Top 5 Reasons to Visit Cambodia: from the Dark Past to the Light of Today

What images first come to mind when you hear the name ‘Cambodia’? Whatever comes to mind, Cambodia marries a vibrant culture with a tumultuous history and makes for a fascinating part of travelling through South-East Asia.

Do you see the stone faces of Angkor Wat staring out from a dark jungle? The sizzling skewers of spiders and scorpions speared on night market grills? The dark 21st-century history of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge?

There is lots to see and there are so many reasons to visit Cambodia now. Here are just a few reasons to visit – and soon.

The history

Whether you’re into modern or ancient history, Cambodia has something to grab your attention. Once the territory of the Khmer Empire (and the most powerful political body at the time), the entire country is now dotted with ancient ruins of its temples and palaces.

Indulge your inner Indiana Jones while exploring the famous vine-covered religious complex of Angkor Wat, or visit the contested Preah Vihear temple (which Thailand also claims as its own) to see what all the fuss is about. If you want to get away from the crowds, make a detour from Angkor Wat to check out the little-visited Beng Mealea – also known as the ‘Jungle Temple.’ You’ll see why.

Angkor Wat
The magnificent temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is Banteay Srei temple

On the more sombre side, take time to pay respects to the victims of Cambodia’s dark modern history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. These sights are stark reminders of the pain that the country suffered during the despotic rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, and how important it is that we never forget.

But when witnessing Cambodia’s dark past, don’t forget that the light is never far behind – which brings us to our second reason to visit…

The hope

In the midst of unspeakable suffering powerful courage can arise, and a generation after the Khmer Rouge there’s a wealth of examples of Cambodian citizens working to heal their community in inspiring ways. In Siem Reap, a former child soldier founded the Cambodian Landmine Museum as a mission of redemption, aiming to educate the international community on the tragedy of these weapons, and help de-mine rural areas in Cambodia that international efforts overlook.

Support local artists by visiting one of the Artisans Angkor workshops, which strive to both preserve Cambodia’s handicrafts and invigorate its economy by training youth in traditional art forms. And the next time you’re craving a steaming bowl of Cambodian chicken curry? Stop by Friends Restaurant in the capital Phnom Penh, which provides job training for disadvantaged youth and former street children. Now that’s a meal with a conscience!

Cambodia is also a great place to volunteer and give back to the local community, but we recommend very careful research into any volunteering program – and to avoid orphanage tourism. For help on choosing an ethical volunteering program, check out this fantastic guide.

Surprising islands

Y’know those Full Moon Parties, white sand beaches and turquoise waters that the islands of Thailand are so famous for? Well, it turns out that Cambodia has all that too – and without the crowds! The biggest jumping-off points for these islands are the southwestern cities of Sihanoukville and Kep, which sit right on the Gulf of Thailand.

For diving and snorkelling, don your fins off the shores of Koh Tang, but if you’re craving more above-land activities, take a hike through the jungle and then rest your weary feet on the sands of Koh Rong Saloem. For the ultimate chill factor, hire a boat out to Koh Russei or Koh Tonsay for a quieter vibe and your own little bungalow, but come quickly – some of these islands have foreign interests moving in fast!

Ancient arts

Flashing sequins, fluid movements, lots of make-up and big bold monkey masks: you’re missing out on something special if you don’t attend a traditional dance performance in Cambodia. Khmer dance, also known as Apsara dance, is performed mostly as a ‘dance-drama,’ which means that each show tells a story. It’s famous for its iconic costumes, and one of the best places to see a show is at the Apsara Theatre in Siem Riep.

While you’re in town, Phare, the Cambodian Circus also comes highly recommended. It’s a blend of traditional and modern theatre, showcasing dance, contortion, music, and storytelling. Oh, and remember our reason #2 to visit? Phare is also a project of the non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak (“Brightness of the Arts”), aiming to revive Cambodian performance art in a modern context.

Pure friendliness

Even despite its dark modern history – or possibly because of it – Cambodia seems eager to remind visitors that there is goodness out there. How? By being one of the friendliest countries in the region! Travellers often share stories of the welcoming attitudes they encounter throughout Cambodia, and Rough Guides even recognised it as the World’s Most Friendly Country.

See it in the smiles you encounter from strangers, the willingness to help lost travellers and even the serene stone faces of Angkor temples. Just one look at their beatific expressions and you’ll know where the term ‘Khmer smile’ comes from!

Best way to explore Cambodia

Ready to visit this amazing country? Check out the wide variety of Stray Asia Tours and make it happen. You won’t regret visiting Cambodia, such an interesting country in South-East Asia.

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Emily

Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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