Cambodia is a country steeped in history, stretching back to the glorious Angkor Empire to its recent tragic era of the Khmer Rouge. With sites revealing the country’s highs and lows, discovering the Kingdom of Wonder’s diverse past is an intriguing adventure. Here are some of the top places to remember Cambodia’s past.
Standing at the centre of Khmer national pride, Angkor Wat was once the jewel of the almighty Khmer Empire’s crown, which ruled large parts of Southeast Asia. Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple, it later switched to a Buddhist monument. The temple and surrounding city served as the capital of the empire, as well as a sacred place of worship. Today, Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s main tourist draw, attracting a record 2.2 million people in 2016. Angkor Wat Archaeological Park is spread across 400kms, and takes in hundreds of ancient temples and religious monuments, including Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Prasat Preah Vihear (Temple of the Sacred Mountain) has been at the centre of conflict for decades, making it precious in the hearts of many Cambodians. Sitting on the edge of the Cambodian-Thai border, ferocious fighting between the two countries over ownership of the sacred site persisted until recent years. In 2015, the destination was deemed safe and taken off many foreign offices’ watch lists. While military presence remains strong, the temple is well worth a visit. With none of the crowds that plague Angkor, Prasat Preah Vihear is a series of impressive structures, built between the 9th and 12th century by several kings. It teeters atop a 1,722ft cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains, boasting stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Phnom Kulen and its sprawling national park is considered by locals to be Cambodia’s most sacred mountain. Located in Siem Reap province, the area becomes a hive of activity during public holidays and religious festivals as Cambodians flock to the site to worship, picnic and enjoy some family time at the waterfalls. It is home to a giant reclining Buddha who sits at the mountain’s peak, waterfalls perfect for swimming in, remote temples and The River of a Thousand Lingas, featuring ancient carvings on the stone riverbed. Steeped in history, it was at Phnom Kulen from where Jayavarman II declared himself a devaraja (god-king) in 802AD.
This hill about 11km outside of Battambang is also steeped in tragic history. Here, visitors can enter the Killing Caves, where thousands of Cambodians were bludgeoned to death before being tossed 20-metres into holes in the roof of the caves. A memorial containing some of the recovered bones and skulls sits inside. Visitors to Phnom Sampeau should time their trip so it rounds off at dusk because every evening, crowds gather at the mouth of the cave to watch the stream of bats fly out. It really has to be seen to be believed.
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