Cambodia Points of Interest – 5 Places to See
Phnom Penh – S21 / Killing Fields
This is most likely going to your main experience when you visit the capital of Phnom Penh. It’s a tough day, but with the trials of the atrocities still ongoing, it’s incredibly important to help you understand what Cambodia has gone through in recent history. With around 21% of the population losing their lives under devastating circumstances.
It may seem obvious that you need to visit these places. However, there’s an order to give you the best way to see them all. Doing it the other way around can drastically change the perception of your experience, and you won’t have the full history in the best order.
I think it’s important to visit Tuol Sleng / S21 first, a high school in the heart of the city which was once used as a prison but is now a museum. This haunting museum lays out the facts in front of you, helping you understand what happened, and even includes mug shots of every single prisoner throughout the rooms. You can see the pain in their eyes it was a genuinely harrowing and eye opening experience but worth every second.
After this, jump in your tuk-tuk onward to your next stop, the Killing Fields, which has an eerily beautiful, yet haunting atmosphere. You will be given a headset and will listen to first-hand accounts, as you stroll around mass graves near a peaceful lake. If you hadn’t visited the prison already, you might have found it difficult to put the emotional dialogues into context, and you would lose some of the understanding of the stories.
Siem Reap – Landmine Museum
Of course, you’re going to visit Siem Reap, you’re undoubtedly going to visit the temples (watching the sun rise over Anglor Wat, a memory that will stay with me forever).
However, what else is there to do in Siem Reap when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by tourists and looking to go off the beaten track?
With around 6 million unexploded landmines scattered around the border of Cambodia, land mines are a huge problem for people local to these areas. With no benefits to claim, people physically affected by landmines – that aren’t killed – have no choice but to move to the cities to beg, breaking their families apart.
I recommend taking the time to visit the Landmine Museum and hear the story of Aki Ra – a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge who set up the museum and single-handedly disarmed tens of thousands of landmines, using just a stick to locate them. The man himself is an inspiration, and his work is as impressive as it is important. There’s also a butterfly sanctuary, close to the centre where you receive a guide free with the ticket price.
Kampot – Bokor Mountain
I’ll never forget the view from the top of Bokor Mountain on my first trip up, looking over the vast landscapes and breathtaking low lying clouds were truly magnificent. When living in Phnom Penh, Kampot quickly became my weekend spot to relax by the river, explore the countryside and most importantly, head up to the top of the mountain. At the summit, after passing a large shrine and abandoned catholic church (which are worth visiting on their own, let alone the view), you will discover a huge shell of Bokor Palace Hotel. A French retreat built in the 1920’s, originally a hotel and casino, the mansion has been abandoned for some time after being used as a base by the Khmer Rouge and has been stripped bare. Walking through the old halls, although no furniture or hint to what it once was, history seeps from the walls, and the atmosphere is truly captivating. Be sure to head out of the back door for one of the most spectacular views which Cambodia has to offer, often clouded by ghostly mist due to its altitude, adding to the experience.
I also suggest a visit to the Killing Caves in Kampot, which will hit home the atrocities that reflect what happened in the Killing Fields and see it from a different angle. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, it’s worth tipping some of the local children to help guide you through the smaller caves by candlelight, a spooky but worthwhile thing to do (and helping some of the kids out too).
Kep – National Park
The national park in Kep is a fantastic day out for all walking levels.
There’s a straightforward flat path that goes around the entirety of the national park, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can cut inside up the steep hill, sometimes having to use guide ropes to help you up to the top of the mountain.
I didn’t take much water (not a mistake I recommend!), so when I reached an unexpected nunnery near the top, I was presented with the best mango I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have, in my life! Giving me the energy to continue on the journey. The summit doesn’t boast the best view, but the experience is a lot of fun regardless!
When you’re not exploring the national park, take a day trip to Rabbit Island, (which doesn’t have rabbits on, just so you know!), the crab market in Kep, or just enjoy the view from the coast.
A final thought
Cambodia is a country that wears its heart on its sleeve, and I fell in love with soon as I arrived.
The people that made it special for me, pretty much every person I spoke to had a direct relative who lost their lives in the genocide and the way they’ve picked up and carried on is truly inspiring. For all the time that I was there, from when I first landed as a wide-eyed tourist to by the time that I left after eight months, I never felt hassled, harassed or in danger.
I’ve found a section of the world full of people with genuine community spirit and respect for one another and I feel privileged to have had an insight into their incredible culture.