Beyond Angkor Wat: Striking Historical Sites In Cambodia

22 Feb, 2024 | A-> Z Guide

Discover palaces, ruins, temples, museums, and other historical landmarks and sites that are off the beaten path in Cambodia.

When picturing Cambodia, many people immediately visualize the astonishing ancient temples of Angkor Wat. It might even be the main reason you are planning a trip to this country. But Angkor Wat is just one of the captivating historical Cambodian destinations that make this country such a spectacular place to visit. Today, we will tap into some lesser-known gems this historically and culturally rich land has to offer. 

1. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is among the most somber Cambodian places to visit, but it is worth it to understand the deep scars the Khmer Rouge regime left on Cambodia during the 1970s.

Originally, Tuol Sleng (“Hill of the Poisonous Trees”) was a secondary school. However, the totalitarian Khmer Rouge government converted it into a torture and execution center called Security Prison 21. This prison functioned as a concentration camp. The Khmer Rouge held and tortured around 20,000 people there. Only twelve are known to have survived. 

Visiting the museum, you will walk through the same rooms and halls the prisoners and guards did, viewing photographs, paintings, and torture equipment from that horrific time.  

2. Choeung Ek Killing Fields

After taking the tour through the harrowing Tuol Sleng prison, you may wish to stop at Choeung Ek, the “Killing Fields,” also at Phnom Penh. While there were hundreds of killing fields in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, this is the most famous one. 8,895 people were buried here in mass graves. 

Though it is haunted by the darkness of the past, today, it is a peaceful site featuring a Buddhist stupa that contains the skulls of more than 5,000 of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. As you gaze at the stupa, you can pay your respects to those who lost their lives to this bloody regime.

3. National Museum Phnom Penh

If you are a connoisseur of art and history, then the National Museum of Cambodia is a must-see stop during your visit to the country. Head to Chey Chumneas in Phnom Penh to explore the collections, which will take you on a trip back in time. 

On exhibit, you can behold items dating back all the way to the prehistoric age. Through the sculptures, ceramics, bronze pieces, and other arts and crafts on display, you will learn about different periods of the Khmer Empire. 

The buildings in which the collections are housed are also worth visiting in their own right, constructed between 1917 and 1924 with inspiration from traditional Khmer temples. The museum features a lovely courtyard as well with trees, sculpted hedges, and ponds. 

4. Royal Palace

Close to the National Museum of Cambodia is the Royal Palace of Cambodia, another iconic Cambodian place to visit in Phnom Penh. The palace was established in 1866. Aside from the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, it has otherwise been the uninterrupted home of the monarchs of Cambodia since its construction.

Exploring the grounds, visitors can marvel at the stunning architecture of the Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall, the Inner Court, the Silver Pagoda, and several pavilions. The grounds feature tropical gardens, creating an idyllic atmosphere. 

Keep in mind that there is a strict conservative dress code to pay a visit to the Royal Palace, as well as certain other Cambodian destinations. Wear attire that covers your shoulders and knees. If you are not appropriately dressed, you can be refused entry to the palace. 

5. Wat Sasar Muoy Roy

Visitors to Cambodia who want to see beautiful pagodas during their trip should head to Wat Sasar Muoy Roy in the Sambor district of Kratie Province. Sometimes, this site is called “Wat Sambor” or “the 100 Columns Pagoda.”

There used to be four pagodas on this site, one in each cardinal direction. Today, only the 100 Columns Pagoda remains, situated along a north-south axis. This makes it different from most other pagodas at Cambodia destinations, which are on an east-west axis.

This pagoda also is not likely the first building that was here; previously, a 19th-century wood-columned structure was thought to be located where the 100 Columns Pagoda is today. The pagoda itself was constructed during the 20th century. Along with this structure, the site features a stupa and some artifacts on display. 

6. Preah Vihear Temple

The Preah Vihear Temple is located in the province of the same name atop a 1,722-foot plateau cliff. As you wander the site, you may feel yourself being pulled in two directions. On one hand, the view at the cliff edge is jaw-dropping, drawing you to gaze out at the expansive scenery. On the other hand, the temple itself is just as awe-inspiring, offering you a window as far back in time as the ninth century. 

Marvel at the five-ton sandstone blocks used in construction, as well as the detailed architectural embellishments. A deep sense of the sacred pervades every inch of this ancient site with its commanding views. 

7. Bokor Hill Station

Many of the top Cambodian places to visit feature Khmer architecture. One destination that features a different style of architecture entirely is the 1920s French Colonial Bokor Hill Station, located at the summit of Bokor Mountain in Preah Monivong National Park near Kampot

You might recognize this distinctive site as a filming location for the movies R-Point (2004) and City of Ghosts (2002). 

French colonial officers in Cambodia during the 1920s did not handle the country’s heat well. To that end, the military constructed Bokor Hill Station to offer them a reprieve. The structure demanded a hefty toll on human lives, however. During the nine months it took to build the place, nine hundred workers perished. 

In many respects, Bokor Hill Station tells the history of the 20th century in this part of the world. The resort was used from the 1920s through the 1940s, then abandoned until the 1960s, at which point additional buildings were constructed. The Khmer Rouge regime turned it into a fort until that totalitarian government finally met its downfall. 

Today, the site’s post office is gone, but you can check out the rest of the buildings from different eras. People still worship at the temple at Bokor Hill Station, but the other structures are now just relics of the past. 

8. Beng Mealea Temple

Speaking of temples, another of the most fascinating Cambodian places to visit to add to your bucket list is Beng Melea Temple at Angkor. Be aware that you need to travel 25 miles from Angkor Wat itself to reach this UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List site. 

In the heart of the jungle, you’ll encounter sandstone ruins that look like they belong on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Originally, the temple was constructed by Hindu worshippers, but some of the carvings indicate that Buddhists practiced here as well. Although the courtyards and towers are no longer fully intact, the spirit of this ancient holy site certainly remains timeless. 

How do you reach Beng Melea Temple? Your best option is to pay a driver to take you there. It is possible to walk through the jungle, but it isn’t easy. We wouldn’t suggest doing it without a guide, nor would we recommend it if you are not an experienced hiker.

9. Koh Ker

Speaking of UNESCO World Heritage Cambodia destinations, you can venture 75 miles from Angkor to another incredible site called Koh Ker.

Unlike Beng Melea, Koh Kher is not a single standalone temple. Instead, it is a large complex that contains 180 sanctuaries, temples, wall paintings, inscriptions, sculptures, and more. Indeed, like Angkor itself, Koh Ker was once a city that served as the capital of the Khmer Empire, filling that role exclusively between 928 and 944 CE. 

While you cannot visit all of the ruins of Koh Ker, there are two dozen or so that you can tour. The most famous of these is Prasat Thom, an overgrown temple constructed as a step pyramid. Along with Prasat Thom, some other prominent features among the ruins include an entrance pavilion, towers, palaces, tombs, and a moat. With so much to see, you could easily spend a whole afternoon marveling at these ruins and imagining what the city must have been like in its heydays. 

It is very important to keep to the areas where you are permitted! There are some unexploded landmines still scattered around the forest nearby. 

10. Sambor Prei Kuk

One more nearby UNESCO World Heritage site you will want to explore while you are in the region of Angkor and Siem Reap is Sambor Prei Kuk. This ancient temple compound dates back to the 7th century when it was part of a city called Isanapura, which was the capital of the Chenla Kingdom. 

Isanapura was constructed over 150 years before Angkor. While its ruins are not as well-preserved as those of Angkor, you can still appreciate the incredible craftsmanship of the builders in the architectural forms and remaining motifs that still stand. The main temple is part of the cluster of ruins called “Group N,” with additional ruins in “Group S” and “Group C.” 

Plan Your Trip to These Top Cambodia Destinations

The ruins of Angkor Wat are something every person should see firsthand at least once in a lifetime. But you now know that Cambodia’s rich history is showcased in many other temples, museums, palaces, and additional landmarks and attractions. To make sure you do not miss out on any of the art, history, and culture that Cambodia has to offer; design your trip with Exotic Voyages’ travel guides for Cambodia. 

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