Cambodia: The Kingdom of wonder. In the 1960s, Cambodia was one of the strongest nations in SouthEast Asia, with Phnom Penh billed as the Paris of the East, lined with wide beautiful boulevards and lots of modernist French-Khmer Architecture, even Singapore’s Prime Minister once said it is a model to follow. That golden age brought about by King Sihanouk’s brilliance and benevolence abruptly came to an end when Lon Nol staged a short lived coup before the Khmer Rouge took over, overturning years of progress and decimating a quarter of the population.
Today, Cambodia is in a renaissance, but it is far from its golden age renaissance of the 1960s. Preferring to emulate China’s form of governance, where strict political control is mixed with open economic policy, Cambodia has grown tremendously, and some say haphazardly with parcels of land and assets pieced out to numerous foreign investors. Phnom Penh’s rate of change is stunning, with shiny skyscrapers and office towers sprouting up at a rate never before seen and international franchises rushing to enter the market. Now is the time to visit Cambodia and experience it’s many unique things to do, before the landscape changes forever.
This heralds a new dawn for Cambodia’s tourism. While Angkor Wat obviously still dominates the imagination of all incoming tourists, the hidden wonders of the kingdom in other cities and provinces are starting to gain prominence and accessibility. Here’s the backstreet guide on how to traverse the Kingdom of wonder, presenting to you the best things to do in Cambodia.
Things to do in Cambodia: The main cities
Spend a day touring the sprawling Angkor complex, don’t miss the sunrise at the reflecting pool, then head over to Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple before imagining magnificent armies parading past the terrace of Elephants. Check out nature reclaiming Angkor at Ta Phrom where the trees become one with the wall. Climb up Angkor Wat in the afternoon before capping it off at Phnom Bak Heng where you can catch the sunset over the Angkor complex.
For lesser known temple complexes where you can play out your own version of tomb raider without the hordes of selfie stick toting tour bus tourists, check out Phnom Kulen, Banteay Srey, Kabal Spean, Thommanon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Chau Say Tevoda, Ta Keo, Srah Srang and Prasat Krava!
Also get to know the people better with intimate cultural experiences at Backstreet Academy – Check out iron pencils sketching, Cambodian Boxing, Stone carving to appreciate the temples and the fear factor challenge to see how a necessity for survival during the Khmer Rouge era turned into a tradition.
Check out our full guide to things to do in Siem Reap here.
The unmissables here are the Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng S21 genocide museum where you can witness the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in extremely close proximity.
The usual tourist spots include the National Museum, the royal palace, Central Market and the Independence Monument.
For architecture lovers don’t miss the Chaktomuk Theatre, The Olympic Stadium, Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh and the National Library.
Check out our full Guide to things to do in Phnom Penh here.
The party destination for most backpackers, its perfect for chilling out by the many beaches and partying at the numerous clubs available. For the adventurous, try out flyboarding where you get strapped to a water jet-pack, or go for parasailing or a quad bike tour through the countryside. If that’s not enough, go for a dirt bike experience! A lesser known waterfall called Kbal Chhay is also popular with the locals, or you can also visit the neighbouring Bamboo island on a boat tour.
A beautiful seaside town that used to be a resort getaway for the ruling French colonialists, it still retains the feel of ages past. While your time at the beaches or at beautifully restored hotels and visit magnificent villas long abandoned. Don’t forget to eat the many varieties of crab cooked up at Kimly Restaurant and see how they are caught at the crab market. Try out the highly popular Ficus tree climb, or go for a boating trip to the neighbouring islands.
Kampot is the gateway to the Bokor highlands! Take a trip up the highlands to visit an abandoned palace of King Sihanouk and get covered in cool misty fog as you head up. Numerous abandoned villas are also available for exploration along the way up. Cruise along Kampot river at night to see tons of fireflies and visit the most famous export of Kampot province – Kampot pepper. Also check out a juggling workshop with a local NGO or try kiteboarding off the coast of Kampot!
Check out the bamboo train tracks in Battambang, go for a cycling trip to check out Battambang’s architecture or check out a bat cave and a mesmerizing sunset at the Sampov mountains.