While Thailand may be known for its amazing beaches, Malaysia for its rich culture and delicious food, and Singapore for its amazing shopping, Cambodia is renowned for its somewhat dark modern history. One of Southeast Asia’s least visited nations for many years, Cambodia is quietly emerging as a worldwide tourism destination.
Just hundreds of miles away, package tourists are relaxing under the sun on Thai beach resorts and spending their hard-earned cash in luxurious shopping malls. In Cambodia, however, the scene is a little different. With no malls and only Spartan beach resorts, this country offers a rare slice of untouched life in Southeast Asia.
Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s rewarding destinations for visitors that can brave its somewhat unreliable infrastructure. With the country firmly on the path towards rapid modernization, now is the time to see this wonderful, underrated country in all its natural glory.
History and Mystery
If there’s one word that belongs beside Cambodia in the history books, it’s probably ‘infamous.’ Known around the world for the devastating effects of its Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, Cambodia emerged from one of the most devastating and extensive ethnic genocide programs in the history of the world.
From Angkor Wat to Bohor Hill Station, Cambodia is rich with remnants of its past as the Khmer Empire and French Cambodia. Photo by Dennis Jarvis
At their peak, the country’s Khmer Rouge agrarian communist government killed off an estimated two million Cambodians, often for crimes as silly as wearing glasses or speaking English. While the barbaric regime was overturned in the late 1970s, there are constant reminders of the dark period spread all throughout Cambodia.
However, the people of Cambodia are very aware of their country’s past, and aim to make sure that information on their country’s awful modern history is easy to find. From the Toul Sleng high-school-turned-prison in Phnom Penh to the world famous Killing Fields, Cambodia’s history is easy to spot, that is, if you’re looking for it.
Before its dark period of modern history, Cambodia was home to one of the most advanced civilizations in the region. At its peak in 900AD, the vast Khmer Empire reached from modern Vietnam all the way to the Chinese border, covering all of Thailand and much of modern Laos.
The success of this period of Cambodia’s history is easy to see in the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. A short distance from the tourism center of Siem Reap, the immense temple complex is home to hundreds of different temples and places of note, including the filming locations for Tomb Raider.
Whether you’re seeking a dark take on modern history or a look at one of the most powerful empires in Asian history, Cambodia is a culturally rich destination that is Southeast Asia’s ideal travel destination for historians.
Beaches and Natural Beauty
Like the central regions of Thailand, Cambodia is primarily flat and free of any large mountains. However, the country boasts some of Asia’s most beautiful beaches and natural scenery, particularly along its Gulf of Thailand coast. Arguably the country’s top beach can be found in Sihanoukville, a small town on the nation’s coastline.
Untouched by mass tourism and cheap international fares, Cambodia is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Photo by Keith Parker
Just hours from the capital in Phnom Penh, this beach town is popular amongst the higher classes of Cambodian life, as well as many foreign tourists visiting the area’s rugged and beautiful coastline. Home to white sand and bright blue water, many of Sihanoukville’s beaches would give Thailand’s famous bays a run for their money.
The Cambodian Government has stated long-term goals of making Sihanoukville a leading tourism destination in Southeast Asia – a plan that could be both good and bad for tourists. If seeing Cambodia’s beautiful coastline before the resorts move in is a priority, now might be the best time to visit this beautiful piece of countryside.
Aside from the nation’s beaches, Cambodia’s political isolation from the rest of the world has resulted in some of the world’s most untouched natural wilderness. The Yak Loum crater lake in Ratanakiri Province is a great example of Cambodia’s lush natural surroundings, much of which has never been seen by mass tourism.
Economy and Local Products
For years, Cambodia had the least developed economy in Southeast Asia, with many of its citizens living on less than $5 per month. However, rapid liberalization of the country’s economy has resulted in foreign investment and a rapidly growing local economy built around farming, manufacturing, and tourism.
An abandoned ghost town just thirty years ago, today’s Phnom Penh is a bustling center of business in the region. Photo by Oliver Townend
Foreign banks such as ANZ have entered the market in Cambodia, opening up the country to foreign tourists and investors. Phnom Penh has transformed from a city that was once entirely deserted to a bustling haven of development and business, with gleaming office towers looking down over increasingly busy city streets.
Local markets are packed with products to choose from, showing off both local and international tastes. From copied versions of famous French brand names to wallets and bags made from local materials, Cambodia’s street markets – including the well-known Russian Market in Phnom Penh – are perfect for budget-conscious shoppers.
Cambodia is also home to talented artists, many of whom have used their skills to make a living in one of Asia’s toughest economies. Beautiful paintings can be found in many of Cambodia’s street shopping markets, particularly the comprehensive Art Center in Siem Reap Night Market.
Food and Nightlife
Unlike its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Cambodia isn’t particularly renowned for its food. A popular joke amongst the locals is that Cambodia specializes in warfare, and that its neighbors are responsible for keeping the region fed while Cambodia lacks the time to learn how to cook.
While not all Cambodian dishes are appetizing the country is home to some tasty cuisine.
Photo by McKay Savage
Despite this, Cambodia’s dining options are far from limited. From tourist-focused dining options in Siem Reap’s Pub Street to small family-owned restaurants run by local Khmer with stories to tell, Cambodia is a destination in which delicious and inexpensive food is rarely more than a minute away.
The country’s nightlife is undergoing a major boom right now fueled by both its exposure to international tourism and the rapidly growing Cambodian economy. Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay has grown into one of Asia’s top dining areas, while the infamous Pub Street of Siem Reap attracts budget backpackers in the thousands.
While neighboring Thailand offers a developed economy and modern conveniences, and Vietnam a rich historical culture and massive cities, Cambodia may be one of the few remaining countries in Southeast Asia where a ‘frontier’ feeling is still present.
Once served only by dirt roads and wooden bridges, today Cambodia is home to a large network of highly scenic roads and highways. Photo by Karen Bakar
From its outlaw border towns, many of which were previously major Khmer Rouge political strongholds, to its beautiful beaches free of visitors as far as your eyes can see, Cambodia retains an undiscovered feeling that just isn’t there in many of the other Southeast Asian nations.
If you’re seeking a truly exotic destination, one that combines a sense of optimism with the feeling of being on the frontier of civilization, Cambodia may be the best country in the world to visit. From beaches to former prison camps, Killing Fields to high-rise offices, it certainly offers a contrast that’s getting very hard to find in Asia.