Last updated: 09:00 AM ET, Thu August 23 2018
Aerial view of Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Southeast Asia. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo via 12ee12 / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Cambodia

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Angkor Wat, mysteriously located in the jungles of Cambodia, towers over the spirituality of Southeast Asia, just as Machu Picchu towers over Peru. Cambodia’s other major icon, the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, plumbs the depths of human depravity as the towers of Angkor measure the heights of human aspiration. Angkor is a 75-square-mile tract of land encompassing temples encircled by moats, towers and exquisite sculpture all in the grip of an encroaching jungle. The most famous of those temples is Angkor Wat. Cambodia's roots are in the ancient Khmer Empire that from 802 until 1432 ruled what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma from Angkor. The small town of Siem Reap, four miles south of Angkor, is the base for touring the temples. In recent years it has gone from a sleepy war-traumatized village to a haven of luxury hotels such as the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, the Sofitel Royal Angkor and the Hotel de la Paix.

Phnom Penh has more than enough to occupy a day or two for travelers. Key sights are the National Museum, with its original sculptures from Angkor; the Royal Palace complex and the Silver Pagoda; the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng and the memorial stupa at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 10 miles outside of the city. At Tonle Sap (Great Lake) visitors ride boats to villages and lakeside restaurants.

The Cardamom Mountains are the largest tropical forest wilderness area in mainland Southeast Asia. Chi Phat in the Cardamoms is emerging as Southeast Asia's new adventure destination for mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, wildlife spotting, bird watching and waterfall discoveries. Trips to Chi Phat reveal hornbills and monkeys to even the casual observer. Gibbon calls are commonly heard in the forests surrounding Chi Phat.

And still more of Cambodia’s mysterious past is rising out of the jungle. Sambor Prei Kuk, formerly known as Isanapura, was the capital of a pre-Angkorian Khmer kingdom. The area features forest hikes and homestays. There are ruins pre-dating Angkor by 500 years. Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s growing beach resort, promises to add a sun and fun element to the country. A much-anticipated airport will really open the area up to sun worshippers. Sihanoukville is about 150 miles from Phnom Penh.

Cambodian cuisine occupies a position somewhere between Thai and Vietnamese. You’ll find many of the same flavors and as in Vietnam; you’ll find a French influence, especially at breakfast as you drink delicious coffee along with your baguette. It’s hot throughout the year in Cambodia with the rainy season May through October. Almost all American travelers to Cambodia arrive via Bangkok or Hong Kong.