Tourism is on the increase in Cambodia. This beautiful Southeast Asian country, a long-standing backpacker destination, offers tranquil religious sites, untouched verdant landscapes and vibrant, progressive cities. Here are five of its key destinations.
The Temples of Angkor
You’d need several days to thoroughly explore the sprawling Angkor temple complex. Spread over 400 acres, it is the largest religious site in the world, and accordingly attracts droves of tourists. Set your alarm and get there for sunrise to immerse in this sacred site ahead of the crowds. Most visitors make a beeline for Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a large moat, this striking 12th century Hindu temple features intricately carved bas-relief sculptures and 200 foot high sandstone towers. The towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred site revered by Hindus as the abode of the Gods.
Explore the atmospheric ruins of the Buddhist temple Ta Prohm, dramatically entwined in tree roots from the encroaching jungle. And don’t miss Bayon Temple, where 216 huge carved faces smile benignly out of the stonework.
Cambodia’s chaotic, energetic capital oozes influences of French colonialism, and boasts a thriving restaurant, bar and café scene. Head to lively Sisowath Quay for a sunset cruise on the Mekong River, and explore the attractive riverside walkway lined with bars and restaurants.
Visit the Royal Palace, a stunning example of ornate Khmer architecture, nestled in beautifully manicured formal gardens. Don’t miss the dazzlingly ostentatious Silver Pagoda, a lavish temple adorned with diamonds, marble and silver floor tiles and housing Buddha statues made of solid silver and gold. Completed in 1962, it’s one of only several temples in Cambodia to survive the Khmer Rouge regime.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered an estimated 1.7 to 3 million Cambodian citizens. Located outside Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was one of the notorious ‘Killing Fields’, the mass graves used during Pol Pot’s brutal dictatorship. Today the site houses a museum and memorial to the victims of the genocide. A guided tour, which includes accounts from survivors, is a sobering and memorable experience.
Housed in a series of ornate pavilions surrounding a tranquil, leafy courtyard, the National Museum of Cambodia features one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer cultural, historical and religious artefacts. The extensive display includes ceramics, wood, bronze and stone exhibits from as early as the 4th century. The museum showcases Khmer sculpture as it evolved over hundreds of years, mapping how craftsmen progressed from using stone as a medium to bronze.
Tonle Sap Lake
The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap hosts 170 floating villages. These are living communities of homes, schools and temples, which exist on the water aboard floating foundations of bamboo. Fishing is the main source of income for villagers. Join a boat excursion along the canals to learn more about the day to day life of the residents. The lake’s water levels fluctuate according to season; during dry periods you’ll spy the stilts holding up many of the buildings. Prek Toal is one of the largest floating villages on Tonle Sap, and also the site of a nature reserve, home to 150 species of bird including rare breeds of pelican, stork and ibis.
Cambodia’s south offers 270 miles of superb coastline, long swathes of white sands fringed by swaying palms, and cobalt waters laced with tropical islands. The popular resort of Sihanoukville lies on a peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand and is a key starting point for exploring the coast and islands. The town boasts gorgeous white sand beaches, notably Sokha, Independence and Otres, along with scores of guesthouses, hotels and eateries. For cheap, delicious seafood, check out the evening barbecues on lively Ochheuteal Beach.
Prasat Preah Vihear
This 9th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva enjoys a spectacular location. In the country’s northwest Dangrek Mountains off the beaten track, Prasat Preah Vihear teeters on the edge of a cliff, with giddying views over the plains below. A stone’s throw from the Thai border, the temple has been at the centre of numerous disputes between Cambodia and Thailand, as both countries tussle over ownership. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this beautiful Khmer building receives a fraction of the crowds that throng the Angkor temples. A walk through its sacred pavilions (gopuras) is an atmospheric experience, and those incredible views are particularly wonderful at sunset.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com