The Kingdom of Cambodia sits at the heart of the Southeast Asia loop, boasting a thread of pristine white coastline and an interior of elephant trodden trails, straw hut villages and emerald jungles – all of which can be explored for a very reasonable price.
Most famous for being the backdrop for a scantily clad Angelina Jolie in ‘Tomb Raider’, the ancient city of Angkor is an essential highlight, but it’s merely one of many treasures the country has on offer.
Cambodia is a country where motorbikes rule the roads, where women are adorned in pyjamas at all hours and where you can buy a crispy pork baguette through a bus window when stopped in traffic. It’s equipped with vibrant markets, a quirky charm, a history that will move you and people that will ensure you leave with the biggest grin on your face. This is the ultimate guide to make every moment in Cambodia count.
1. Start exploring in Phnom Penh
For many, the capital is the introduction or point of arrival, but it’s usually as a quick stopover before moving onwards to exploring northern or southern treasures. It’s a shame, because Phnom Penh is crucial to understanding how history has shaped Cambodia and how the culture and people have evolved in the last few decades.
Time in the capital should be spent seeking out interesting gems in the crowded Central Market Dome (think live tarantulas or life size ‘Gangnam Style’ puppets), joining a group on plastic chairs for cheap, fresh grilled seafood at the colourful tents lining most roads, or simply soaking in the colour and chaos of the capital. At the river waterfront outside the Royal Palace, early risers can join synchronized Phnom Penh residents as they move handheld fans to the rhythm of a Tai Chi class. By evening, the waterfront is an ideal spot for lying on the grass with a beer, as young couples walk hand in hand, street vendors sell sticks of barbequed meat and kids invite you to play football or chase flocks of seagulls. For a capital city, it’s relaxed, affordable and easy to navigate (with the help of a smiling face pointing you in the right direction).
2. See Angkor, but see it smart
Siem Reap is easily the most visited city in Cambodia, and for good reason. It is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage temples of Angkor and one more step on the road to becoming Angelina Jolie. Unfortunately this region is the warmest part of the country during wet and dry season, so its highly unlikely you’ll be as flawless and sweat-free as Angelina whilst exploring a labyrinth of ancient temples. Many people do not realize how large the Angkor city is, and I would recommend paying a little extra for the 3-day pass ($40) to take it slow. Depending on how you are travelling and how you wish to see the temples, you can travel from Siem Reap by moto-taxi, on the back of a motorbike or by renting a bicycle and riding into the park from Siem Reap.
3. Check out the coastal gems
Whether prawn fishing under the full moon in the sleepy shores of Kep, dancing with fire twirlers on Sihanoukville or island hopping to find the most secluded beach away from the mainland, Cambodia’s southern coastline is an ideal place to unwind in the presence of turquoise waters and other travellers. It’s the best place to wake up with a fresh juice from your local stall, snorkel or fish during the day, find a hammock in the afternoon and a lively bar for the evening. Keep an eye out for the green, phosphorescent plankton that may light up the shores at night too. For sheer beauty and chilled vibes, Koh Rong is a top pick that should not be missed.
4. Stray off the tourist trail
Like most countries in South East Asia, tourists follow a clear path through Cambodia before moving on and crossing the border into Thailand. As a result, a lot of Cambodia has been left relatively undiscovered. In the remote provinces with less tourism, people can be so receptive and hospitable that you almost never want to leave. For me the greatest memories of the country were made exploring the northern Ratanakiri province on a motorbike, trudging alongside elephants in dense jungle, getting bogged in red mud, swimming in the crystal clear Yeak Laom crater lake, jumping off the edges of waterfalls, wandering through vibrant food markets and joining people for tea or a meal in the middle of nowhere.
5. Manage your money
ATM’s dispense USD and when making a transaction, expect to receive a large amount of change in riel in the form of old ripped notes, so be sure to calculate quickly. Stop off or change bus in the highway town of Skuon, or ‘Spiderville’, where the local delicacy is crispy, fried tarantulas, crickets, scorpions and dragonflies covered in chilli powder. Learning basic language gets you a long way in countries where tourists rarely try; even a simple ‘ah-koon ch-ran’ (thank you very much) will put the biggest smile on someone’s face. As a last note, take the time and talk to as many people from as many different ages as you can, they are the foundation for a new and reformed country with a once horrific past and are a true example of how strong humans can be in the face of adversity.
Ready to explore for yourself? Visit Cambodia on an Intrepid group tour.
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