Enchanting landscapes, rich history and culture, as well as the innate hospitality of its people – Cambodia has the lot. And it’s what keeps visitors coming back time and again. Here are a few more reasons why this Southeast Asian gem should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
Cambodia’s biggest draw is, of course, Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. To Cambodians, it’s a symbol of immense national pride – apart from Afghanistan, it’s the only country in the world to carry the image of a building on its national flag.
Dating back to the 12th century, this vast temple complex was once the centre of the Angkor Empire and an architectural feat, comprising a series of stunning structures and religious monuments.
Cambodians are renowned for their hospitality, and when you first arrive in the kingdom, you’ll be overwhelmed by the warm welcomes and smiles. The gentle nature of the Khmer people can be found everywhere, from the tuk-tuk drivers and service staff to tour guides, stall owners – even passers-by on the street. Anger doesn’t go down well here, and a bit of patience goes a very long way.
While masses of tourists flock to the islands of neighbouring Thailand, those off the southwest coast of Cambodia, also in the Gulf of Thailand, are often overlooked. But that means they’re unspoilt, and for the large part more authentic. Koh Rong holds the crown as a party island, while nearby Koh Rong Samloem has pristine beaches blessed with tropical flora. Other remote jewels include Koh Thmei, Koh Ta Kiev and Koh Totang.
Today’s travellers prefer more authentic experiences over a couple of weeks’ lazing in the sun, and Cambodia has this in abundance. Here you can enjoy a community homestay, then spend a few days trekking through the jungle, soak up the rare flora and fauna and cycle through unspoilt countryside. How about learning to cook traditional Cambodian food, or immersing yourself in one of the many festivals in the Cambodian calendar?
Phnom Tamao Rescue Center, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, nurses a wide range of animals – including tigers, elephants, sun bears and gibbons – that have been rescued from the clutches of poachers and the illegal trade. These creatures are then rehabilitated before being released back into the wild.
Sam Veasna Center, in Siem Reap province, offers a range of bird and wildlife tours, while in Mondulkiri you’ll find elephant sanctuaries. Plus, there are various treks you can take through the Cardamom mountains that showcase a unique natural habitat.
Cambodia is dubbed the Kingdom of Wonder, and a rich culture and heritage run through the veins of its people. From magical apsara dancers and traditional music to elaborate ceremonies and stage shows, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in the vibrant local scene. Check out Cambodian Living Arts for a series of traditional dance shows.
The Cardamom Mountains, in the northwest of Cambodia, are one of Southeast Asia’s most species-rich and intact natural habitats. One of the largest remaining rainforests in the region, this unique tropical jungle was relatively unvisited until recently; however, there are an increasing number of companies offering camping, kayaking, cycling and hiking tours here.
History buffs will be in their element in Cambodia learning about the great Khmer Empire, a period of national pride even today. From wandering around the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and discovering more about the kings who created them, to the switch from Hinduism to Buddhism and even looking at its recent violent past, the kingdom holds a strong and fascinating appeal.
Signature fish (amok) and beef (lok lak), crab and Kampot pepper – plus the mass of noodle and rice dishes that are eaten on a daily basis – make exploring the flavours of Cambodia a foodie nirvana. A range of food tours and cookery classes are available to take you on a journey through the tastes of the kingdom. Feeling adventurous? How about sampling popular snacks such as deep-fried tarantula, crickets and other local grubs?
It may be without a national gallery, yet the art scene in Cambodia is thriving, with a wave of young contemporary artists leading the way. Galleries can be found throughout Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as the artistic capital of Battambang and Kampot. In Phnom Penh, you can often see the work of up-and-coming artists at Sa Sa Bassac and Java Café and Gallery. In Siem Reap, Theam’s House is a must-visit.
If you like to drive a hard bargain, then get your haggling hat on and head to the nearest market. Central to life in Cambodia, they start early in the morning as locals clamour to buy fresh food for the day. But it’s not jsut about food. Russian Market, Central Market and BKK1 Market in Phnom Penh flog clothes, souvenirs, music and DVDs as well as household goods and even vehicle parts. In Siem Reap, Angkor Night Market and the Old Market are hot spots.
The Cambodian calendar includes many public holidays, with festivals celebrated throughout the year. Khmer New Year, the main holiday, falls on 14-16 April, 2021, while Pchum Ben, a religious festival in which Cambodians remember the dead, and give offerings to monks, takes place on 5-7 October, 2021. The Water Festival, on 18-20 November 2021, sees people flock to the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh to watch a colourful display of boat races taking place.
Tranquil views of turquoise sea from powder-white shores, looking over green rice paddies or into the deep jungle – Cambodia is full of breathtaking landscapes that will make any visitor stop and stare. Keep your camera fully charged so you don’t miss a single Insta-worthy snap.