Like a phoenix, Cambodia has risen from utter devastation to become, once again, a nation with hope for the future. Forty years after the Khmer Rouge regime decimated its population, Cambodia invites tourists to discover ancient temples, rustic villages, lush jungles, beautiful beaches and phenomenal food. Here’s your five-minute guide to the sights and flavors of this southeastern Asian nation.
1. See the temples of Angkor. Every tourist in Cambodia visits Angkor, and for good reason: It’s astounding. Angkor is a vast complex of temples dating from the 9th to the 15th century AD.1 Lavish carvings of faces and asparas (nymphs) decorate the structures; at Ta Prohm, which is partially ruined, massive fig roots are entwined with the stones.
2. Hike to the river temple of Kbal Spean. In the Angkor complex is a shrine deep in the jungle called Kbal Spean. A stone riverbed, accessible only by hiking, is elaborately carved with Hindu gods and goddesses. After seeing the river carvings, hike to the nearby waterfall to cool off advises Lonely Planet.2
3. Make friends with some elephants. Conscious tourists avoid elephant rides, because elephants are often mentally and physically abused, shackled and kept in isolation.3 If you love these gentle giants, visit them at a sanctuary instead, like the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri. You can hang out with an elephant family and even volunteer there.
4. Bike around the islands of the Mekong River. One of the best things to do in Cambodia is exploring on two wheels. A short distance from Phnom Penh is the Silk Islands, accessible by ferry, where you can take a guided cycling tour through tiny villages.4
5. Learn about the Cambodian genocide. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge government, under dictator Pol Pot, killed as many as 2 million Cambodians under the guise of creating an agrarian utopia. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum in Phnom Penh bear witness to the horror so many Cambodians endured.
Cambodia is extremely affordable for Western tourists. In Phnom Penh, for instance, you can stay at The Kabiki, a lovely boutique hotel in a restored French villa, for $50 per night. Ideal for families, The Kabiki has swimming pools, a babysitting service, and peaceful garden surroundings.
Also in Phnom Penh is the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, which calls itself “the iconic resting place for the well-traveled since 1929.” The rooms are elegant, the food is superb, and the hotel even has its own signature cocktail: the Femme Fatale, created for Jacqueline Kennedy when she visited in 1967.
For perfect serenity, stay at the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, which is exactly what it sounds like: 12 spacious floating tents on the Tatai River. Take a sunset cruise, trek through the rainforest, or just relax and let the water rock you to sleep. Near Angkor is the Amansara Resort, built in the 1960s for the Cambodian prince, which has luxury villas with private plunge pools and garden courtyards.
While Cambodian food may remind you of Vietnamese and Thai, it will surprise you with its inventive combinations of lime, coconut, pickle, and pepper. The nation’s favorite dish is fish amok: fish steeped in kroeng curry and steamed in a banana-leaf cup. Sweet treats include Cambodian iced coffee and fried bananas.5
Conde Nast Traveller singles out Cuisine Wat Damnak as “arguably the best Khmer cuisine in town,” with ever-changing tasting menus that add modern French flair to traditional dishes.6 Marum is a cool café with a mission: training former street children in the culinary arts. The menu includes some adventurous choices, like stir-fried red tree ants and a crocodile burger. One of the most popular Siem Reap restaurants is The Sugar Palm, known for its dedication to classic Khmer cuisine. Highlights include stir-fried beef salad and prahok kh’tih, a spicy minced-pork dip.
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