Ancient Cambodia

Cambodia has a rich and fascinating history. The first humans in Cambodia were Stone Age hunters and gatherers. However farming was introduced into Cambodia about 2,300 BCE. The first farmers in Cambodia used stone tools but from about 1,500 BCE the Cambodians used tools and weapons made from bronze. By about 500 BCE they had learned to use iron.

The first civilization in the area arose about 150 CE in the Mekong River delta in South Vietnam. This civilization was known to the Chinese who called it Fu-nan. While Fu-nan was trading with the Chinese Cambodian society grew more sophisticated. Settlements grew larger. So did kingdoms.

By the beginning of the 7th century CE all of Cambodia was highly civilized. At first Cambodia was divided into rival states. However at the beginning of the 9th century a king named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

The People of Angkor

Cambodia’s Angkor period is defined by the six century rule of the Khmer Empire. The dawn of the Khmer civilization is the subject of an ongoing historical debate, but many scholars consider the reign of King Jayavarman II to be the impetus for a unified Khmer people. His kingship began sometime in the late 8th or early 9th Century when a Brahman priest named Jayavarman II the chakravartin, or universal monarch over Cambodia. Despite the celebrity of Jayavarman II in Cambodian history, the details of his rule are rooted deeper in the sand of legend and lore than in the firm soil of historical fact.

Following the obscure kingship of Jayavarman II, the Great Indravarman seized the Khmer throne. Indravarman’s rule is characterized by the design and construction of a complex irrigation system, remnants of which still exist today. Under Indravarman’s rule, the young Khmer Empire began conceiving the trademark Angkor architectural style, identified by its strong devotion to Hindu and Buddhist religious concepts. Ingeniously, the Khmer irrigation system was used to embellish the Khmer temples in the form of massive reflection aqueducts and water storage ponds. More than 1,000 years after the rule of Indravarman, we still use water to reflect our buildings, homes, temples, and monuments.

Indravarman’s son, Yasovarman, continued the work of his father, constructing some of the most important temple complexes of the Common Era. Yasovarman is identified as the inaugurator of the Phnom Bakheng and the Lolei Temples. Under his rule, the capital of the Khmer Empire was established in Angkor.

Building the Angkor Wat Temple Complex

From the rule of Yasovarman to the 12th century design and construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex, the Khmer people evolved into the most significant religious, military, and social civilization in Southeast Asia. Their authority blanketed all of modern-day Cambodia, reaching into Vietnam, China, and across the Bay of Bengal.

King Suryavarman II was responsible for the construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex. He dedicated the temple to Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavite Hinduism, which remained its patron deity until the Cambodian people consecrated Angkor Wat to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th - 15th Century. Under Suryavarman II, the temple complex also served as the capital of the Khmer Empire and a strategic military post. Curiously, the original name of the temple remains unknown. Historians have not been able to locate any artifacts or inscriptions that refer to the temple complex by name.

The enormity of Angkor Wat was conceived and constructed with a level of precision and intention that continues to evade the modern mind. Some scholars believe that the temple complex was built to take advantage of Angkor’s water-rich agricultural potential. Other scholars attribute the construction of Angkor Wat to the Khmer belief in earth-star harmonization. The temple’s ground plan replicates the position of the stars in the Draco constellation.

Large portions of the Angkor Wat temple complex remain unfinished. Historical theory suggests that construction ended when Suryavarman II died. Regardless of why construction ceased, the temple’s unfinished status adds to Angkor Wat’s mysterious appeal.

Angkor Wat after the Khmer Empire

Since the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th Century CE, Angkor Wat has remained one of the most significant religious structures in the world. In 1431 the Thais captured the Cambodian capital, Angkor. Afterwards it was abandoned and new capital was founded at Phnom Phen. By the mid-16th century Angkor was overgrown by the jungle and it was accidentally re-discovered by a Cambodian king. 

The history of the Khmer Empire exists in the stone of Angkor Wat alone. Written inscriptions of the temple’s history, if they ever existed, have escaped modern examination. After the Thai takeover, Buddhist monks continued to preserve and uphold the sacred status of Ankgor Wat, but they overturned the original dedication of the temple to Hindu deity Vishnu. In Vishnu’s stead, the gods and concepts of Buddhism became the ruling principles of Angkor Wat.

In 1860, the French led an expedition into the heart of Cambodia inspired by the European hunger for exploration and discovery. Since the mid 1800s Europe and the West have been spellbound by the ancient city of Angkor Wat. The French pioneered an Angkor Wat restoration project in 1908 that continues to this day.

Siem Reap is Cambodia's number one tourism destination, thanks to the grand temples of the Angkorian period sitting right on its doorstep. Everyone who arrives in Siem Reapis is here to see Angkor Wat, but the town's burgeoning popularity with travelers has led to a whole host of other attractions and activities opening up, providing some downtime from temple hopping.

Siem Reap itself is not the prettiest town, but it has a lively café and restaurant scene that is beginning to compete with Phnom Penh for cosmopolitan flair, and the central city area is home to some of the best souvenir shopping you willl find in the country, with both market stalls for great bargains and a whole host of plush boutiques for special gifts. 

1. Angkor Wat

 The vast ancient city that sprawls across Angkor Archaeological Park, more commonly called after its major temple complex, Angkor Wat, by visitors, was built by a succession of kings between the 9th and 15th centuries. It contains hundreds of temples, and is so vast that even after multiple visits, you will still feel like you have only scratched the surface.

During the medieval age, this was the world's largest city, though only the temples remain today. The main temple complex within the site is Angkor Wat itself, with its stunning bas-reliefs carved with scenes from traditional Hindu epics. In particular, make sure to check out the Churning of the Ocean Milk bas-relief on the east gallery.

After Angkor Wat, head to the sprawling 10 square kilometer Angkor Thom complex, where you will find one of the most photogenic temples in the site. The Bayon Temple is famed for its 216 stone faces of Avalokiteśvara carved into the temple's 54 towers, built by the king Jayavarman VII, but do not miss the intricate bas-reliefs running around the temple walls that depict life here in the city and various battle scenes.

The next destination that should be on your list, is Ta Prohm, easily one of the most photogenic sights here due to its half tumbled buildings entwined with tree roots.

With more than a day to discover the legacy of the Angkorian kings, there is a vast amount of other temples to see. The best way of organizing your temple time is to hire a tuk-tuk driver for a couple of days to whizz you in and out of town and to break up the temple gazing for a day or two in between. If you have three days available, make sure you do not miss Preah Khan for its towering columns, and definitely make time for the farther flung temple of Banteay Srei.

To avoid the crowds and see the temples in all their glory, a Sunrise Small-Group Tour of Angkor Wat from Siem Reap might be your best choice. This tour will pick you up from your hotel around 4am, so you can arrive at Angkor Wat in time to see the sun rising over the ancient ruins. Your English speaking guide will then take you to see other imposing ruins, including the Angkor Thom South Gate and the Ta Prohm Temple, famous for the massive tree roots growing out of its walls.

2. Angkor National Museum

This modern museum does a good job of explaining the history of the Angkorian period, with audio visual presentations, excellent information boards, and a well set out collection of Khmer treasures from the site's temples, along with pieces from other Cambodian archaeological sites. A visit here is one of the best ways to get your head around the various eras of the Angkorian period and the succession of kings that attempted to outbid each other on their temple building schemes. Must sees include the entry gallery, which contains 1,000 images of the Buddha over the ages; Gallery A that explains how the Khmer Empire was founded; and Gallery C, which is devoted to the story of the four greatest kings of the Angkorian era: Jayavarman II, Yasovarman I, Suryavarman II, and Jayavarman VII.

3. Phare: Cambodian Circus Show

Cambodia's lauded circus, Phare Ponleu Selpak, is a dazzling spectacle combining acrobatics, music, dance, circus slapstick, and a variety of other performance arts. This is a contemporary circus, similar in style to Canada's famed Cirque du Soleil, with a story weaved through the performance, combining drama and comedy all into one show.

Phare is a performance show with a difference. Phare uses the profits generated from tickets and sales during performances to support social and professional arts training programs. All the performers of Phare are graduates from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Performing Arts School in Battambang that trains disadvantaged youth in a range of arts.

This colorful and lively spectacle merges more traditional circus skills with a thoroughly contemporary twist that also packs in elements of traditional Khmer cultural dance and music. It is a unique night out that manages to enchant both adults and children. Performances are held under a big top nightly.

4. Landmine Museum

The long years of war during the late 20th century continue to scar Cambodia with the horrifying toll of landmines. There are thought to be around five million landmines still sitting buried in the countryside left by Khmer Rouge forces, Vietnamese forces, and the Cambodian government. Cambodians are still paying the price today with 15 people on average injured by landmines each month. The Landmine Museum, 25 kilometers north of Siem Reap, does an excellent and highly informative job of highlighting the ongoing scourge of landmines in Cambodia and the work being done to de-mine the country. It was set up by local man Aki Ra, who has greatly contributed to demining efforts.

5. Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre

This is Southeast Asia's largest butterfly enclosure, home to thousands of endemic butterfly species that fly freely around a huge, enclosed tropical garden brimming with lush foliage and a variety of tropical flowers. A visit here provides an interesting natural diversion from all the temple hopping, particularly for families with young budding botanists in tow. As well as simply admiring the spectacular kaleidoscope of colors from the amount of different butterflies within the garden, you can also see the entire life cycle of a butterfly from the pupae stage. About 25 kilometers north of Siem Reap, the center is very near to the Cambodia Landmine Museum, and combining the two for a morning or afternoon trip is a good idea if you are suffering from temple fatigue.

6. Flight of the Gibbon

Inside the Angkor Park area, the Flight of the Gibbon zipline tour offers 10 ziplines crossing over a jungle canopy on a two hour course. Along the way are four hanging sky bridges, a 50 meter abseil that will please those seeking an adrenaline rush, and 21 platform stations. There are also plenty of opportunities to learn more about the jungle environment and flora and fauna, including edible plants, medicinal plants, wild orchids, and a tarantula house. There is also a chance that you may spot gibbons in the surrounding jungle, as a couple have been released back into the wild here. Pickup from hotels in Siem Reap and lunch is included in the cost of the tour.

7. Les Chantiers Ecoles

This school teaches traditional Khmer crafts of stone-carving, wood lacquer-work, and silk painting to disadvantaged local youths. It is part of a movement to help revive the many traditional crafts that were lost due to the years the country spent under Khmer Rouge rule. As well as being home to a beautiful shop (Artisans d'Angkor), where you can pick up stunning souvenirs of statues and lovely local silks for all your friends and family back home, you can also take a tour of the workshops and learn about the revival of Cambodia's crafts.

There are also free tours available of their silk farm, 16 kilometers out of Siem Reap town, where you can learn about the process of making silks.


1. The Village Cafe

Channeling the spirit of 1930s New York and easily one of the best places to eat in Siem Reap. Great for breakfast and coffee.

2. Krousar Cafe

A place to be yourself and one of the top cafes in Siem Reap for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

3. Joe Bar

For great value British grub with…motorbikes! Somewhere that offers a bit of comfort in the form of traditional British dishes.

4. Ivy Guesthouse & Restaurant

Fancy trying some fantastic food in a divine Seim Reap restaurant simply oozing local history.

5. Georges Restaurant and Rum Distillery

French fusion food and home distilled rum from the tiny island of Réunion. This French fusion bistro is the full-time passion of the Fevrier family, who hail from Réunion, an island situated between Madagascar and Mauritius. The idea is to offer beloved family recipes, stunning cocktails and lovingly crafted homemade rum in a lush garden setting.

6. Dakshin’s Restaurant

Sublime, award winning Indian food. Dakshin’s Restaurant, from the award-winning Singaporean restaurateur Mr. B Pannirselvam. Pannir, as he prefers to be known, built up his reputation from humble beginnings. Having started out in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, he eventually settled in Siem Reap and launched Dakshin’s. Before long, his delectable range of northern and southern curries saw him scoop TripAdvisor’s Best Restaurant in Siem Reap award. Even Lonely Planet has given Dakshin’s dishes a resounding thumbs up!

7. Bayon Pastry School

A good cake for a good cause! If coffee and a sweet bite is your thing, look no further than Bayon Pastry School! Located in… yes, you guessed it… another peaceful garden in the heart of Siem Reap, this is a wonderful place to come for your caffeine fix. And a big old wedge of cake!

8. The Little Red Fox

Hands down the best coffee in Siem Reap! On those all important days where nothing but the absolute best will do, this is where coffee lovers flock from all over the city. Australian owners Adam Rodwell and David Stirling have really nailed it with their coffee. Using five different styles of brewing techniques and three types of coffee beans and blends, no matter what you go for, you are gonna be in heaven! It is also a cool place to hang for a while thanks to an eclectic mix of music, fascinating Cambodian pop art and impeccable service from the team of Khmer staff.

9. Wine O’ Clock

For lovers of wine, cheese, artisan sandwiches and more. As its name suggests, they have an absolutely massive collection of wine. Despite this, Wine O’ Clock isn’t the kind of place where you’re expected to pay silly money for a bottle of something vintage and unpronounceable. In fact, Bahraini owner Reyes is keen to point out that his place is a wine cafe, not a wine bar. As a result, there is a strict motto of “no snobs allowed!” 

Share this page