Cambodia is slowly recovering from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. There are still big problems: landmines, poverty and a devastated infrastructure. But the process of reconstruction and healing is already underway and more and more tourists are rediscovering the attractions of Cambodia.
Angkor’s awe-inspiring temples draw most tourists, but the country has so much more to offer: tropical beaches, colonial buildings, and abundant natural attractions. Here is an overview of the main tourist attractions of Cambodia.
1. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat (meaning “Temple of the City”) is the most magnificent and largest of all Angkor temples and Cambodia’s main tourist attraction. Built around the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, the balance, composition and beauty of the temple make it one of the best monuments in the world. A huge rectangular reservoir surrounds Angkor Wat, rising through a series of three rectangular terraces to the central shrine and the tower to a height of 213 meters. This arrangement reflects the traditional Khmer idea of the temple mountain, in which the temple represents Mount Meru, the house of the gods in Hinduism.
2. Banteay Srei
Although officially part of the Angkor complex, Banteay Srei is located 25 km (15 miles) northeast of the main group of temples and is therefore often considered a separate Cambodian attraction. The temple was completed in 967 AD and is mostly made of red sandstone, a material that lends itself to the elaborate decorative carvings on the walls that are still clearly visible today. Banteay Srei is the only major temple in Angkor that was not built for a king, but was built by one of King Rajendravarman’s advisers, Yajnyavahara.
3. Temple of Bayon
The Bayon Temple, part of the world famous destination of Angkor, features a sea of over 200 huge stone faces looking out in all directions. The curious smiling faces, which many believe to be a portrait of King Jayavarman VII himself or a combination of him and Buddha, are an instantly recognizable image of Angkor. Built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII as part of a massive expansion of its capital Angkor Thom, the Bayon is built exactly in the center of the royal city.
4. Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple located at the top of a 525 meter cliff in the Dangrêk Mountains, on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. It has the most spectacular setting of all Khmer temples. Most of the temple was built in the 11th and 12th centuries during the reigns of Khmer kings Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Preah Vihear is the subject of a long-standing territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, and several soldiers were killed in clashes in 2009.
5. Silver Pagoda
Located on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the Silver Pagoda is home to many national treasures, including statues and gold jewelry of Buddha. Most notable is a small 17th-century baccarat crystal Buddha (the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia) and a life-size gold Maitreya Buddha adorned with 9,584 diamonds. The inner wall of the courtyard of the Silver Pagoda is decorated with a fresco of the Ramayana myth, rich in color and detail, painted in 1903-04 by 40 Khmer artists.
Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, is a port city and resort town on the Gulf of Thailand. The big draw here are the white sand beaches and several undeveloped tropical islands. Sihanoukville is a great place to relax, but be prepared to battle the crows during peak season or a vacation weekend.
Kratie is a small town located on the banks of the Mekong River and is dominated by a central market surrounded by old French colonial buildings. There is no large-scale tourism, but many backpackers spend there in high season. This is the place in Cambodia to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which inhabit the Mekong River in decreasing numbers. It is estimated that between 66 and 86 dolphins remain in the Upper Mekong region of Cambodia.
8. Tonle Sap
Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is of great importance to Cambodia. The lake expands and shrinks considerably with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonle Sap flows into the Mekong in Phnom Penh. However, when the heavy rains of the year begin in June, the flow of the Tonle Sap changes direction and a huge lake is formed. Tonle Sap is home to many Vietnamese ethnic communities and many Cham communities, living in floating villages around the lake.
9. Bokor Hill Station
Bokor Hill station near Kampot was built by the French in the 1920s as a refuge from the heat of Phnom Penh. It has since been abandoned twice, first in the 1940s when the Japanese invaded Cambodia and again in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge swept the country. Today, Bokor Hill Station and its abandoned buildings exude a haunting ghost town feel. Since October 2008, the road to Bokor has been officially closed due to the ongoing reconstruction. Independent access seems impossible, although there are excursions organized by local travel agencies.
10. Koh Ker
Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Empire for a very short time from 928 to 944. During this short time, very spectacular buildings and huge sculptures were built. The site is dominated by Prasat Thom, a 30-meter-high temple pyramid that rises above the surrounding jungle. A gigantic Garuda (a mythical half-man, half-bird) creature, hewn from the stone blocks, still watches over the summit, though it is now partially covered. Abandoned in the jungle for nearly a millennium, Koh Ker was one of Cambodia’s most remote and inaccessible temple destinations. This has changed thanks to the recent mine clearance and the opening of a new toll road.