Cambodia’s past contrasts greatly with its present: peaceful temple districts, gorgeous landscapes and everything traditionally Khmer.
Still, when you land in the capital Phnom Penh, it can be a shock to the senses. You’ll find yourself changing your impression of it constantly. The sights of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda will blow you away; the Boen Kak lakeside will leave you calm and restful; and just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll end up in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where thousands upon thousands were executed during the Khmer Rouge ruling – mostly bludgeoned to death to save bullets.
While you’re still in the grips of the Phnom Penh’s experience, collect your thoughts at Angkor Archaeological Park and organize a three-day tour of the area. The 'small circuit' will bring you around Angkor Wat itself, and then to Phnom Bahkeng for the sunset. The 'grand circuit' takes you on a bigger loop. Make it a point to also visit Banteay Srei and cap it off with another sunset at Pre Rup. On the third day, head further afield to Beng Mealea. Lunch is a good time to continue sightseeing because that’s when the crowds thin out, leaving you plenty of time to dawdle about.
Once you've had enough of temples, head via the Tonle Sap Lake to the southern cities of Kampot and Kep and start off your day by trekking up to Bokor Hill Station to enjoy the picturesque view from the top. You can take a stroll along the town’s streets and observe the remnants of French colonialism in the buildings’ architecture. Look hard and you’ll even see bulletholes punctured into the walls of some of the buildings. Pack a picnic and sit on the riverbank while watching the sun set beneath the mountains – a view not to be missed.
Your last stop is Sihanoukville, home to Cambodia's best beaches. While not the best in Asia, allow yourself some time to unwind from all the walking around – and a bit of an indulgence, in the form of a massage – by the blind and disabled (though worry not, they are professionally trained). The nightlife on Serendepity beach thumps until the wee hours of the morning, so if you’re a party animal, this is a great way to say your goodbye to the country.
Cambodia heightens your senses and with good food and great people, it’s no wonder the country continues to fascinate and attract travellers.
(This itinerary is based on our Cambodia Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)