Once you’ve traveled to several different countries, especially those within the same region, they start to blend together. For example, when I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, it seemed every country had the same temples and statues. This is why every country I go, I’ve tried to find 5 unique places or things that make that country stand out from the rest. This list is solely based on my experience and may not cover certain well-known traditions or tourist sites.
Angkor Wat- Located right outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Angkor Wat was once the capital of the Khmer Empire and is one of the world’s largest religious complexes. It was officially named an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 and millions of tourists have passed through its grounds since then. Despite the uptick in tourism in the last few decades, Angkor Wat remains one of Southeast Asia’s most unique destinations. Even if you are not religious, Angkor Wat offers historical insight into the Khmer Empire through its ruins and tour guides. The best time to visit the grounds is pre-dawn as there are less tourists and the sunrise reflecting off the temples is truly a sight to behold.
Siem Reap- Although it is known mostly for Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is a unique town in its own right. It is home to many western hotels and restaurants and has a growing ex-pat community. Outside of the capital cities, it is one of the few towns in Southeast Asia where you can find easily find people who speak English. Other tourist attractions in Siem Reap include Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea (UNESCO Site), and Phnom Kulen National Park (home to Cambodia’s largest reclining Buddha).
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields- While many may be familiar with the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are rarely discussed in western history books. Located in Phenom Phen, the Khmer Rouge killing fields serve as a stark reminder of a time where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned and executed under Pot Pot’s rule simply because they were deemed to be a “threat” to the socialist principles. Even decades after the regime fell, many of the remains have yet to be recovered. Visiting these fields was indeed a humbling experience and sobering experience. It also helped understand the how such events shaped contemporary Cambodia. Although the Khmer Rouge has long ceased, contemporary Cambodia still finds itself under an oppressive government. In fact, the day before I arrived in Phenom Phen, a prominent opposition figure was assassinated in broad daylight while having a morning coffee.
Dual Currencies-Cambodia was a unique experience given that it was a country which operated off of dual currencies. The national currency, the Cambodian Riel, is just as common as the preferred currency the US Dollar. While a number of countries have adopted the US Dollar to replace their national currencies (i.e. El Salvador, Ecuador), they have phased the old currency out of circulation. Cambodia, on the other hand, has elected to keep both currencies which often causes confusion as sometimes you will give a shopkeeper US dollars when making a purchase but receive Cambodian Reil as change. While most shops in cities like Phenom Phen and Siem Reap list prices in US Dollars, the more rural areas continue to trade in Cambodian Riel.
Koh Rong Samloem-To south of Cambodia sits Sihanoukville, a coastal town filled with gritty beaches and Chinese owned casinos. However, Sihanoukville does serve as the gateway to Koh Rong Samloem, a small island about 25k from mainland Cambodia. The island used to serve as a local getaway but has experienced a recent surge in international tourism. Unlike those on the mainland, the islands beaches remain somewhat pristine and pure. However, the surge in outside tourism has caused much of the nicer parts of the island to be claimed by hotels and restaurants. A current roundtrip ticket from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Samloem cost $24 USD with the trip taking about an hour each way. I highly recommend finding a hotel and staying on the island a few days as opposed to just taking a day trip. I would put Koh Rong Samloem as my second favorite place in Cambodia behind Siem Reap.