Cambodia, once an illustrious dwelling of a mighty empire, and, later, deeply affected by war and the mass killing of millions of people during the rule of the communist Khmer Rouge regime, is now widely known around the world for its rich history and ancient masterpieces. This Southeast Asian country houses some of the most impressive building structures in the world, which showcase the best of ancient Khmer art and architecture.
From visiting ancient cities to prisons which held captives of the cruel Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has a lot lined up for the adventurous traveler. Listed here are the top things you can do when you visit this tropical land, which is located just northeast of Malaysia.
1) Visit Tuol Sleng Museum
Photo Credit: Christian Haugen, Flickr
Set in a suburban location, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum serves as a testament to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Regime during Cambodia’s not too distant past.Previously known as Security Prison 21 (S21), the museum building used to be a torture and detention center of captives of the Khmer Rouge regime. Just like the Nazi’s, the Khmer Rouge leaders were not ashamed to preserve the memory of their sadistic acts. All the prisoners that were admitted into S21 were photographed, sometimes before and after torture.
Taking a tour within the museum now, you will encounter an extensive display of disturbing black and white photographs of the prisoners. You will also come across the instruments that were used to torture the prisoners. Your tour around the museum will be more in-depth if you pay a tour guide to show you around, as he or she will be able to tell you the stories behind some of the people in the photographs. Tours around the museum are usually charged at a minimum of USD 2.
2) Visit the Killing Fields (Cheoung Ek)
Photo Credit: icathing, Flickr
The Killing Fields were the execution grounds for the Khmer Rouge. In only a short period of three years, around 17 000 prisoners from Security Prison 21 were executed here. Most of them were beaten to death to save on the use of bullets. Women, children and infants were not spared from this horrendous means of execution.
A Stupa Monument holding the skulls of more than 8,000 prisoners now stands within the compounds of the Killing Fields as a vivid reminder of the horrors of war. Upon opting for this tour, you will be provided with a headphone in a language of your choice. Through the headphone recordings, you will be able to hear accounts from different people who lived during the Khmer Rouge regime. These include the survivors under the harsh dictatorship and a Khmer Rouge executioner himself, who will present a jaw-gripping account of the techniques that were used to kill the prisoners.Since its introduction in 2011, the tour has proven to be quite an eye-opening experience for many visitors.
3) Silver Pagoda
Photo Credit: Paul Mannix, Flickr
The Silver Pagoda located within the compounds of the Royal Palace reflects opulence and grandeur. Richly embellished with the finest materials, the pagoda is nothing short of majestic. Its floors are covered with more than 5000 silver tiles while the staircase leading up to the building is made of Italian marble. Gracing the walls of the pagoda are intricately-designed masks used for classical dance and dozens of gold Buddhas.
The pagoda houses an Emerald Buddha believed to be made of Baccarat crystal while in front of the Emerald Buddha stands a life-size gold Buddha statue decorated with 9584 diamonds. Created in the palace workshop in 1907, the gold Buddha weighs an astounding 90kg. And as if a grandness of this scale is not enough, the walls of the pagoda are further embellished with an extensive mural of the classic Indian Ramayana epic.
4) Sisowath Quay
Photo Credit: Prince Roy, Flickr
Also known as “Riverfront”, the Sisowath Quay is very popular among tourists and locals. The main attractions of this area are the pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops lining the paved riverfront. It is the perfect place for you to get the feel of the local environment. Sisowath Quay overlooks Chaktomuk, which is the meeting point of three rivers-Tonle Sap, Mekong and the Basaac.
Apart from pubs and cafes, the riverfront location is also teeming with art galleries along Street 178, also known as “Art Street”. Over here you get to find local handicrafts and silk samples. A worthy highlight of the place is the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC). Housed in a colonial-styled building, the FCC offers second floor and rooftop bars – the perfect place to relax after a tiresome day of sightseeing. Highly recommended by Lonely Planet, it is indeed a must-visit in Cambodia. Happy hour is from 5pm to 7pm.
5) Visit Ancient Temples
Siem Reap houses a complex of ancient temples. The temples here were built during the peak period of the ancient Khmer Empire in the 1100s. These temples now act as interesting manifestations of Khmer architecture and artisanship. Angkor Wat, one of the most famous temples in the region, is believed to be the largest religious complex in the world. Beautiful details of Khmer architecture that can be found here include bas-relief walls depicting many levels of heaven and hell and carvings of seductive Dancing Maidens.
Another interesting temple to visit is the Ta Prohm. Unrestored, with crumbling walls and tree roots extending from the roof of the temple, Ta Prohm demonstrates to tourists the state in which the other temples in the complex were discovered. Ta Prohm is also known as the “Tomb Raider temple” as the temple grounds were used for the filming of “Lara Croft Tomb Raider”, a famous Hollywood film starring Angelina Jolie.
6) Visit Ancient Cities
Interested to know what an ancient city looked like? Then head on over to Angkor Thom, a 12th century royal-Buddhist city located in Siem Reap. The main attraction of this city is the Bayon Temple located right at its center, which is quite an architectural masterpiece like Angkor Wat.
The city is bounded by 8m high walls and was once surrounded by a 100m wide moat which was believed to have contained fierce crocodiles. Although the moat has already dried up with time, the city still remains a fascinating sight to behold. 20m high monumental gates tower each side of the city, each flanked with statues of gods on the left and statues of demons on the right. Other interesting aspects of this city are the bas reliefs which depict the everyday life of the ancient Angkor civilization, such as men playing chess and women cooking.
7) Tour of Tonle Sap Fishing Villages
Another interesting activity to take part in Siem Reap is a boat tour to the floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake. The village inhabitants catch fish for a living and live in extreme poverty. During the rainy season, the lake water rises up nearly reaching the front doors of the houses on stilts. Sights of children paddling with babies in canoes and livestock in floating pens are common here.
There are actually several floating villages you can go to, each with their own distinct characteristics. The nearest to Seam Reap and the most visited is the Chong Khneas village. It is best to visit this village during the wet season when the water level is high making the houses look like they are really floating. Apart from experiencing the village environment while sitting in a boat, tourists can also visit the souvenir and snack shop, and the Gecko Environment Center located within the village.
8) Experience a tuk-tuk ride
Photo Credit: ryanne lai, Flickr
Finally, the essential Cambodian experience is the tuktuk ride. Tuktuks are a little like the “bechas” in Penang, appearing in the form of little cushion chariots. But, instead of being driven by a man on a bicycle, it is maneuvered by a man on a motorbike, and it sits four passengers, unlike the usual two for “bechas”. Sitting on a tuktuk ride is a wonderful way for you to take in the atmosphere of Cambodia’s bustling cities, especially when you find yourself tired of walking.
How to Get There
Major flight carriers to Cambodia are Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. You can either opt for flights heading to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. AirAsia flights from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh typically last about 1 hour, 45 minutes. Airasia’s Siem Reap flights, on the other hand, takes about 2 hours. For Malaysia Airlines, flights to Phnom Penh takes about 55 minutes, while flights to Siem Reap takes about 1 hour and 5 minutes.
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