The temples of Angkor are often the first thing that springs to mind when people think of Cambodia. Of course, the impressive collection of ancient monuments is a must on itineraries, but there is plenty more to cram into a trip to this fascinating Southeast Asian country.
If chowing down on a tasty range of freshly-made local dishes, chilling out on tropical islands or hanging out with welcoming locals are ingredients to your ideal holiday, then the Kingdom of Wonder provides in spades.
No trip to Cambodia is complete without a stop-off at Angkor Archaeological Park. The sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site is peppered with hundreds of ancient temples, religious structures and crumbling relics dating back to the Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are the main draws, with tens of thousands of tourists flocking to them daily.
However, their allure comes with the downside that is mass tourism. These three sites are overcrowded, to the point of being unbearable at times during peak season. However, a simple shake-up to your itinerary can ease this. For example, the typical trail starts with sunrise at Angkor Wat, spending a few hours exploring before moving onto Bayon and then Ta Prohm. Do things a little differently and you may be able to find a slice of peace.
Don’t forget, these are a fraction of the temples found throughout the 400-square-hectare site. Banteay Srei is nestled amid pristine Cambodian countryside about 25km from the main trio. This striking 10th century temple is built from red sandstone, etched with hundreds of ornamental carvings. Roluos, about 15km from Angkor, is a small collection of 9th century temples – Bakong, Lolei, Preah Ko and small Prasat Prei Monti – that visitors have pretty much to themselves.
If you have a bit more time, a day trip to remote Koh Ker, about 120km from Siem Reap, is well worth it. The area is home to several small temples and religious sites that are open to the public and sit in varying states of ruin. The main attraction is pyramid-like Prasat Thom, with stunning vistas of the surrounding jungle and countryside found at its top tier. Apart from a handful of locals, you can pretty much expect to have this site all to yourself.
Rural Cambodia is the real Cambodia. It is in the Kingdom’s countryside that visitors will come across the warm hospitality Cambodians are famous for, stunning natural landscapes and a slower pace of life.
Thankfully, escaping the city is easy, with rural landscapes making up more than 85 percent of Cambodia. If you’re spending a few days in Phnom Penh, head to Koh Dach (also known as ‘Silk Island’). The small island sits in the middle of the Mekong River and despite being about 40 minutes from the capital, it feels a million miles away. Here, time seemingly stands still with agriculture and silk weaving being the main money-makers. Hire a bicycle and cycle through traditional villages, stopping off for a refreshing coconut along the way.
If you’re in Siem Reap, then German development organisation GIZ recently launched its Siem Reap Beyond the Temples campaign. The aim is to encourage visitors to extend their Siem Reap stay and explore the province’s growing collection of community-driven projects. A website and map have been produced outlining the wide variety of activities available, from sampling local food and meeting the artisans behind traditional handicrafts, to spending the night with a family in a homestay and engaging in village life.
Kampot and Kep are also great bases to see something a little different. The two sleepy towns are surrounded by stunning countryside that takes in stretching paddies, pepper farms – Kampot is famous for its pepper – and salt fields.
Cambodia has a pretty cool collection of deserted tropical islands, and the best part is hordes of tourists are yet to discover the majority. Koh Rong is the largest, most developed and popular. The term “developed” is used loosely, so don’t expect an island akin to Thailand’s Phuket. Infrastructure is basic, with electricity and Wi-Fi limited.
The liveliest part of the jungle-clad island is the stretch of beach at Koh Touch, which is packed with guesthouses and backpacker bars. Southwestern Long Beach boasts kilometres of powder white sand, barely any people and the more exclusive Sok San Beach Resort and super-luxurious The Royal Sands Koh Rong.
Koh Rong Sanloem sits about a 10-minute boat ride from Koh Rong and is quickly picking up in the popularity stakes. Saracen Bay is home to a collection of resorts that range from basic wooden huts through to luxury villas. The clue is in the name – Sunset Beach is the best spot to catch mind-blowing sunsets and the small fishing village of M’phey Bei is home to several budget accommodations.
Koh Ta Kiev is slowly starting to emerge with travellers seeking to escape it all. Home to a small smattering of rustic resorts, life on the island is simple, with a few resorts offering camping options for guests wanting to sleep below a sky of twinkling stars.
Cambodia is home to the Cardamom Mountains, Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest. While the last few decades have seen the jungle pillaged by illegal loggers and poachers, huge efforts are now underway to preserve the endangered and rare wildlife that calls the forest home.
For the adventurous traveller who wants to explore this rugged terrain, several treks take place in the Cardamoms. These vary in length, difficulty and location, depending on what you’re after. It bodes well to remember this is the jungle, a real tropical jungle. There are no hospitals nearby, there are scary insects, snakes and spiders, and you will get eaten by mosquitoes so go prepared.
If camping in a hammock doesn’t sound appealing, then fear not because in December 2017, Cardamom Tented Camp opened, making it possible to visit the Cardamoms in style. The adventure eco-camp has nine safari-style tents, complete with a king-sized bed and hot rain shower, and guests can shadow the Wildlife Alliance rangers as they patrol the jungle for hunters and loggers.
Cambodians love their food and are constantly snacking throughout the day. This means the country’s streets are awash with street food vendors selling a variety of local delicacies for visitors to sample.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner times will see pavements fill with plastic tables and chairs, as locals gather to feast on rice dishes, num banh chok or Khmer noodles and curries. If you fancy sampling street food, then a good tip is to buy from a vendor that has crowds of Cambodians feasting at it.
Alternatively, several tours run in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that take guests on a guided tour of the swathe of food available on the streets. Siem Reap After Dark Vespa Adventure is a fun way to delve into Cambodian street cuisine on the back of a Vespa motorbike. Siem Reap Food Tours is another informative way of tasting the delights Cambodia has to offer. A sister tour also runs in Phnom Penh.
Animal lovers are in for a treat because a variety of endangered and rare wildlife call Cambodia home. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, about 30km from Phnom Penh, is run by Wildlife Alliance. The organisation works tirelessly across the country to rescue animals from the clutches of the illegal wildlife trade. The centre houses rescued animals, including sun bears, pangolins and a range of monkeys, who are rehabilitated before being released back into the wild, where possible.
Alternatively, head into Mondulkiri’s jungle and get up close and personal with retired elephants or those who are taking a rest from hard labour. The Elephant Valley Project offers reprieve to overworked elephants who can revitalise at their sprawling sanctuary in the heart of the jungle. Don’t expect to ride one of the beautiful beasts as this is an activity EVP strongly advocates against. Do, however, expect to see elephants roaming in their natural habitat, bathing in streams and rolling about in clay mud. An incredible experience.
Avid twitchers will be in their element engaging in any activities the Sam Veasna Centre puts on. The organisation puts on a range of specialist birdwatching and wildlife tours throughout the country, all led by specialist guides.
The Mekong River is a Southeast Asian icon, slicing through six countries as it makes its way from Tibet to Vietnam. In Cambodia, it enters at the northeastern province of Stung Treng from Laos, passing through Phnom Penh on its way to Vietnam.
Trans-country cruises are available that take passengers along the Mekong from Laos to Cambodia and onto Vietnam, or a mix of the countries. These tend to span several days, or a few weeks, depending on the itinerary.
Alternatively, a sunset cruise along the Mekong is a must while in Phnom Penh. At dusk, the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers light up with boats of varying sizes hitting the water for an evening of cruising. Many include food and drink options. Kanika Boat is a popular choice. Of course, if there’s a group of you, then there’s the option of hiring a private boat, bringing along your own booze and refreshments and sailing solo.
Cambodia has a rich culture and heritage that is well worth exploring while visiting the country. The most common cultural activity is apsara dancing – Cambodian classical ballet – which has its roots steeped in Angkorian times. Evidence that the dance form existed as early as the 7th century can be seen in carvings at Sambor Prei Kuk temples in Kampong Thom province, where ethereal beings have been immortalised in stone.
According to Hindu mythology, apsaras are female creatures that visit Earth from Heaven to entertain gods and kings with their enchanting dance. Wearing decadent costumes, dancers use mainly slow hand gestures – more than 1,500 exist – to tell stories. There are several places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where visitors can watch the dance for themselves, including Angkor Village Resort’s Apsara Theatre and The Fou-Nan in Siem Reap.
Cambodia Living Arts has spent more than two decades working to revive traditional Cambodian arts, while steering it into the contemporary sphere. The organisation puts on daily shows at its dedicated theatre at Cambodia National Museum. Its traditional dance show features song, music, dance and theatre.
Sovanna Phum Arts Association in Phnom Penh is another organisation working to keep traditional arts alive. It puts on a range of shows every Friday and Saturday that include shadow puppet theatre, apsara dancing, folklore, mask dances, and traditional music. Visitors can also try their hand at dance, drums, or circus skills at a private workshop.
Cambodians’ love of beer is apparent during any drive through the country. Towns, villages and cities are smattered with adverts for Angkor, Anchor and Cambodia beer – the top three tipples – and hip beer gardens that come alive at night.
An evening in a beer garden sees a pretty uniform set-up: chairs and tables scattered throughout sheltered space, a small stage with live music or entertainment and heaps of beer towers. The friendly and curious nature of locals means it is more than likely that barangs (foreigners) will be invited to a table to join in the celebrations.
It’s worth noting that Cambodians love to “cheers” or “chul mouy” – in fact they do it before every sip – so drinking a beer can take a while.
If you can stomach it, then go really local with your food and sample some of the insects Cambodians love to eat. The town of Skuon in Kampong Cham is famous for serving spiders and is dubbed ‘Tarantula Town’. Situated mid-way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, villagers head into the jungle to catch the spiders before defanging them with their bare hands and selling them onto the vendors. They are deep-fried in chilli and garlic before being served as a roadside snack.
If deep-fried tarantulas don’t tickle your fancy, then how about a buffet of grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets – they’re packed full of protein.
In Phnom Penh, street vendors selling edible creepy crawlies can be found on Riverside in the evenings, or at Pub Street in Siem Reap. After about 5pm, many Siem Reap locals head to Road 60 on the outskirts of town. Here, the road is lined with stalls selling a wealth of food, clothes and other items until about 10pm, and makes for a fun local experience.