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.
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.
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.
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.
While the decaying structures and overgrown temples of Angkor Wat remain among the most popular destinations in Siem Reap, the rare collection of stone carvings along the Stung Kbal Spean River, often referred to as “Valley of 1000 Lingas,” continues to bring art and archaeology lovers outside the city and beyond Angkor.
The impressive carvings that line the 125-kilometer riverbed pay homage to the Hindu god Shiva. During the 11th and 12th centuries, artisans chipped away at delicate sandstone leaving intricate phallic symbols, mythological creatures and religious images along the shores. Visitors must trek two kilometers up rocky, uneven terrain to spy the hand-carved statues. Some argue the hike is more trouble than it’s worth, but most agree that travelers seeking to connect with nature and explore Cambodia’s rich and colorful history will appreciate a trip to Kbal Spean.
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.
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.
Though it’s more than 500 years old, Wat Preah Prom Rath is a modern-looking temple and monastery located in the heart of Siem Reap. The front gate is the perhaps the oldest looking piece of the site, with Bayon style carvings that are similar to the ones found in Angkor Wat. The temple grounds are large, home to a university building as well as the main hall. However, the main attraction is the reclining Buddha—which is now sinking as well as reclining—and the story that explains how the statue came to reside there.
As the legend tells it, a famous monk was traveling on the nearby river when sharks attacked him and the boat broke into two pieces. The monk escaped in the prow of the boat and soon landed ashore. The remains of the boat were carved into the reclining Buddha that is housed in the Preah Vihear building. Outside of the Preah Vihear building is a statue that illustrates the monk and his boat; it’s a popular spot for photos.
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.
Travelers looking for cold beers and cheap food almost always find themselves in the throes of chaotic Pub Street. Local taverns, unique vendors, musicians and traditional dancers line this paved pass, giving Siem Reap’s entertainment Mecca a true party vibe.
Pedestrian-only streets mean it’s easy to wander between stalls selling traditional crafts, ice-cold beers and spicy hot soups. Food here is as popular with locals as it is with travelers. Strong-stomached visitors can sample frog legs, beetles, snake and crispy grasshoppers, while the less adventurous can head indoors to dance at bumping disco techs, or simply saddle up to one of the numerous outdoor tables and sip cool drinks while absorbing all of the city’s energy.
Open since 2007, the Angkor Night Market was the first of its kind to open in Cambodia. Today, more than 240 shops line the halls of this massive warehouse, selling handmade crafts, local silk, traditional jewelry and Khmer-style wood and stone carvings. It’s the perfect place to spend an evening wandering the stalls in search of souvenirs. And it’s also one of the best spots to sample traditional Cambodian cuisine. Travelers can explore the well-curated stalls, sip steaming hot bowls of spicy soup, relax over shisha and a cold beer or unwind with a traditional massage.
Believed to have been built during King Suryavarman II’s reign in the first half of the 12th century, Wat Athvea (Prasat Vat Althea) is one of several Hindu temples in the area shrouded in mystery. Built from laterite and sandstone, both still in relatively good condition, the temple has no inscriptions and few carvings. It seems as though the carvings it does were abandoned before they were completed.
Wat Athvea isn’t nearly as touristy as many of the other temples of the Angkor complex, even though it’s one of the better maintained temples. Visitors looking for a peaceful place to take photos without the crowds can easily do so here, particularly in the late afternoon when it’s at its quietest.