From the mighty Angkor Empire to the brutal Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is known for its colourful history. However, there is so much more to this fascinating country than its past. Cambodia’s natural beauty, captivating culture and island escapes entice visitors from all over the world. Whether you want history, nature, food, beaches or nightlife, this friendly-faced nation has something for everyone. You will never be short of things to do in Cambodia. This list gives a run-down of some of the country’s ultimate experiences.
1. Watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat
Of all the things to do in Cambodia, witnessing a shimmering sunrise over the country’s national treasure tops every list. The largest religious structure on the planet, Angkor Wat is an internationally recognised symbol of Cambodian history.
The temple was originally built during the 12th century to honour the Hindu god Vishnu but has been a dedicated Buddhist site since the 15th century. As you step back in time to this ancient civilisation and a new day begins, the architectural magnificence of Angkor Wat will take your breath away.
The ultimate thing to do in Cambodia: visit Angkor Wat
2. Bargain at Kep’s bustling crab market
Fried crab is a traditional beachside delicacy in Cambodia. While Kep has countless restaurants promising the tastiest crab that money can buy, the pier is the place to go. Buying crabs is a hands-on affair, and one of the most authentic things to do in Cambodia. Put your haggling hat on and muscle in amongst the crowds to handpick your meal the local way. After getting elbow deep in buckets of sea water, have your chosen crustacean fried with garlic and pepper, and prepare your taste buds for a treat.
Crab market of Kep
3. Marvel at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
With its glistening golden rooftop, the Royal Palace is a sparkling jewel on Phnom Penh’s skyline. The compound of this stunning riverside structure contains a variety of royal buildings, including the majestic Throne Hall. During your visit you can also explore the neighbouring Silver Pagoda. Paved in five thousand silver tiles, this extravagant pagoda is home to the renowned Emerald Buddha. It also houses a solid gold Buddha studded with nearly 10,000 diamonds. When it comes to treasures, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda certainly have the wow factor.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
4. Unplug on the castaway island of Koh Totang
If you are looking for paradise, the isolated bliss of Koh Totang might just be it. The island offers a simple selection of bohemian bungalows. Aside from that, you will encounter little other than colourful coral and tootling toucans. Flying the flag for sustainable living, the island’s eco-chic bungalows feature compost toilets and solar power. Despite the lack of electricity, the luminous plankton that magically light up the night sea are enough to distract even the hardiest technology fan from the island’s absent Wi-Fi.
5. Explore the enigmatic faces of Bayon
With 216 giant smiling faces carved into its 54 gothic towers, the temple of Bayon is truly mesmerising. Situated at the exact centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, this 12th-century state temple was built by King Jayavarman VII as a dedication to Buddha. With curved lips and lowered lids, the temple’s hundreds of faces emanate an intriguing sense of serenity. For the best views, stand across the adjacent pond to witness the jungle-fringed Bayon reflected atmospherically on the surface of the water.
The Temple of Bayon
6. Spot Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong
Kratie is a mellow riverside town with charming colonial architecture. Known for offering the best sunsets in Cambodia, it is the perfect place to enjoy some downtime. It is also an ideal base from which to encounter the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin. From a port 20km north of the town, boats glide along the surface of the Mekong hoping to glimpse the river’s aquatic residents. Sadly, these dolphins have a dwindling population. This site is one of the few remaining homes of this critically endangered species, making it even more special.
Dolphin spotting in the Mekong
7. Dance until dawn on Koh Rong
If partying is on your list of things to do in Cambodia, Koh Rong is the place to go. This island’s thumping nightlife features lively bar crawls, outrageous all-night parties and a bottomless bucketful of Mekong whiskey. And what better way to recover from a night of raucous beachside raving than a lazy day on one of the island’s many white sand shores?
Koh Rong Beach bars
8. Crunch on Cambodian critters
Put your taste buds to the test with Cambodia’s fascinating menu of creepy-crawlies. For first-time insect eaters, we recommend the delicious Red Ant, Beef and Holy Basil dish. Stir-fried in lemongrass, garlic, ginger and chilli, the ants’ tangy flavour blends beautifully with the beef and basil. For an epicurean experience of the eight-legged variety, deep-fried tarantula is a daring choice. With a sticky coating of caramelised sugar, this hairy portion of protein is said to boost beauty.
Deep-fried tarantula is a local delicacy in Cambodia
9. Feel like Indiana Jones at Ta Prohm
Best known for its appearance in Tomb Raider, the jungle temple of Ta Prohm is one of the most atmospheric and photogenic sites in the Angkor complex. With twisting Banyan roots clambering up and over its walls, the temple has an otherworldly air. As you wander among the ruins, it is hard to imagine a place that houses such a variety of plant and birdlife was once home to gold, pearls and silks.
Ta Prohm Temple
10. Get away from it all on Koh Rong Sanloem
The enchanting Koh Rong Sanloem is an island of many faces. From picture-postcard Saracen Bay, to the quirky fishing village of M’Pai Bai, there is something for every kind of beachgoer. The suitably named Sunset Beach and Lazy Beach offer idyllic getaways on the western coast, while more intrepid travellers can explore the island’s interior jungle trails. If you are lucky you will encounter a variety of local wildlife including lizards, snakes, toucans and gibbons.
11. Lose yourself in the wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains
The Cardamom Mountains are the perfect destination for anyone looking for ‘off the beaten track’ things to do in Cambodia. Once a stronghold for Khmer Rouge fighters, the emerald peaks of this beautiful region are now home to a pioneering eco-tourism project that offers a sustainable livelihood to local people. While listening to gibbons call, visitors can trek through dense jungle, spot rare wildlife and uncover the secrets of the Cardamom’s ancient burial jars. The area is also one of the last remaining elephant corridors in the country.
12. Experience a rustic retreat on Koh Tonsay
Affectionately known as Rabbit Island, this little islet off Kep has a charming, rough and ready feel to it. The palm-fringed shore is lined with simple bamboo bungalows, along with a few wandering chickens and the odd cow. Most people visit Koh Tonsay on a day trip, but those that stay the night will be treated to a blissfully peaceful sunset. Electricity is turned off at 10 pm, leaving you with nothing but the soothing sound of the ocean waves as you drift off to sleep.
13. Go clubbing in the capital
Phnom Penh is a place to let your hair down. From cool riverside bars to jam-packed pulsating dancefloors, Cambodia’s capital city will keep you entertained until the early hours. Streets 278/51 and 308 are particularly loved for their round-the-clock nightlife. There is a range of backpacker hotspots boasting long bars and even longer lists of beers and cocktails, while the open-air Eclipse Sky Bar offers unrivalled city views. Pontoon and The Lounge are popular nightclubs, while LGBT venue Rainbow Bar hosts an entertaining drag show from Tuesday to Sunday.
14. Learn the secret of Kampot’s internationally renowned pepper
With its leisurely pace of life and picturesque surroundings, Kampot is a favourite destination among travellers. It is also the breeding ground for the internationally renowned Kampot pepper. Admired by chefs all over, Kampot pepper is said to be one of the finest tastings in the world. For food lovers, a visit to organic pepper farms is one of the best things to do in Cambodia. Sample the fiery flavours of green, red and black peppercorns, and discover the life story and secrets behind this great tasting condiment.
Cambodia's famous Kampot Pepper
15. Uncover the dark history of the Khmer Rouge
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was subjected to a brutal regime that claimed the lives of around two million people. Under the former schoolteacher, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge committed unimaginable atrocities against their own people. A Phnom Penh high school was turned into the S21 torture and interrogation centre, where prisoners were forced to make false confessions, while land near the village of Choeung Ek was used as an extermination site and mass grave. Visits to these places are harrowing, but give an important insight into Cambodia’s turbulent past.
S21 Torture Centre
Remains of the dark history of the Khmer Rouge
16. Party on Pub Street
What better way to unwind from a day of temple-hopping than with an evening of bar-hopping? From the rock ruins of Angkor Wat temple to the rock anthems of Angkor What? bar, downtown Siem Reap has a variety of pubs and clubs to suit every nightlife enthusiast. Pub Street is at the heart of the backpacker scene, promising bright lights, cheap beer and pumping music into the early hours.
Pub Street in Siem Reap
17. Meander the shell scattered shores of Koh Thmei
Part of Ream National Park, Koh Thmei is a haven for nature lovers. The island is home to over 100 species of bird, and the beach glitters with mounds of exotic shells of all shapes and sizes. While the birdwatchers are busy surveying the skies, other guests can enjoy a leisurely walk around the island, or take a snorkel to explore the offshore coral. If you are lucky you may even spot a pod of dolphins leaping on the horizon.
18. Savour the flavours of Fish Amok
The national dish of Cambodia, Fish Amok is an absolute must try. Traditionally served in an artistically folded banana leaf, this classic Khmer meal blends coconut milk, lemongrass, shallots, chilli, ginger and turmeric into a deliciously creamy curry sauce. The silky white flesh of the fish generously soaks up the curry’s flavour, which is distinctly unique thanks to the addition of the bitter local herb slok ngor. Depending on where you dine, the consistency of the curry can range from a fluffy mousse to a smooth soup.
Cambodia's national dish: Fish Amok
19. Observe the National Museum’s fine sculpture collection
Phnom Penh’s National Museum houses the world’s largest collection of ancient Khmer artefacts. With exhibits from the prehistoric, pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor eras, it is home to thousands of intriguing items. Its display of sculptures is considered among the finest in the world, of which an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Vishnu is a particularly respected masterpiece. With its assortment of historically significant images and sculptures, a visit to the National Museum is undoubtedly one of the most culturally enriching things to do in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh National Musuem
20. Immerse yourself in nature in Mondulkiri
Home to indigenous tribes, rolling hills, thundering waterfalls and impenetrable forests, the eastern province of Mondulkiri oozes natural beauty. Unspoiled by mass tourism, this quiet corner of Cambodia is an adventure traveller’s dream. From the base town of Sen Monorom, you can head off into the wild. The region is also home to one of the country’s most ethical elephant experiences. The Mondulkiri Project has six resident elephants that visitors can feed and wash. Funds go towards conservation and supporting local tribespeople.
Elephants in Cambodia
21. Discover the lost city of Banteay Chhmar
One of Cambodia’s hidden treasures, the secluded location and large scale of Banteay Chhmar make it unlike any other ruins in the country. A visit to this 12th-century site, which has never been excavated, is like travelling back in time. While jungle birdlife has now claimed residence of Banteay Chhmar, the beautiful carvings of its heyday can still be seen in the crumbling walls and fading towers.
22. Enjoy a plate of Loc Lac
A beguiling blend of Cambodian, Vietnamese and French cuisine, Loc Lac is a dish loved by locals and foreigners alike. Served on a bed of salad, this sizzling stack of wok-tossed beef is typically enjoyed with a fried egg and chips. The meat is cut into cubes and marinated in garlic, oyster sauce, pepper and soy sauce, before being ‘shaken’ and served with a zesty lime dipping sauce.
23. Visit Tonle Sap Lake, the aquatic heart of Cambodia
One of the largest freshwater lakes in South East Asia, Tonle Sap is the life source of Cambodia. The lake is home to incredible biodiversity, with over 100 varieties of water birds and 200 species of fish. Snakes, crocodiles and turtles also inhabit the banks of this colossal body of water. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the area is protected for its cultural, social and scientific significance. Take an atmospheric boat trip to explore the fascinating lives of local people in the floating villages and markets that rest on the water’s surface.
Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia
There you have it, our list of the top things to do in Cambodia.