There are certain places so iconic that even though they’re on the other side of the planet, you almost feel you’ve visited them. Angkor Wat certainly falls into that category—until you see it in person and all of your preconceived notions are blown away by its mass and majesty. In fact, much of Cambodia is like that.
There’s good reason Angkor Wat is considered one of the wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The largest religious monument on the planet, the temple complex spans nearly 400 acres. Watching the sun rise over those lotus-like towers stretching toward the sky is worth setting your alarm for, no matter how jet-lagged you are. But it can be tough to decipher what you’re looking at, so to get in-the-know scoop, take a guided tour. Pal Chen at Angkor Special Tours spills plenty of knowledge without overwhelming you, and knows the best time to hit each spot to beat the crowds.
It would be a mistake to not explore the other temples—Cambodia has around 4,000. If the Phimeanakas Temple looks familiar, it’s because the 2000 Tomb Raider movie was filmed there, and the winding trees around the ancient ruins are even more intriguing in person. Buddhist shrine Bayon Temple’s 216 faces are carved on the huge towers, while you reach Neak Pean Temple by walking the bridge to a circular island in Jayatataka Baray. Or take a half-hour drive from Angkor through villages and rice fields to reach Banteay Srei Temple. One of the most elaborate temples, it dates back to the 10th century and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, with striking details that will amaze you. Pay a visit to Beng Mealea, which is overrun by nature. Green and lush, the jungle has taken over, with snakes slithering around.
With all this temple talk, it’s easy to erroneously think that’s all there is to do in Siem Reap. But the city has so much more to offer. One unexpected can’t-miss is Phare: the Cambodian Circus. Take a tuk tuk to the outskirts of the city to witness an entertaining night under the big top, with everything from entertainers riding a unicycle on high wire to juggling, dancing, acrobatics and fire tricks. Intertwined in all this are the tellings of traditional Cambodian stories. All of the performers are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak’s vocational training center, which provides free schooling and opportunities to at-risk youth.
Perhaps a greater mystery than Angkor Wat is why Cambodia’s cuisine isn’t as famous as that of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. It’s not an amalgamation of the two. To get a taste of Cambodia’s unique flavors, make a reservation at Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, famed for being the country’s best restaurant. Its French chef has lived in Cambodia for more than a decade and specializes in putting a modern twist on Khmer dishes with exclusively local ingredients. While the taste is Cambodian, the technique is French. Choose from two tasting menus, which change weekly, and expect to see dishes like yellow curry fish cake with pickled green and ripe papaya salad, sweet peanut and tamarind sauce and crispy pork belly, as well as barbecue slow-cooked pork ribs in jungle curry with Cambodian green giant eggplant and pounded spicy wild eggplant. Another standout is Mie Café, whose chef is Cambodian, studied culinary arts in Switzerland and cooks Cambodian/Western fusion. You can munch on the lobster risotto in the restaurant’s lovely garden.
Adventurous eaters will love the street food tours offered by Siem Reap Food Tours and Phnom Penh Food Tours. Both will take you via tuk tuk through the cities, and local guides will share bites that are safe to eat (a priceless skill!). During the morning tour in Siem Reap, you’ll venture out to the countryside to meet a family of rice noodle makers and artisanal rice wine makers. The evening tours highlight the best restaurants and street food stops. The Phnom Penh tour feels completely different since you explore the bustling city’s spots where tourists rarely go. This brings a new meaning to hole-in-the-wall joints. You also sample dishes at packed markets and street-food stands. The first stop for breakfast might offer a traditional morning rice dish with pork and eggs in a stall in a covered market down an alleyway, right next to a barbershop—and it’s delicious. At first, your American mind might tell you to avoid stands surrounded by used napkins on the ground, but your guide will explain that’s actually a sign of good food—think of it as a Cambodian 5-star Yelp review.
After spending time in hectic Phnom Penh, you’re probably ready for a rural escape. An incredible place to do that is the Aqua Mekong, a luxury cruise ship limited to 40 passengers that sails down the Mekong River. There’s plenty to do onboard, including the screening room, multiple sun decks, lounge pool, guided morning meditation on the sun deck and cooking demos, or you could just open the curtains in your suite and watch the river go by from the floor to ceiling windows. The incredibly knowledgeable guides, who are all Cambodian or Vietnamese, give presentations on the likes of Cambodian history and the Mekong River’s life. Your voyage might kick off with a traditional Khmer Apsara dance performance, in which local dancers perform a range of mesmerizing dances in ebullient costumes to live music. And you’ll love the three meals a day served in the dining room with a traditional menu created by award-winning executive chef David Thompson.
Off the boat, you can meet with local craftsmen on trips to Koh Chen, a silversmith village where locals will demonstrate how they make their beautiful wares from ancient techniques, as well as Kampong Chhnang to stop at Andong Russei Pottery and see how everything from ceramic buddhas to teapots to bowls are made. And if you think your job can be rough, wait until you visit a sugar palm village to see how they climb to the tops of towering trees to collect sugarcane all day.
Cruising down the Mekong gives you access to places you wouldn’t see otherwise, like difficult to reach floating villages, where even the kids have their own little makeshift boats to get around. You’ll take a skiff to the floating villages of Chhnok Tru and Moat Khla to see the daily life of locals, and can even opt to kayak. In Moat Khla, you’ll stop at a floating temple to meet monks and watch a blessing ceremony. For a dose of nature, you’ll visit Cambodia’s largest bird preserve, Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, where you can climb to the top of a treehouse lookout and see birds for miles. Speaking of climbing, at Udong Pagoda you’ll ascend plenty of steps to reach the top of the beautifully ornate temple. Its peak reveals the Cambodian countryside. No matter whether you’re spiritual, it’s yet another example of how you can have many religious experiences in Cambodia.