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Published on August 21, 2023

Located on the stunning Indochinese peninsula, the Kingdom of Cambodia is a magnificent destination for any traveller. Known for its cultural wonders, lush landscapes, and rich heritage, Cambodia is where ancient history and modernity come together. Cambodia’s mystical history stretches back to prehistoric times; its biodiversity, central location, and spiritual legacies have contributed to its wealth of cultural wonders. 

From the famous Angkor Wat temple to the opulent Royal Ballet of Cambodia, this Southeast Asian nation has something for every visitor to explore. Continue reading to learn more about Cambodia’s most fascinating cultural wonders.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat at Sunrise | Visit Southeast Asia

Famous for being the largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat is one of Cambodia’s most resplendent attractions. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple over the course of 28 years in the 12th century, Angkor Wat soon became a Buddhist temple instead, representing the dual religious traditions of the country. The temple complex spans over 402 acres, transporting visitors straight back to the height of the Khmer Empire with its masterful architecture and cultural importance.

Located in the northern province of Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat complex includes parklands, old settlements, towers, and more. It is evidence of Cambodia’s unparalleled religious and cultural history; it is an anthropological wonder.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site should be on everyone’s bucket lists for its beauty and remarkable history. It is open to visitors daily, though individual temples may have different hours from the main complex. Catch a magnificent sunrise beyond Angkor Wat or follow a short meditation in a Khmer Empire temple. No matter your plan, you will walk away with a new perception of Cambodia. 

Khmer Shadow Theatre

Khmer Shadow Puppet Show | Go Cambodia

Named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, Khmer Shadow Theatre is an essential artistic tradition in Cambodia. This shadow theatre is a play performed with leather puppets at religious ceremonies, private celebrations, and for entertainment purposes; this tradition has existed since at least the seventh century. Performances of shadow theatre are sacred, with origins in the Hindu epic narrative of the Ramayana. There are multiple types of Khmer Shadow Theatre, with the most prominent genres being Sbek Thom — notable for its giant, single-part leather puppets — and Sbek Toch, which is similar but features smaller puppets and a greater range of plays. 

These fascinating plays are a must-watch for those interested in Cambodia’s ancient culture. Destinations nationwide will have Khmer Shadow Theatre performances, from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to smaller villages. 

Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear | Visit Southeast Asia

A sprawling clifftop temple, Preah Vihear is famed for both its Khmer architecture and its spectacular views. Located along the Cambodian-Thai border (which caused a long dispute settled by the International Court of Justice in 2008), Preah Vihear looks over many kilometres of lush green land from its perch, 525 meters above the ground. It is older than even Angkor Wat, and many of its stone stairs, courtyards, temple structures and more are the originals.

Preah Vihear is the perfect day trip from Siem Reap. It is a three-hour drive, though the views upon arrival are well worth it. At the temple complex, visitors can explore ruins and extant buildings that date back millennia and get a taste of the country’s spiritual heritage. Representing the height of the powerful Khmer Empire, Preah Vihear is a must-visit destination in Cambodia. 

Royal Ballet of Cambodia

Royal Ballet dancers performing scenes from the Ramayana in Siem Reap | Visit Southeast Asia

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is worlds apart from most dance companies — not least because it is a recognized intangible cultural heritage. Queen Sisowath Kosamak founded this dance company in the mid-20th century to showcase and preserve traditional Cambodian dance styles. Also known as Khmer Classical Dance, the dance style is sacred and spiritual, famed for its varied hand gestures and opulent costumes. The style of dance itself dates back centuries. However, it has evolved with the influence of the French colonial era and Cambodia’s independence. 

Everything about a Royal Ballet performance is unique, from the names they use for their character types — of which there are four — to the set musical repertoire. Every dance is an emotional, physical, and visual spectacle, creating an unforgettable cultural experience. The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is known for its world-class dancers, cultural influences, and important historical legacy. 

Its repertoire includes stories from the Ramayana, similar to those performed in Shadow Theatre, and a range of adapted Western dramas and traditional Cambodian stories. Clips of these performances can be found on YouTube. The Royal Ballet is not currently hosting performances, though you can follow their Instagram for updates. 

Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk | Visit Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s earlier history is on full display at Sambor Prei Kuk. This archaeological site is home to more than 100 structures that predate Angkor Wat. Set in a shaded, peaceful forest, Sambor Prei Kuk was once the capital of the Chenla Kingdom, which lasted from the sixth to the ninth century AD. These once-flourishing ruins are an interesting visit, famed for their potent sense of history and architectural style, which was the foundation for later, Angkor-era buildings. 

There are three sections to pay attention to when visiting Sambor Prei Kuk:

  • Prasat Sambor, the main temple
  • Prasat Yeah Puon, a grouping of 22 sanctuary buildings
  • Prasat Boram, the least-preserved section, though it was the latest to get built

Visiting these ruins is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in Cambodia’s long history and get a taste of the lesser-known Chenla Kingdom. 

This temple complex is about a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so most visitors experience it during a day trip or stay a few nights in nearby accommodations. You will love its atmospheric feel no matter how long you spend here. 

Even the most discerning of visitors will find themselves impressed by the cultural richness of Cambodia. From the fascinating, centuries-old tradition of shadow theatre and the sacred Royal Ballet to the largest religious complex in the world, the Kingdom of Cambodia is full of cultural wonders. 

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