to do is head out on a bike or a hike to find yourself on an adventure — interacting with people, cycling past fields farmed using water buffalo, snacking on deep-fried tarantulas (we dare you to try)! But though rural Cambodia feels like a time capsule, make no mistake: change is afoot here, too.

Performers at the Siem Reap Phare Circus
Performers at Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Take the charming town of Battambang. This former colonial outpost is one of our favourite places in the country — it's at the forefront of Cambodia’s arts revival, and its residents are busy breathing new life into traditional crafts and contemporary art forms that were almost lost for good under the Khmer Rouge. Among the many little galleries, art cafés, studios and trendy exhibition spaces is the Phare Ponleu Selpak School, a world-class institution providing education to underprivileged young people in all areas of the arts — from performing arts to graphic design, animation, sculpture and music. You only need to catch a show at the brilliant Phare Circus (one of the school’s projects in Siem Reap) to see the impact it has had on the lives of young Cambodians — and it’s only one of many, many such organisations taking social challenges into their own hands in Cambodia today.

It’s not just social issues that are being tackled in inventive ways, either. Cambodia is home to some of Asia’s last remaining tracts of primary rainforest.

It's host to vast, undisturbed havens for wild Asian elephants, pileated gibbons, clouded leopards and countless other species that are under constant threat from illegal logging, poaching, and plantation development. In Southeast Asia, only Borneo can boast more untouched wilderness, and the potential for jungle exploration and wildlife encounters is unmatched anywhere on the continent.

Four rivers floating lodge cambodia
4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Koh Kong

Fighting to protect Cambodia’s natural treasures are a growing number of passionate conservationists, many of whom have found novel ways to channel funds from tourism into habitat preservation. These include some (frankly stunning) floating river lodges, safari-style tent camps and wildlife sanctuaries where visitors can immerse themselves in the jungle while helping to ensure its survival (and enjoying some proper, secluded luxury to boot). This is ecotourism at its most powerful and inspiring — turning communities who would otherwise be logging or poaching into a force for good by providing sustainable jobs and access to education. If Cambodia is to halt the destruction of its forests, innovative projects like these will be absolutely integral.

It can’t have escaped your notice that we’ve got all this way without even touching on a certain elephant in the room.

Tree roots around an ancient temple in Cambodia
The jungle reclaiming ancient sites

Cambodia’s national symbol, the jewel in its crown, the number-one reason most people visit this country: the temples of Angkor. Where do we even begin? Locked in their never-ending embrace with the jungle, the 800-year-old ruins of the Khmer Empire are one of those rare places that don’t just live up to their hype, they knock it out of the park. Relics of a civilisation that was once the greatest on earth, these are temples like you’ve never seen them before: vast, sprawling and awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word.

There are three big names that every tourist ticks off on their visit to Angkor and Angkor Wat is the titan — in fact, it’s the biggest single religious monument in the world. The other two are Bayon, famous for its giant stone faces and Ta Prohm, AKA the “Tomb Raider Temple”. They’re the “big three” for a reason, and we’d never suggest skipping them – but some of our favourite sites aren’t half as grand.

With literally thousands of ruins in the Angkor Archaeological Park alone you could spend a month here and not see anything twice, so be sure to combine your A-sides with some of the overlooked, underrated, and really rather magical B-side delights. Tucked in the jungle, away from the crowds, they tend to be much more atmospheric than their busier neighbours, and it’s often impossible to tell whether the strangler figs and silk-cotton trees are tearing them down or holding them up (in most cases we suspect it’s a bit of both).

The crown jewel: Angkor Wat
The crown jewel: Angkor temples

If you think there are a lot of ruins at Angkor, we’re only just getting started.

Beyond Siem Reap, the whole of Cambodia is strewn with them. Not as grand, perhaps, but just as powerful — and most of them completely ignored by tourists. Sambor Prei Kuk is an excellent example. Predating Angkor by several centuries, this ancient city lies sprawled through the forests between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but most people just shoot past it. It’s their loss, because this is one of the best places in the country to experience some of that old-fashioned, Indiana Jones-style exploration: pushing your way along overgrown paths and exploring tumbledown ruins completely alone but for the sounds of the jungle.

The jungle reclaiming ancient temples at Sambor Prei Kuk
The jungle reclaiming ancient temples at Sambor Prei Kuk

Banteay Chhmar is another of our low-key favourites. Built by the same Khmer king responsible for Angkor Thom and Bayon, this Angkorian city shares many features with those more famous sites – including giant stone faces – and yet you won’t find any hotels, restaurants, or mass tourism infrastructure here. Only a string of charming little villages, where you can take part in traditional farming and craft activities, stay with a local family, and eat delicious food home-cooked by your hosts. They’ll even organise for you to have a candlelit dinner in the ancient city itself – an experience that’d cost you an arm and a leg at Angkor!

These are the places most people miss because they never look further than TripAdvisor’s top ten — and yet they’re among the most amazing and memorable experiences we’ve had anywhere in the world.

Cambodia is a place for people who like journeys as much as destinations.

Cambodia doesn’t have dramatic mountain landscapes like China or Vietnam. It doesn’t have impossibly picturesque, time-capsule towns like Luang Prabang or Hoi An, and it doesn’t have massive, hectic cities like Bangkok or Hanoi. We’re not saying any of this to be negative — in fact, for us, that’s the whole point. No big cities mean no big highways, so every road trip is an adventure through forests and farmland, stopping off every now and then for a coconut from a roadside shack.

A wooden pier over turquoise water in Koh Rong
The beautiful little-visited Koh Rong

It’s not about ticking off sights, but about seeing where the road takes you, and settling into the pace of Cambodian life. It’s a place to let yourself get sucked in and whisked along by the current, buoyed by the bottomless good cheer of Cambodians. It’s a place to have real, heartfelt connections with local people and to explore lost cities, spectacular beaches, unspoilt rainforests, and Southeast Asia’s largest lake.

For the vast majority of people, Cambodia will always be the place to see Angkor Wat and nothing else. But we’ll always tell you to venture further for the country’s real appeal and a chance to experience Southeast Asia at its most laid-back, unassuming, and beguiling.

The InsideAsia team in Bristol

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