Cambodia’s biggest draw is undoubtedly Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Standing at the centre of national pride – Cambodia and Afghanistan are the only countries that bare buildings on their state flag – the religious structure dates back to the 12th century, and it was once at the centre of the glorious Angkor Empire. The sprawling temple complex is an architectural feat and home to a series of stunning structures and religious monuments.
Cambodians are renowned for their hospitality, and upon entering the Kingdom, visitors will be overwhelmed with the abundance of warm welcomes and smiles. The gentle nature of Khmers can be found in tuk tuk drivers, service staff, tour guides, stall owners and passersby on the street. Visitors should note that anger doesn’t bode well in Cambodia, and a bit of patience goes a very long way.
While the masses flock to neighbouring Thailand’s islands, Cambodia’s alternatives are often wrongly forgotten. That makes them unspoilt options, with the majority maintaining their authenticity and remaining off the mass tourism map. Koh Rong holds the crown as the party island, with nearby Koh Rong Samloem boasting pristine powder sands flanked by tropical flora. Other remote jewels include Koh Thmei, Koh Ta Kiev and Koh Totang.
Today’s travellers are seeking out authentic experiences over a couple of weeks lazing in the sun, and Cambodia has this by the bucketload. You can take in everything from community homestays, spending a few days trekking through the jungle soaking up the rare flora and fauna and cycling through the pristine countryside to learning how to cook Cambodian food and immersing yourself in the abundance of festivities that dot the calendar.
Cambodia is home to an abundance of wonderful wildlife. Phnom Tamao Rescue Center, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, boasts an array of creatures that they have rescued from the clutches of poachers and the illegal trade, and they rehabilitate the animals before releasing them back into the wild. The centre has tigers, elephants, sun bears, gibbons and other animals.
Sam Veasna Center offers a range of birding and wildlife tours in Siem Reap province, and visitors will find elephant sanctuaries in Mondulkiri. Plus, various treks through the Cardamom Mountains showcase the country’s unique flora and fauna.
The Cardamom Mountains, which sit in the northwest of Cambodia, are one of Southeast Asia’s most species-rich and intact natural habitats. While trekking through the dense jungle – one of the region’s largest remaining rain forests – remains relatively off the beaten track, for now, a rising number of tours take visitors camping, kayaking, cycling and hiking through this unique tropical jungle.
The Kingdom of Wonder comes coupled with a rich culture and heritage that runs through the veins of Cambodians. From magical apsara dancers, traditional music, elaborate ceremonies and stage shows, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in the vibrant local scene. Sovannaphum Theatre in Phnom Penh puts on regular performances, with workshops in shadow puppetry available. Cambodian Living Arts also produces a series of traditional dance shows.
History buffs will be in their element in Cambodia, with the great Khmer Empire remaining at the centre of national pride. From wandering around the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and discovering more about the kings who created them to the country’s switch from Hinduism to Buddhism and through to its recent violent past, the Kingdom holds a strong and fascinating history.
Despite lacking a national art gallery, the art scene is thriving in Cambodia, with a wave of young contemporary artists leading the way. Galleries sit throughout the capital and Siem Reap, as well as the artistic capital of Battambang and a handful in Kampot. Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac, Java Café and Gallery and Meta House often show the work of budding artists. In Siem Reap, Theam’s House, Constable Gallery at Large and The 1961 Coworking Space and Gallery are must-visits.
If you like to drive a hard bargain, then get your haggling hat on and head to the nearest market. They are central to life in Cambodia and are bustling early in the morning as people clamour to buy the freshest foods for the day. Russian Market, Central Market and BKK1 Market in Phnom Penh flog everything from clothes, souvenirs, music and DVDs to food, household goods and vehicle parts. In Siem Reap, Angkor Night Market and the Old Market are hot spots.
The Cambodian calendar is full of public holidays, with celebrations taking place regularly throughout the year. The main holiday is Khmer New Year, which falls on April 14 to 16 in 2018, with another favourite festival, Pchum Ben, taking place September 19–21, 2017. The religious festival sees Cambodians remember the dead, with offerings given to monks. Water Festival, which lands on November 2–4, 2017, sees people flock to the riverside in Phnom Penh to watch the colourful display of boat races that take place on the Tonle Sap River.
From the country’s signature fish amok and beef lok lak to crab and Kampot pepper and the mass of noodle and rice dishes that are eaten on a daily basis, exploring the flavours of Cambodia is essential. A range of food tours and cookery classes are available to take visitors on a journey through the tastes of the Kingdom. The more adventurous can sample popular snacks such as deep-fried tarantulas, crickets and other grub.
Whether it be tranquil views of a turquoise sea from powder white sand shores, looking over emerald green paddies or out across a deep jungle, Cambodia is full of breath-taking landscapes that will make any visitor stop and stare. Make sure you keep your camera fully charged for all of those Insta-worthy snaps.