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Words Tamara Batshon

Cambodia may not be as popular among tourists as neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, but this country is a true jewel of Southeast Asia. Cambodia has a wealth of enchanting archaeological sites, beautiful towns, and gorgeous waterways. Its people are also known to be among Asia’s most friendly and welcoming people. This beguiling nation, which was once the center of Asia’s most magnificent early civilizations – the Khmer Empire based in Angkor – has plenty to offer for adventure-seeking holidaymakers. New scientific research should make Cambodia even more appealing to tourists. If you go there, these are some of the key spots that are not to be missed.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, located in Angkor, is the ancient temple complex in northeast Cambodia that appears on the country’s flag. The Angkor temple ruins, which sprawl across the UNESCO-protected Angkor Archaeological Park, are the country’s top tourist destination and one of the few artifacts that remain from the 12th century. Considered the most extensive urban settlement of pre-industrial times, and boasting a highly sophisticated water management system, Angkor’s decline has long been investigated by archaeologists.

Ancient ruins of Baphuon Temple. It was built in the 11th century as the state temple
Ancient ruins of Baphuon Temple. It was built in the 11th century as the state temple
The ancient temple of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Siem Reap, Cambodia
The ancient temple of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Siem Reap, Cambodia
Historical architectural designs at Elephants Terrace and the Leper King Terrace at Angkor Thom
Historical architectural designs at Elephants Terrace and the Leper King Terrace at Angkor Thom

 

A hidden past is revealed near Angkor Wat

Thanks to advanced laser technology, scientists have recently discovered entire cities in Cambodia dating back 900-1400 years ago, buried beneath the dense jungle.  We now know that several vast medieval underground cities lie not far from Angkor Wat. The Australian archaeologist Dr. Damian Evans, whose findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, used cutting-edge light detection technology known as lidar to conduct his research in the region. He used lidar scanners to fire lasers to the ground from a helicopter and measure how long it took for each pulse to bounce back, creating an extremely detailed 3D model of the Earth’s surface.

This technology can penetrate dense forest canopies to detect buildings as well as the remains of roads, aqueducts, caves, and manmade borders between different areas. Some experts believe that the recent data, which is the most extensive airborne study ever undertaken by an archaeological project, covering 1,901 square kilometers, shows that the massive, densely populated cities would have constituted the largest empire on earth at the time of its peak in the 12th century.

For years, experts have assumed that the ancient Khmer civilization collapsed in the 15th century when invading Thai armies entered Angkor Wat, forcing populations to relocate to southern Cambodia. But Evans said that his laser maps showed no evidence of relocated, dense cities in the south, and that it wasn’t clear that there had been any such mass migration. His findings are expected to challenge theories about how the Khmer Empire developed, dominated the region, and then declined. All this newly discovered information will eventually cause history books and touristic guides of Cambodia to be rewritten.

A beautiful example of the symmetry in traditional Khmer architecture at Cambodia's National museum in Phnom Penh
A beautiful example of the symmetry in traditional Khmer architecture at Cambodia’s National museum in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Set on top of a 27-meter tall hill, Wat Phnom, the iconic Buddhist temple, has become the symbol of the capital city Phnom Penh. According to legend, Daun Pehn, a wealthy widow, recovered a large hollow koki tree trunk from the Mekong River and found four statues of Buddha inside.  She then had a section of her property elevated so that she could make a shrine for these statues.  Today people commonly come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business. When a wish is granted, the faithful return to show their gratitude with jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas (things the spirits are said to enjoy).

The magnificent Royal Palace is a complex of buildings that covers an area of 183,000 square meters. Today it is the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni.  Towering spires and ornate gilding that is typical of the classic Khmer architecture characterize the buildings. Between the buildings you have immaculate French-style landscaped gardens.

The Silver Pagoda, also known as the Praeh Vihear Keo Morokat to locals, lies within the grounds of the Royal Palace. It was constructed in 1962 by former King Sihanouk to replace the wooden pagoda built by his grandfather in 1902.  It is called Silver Pagoda because of its 5329 silver floor tiles, each weighing more than a kilogram. It also has an impressive Baccarat crystal-adorned Buddha that sits in a gilded pedestal and another made almost entirely of gold and decorated with nearly 10,000 diamonds.

Officially inaugurated by King Sosowat in 1920, the National Museum of Cambodia is the country’s leading historical and archaeological museum. Built a century ago, the museum comprises four terra cotta colored pavilions in traditional design facing a beautiful garden. It features the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture and artifacts dating back to the pre-Angkorian period.

Gallery in Baphuon temple, part of the Angkor Thom city
Gallery in Baphuon temple, part of the Angkor Thom city

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Kampot Province

This is one of the most peaceful, pleasant little hideaways in the country. Although referred to as waterfalls by locals, Teuk Chhou Rapids is in fact a series of sparkling natural rapids with clear water that is always cool and fresh. You can have a picnic and relax along the river, where you can choose a covered wooden platform at the water’s edge. There are plenty of food stalls to entice you, offering everything from fruit to whole roast chicken and catfish, to banana and coconut roasted in banana leaves (a Kampot specialty).

Teuk Chhou Wildlife Educational Park is a sprawling wildlife education park several kilometers away from the Teuk Chou Rapids. It has 43 species of animals including monkeys, wild boars, ostriches, elephants, lions, tigers and cheetahs. Four years ago Footprints, an Australian NGO, took over the park in order to better care for the animals. As the animals are located in different locations in a large area, it allows visitors to drive in to tour the park.

During your stay in Teuk Chheu Rapids you will see a lot of the spiky, strong-smelling fruit known as durian because of the proximity to the Durian Plantation, which lines either side of the road en route. Kampot durian is famous throughout Cambodia for its flavor and sweetness. It is considered superior to Thai durian by Khmer food connoisseurs, and it can cost twice as much as its imported counterpart. The strong taste and smell of this fruit, with its creamy yellow flesh encased in brown spiked skin, can be an acquired taste, and you can find the cheapest and finest durian in Kampot.

Prek Thnout is an ecotourism site that is partially located within Bokor National Park. It features impressive biodiversity including rare and endangered species. The site is entirely run by local villagers and offers amazing scenery. Tourists can follow the boardwalk of the mangrove forests to one of the waterfalls or do a guided walk to learn about the environment, traditional ceremonies, and food cooked by local people. Fireflies often appear at night, making the atmosphere rather special.

A collection of French colonial buildings originally constructed as a mountain resort for affluent French colonists in the 1920s, Bokor Hill was later reinvented to house a hotel and casino, a church, a royal residence. and other dwellings.  It was later abandoned during the war years, and today the buildings are empty. Visitors can explore the chilling, yet hauntingly beautiful, former resort town with spectacular views and obtain a better physical understanding of the violent conflict that shaped Cambodia in the 20th century. Bokor Hill Station is located 42 kilometers from Kampot, atop Bokor Mountain in Preah Monivong National Park.

Siem reap, Cambodia.
Siem reap, Cambodia.
Old Temple Phnom BokorKampot Province
Old Temple Phnom BokorKampot Province

Rattanak Kiri Province

Yeak Laom Lake is a breathtaking lake that is made from a crater formed after a volcanic eruption over thousands of years ago. A lush jungle surrounds the stunning clear emerald-colored lake and it is one of the most peaceful locations that Cambodia has to offer.  Several wooden piers are built around the perimeter, making it perfect for swimming. The indigenous minority people in the area have always considered Yeak Lom to be a sacred place.

Stupa of His Majesty Ang Duong was built in 1908 and contains his cremated ashes
Stupa of His Majesty Ang Duong was built in 1908 and contains his cremated ashes

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