Are you asking yourself is Cambodia worth visiting? If you are, we’re here to tell you that Cambodia is a great country and absolutely worth visiting! What’s more, we’ll give you nine excellent reasons why it is. Cambodia is not just a destination for gap year students and nomadic backpackers, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so.
Cambodia is located in southeast Asia and has land borders with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Its southwestern coast lies on the Gulf of Thailand – offering glorious beaches for sun worshippers. Cambodia is famous for its temples – Angkor Wat being the prime example. Every year, over two million tourists travel to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, located in Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a country steeped in history. Some of it is distressing (read more below), but Cambodia is nevertheless a country full of smiles. Although it might be their neighbor Thailand that has the title “The Land of Smiles”, know this – Cambodia’s people are happy, friendly, and full of smiles. If you’re looking at visiting Cambodia for the first time or looking for new things to do on a return trip, we hope our guide gives you some great ideas.
1. Visit ancient Angkor Wat
It’s almost worth visiting Cambodia for this amazing temple alone. Located near Siem Reap, in the Angkor Archaeological Park, and originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat became Buddhist at the end of the twelfth century. Almost 900 years later it is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites and still attracts Buddhists from all over the world. It’s so revered it is even on the flag of Cambodia.
You don’t have to be religious to visit though. If you’re remotely interested in history or fascinated by grand architecture put it on your list. It’s at the top of ours for a reason! If you’re Cambodian, you can visit for free but if not then how much does it cost? Children under twelve (ID required) can get in free, but for the rest of us, tickets at the time of writing cost:
- 1-day pass: US $37
- 3-day pass: US $62
- 7-day pass: US $72
If you want to visit the other temples in Angkor then you’ll need more than one day. The multi-day passes do not have to be used on consecutive days. The 3-day pass lasts for 10 days and the 7-day pass lasts for one month. Check when you buy tickets if this has changed. Walking around the site is not recommended, in fact, it’s virtually impossible if you want to see as much as you can. Hire a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap to take you. You’ll get to see a lot more, and you’ll save your feet.
Remember: dress appropriately when visiting religious sites. Cover your knees and shoulders as a minimum. And if you can, be there for the sunrise. Angkor Wat is open from 5 am.
2. Make your own souvenirs from lotus flowers
The lotus flower is sacred to Buddhists and is regarded as a symbol of enlightenment and purity. These flowers are almost self-cleaning. Because water does not cling to their leaves, raindrops run off taking any dirt with them leaving the lotus flower eternally clean, and pure. Today, lotus flowers are used in tea and various edible snacks.
If this interests you and you’re looking for an authentic Cambodian experience with a difference, then we recommend a visit to the Lotus Farm. Open every day from 8 am to 6 pm, it is free to visit. There is no booking required if you just want to take a guided tour of the lotus fields, and perhaps a boat trip. Learn all about these special flowers, and watch their production as they are turned into all sorts of different products. There is a rooftop lounge where you can sip on Lotus Flower tea and try delicious homemade biscuits made from the seeds. A souvenir shop offers a range of goodies you can buy.
Or if you want to get more involved, then why not try your hand at making your own souvenir? Choose from bracelets, incense sticks, paper, soap, and even cakes – all made from the Lotus Flower. You will need to book a day ahead to do this and costs start at US $25 including tea tasting.
Find out more: about this fabulous initiative that supports local vulnerable women.
3. Be humble in Phnom Penh
If you like cities then you can’t miss Cambodia’s capital. You should spend a couple of days here if you can so you get to experience the best of it. Like any city, you’re going to find a good selection of restaurants, bars, and nightlife. There’s plenty of shopping to be had, and sights to marvel at. But we’re not going to talk about any of that. If you’re visiting Cambodia it wouldn’t seem right to not pay respect to its troubled past.
Less than fifty years ago, the then Cambodian prime minister, Pol Pot, was behind one of the world’s worst cases of genocide. Striving for a population of “purified” people, he and his army raged terror and destruction on Cambodian people. They effectively tried to purge the population, targeting the wealthy and the educated – doctors, lawyers, monks. Media outlets were shut down. Money was made illegal. Healthcare was banned. Over two million people were executed or worked to death. They were buried in the “killing fields” – sites are scattered around the country.
Today, we pay our respects to those that died by visiting the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the killing fields. The nearest killing fields to Phnom Penh are around thirty minutes by tuk-tuk.
Finally: Pol Pot died in 1998, succumbing to heart failure. Unfortunately, before he could be tried for his crimes.
4. Barter in the Cambodian markets
Now you’ve learned some of the history of the Cambodian people you can understand their battle to build themselves back up. Cambodians are humble, hard-working people and there’s never a better place to see how locals truly live and interact than in the local markets. Markets are an integral part of the Cambodian culture and you’ll find them almost everywhere. Locals go there early in the morning to buy fresh food, you can do the same. Or browse for touristy souvenirs, buy handmade jewelry, clothes, wooden goods, and so much more.
Cambodia is worth visiting for the food alone. And the markets are some of the best places to sit and enjoy Cambodian dishes. Look for the busy stalls, where the locals frequent, it’s always a good sign of the quality. For more food choices, head to the night markets when the food stalls really come to life. As everywhere the markets are busy and bustling, so make sure to hang on to your money. Here are just two to check out:
Angkor night market, Siem Reap
Runs from 4 pm to 11 pm every day. There are over 200 stalls and entertainment at weekends.
Address: Sangkat Svay Dangkum (near Pub Street), Siem Reap Town
Central Market, Phnom Phen
Runs every day from 7 am – 5 pm. You can’t miss it with the huge dome in the middle. It’s very touristy but must be seen when in the city.
Address: Street 128 (Kampuchea Krom), Phsar Thmei 1 Commune
5. Visit the bat cave in Battambang
Three hours by bus from Siem Reap is Battambang, a city with an eclectic mix of Cambodia meets expat. If you would like to see something a bit different then you can’t go wrong with Battambang, it’s worth visiting while you’re in Cambodia. So what can you do here? Hire a bike and explore the countryside. If you join a bike tour you’ll visit locals in their houses producing rice paper and dried bananas. Ride by the paddy fields, and taste sticky rice or rice wine. Or both. Cycle across the Battambang swinging suspension bridge and visit a temple. There are killing fields in the area also.
There are cookery schools where you can learn to cook up some authentic Khmer cuisine, after collecting the ingredients from the local market. Or if you prefer to do your own thing then you’ll find a mix of restaurants to suit all palates (one of them, called Smokin Pot runs cookery classes too). Whatever you feel like eating, from Cambodian fare to Italian, Indian curry, and burgers.
While in Battamnabang don’t miss the bat cave. Take a tuk-tuk to Sampov Mountain in time to watch clouds of bats fly overhead as dusk arrives and night settles in. A unique experience to behold – don’t forget the camera for this one. You can combine this trip with a visit to a killing cave if you wish.
What else can you do in Battambang: ride the bamboo train.
6. Phnom Kulen National Park
You might already have seen the famous waterfalls here – if you keep up with the world of Insta. But if you don’t then you’re in for a treat. Phnom Kulen is approximately two hours drive northeast of Siem Reap and you should plan to spend a day here. Tourists and locals flock to the beautiful waterfalls found here on Phnom Kulen mountain. When you’ve taken your fill of photos, you can swim in the water – non-slip shoes advised, or picnic at the edge. There are handy lockers for you to keep your valuables in for a small charge.
Don’t spend all your time at the waterfall, there is plenty to see here. If you’ve only got a day here you must see the reclining Buddha statue and mingle with pilgrims at the Preah Ang Thom pagoda and temples. Then go and look for the Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean. It’s said that people visit the holy waters to be blessed and it’s popular with couples hoping to conceive.
Admission to the park costs US $20 for foreigners. This area is a sacred site to the Cambodians so you’ll need to dress appropriately, and don’t show too much skin even in the water. How to get there depends on you – if you want a two-hour hike up the steep hill at the end then you can take a tuk-tuk as far as it can go and then hike the rest of the way, or take a car.
Fun fact: Phnom Kulen means “Mountain of the Lychees”.
7. Take a Buffalo tour at La Plantation
Kampot is a laid-back city in southern Cambodia. It’s famous for pepper plantations and is where La Plantation is located. Visiting here will support local people and is a unique experience at the same time. It’s not just pepper you can come away with – they grow and sell all sorts including turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, chili powder, and whole smoked chilis.
If you’re looking for some unique souvenirs and would like to support the community this is the kind of place that’s worth visiting. La Plantation is open 365 days of the year and they do free guided tours. After the tour, you’ll have a chance to try their peppers and spices and gets tips on how to use them in cooking. If you want to get more involved then why not join a cookery class where you’ll be taught how to get the best out of the products, and then the best bit – eat them.
Wander around the “5 senses garden” and explore the lake in a cart pulled by a water buffalo.
Tip: you need to book in advance and the last tour time is 4.30 pm.
8. Make like Indiana Jones at Beng Mealea
If you’re into a bit of rough and tumble, then this temple is going to be right up your street. Located roughly forty miles east of Siem Reap, the Beng Mealea temple is slowly being devoured by nature. Years ago, you couldn’t even access it through the jungle, but an effort to clear it has allowed access once more. It’s still falling down in places but is safe to visit. Not as grand as Angkor Wat perhaps, but special in its own, crumbling, neglected way.
You’ll feel like a real explorer navigating through passageways covered with hanging tree vines. You won’t be having to climb over the ruins, there are purpose-built passageways allowing for safe viewing. Soak up the wild jungle atmosphere, and take your camera for a glimpse into the past. The temple is not being restored and it’s definitely a sight worth seeing when in Cambodia.
Tip: bring bug repellant and plenty of water
Is Cambodia worth visiting for its beaches?
Yes, absolutely, Cambodia is definitely worth visiting for its beaches! Cambodia’s islands are often overlooked in favor of the more well-known islands of Thailand. But if you don’t visit the islands in Cambodia you’re really missing out. Whatever kind of vibe you’re after, you’ll find what you desire, with turquoise waters and white sand.
Koh Rong – an island of two halves
This island has become popular with the backpacking crowd. It is growing a reputation as a party island and if that’s your thing then great. But if it isn’t and you’re after something a little more, relaxed you’ll find it here too. The main party events take place around the area of Koh Tuch in the south – it’s where the ferries dock. You can party all night in Koh Tuch, but the rest of the island is great for families and couples looking for something a bit more low-key.
On the western side of the island is Sok San Beach Resort – built for the cast and crew of TV series Survivor. Now a family-friendly getaway you can choose from 600 villas for your beach getaway. If you’re a couple looking for a super secluded sojourn then look up the one and only resort located on “Lonely Beach”. It’s only accessible by water, there are no shops and no wifi, so you’d have to find other ways of occupying yourselves. Cocktail on the beach? Coming right up.
Koh Thmei – for getting back to nature
Koh Thmei is great for nature lovers. Located in a national park, it’s home to many species of bird, monkeys, civets, and lizards. Bird watchers love it, but families will enjoy the quiet and the safe, clean waters. Koh Thmei was named amongst the top ten beach hotels and bungalows a few years ago. You can get here by boat from Koh Kchhang in under one hour.
Hike alongside streams and rivers. Have a go at snorkeling or hire a kayak and explore the coastline, or just relax on one of the beautiful beaches. There is currently only one resort here, consisting of basic, eco-friendly wooden bungalows. There aren’t many bungalows available, adding to the peaceful vibe, and they are all practically on the beach. Bliss.
Did you know? There are over sixty Cambodian islands, and Koh means “island”.
As much time as you can. There is so much to see and do here, people return time and time again. We’d recommend to spend at least at least a couple of weeks in Cambodia if you can.
Cambodia has two seasons – wet and dry. If you want to visit in the dry season, Cambodia is worth visiting between November and February. The temperatures start to climb in February making it hot and humid.