From the glory of the ancient Angkorian Empire to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge

The first time I took a stroll ‘Riverside’, the popular promenade in Phnom Penh, I was greeted by a sea of glittering golden roofs and ornate temple peaks. Amidst the roar of motorcycles and the sweet scent of roasting bananas, Cambodia’s rich and varied history was tangible at every turn.

Evidence suggests the Kingdom’s history stretches back as far as 4000bc, although very little is known about Cambodian’s lives back then. The modern-day culture has roots in the 1st to 6th centuries, and it was then that the country’s Khmer language also emerged. Later, the rise of the Angkorian Empire saw mighty Khmer Kings dominate what is now much of modern Southeast Asia. However, Cambodian history also has a darker side – particularly the country’s time under communist rule during the 1970s. The five historical sites I visited on an extended trip offer visitors a broad span of Cambodian history, and are all worth visiting if you are exploring this diverse country.

Angkor Wat

For hundreds of years, Angkor Wat represented the nucleus of the mighty Khmer Empire and it is undoubtedly Cambodia’s most visited attraction. Situated just outside modern Siem Reap, Angkor Wat translates to ‘City of Temples’ in Khmer. Construction of the temple began in the 12th century, and the site remains a source of great national pride today. Built by King Survavarman II as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now a site of Buddhist worship. It is also the largest religious site on the entire planet and an exquisite example of ancient architecture and design. The magnificent preservation of the site is largely attributed to the fact that it was offered some degree of protection from the surrounding jungle. ‘Temple City’ sprawls across many miles, so it’s best to hire a vehicle or bicycle to explore the many temples and shrines.

Fit for a King

Built in the 1860s, Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace offers visitors a glimpse into a much more recent period of Cambodian history than is displayed at Angkor Wat. The palace, which still serves as the residence of the King, is situated on the Western bank of the Tonle Sap River – an ornate, golden residence comprising a selection of buildings, including the Throne Room of Prasat Tevea Vinichhay, which is still used for the coronation of Cambodia’s kings and other official royal ceremonies. The spectacular Silver Pagoda, which owes its name to the 5000 silver tiles adorning the floor, and adds to the appeal of this enduring attraction.

Wats in the City

Head north along Norodom Boulevard, which runs almost parallel to Sisowath Quay (Riverside) in Phnom Penh, and you soon encounter Wat Phnom – the temple from which the capital city takes its name. Perched atop a hill in the northeast of the city, the pagoda which originally occupied this site was constructed in 1373 to house four statues of the Lord Buddha that washed up in the nearby Mekong River. These statues were discovered by a lady – now revered in Cambodian legend – named Penh… hence ‘Phnom Penh’. Today, the Wat is an important place of worship for local people, many of whom come here to pray for good luck.

The Killing Fields

It is perhaps more respectful to begin by saying that The Killing Fields are not a tourist attraction, but more of a memorial for those who lost their lives during the terrible regime of the Khmer Rouge. Visiting sites like this is a way for locals and tourists alike to honour the dead. The site (also known as Cheung Ek), from which the famous movie took its name, is located a few miles outside of Phnom Penh. Thousands of people during the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975-1979 lost their lives and were killed and buried here. Visitors follow a winding path around the mass graves and past a small lake whilst listening to an informative audio guide which guides them through the horrific events that took place.

Captives of the Khmer Rouge

Tuol Sleng, now known as Phnom Penh’s Genocide Musuem, was a prison known as S21 during the regime of the Khmer Rouge. It was one of the main places where political prisoners of the KR were taken and tortured before being killed. While the prison/ museum offers a valuable insight into Cambodia’s history, it is not for the faint of heart.  In fact, very little about the prison has changed since the 1970s. Some rooms remain empty, aside from metal beds in the centre, with shackles still attached. From classrooms to torture chambers, the horrific events that these walls witnessed is alarmingly tangible. However, it is important for any visitor in Cambodia to understand the role that history has played in national identity – from the shining highs of the Khmer Empire to the deep wounds left by the Khmer Rouge. It is for this reason that a visit to Tuol Sleng is important.


To learn about and fully understand Cambodia’s grand and at time disturbing history, it’s important to read up a little on the country before you visit. It’s also a good idea to plan your trip to focus on specific sites and attractions that interest you most. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the experience.

  • To enjoy Angkor Wat Archaeological Complex at its best, head there at either sunrise or sunset. Not only does sunrise offer the chance to beat some of the crowds (perhaps surprisingly, the temples are still fairly busy at 5am), but you can beat the heat as well. The soft pink and mauve light of early morning and late evening also offers photographers the chance to snap some sensational shots.
  •  Take your time exploring the Angkor Wat Heritage Site. Rather than buying a one day pass that allows you time to rush round each of the temples in a tuk-tuk, purchase a three-day pass that allows you to take your time over the many marvellous sights the site has to offer.
  • Due to the disturbing nature of sites like Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, these locations are not appropriate for young children. It is better to give these sights a miss if you are travelling with little ones.
  • Cambodia’s National Museum is located a mere stone’s throw from The Royal Palace. You can kill two birds with one stone by visiting both sites in the same afternoon, and immersing yourself even more deeply in Cambodia’s history (follow your trip up with a spicy Khmer meal at one of the many restaurants along Riverside).
  • If you are particularly interested in the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia’s history, the ‘Killing Caves’ in the city of Battambang offer another chance to learn more about this horrific but fascinating period in the country’s not so distant past.

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Rebecca Foster
Rebecca has travelled extensively in America, Europe and Asia and worked as an English teacher in Thailand and South Korea. She has also contributed to several publications in the UK and Asia and enjoys hiking, yoga and taekwondo whilst on her travels.