Things to Do in Cambodia
For many people, Angkor Wat alone justifies a trip to Southeast Asia. Like many sites in the Angkor Archeological Park, this breathtaking temple dates to the 12th century, with its unique west-facing orientation indicating that it was intended as a mausoleum for its creator, Suryavarman II.
Angkor Wat’s colossal size reflects its ambition: this was intended as no less than a microcosm of the universe. Nonetheless it’s difficult to get lost here, with the complex arranged on three tiers and the instantly recognizable 5 inner and 4 outer towers of the raised central temple serving as orientation points. And they make a particularly majestic sight reflected in the nearby water basin.
Every surface in this well-preserved complex is covered with intricate carvings reflecting Hindu cosmology and the Khmers’ military triumphs.
This giant yellow dome first opened in 1937, and today, more than 70 years later, the Central Market is remains a destination for first-time visitors to Cambodia’s capital city. Here, travelers can wander through hundreds of stalls selling bargain goods, antique coins, clothing, clocks, fabric, shoes, food and traditional souvenirs. A popular spot, heavy rains can flood the grounds, so it’s a better bet in drier seasons.
Catch a performance of the Royal Dance Troupe at the open-air theater in the coronation hall or linger near the balcony, where the current king has been known to make an appearance. The private residence, built in 1866, houses an impressive collection of artwork, and the multi-purpose house of the white elephant, just outside the palace walls, is used for royal births, deaths and weddings. The current king may live in this well-known palace, but visitors can still tour most of its grounds.
A trip to this historic spot just 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh is not for the faint of heart. Known as The Killing fields, some one million Cambodians were murdered here by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Nearly 9,000 bodies have been discovered—including former prisoners from Tuol Sleng.
A Buddhist stupa marks the memorial, and visitors can gaze through its clear walls at some 5,000 human skulls—all victims of the bloody regime. Dozens of mass graves are visible and it is not uncommon for travelers to find human bones, teeth or discarded clothing here—particularly after heavy rains—as a large number of people are still buried in shallow graves.
The Bayon temple forms a square at the center of the much larger square of the vast Angkor Thom, and is the architectural highlight of the complex. This was considered by the Khmers to be the conjunction of heaven and earth, though the auspicious site was covered in jungle for centuries.
Like much in the area it dates to the 12th-century reign of King Jayavarman VII, and is particularly noted for its magnificent carved stone faces with their beatific smiles. They depict either the king himself or a bodhisattva; the confusion was probably deliberate.
The bas relief carvings on the temple’s outer walls are a riot of scenes depicting everything from celestial beings and mighty battles to humble village life.
A 60-foot (20-meter) tall Angkor-style monument built in 1958, the Independence Monument was constructed to commemorate the Cambodians winning back their independence from the French in 1953. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann designed the monument; the architecture is patterned after a lotus flower and adorned with five levels of Naga heads, which gives it a very distinctive look. Located in the heart of busy Phnom Penh, the Independence Monument attracts many visitors, not only for its unique architecture, but also for its location: it’s in the middle of a busy intersection and the eastern side features a large, open park that is a popular spot for locals to gather and jog or practice tai chi and aerobics.
More Things to Do in Cambodia
While houses on stilts can be quite common in Cambodia (you’ll often see people relaxing in hammocks strung underneath the houses, homes on stilts in a lake…well, that’s a bit more unusual. Kompong Phluk is a set of villages that are located on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake, about 10 miles (16 km) from Siem Reap. The community, which consists of about 3,000 villagers, mostly live in stilted homes and depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihood. During wet season, this area will be completely submerged (hence the houses on stilts) and Kompong Phluk truly becomes a semi-floating village; in the dry season, the same stilted houses may rise up to 18 feet (about 6 meters) above the water.
Thousand-year-old carvings, thundering waterfalls and an iconic reclining Buddha make Phnom Kulen National Park one of the most-visited escapes in all of Cambodia. Travelers pile into four-door sedans that navigate the narrow, scenic road from Siem Reap to the popular park for an up close look at impressive statues and a massive Buddha. But it’s views from the park’s two waterfalls that really draw visitors.
Decrepit “stairs” at the bottom of the climb point to the direction of the trail. Visitors in the know recommend wearing good walking shoes to negotiate the rocks, planks and slippery slopes that lead to spectacular views. Swimming in the pools proves the perfect reward for a difficult climb and gives travelers a place to relax and unwind before heading back to the city center.
When the temples of Angkor were abandoned by the kings who built them, the jungle took firm hold of Ta Prohm. This Buddhist monastery, built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII for his mother, today looks much like it did when it was uncovered in the 29th century. In eerie fashion, giant trees shoot through the tops of structures, while thick vines split walls in two.
A favorite among visitors, Ta Prohm served as the backdrop for Lara Croft’s adventures in the film Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why. In all of Angkor, it’s the place where the dominance of nature over manmade creations is most evident and most impressive.
Keep an eye out for a Sanskrit inscription in the stone of the complex, which details that the temple once employed 18 priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers, all supported by 3,140 villages.
Located 24 miles (38 km) northeast of Siem Reap, the Hindu temple of Banteay Srei lies off the beaten tourist path in Angkor but is a must-see for temple buffs. While small by Angkor standards, the 10-century red sandstone structure is famous for its intricate and well-preserved decorative carvings. French archaeologists who uncovered it during the early 20th century called it “a jewel in Khmer art.”
At the center of the complex are three temples, a central one honoring the Hindu god Shiva and two smaller ones for Vishnu and Brahma. It’s the only complex built from red sandstone and the only one not commissioned by a king, but instead by a royal adviser.
The last capital of the Khmers is a stupendous complex on a stupefying scale; established in the 12th century on the site of an earlier capital, Angkor Thom dwarfs even nearby Angkor Wat. The city’s 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) of wall is ringed by a moat (which no longer holds water or – thankfully – crocodiles). Each of the five enormous gates is a monument in itself, approached by avenues lined with 108 divinities (good on the left, evil on the right).
Some elevation will help you make sense of the layout; head for the Terrace of the Elephants or nearby Terrace of the Leper King with their intricate carvings, or the hilltop Phnom Bakheng, particularly popular at sunset. Among the myriad other points of interest are the temples of East Mebon and Pre Rup, built in the same “temple-mountain” style as Angkor Wat.
Beng Mealea is located 40 kilometers east of the main Angkor Wat complex. The temple was mainly constructed from sandstone, with its architectural style identical to that of Angkor Wat. Because of this, it is thought that Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century under the reign of Suryavarman II.
The temple grounds are surrounded by a gigantic moat and was once entirely consumed by jungle. This atmospheric temple is oriented toward the east, with entranceways from the other three cardinal directions also. If entering from the south, visitors will find themselves amid piles of chiselled sandstone blocks, sweeping vines, and mysterious dark chambers.
The layout of the temple consists of three enclosed galleries situated around a central tower, which has now completely collapsed. There’s a well-preserved library in the northeastern quadrant, plus extensive carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology and long balustrades formed by bodies of the seven-headed Naga serpent.
The prolific King Jayavarman VII was behind the creation of numerous temples in Angkor, but Neak Pean is one of his most unusual. A bit off the trodden tourist path, the temple sits on a small island in a reservoir, flanked by four smaller ponds fed by carved gargoyles. Scholars believe that in building the temple, the king was trying to recreate the sacred Anavatapta Lake in the Himalayan Mountains, which is believed to be situated at the top of the universe. At the time Neak Pean was built, devotees would come to the temple to bathe in the waters, which were believed to have healing powers. This site in particular is an interesting example of one of many “hospital” temples and structures Jayavarman was famous for building. While the central temple itself is blocked off, a wooden platform takes visitors out toward it and makes for a beautiful stroll, especially in the evening when the light of the sunset reflects off the water.
The National Museum is home to one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world. Well-kept galleries display choice artifacts that pay homage to Hinduism and Buddhism. Even daily objects, like household utensils, and items used in religious ceremonies are on display. Works in the museum, which opened in 1920, are divided into four categories: stone, metal, wood and ceramics. Be sure to check out the bronze standing adorn Buddha, as well as ceramics dating as far back as the Neolithic period.
When Aki Ra, founder of the Cambodia Landmine Museum and School, was a child, he was recruited as a child soldier in the army of the Khmer Rouge and spent much of his formative years fighting. After the war he returned to try and remove and defuse by hand many of the thousands of mines he planted during his time with the army. In 1997 he founded the Cambodian Landmine Museum and School to care for children wounded by landmines.
Today, the facility houses more than three dozen children from throughout Cambodia who’ve endured various forms of physical, emotional and familial hardships. They’re all given an education, including English language classes, and eventually a university or trade school scholarship. While visitors aren’t allowed into the children’s home, they are encouraged to visit the museum, where proceeds go toward supporting the children’s relief center.
Located within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, the Terrace of the Elephants stretches across a grassy expanse for nearly 1,150 feet (350 meters) and once served as a ceremonial platform and foundation for the king’s royal audience hall.
The ornately carved Terrace of the Elephants, built near the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, gets its name from the relief stone carvings of parading elephants that adorn the terrace walls. Some of the elephant trunks form decorative columns, while more relief carvings depict circus-like scenes of acrobats and wrestling matches.
From the top of the central staircase onto the platform, you can stand and imagine what the view would have been like for the Khmer king at the height of the kingdom’s power, gazing out over sporting events, ceremonies or the triumphant return of his army.
Preah Khan was built around the same time as Angkor Thom, and like it was conceived as a whole city, though on a smaller scale. It was erected on the site of an important military victory and its outer perimeter is guarded by 72 stone garudas (winged mythological creatures depicted throughout Southeast Asia).
A stupa (a domed structure holding Buddhist relics) and numerous smaller Hindu temples indicate the spiritual mix that Preah Khan embodied. In later years it was renowned as a center of scholarly Buddhism. The restoration program has left mighty silk-cotton tree roots undisturbed; they make an awe-inspiring sight, appearing to wrestle with the stonework. Elsewhere a two-story, round-columned pavilion of uncertain purpose is a charming, free-standing oddity.
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