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In the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia, a skyline of temples boasts evidence not only of ancient culture’s religious devotion but its unparalleled engineering skills and wealth. This is Cambodia, where 21 centuries of history have played out against verdant landscapes. Known as Funan in its first six centuries, Cambodia’s ascendance began in earnest in the 9th century, under the Angkor Empire’s King Jayavarman II. For the next six hundred years, the empire expanded, but its heart remained in Siem Reap, where 100 temples rose, masterworks of artistry and faith. The same era saw the creation of canal systems, vast man-made lakes, and an irrigation system that was the envy of Asia.

Like many of its neighboring countries, Cambodia was desired by European powers hoping to expand in the 18th and 19th centuries. For nearly a hundred years, Cambodia was a French protectorate, an influence still seen in elegant colonial-era buildings in cities like Phnom Penh. But in 1953, King Sihanouk won his nation full independence, which led to peace and prosperity for two decades. The 1970s saw the darkest days of the nation’s history: when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government, a four-year nightmare ensued, and 1.7 million citizens lost their lives.

Today, Cambodia is again a free nation, with a parliamentary system and a new constitution adopted in 1993. Visitors from around the globe are able to not only fall under the spell of the stunning temple complexes, but to appreciate all of the gifts that Cambodia is known for: friendly welcomes, delicious food, and unforgettable natural diversity from glittering coast to jungles where elephants roam free.

Cambodia Interactive Map

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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations

Angkor Thom

The final capital of the Khmer Empire brags a little right in its name: Angkor Thom means “The Great City.” For those who wished to see the proof of its claim, a 300-foot moat had to be crossed, and even then, one had to get pass 25-foot-high walls. Once inside the 12th-century walls, treasures range from Bayon, the state temple of King Jayavarman VII, to the Terrace of Elephants, a viewing platform that appears to be upheld by tusks. So enamored with his royal city was the king that one of the public inscriptions read, “Jayavarman is the groom and the city is his bride.” As with its sister site, Angkor Wat, the walls are covered in intricate bas-reliefs depicting the lives of the gods, beginning with Hindu deities and later including Buddhist tales. But Angkor Thom also reflects the king’s love of wildlife, its surfaces adorned with an endless menagerie of real-world creatures: monkeys, snakes, fish, elephants, and more. It’s a reminder that the kingdom might be inspired by the gods, but its ruler lived on Earth.

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Tuol Sleng Prison Museum/Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The Khmer Rouge era may have lasted only four years, but it was without question the deadliest time in Cambodia’s history. Paranoia about suspected “enemies” led to the capture, torture, and murder of nearly one in five Cambodians alive at the time. (Starvation claimed so many more, that nearly 25% of the population did not survive the regime.) In Phnom Penh, a high school became the most notorious of execution centers, Security Prison 21. (Now, it serves as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.) Citizens were brought here, photographed, made recount their biographies, stripped, and then imprisoned and tortured until they named other friends or loved ones who should also be jailed. In this one site, 20,000 prisoners were executed (an average of one every 90 minutes for the entire reign of the Khmer Rouge). “Killing fields,” scenes of mass execution, were common all across the country, and so far, 20,000 mass burial graves have been uncovered. The legacy of that time is still profound; as everyone in their mid-forties and older lived through the era, its lessons will not soon be forgotten.

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Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s most populous city, and also its capital, Phnom Penh comes with 800 years of history and yet a decidedly forward-looking personality. Sprawling along both Tonlé Sap and the Mekong River, the city’s story begins in the 13th century around a single temple, during a time when Angkor was still the capital. By the 15th century it was thriving enough to nab the title away from its rival, but that lasted less than a century. It wasn’t till the 19th century that its crown was restored, and the lovely Royal Palace built as its linchpin. In the ensuring French era, the city’s size and grandeur increased, until it was known as the Pearl of Asia. Today, one in ten Cambodians live here, enjoying the mixture of a thriving business scene, world-class dining, and older pleasures like outdoor markets and traditional arts.

36 Hours in Phnom Penh

Get a peek at the food, sites, and tradition that make up Phnom Penh's burgeoning Cambodian culture.

Produced by Jonah M. Kessel and Will Lloyd

©2014 The New York Times

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Siem Reap

As the leaping-off point for visits to the temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap could be just a pass-through town, not a destination in itself. But Siem Reap has its own charms and offerings for those who would pause here. There are evidences of eras past in Old French Quarter, where tuk-tuks roll by colonnaded buildings with elegant balconies. In the Psah Chas (Old Market) at the heart of the city, navigating the jumble of lanes might seem intimidating at first, but it offers a true taste of Cambodian life, with vendors displaying everything from silken fabrics to fresh slabs of bacon. At night, closer to the river, the traditional Angkor Night Market comes alive as a glittering beehive of activity. But more contemporary delights are on offer as well: Siem Reap has become a hot spot for dining, shopping, and spa services, and is now the epicenter of Cambodian arts as well.

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Tonlé Sap Lake

Despite its misleading name—which means big freshwater river—Tonlé Sap is actually the largest freshwater lake of Southeast Asia. It flows into the river of the same name and, in turn, that flows into the Mekong, creating a floodplain that is millions of years old. Tonlé Sap is a trickster: during the dry season it is only 965 square miles, but when the monsoon season it at its peak, the lake swells to a massive 6,178 square miles. It was crucial to the Angkor Empire, providing irrigation for crops and water for the cities, and to this day supports the livelihood of the rural population, for whom farming is still the number one industry. The lake region is so rich with biodiversity that UNESCO officially designated it as Biosphere Reserve. Both a magnet for nature-lovers and integral to local economies, Tonlé Sap is sure to remain Cambodia’s lifeblood for years to come.

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Angkor Wat Temple Complex

There is perhaps no more iconic temple than the 12th-century Angkor Wat. Sprawling across 500 acres, it is the single largest religious monument on earth. The handiwork of Suryavarman II was dedicated to Vishnu and meant to invoke Mount Meru, the holiest of places in Hindu mythology. Approached by crossing a vast moat, the complex is a masterwork of balance, detail, and sculptural ingenuity. Among its well-known features are a series of more than 3,000 carved female figures, no two alike. By the 12th century, as Buddhism became the dominant faith, Buddhist details were added, and the temple has been Buddhist ever since. Angkor Wat is now not only part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the undisputed heart of Cambodia, appearing both on the nation’s flag and on its official seal. Two million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to see the temple complex, earning it Lonely Planet’s designation as the #1 Ultimate Travel Destination on Earth.

Earth Diaries - Angkor Wat

Discover the history, religion and myth carved into the walls of Angkor Wat.

Produced by Cynthia Younker

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Travelogue: Angkor Wat, Cambodia 1945

Travel back in time, to Angkor Wat in 1945, a spot you can visit today on our trip extension.

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Soy Houy: A 365 Docobites Film

Meet Soy Houy, a Cambodian man who preserves his family’s tradition of making rice paper.

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Children of Cambodia

Glimpse many facets of life in Cambodia, from Angkor Wat’s temples to Tonle Sap Lake.

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Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in Cambodia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more


Discover the significance of Buddhist acts and ideas—like karma—that determine your fate in this life and the next.


Not sure what to do when visiting a Buddhist temple? Here are seven disrespectful acts you should avoid.

Making Merit

How the meaning of karma influences Buddhists in Southeast Asia

Lyette Mercier, for O.A.T.

 If you do good you will receive good; if you do evil you will receive evil.

— Thai proverb

Making merit—doing good—is a vital part of Buddhist life in Southeast Asia, and the proverb above elegantly illustrates why. In Buddhist teaching, you accumulate merit throughout your life to bring future happiness, strength, and peace—and to carry it into your next life.

Making merit, giving alms

In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where the majority of the population is Buddhist, the most common form of merit-making is giving alms to Buddhist monks, who take to the streets each morning in their bright saffron robes holding “begging bowls” into which people can place goods. The most common gift is food, but flowers, money, soap, and other goods useful to the monastery are also accepted. The amount of merit a giver receives is determined by many variables. First, the giver must have pure intentions, a clear mind, and not give anything that is not theirs to give. The quality of the gift also contributes to the merit received. Home-cooked foods are more merit-worthy than ones bought pre-prepared, and giving your leftovers to the monks is considered both rude and unworthy of merit. Finally, the more observant the monk being given alms (with the most observant perfectly obeying all 227 precepts of Buddhism), the more merit granted the giver.

In daily life, people can also gain merit through honoring others, offering help and service, involving others in good deeds, and being thankful for others’ good deeds. This focus on aiding and appreciating the people around you shows in the friendliness and spirit of fellowship among the people of Southeast Asia. After all, when you can bring a bit of good into your current or future life simply by smiling at a stranger or acknowledging a kindness, why not make a habit of it?

Candles for good eyesight

Of course, Buddhists understand that they may not see the results of their merit in this life and generally do not expect immediate results from their good deeds. But certain types of gifts are sometimes thought to accumulate specific kinds of merit for a giver’s next life. For example, giving textbooks to children is said to ensure that you will be intelligent in your next life, and offering candles or lights will give you bright eyes and good eyesight. Merit can also be “transferred” to the person of the giver’s choosing (often a deceased loved one) to lessen that person’s suffering in their next life.

Holidays and festivals provide opportunities for celebratory merit-making. The birthday of Thailand’s king, for example, is celebrated annually with ceremonies in which citizens give alms to monks on behalf of the king, donating the accumulated merit to the monarch as a birthday gift. Another common form of birthday merit-making is to release fish. The tradition stems from saving creatures stranded in rice paddies by receding floods. In the coastal province of Samut Prakan, one million shrimp were released into the river for the king’s birthday in 2011.


The practice of gaining merit stems from the Buddhist concept of karma, which means “doing.” Everything a person does, says, and thinks is a karma, and the accumulation of good and bad karma influences both this life and the next. Two stories from the Buddha’s life form the basis of the tradition. In the first tale, two merchants came upon the newly-enlightened Buddha and were so impressed by his virtue that they spontaneously gave him their provisions. The second story tells of the Buddha carrying a begging bowl as he traveled, with those who passed giving him food and goods so that he could continue to spread his teachings.

Almost 2,500 years later, the Buddha’s lessons of kindness, giving, and gaining merit continue to have a profound influence on the actions and culture of people throughout Southeast Asia.

How the meaning of karma influences Buddhists in Southeast Asia

7 Things You Should Never Do in a Buddhist Temple

by Maryclaire Dugre

From Bangkok’s glittering Grand Palace to the stone spires of Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s temples are stunning in scale and complexity. But even more intricate than the bejeweled stupas is the unique code of conduct for temple-goers. Here’s what not to do at a Buddhist place of worship:

1. Wear shoes or a hat

Always remove your shoes and hat before entering the main worship area—look where others have dropped theirs, and add yours to the pile.

Temple tip: Wear slip-on flats or no-fuss sandals for easy removal.

2. Show too much skin
Even in sweltering Southeast Asia, Buddhists dress conservatively, especially at religious sites. Avoid shorts, sleeveless tops, and dresses or skirts that fall above the knee. If you forget, many temples will lend you a cover-up, sometimes for a small fee.

Wardrobe win: For women, a scarf or shawl is a versatile travel essential. In a bind, it can be draped over your shoulders or tied as a long skirt.

3. Touch the Buddha
Buddha statues can be dazzling, alluring works of art, but be sure to appreciate them with your eyes, not your hands. Getting too close or leaning on the platform is also a sign of disrespect.

Buddha boundaries: Unsure of how close you can get? Take your cue from the monks or worshippers around you—never walk in front of them while they’re praying.

4. Point
Pointing at people or things is considered rude in many Asian cultures. In a temple, it’s an even graver offense when the subject is a monk, nun, elder, or the Buddha statue itself.

The proper point: To gesture at something, extend your right hand with the palm facing upwards. When sitting, tuck your feet under you or angle them away from the Buddha.

5. Touch or hand something to a monk (women)
Women should never touch, get too close, or pass something to a monk. At the slightest brush against their robes, a monk must perform a cleansing ritual (even if the woman is his mother).

Monk manners: If you’d like to make an offering to a monk, pass it first to a man or set it down before him.

6. Kill an insect
For a Buddhist, purposely destroying a living being—even a creepy crawler—promises bad karma. Try to wave away (rather than kill) any that buzz by you in a temple.

Brush away the bugs: When you see a monk sweeping the entrance stairs, chances are he’s not tidying the temple—he’s brushing away—and protecting—any insects that may be trampled by visitors.

7. Snap a photo without permission
Many temples do allow photography—but always confirm before using your camera. Never take a photo of the Buddha statue during worship, and as a general rule, turn your flash off.

A thoughtful thank you: After taking your photos, making a small donation is always appreciated (but not mandatory).

Cambodia: Month-by-Month

There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.

Cambodia in January-February

January and February offer a respite from the humidity Cambodia is known for—this is the driest time of year. Sunning on the southern beaches is particularly comfortable as temperatures have not yet risen to their highs later in the year. 

Peak tourism season began ramping up in November with lower temperatures and humidity. Popular destinations such as Angkor Wat will be crowded. Bustling Phnom Penh—year-around an energetic hub of commerce and culture—will be even more crowded with tourists from around the world. 

With high water levels, this is the best time to visit Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. Even lower temperatures near bodies of water means sailing by paddle boat or river cruise lend to a more adventurous experience. 

Holidays & Events

  • February 16: Chinese and Vietnamese New Year

Must See

Chinese and Vietnamese New Year is arguably the largest celebrations in Eastern Asia with ornate parades, music, and breathtaking fireworks displays.

Cambodia in March-April

Temperatures in March are quickly on the rise, and by April they have hit average highs of 93 degrees. Tourism season starts to wane, so exploring Phnom Penh and other urban areas will be a more authentic and less expensive experience. Navigating the city's frenetic streets, you’ll see more traditional food, less souvenir stands, and less crowding. Take advantage of the value of your tourism dollars and delve into a city which at this time becomes quintessentially Cambodian. 

Holidays & Events

  • April 14: Khmer New Year 

Must See

Khmer New Year is celebrated both in Cambodia and throughout the world among the Cambodian diaspora. With ornate traditional costumes, games, and even street parties and gatherings, this is one of the most exciting times for the Khmer culture. 

Cambodia in May-June

The humidity of the previous couple of months breaks in May and June with the wet season's heavy downpours. Robust excursions into the Cambodian countryside are more manageable with lower temperatures—on clear days, the wide expanses of bright green rice paddies under stunning blue skies come together like a beautiful painting.

As peak season has ended, this is a great time to explore the breathtaking scale of Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei's ornate sculptures honoring women. These popular sites, as well as the urban areas, are not crowded with tourists.

Holidays & Events

  • May 3: The Royal Ploughing Ceremony 

Must See

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony is celebrated all over Southeast Asia, marking the beginning of the rice-growing season. Traditionally, the country's monarch will drive a plow in ceremonial land, followed by priests planting seeds to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Cambodia in July-September

Monsoons cover southwestern Cambodia in quick bursts of torrential rains. Road closures are common as many are simple mud paths, and mosquitoes are more prevalent.

The countryside is particularly striking, with the previous season's steady rains fostering lush green vegetation. The thunderstorms are famous at this time of year, especially in rural Cambodia. The rivers are also best at their peak—Tonle Sap Lake begins to fill up again, making for great cruising opportunities.

As this is low season, prices for goods and tours are lower. 

Holidays & Events

  • September 19: Pchum Ben is a 15-day festival in which families honor deceased relatives, sometimes from up to seven generations past. Food offerings for Buddhist monks and ancestor spirits are made in hopes of generating merit for passed relatives.

Must See

Rains have refreshed the waters around Angkor Wat, making the temple's reflection—a site in itself—clear and stunning. 

Cambodia in October-December

From October to the end of the year, Cambodia enters a calm and comfortable season. The rains have subsided, and temperatures stay within a range of 70-80 degrees. Blue skies dotted with clouds make for incredible views in the countryside. This is the time for hiking the rugged northern highlights and going off the beaten path.

Many people spend Christmas in Cambodia because of cooler temperatures and exotic adventures. Peak tourism season begins ramping up in November, so slowly crowds will build in popular destinations such as Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat.

Holidays & Events

  • November 3: Bon Om Touk, otherwise known as the Water Festival, marks the end of the rainy season. People in Cambodia and diaspora communities across the world celebrate with boat races and water games. Steaming street food, water fights, and joviality fill the streets of cities and towns. The festival marks the reversal of the Tonle Sap River's flow, draining into the Mekong River.

Must See

Tonle Sap Lake is at its highest level. With the flow reversal of the Tonle Sap River from the lake, the water levels of the Mekong River increase slowly. Fishing in the Tonle Sap is illegal at this time to avoid disruption of the breeding season. This means boating on the lake is a more pleasant and serene experience. 

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Phnom Penh & Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Explore Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
Visit Tuol Sleng Prison and Killing Fields
Spend time in a village at Tonle Sap Lake
Go to the Angkor National Museum



Phnom Penh & Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Explore Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
Visit Tuol Sleng Prison and Killing Fields
Spend time in a village at Tonle Sap Lake
Go to the Angkor National Museum



Heart of Cambodia: Angkor Wat & Siem Reap


Explore Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
Visit the Killing Fields
Spend time in a village at Tonle Sap Lake
Go to the Angkor National Museum



Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Explore Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
Visit Tuol Sleng Prison and Killing Fields
Spend time in a village at Tonle Sap Lake
Go to the Angkor National Museum

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