Cambodia is a fabulous destination in southeast Asia, which offers a combination of adventure, history, food, and nature. I visited in 2009, so conditions might’ve changed over the last decade (so I’ll avoid specific restaurant recommendations), but the key attractions mentioned below are definitely still around!
Siem Reap is a pleasant town in northwestern Cambodia and is the base for anyone going to the famous ruins at Angkor Wat. You can get there nowadays by direct bus from Bangkok– which is way easier than when I did it (I took a bus to a town near the border, tuk-tuk to the crossing, and flagged a van on the Cambodian side to Siem Reap). Allow 6-7 hours.
There are plenty of good hotels in town; the one I stayed at looks like it’s now called the Hima Boutique Hotel, which was clean, cheap, traditional, and had a good breakfast. (Looks like the Hima is about the same.)
Angkor Wat (and surroundings): This is the main thing to see in Siem Reap — and arguably Cambodia’s most famous attraction — a sprawling complex of Buddhist temples dating back to the 12th century (and was originally built as a Hindu temple for Vishnu). While Angkor Wat is the most famous, there are plenty of other 12th and 13th century temples in the broader complex including Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Phnom Bakheng, and Ta Prohm— which is famous for being overgrown with trees. Once you escape the large groups, exploring the temples feels like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie– there’s plenty of dark moss-covered tunnels and hidden buildings covered in vines and roots. A lot of people like to photograph the Angkor Wat temple at sunrise and Phnom Bakheng at sunset — as they both offer beautiful views. (Because a lot of people like to do it, you can expect a healthy crowd jostling around with tripods and selfie sticks.)
If you’d like an in-depth without missing anything, you can hire a guide through a reputable company online or through your hotel. I recall a few folks were also hanging out around the area offering guide services, as well, but their quality is a gamble. Personally, I just explored the ruins on my own (after having read up on them in advance). I hired a tuk-tuk to drive from Siem Reap to the entrance and set out on foot from there. There were also folks driving tuk-tuks inside the park, making it easy to get from one set of ruins to another (Note: the area is massive!)
Back in Siem Reap, my hotel recommended a nearby buffet dinner with Khymer cuisine (delicious curry rice dishes, bamboo shoots, curry coconut soup, etc), which also offered a traditional cultural dance. It was touristy but still fun and a great value. Afterwards, I explored the city’s lively night market(s) — with plenty of great food, juices, restaurants, and souvenirs. One interesting thing available throughout the region is “Dr. Fish” — pools of small carnivorous fish that eat the dead skin off your feet! It tickles a fair bit, but your feet feel smooth afterwards! When I was in Thailand, Dr. Fish was starting to become a bit pricey and gross (with multiple feet in the pool). At this night market, however, the owner let me stay as long as I wanted, I had the pool to myself, AND I got a free beer to sip while the fish were working their magic — it was a true bargain!
Also in Siem Reap is the Angkor National Museum, just in case you didn’t get enough artifacts and history at Angkor Wat!
Chong Khneas – Floating Village
From my hotel I organized a driver (and boat tour) of the Chong Khneas — a large floating village on the mouth of Cambodia’s huge Tonle Sap lake. We toured around on a long, flat, traditional boat, which I had to myself (and was able to sprawl out on the front. The village was fascinating — families were out fishing, farming, and living on the marshy wetlands of the lake, mostly using traditional wooden dugout canoes. Kids were out roaming around the water (sometimes rowing around in large cooking bowls) playing with snakes (perhaps to attract tourists). There was even a restaurant and a floating school.
I took a bus from Siem Reap to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Even though it took several hours, the time went by quickly– listening to the soothing local music on the bus and watching the vibrant green landscape of rice paddies, farms, and villages. We had a rest stop along the way at a small village where a local vendor was serving up bowls of various fried insects: grasshoppers, beetles, grub worms, you name it! For those who didn’t like insects, she also had fried tarantulas.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, I met up with a friend who was also travelling there. As you might expect for a capital, Phnom is a large sprawling city set to the backdrop of tuk-tuks and motorbikes zipping around.
After checking into our hotel, our first stop was the Royal Palace – a magnificent complex dating back to 1866, along with the adjacent temple complex— offering prime examples of Khymer architecture. We also stopped into the nearby National Museum and watched a traditional dance performance around the corner.
Near the Central Market, there are plenty of street food stalls — my friend had a bowl of fish head soup. The city center also has plenty of more upscale restaurant options, and no shortage of bars and nightclubs. We had dinner one night at a restaurant along the riverside, which offered a scenic, relaxed atmosphere.
I recommend visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (south of the city center), which recounts the tragic history of atrocities committed by Pol Pot’s Communist Khymer Rouge regime. The museum is housed in a former Khymer Rouge prison and interrogation center, which has been preserved in its original state. Further south of town is the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, located at the infamous site of the Khymer Rouge killing fields, which offers more history about that grim period of Cambodia’s history. It also contains a large, glass-walled stupa tower filled with unearthed skulls of victims.
For a more uplifting experience, our tuk-tuk driver took us to a small arena about 20 minutes outside of town, where we watched a Cambodian boxing match. It’s similar to Thai boxing — and pretty intense — with lots of kicking and punching. Afterwards, we had dinner at a random roadside restaurant and went out for karaoke!