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Essential Cambodia

VISIT THE MUST-SEE SPOTS

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If this is your first Cambodia travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to Cambodia, but it really all boils down to the temples at Angkor. However, the capital Phnom Penh is nothing if not enlightening, and we consider it essential as well. If this is your second trip to Cambodia, or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended Cambodia travel page.

TEMPLES OF ANGKOR:

Angkor Wat

An essential stop on any tour of Cambodia, the first glimpse of the towers of Angkor Wat will bring goose bumps to even the most jaded traveler. As one approaches the wonderment only increases-the enormity is almost unbelievable and the stone bas-reliefs so exquisitely carved.

Get there for sunrise at the main entrance and prepare to be floored. The sunset from its upper gallery is also unforgettable. There is an air of immense mystery to the Angkor complex, like a pervading fragrance that intoxicates the traveler. Once in your lifetime you simply have to see this.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, the "Great City," was the last capital of the Khmer Empire, built by King Jayavarman VII at the turn of the 12th to 13th centuries. Inside its walls lie Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, and at the very center, the Bayon, with over 200 faces carved on its 54 towers. If you have only a day, visit the temples above and Ta Prohm, which has been mostly untouched by archaeologists and remains in the grasp of the jungle.

Within its jungle-covered ruins immense kapok trees grow through the gray sandstone galleries. An almost overwhelming sense of wonder and awe will wash over you in this sanctuary, as your imagination attempts to fathom the life pulsing throughout these structures at the height of the Khmer empire.

Preah Khan

This magnificent and massive maze of corridors and carvings is currently being restored by the World Monument Fund and is well worth a visit.

Preah Neak Pean

With its collection of five ponds and unusual design, this is a compact, and generally untouristed, little-known gem.

Other important structures to visit if you have two days are Prasat Kravan, Pre Rup, Ta Keo, Banteay Kdei and Sras Srang.

AROUND ANGKOR:

Banteay Srei

The "Citadel of Women" is a small jewel of a temple built 50 miles northeast of the Bayon. Its rose-colored sandstone walls house what many consider to be the best carvings and bas-reliefs of any temple at Angkor.

The standard of work and the state of preservation make Banteay Srei extraordinary.

Roluos Group

This area is a daytrip from the main Angkor complex and well worth a visit. The three temples (Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko) were built in the late 9th century and are the oldest at Angkor. Stop in the morning at the little upcountry market in Roluos town.

Siem Reap

With its stately riverfront trees and fine old buildings, Siem Reap town is a good place for a wander-by foot or by bicycle. There are shops selling crafts, silks and souvenirs opposite the river, a large market on the south edge of town and a large souvenir market behind the Ta Prohm Hotel. Several times a week that establishment puts on a classical dance performance by the river. The Angkor National Museum, which opened in 2007, features eight galleries that explore many facets of Khmer culture in a well-interpreted collection.

About 6 miles outside of Siem Reap in the rural countryside is the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Far more than an exhibit, this facility is home, school, orphanage and clinic to 30 landmine victims. Former Khmer Rouge child soldier Aki Ra founded the facility. Ra was forced to lay thousands of mines as a child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, but has spent the last decade removing over 50,000 mines and has become a legendary landmine activist in his country. Millions of mines still exist in Cambodia's countryside, making otherwise arable land impossible to farm and forcing villagers into squalid cities in search of work. This museum and facility provides great insight into this dynamic in modern-day Cambodia, and it is a moving experience to visit this place.

Tonle Sap

Take a sunrise boat trip on placid Tonle Sap Lake to see the stunning light, stilt houses, boats full of vegetables and traditional life as it has existed for centuries.

Phnom Penh

This stately riverfront city-a jumble of charm and neglect-is back from the dead and actually booming these days. Shaking off some of the horrors of its recent past, Phnom Penh has come alive again and is an exciting city. Once known as the "Paris of the East," there are some lovely old neighborhoods, and the Royal Quarter and grand promenade by the Mekong are delightful. Stroll here or travel by cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) for an authentic Cambodia travel experience.

King Sihanouk now resides at the Royal Palace, so visiting isn't possible, but the adjoining -and exquisite-Silver Pagoda is open. The National Museum, housed in a splendid colonial building, has the greatest collection of Khmer art in the world. You might want to buy the pamphlet on recognizing the different styles of this art. Shop at the Central Market for T-shirts, kramas (the checked scarves worn by all peasants), pirated editions of books on Khmer art and history, fragrant garlands or gemstones. The O Russei Market has a few antiques and many intriguing fakes (so caveat emptor). Hire a boat for a sunset cruise on the Mekong and then drop by the Foreign Correspondent's Club for a drink or bite. If you're a night person, check out the Floating Casino.

Tuol Sleng/Choeung Ek

About a half hour from Phnom Penh, the two most significant reminders of the Khmer Rouge's murderous regime remain as testaments to the dark era of their reign in the 1970s. They are the central Tuol Sleng High School (later Prison) and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. This excursion glimpses the devastating horrors that prevailed during Cambodia's ultra-radical Marxist movement, when the country started at Year Zero in 1975, and Pol Pot became the Number One Brother. This visit may prove distressing; it is nothing if not graphic. One literally steps over human bones and half-buried clothing at the Killing Fields, and the life-size photos of the faces of the tortured prisoners at Tuol Slung are among the most haunting sights to be encountered anywhere. It is, however, a crucial piece of this country's 20th-century cultural and historical puzzle and a significant component of a complete, in-depth Cambodia travel experience, examining the country's glory days, as well as its darker times - we highly recommended that you go.