Best things to do in Cambodia
Despite having a traumatic recent past, Cambodia is a country with people who are the friendliest and most welcoming you'll ever meet. It is full of surprises from the incredible food (why has this been kept secret?), to beautiful tropical islands and temples reclaimed by the wild jungle.
You can't avoid the horrifying history and nor would you want to. It's something that everyone should be educated about. The upbeat people and stunning scenery mean a trip here is far from depressing. Cambodia a must for your Southeast Asian itinerary.
Here's a few of the best things to do in Cambodia.
1. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Angkor Wat is one of those places which clearly isn't a secret. However, unlike some other world famous spots it doesn't disappoint. The sheer size of this place is the first thing that blows you away, the bridge over the moat is 250 metres long! You'll quickly clock up the kilometres as you explore this magnificent temple complex, which is the biggest in the world.
2. See the hundreds of faces of Bayon - Angkor
Bayon is one of the most iconic temples in Cambodia with over 200 faces carved on them to project power and awe any visitor. It still does this today and is a highlight of any trip to Cambodia. You can walk all around the 37 towers that still remain and take in the stunning carvings up close.
3. Ta Prohm - Angkor
“Tomb Raider Temple” is most famous for being in the movies, but it is one of the wildest and most accessible temples in Angkor. All around this small complex you can see how nature has taken over these ancient ruins, creating a stunning mix of buildings and trees. It still looks like the day when the temples were rediscovered.
4. The jungle temples of Angkor
If that hasn’t templed you out, then head to the lesser known temples of Angkor. Here you’ll avoid the crowds and see some pretty wild places that nature has began to take over. We highly recommend Bang Melea, Prea Kahn and Phom Ba to see some temples that few others go to.
5. Tuol Sleng Prison - Phnom Pen
There are few things more chilling than learning about the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and you can see some of the most brutal sites of this despotic regime in Phnom Penh. Start with Tuol Sleng Prison, a place where thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned, tortured and then eventually killed.
To see a place that looks like any other building from the outside in the middle of Cambodia’s city was shocking. You’ll read stories about the atrocities and see the horrific conditions prisoners existed in.
It’s not an easy thing to see, but it is a place that anyone visiting Cambodia should visit to understand what the country has been through.
6. The Killing Fields
It doesn’t get any easy, but you need to also visit the Killing Fields. This site was found to be a mass grave, where the Khmer Rouge systematically murdered anyone who opposed them and cleanse from their country. The site today still has remnants of the horrors - the mounds and ditches of the graves, and even the occasional bone shard.
We highly recommend taking the audio guide which quickly takes you to the shrine which holds hundreds of skulls of the people who were murdered here. Often numbers can be hard to comprehend, but when you see just how many skulls have been excavated you can begin to understand just how horrific Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were.
The memorials are a poignant reminder that these atrocities have human faces and should never be allowed to happen again.
7. Phare Ponleu Selpak (Circus), Battambang
Time for something more uplifting after the horrors of Phnom Penh! I know you're probably thinking 'a circus?! Why would that be in anyone's best things to see in Cambodia?', but the circus in Battambang, is a little different. It's set up as a not-for-profit program which helps disadvantaged children obtain education and vocational training they otherwise wouldn't have access to.
But it's not just on this list because it's a good cause , the circus itself is seriously impressive and the kids are extremely talented. We'd have never known it was a not-for-profit program if we hadn't have been told.
The circus isn't the only reason to visit Battambang though....
8. The Bamboo Train, Battambang
The bamboo train is one of the more random experiences in Southeast Asia! Just a couple of kilometres out of Battambang you come to a disused train line. Before arriving we thought the bamboo train would look just like any other, just made out of bamboo.
This was wildly optimistic as we were greeted by a bamboo pallet to sit on that was only a few inches off the ground! Once you're all onboard you fly into the Cambodian countryside, feeling every single bump in the line (I have a new appreciation for train suspension), before arriving at a small village.
After fifteen minutes or so, you turn around and head back again. As it's a one-way line, you can come head on with other 'trains'. You then play a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who has to step aside and pick their train up off the line! A hilarious way to spend an hour.
9. Khmer cooking lesson, Battambang
It wouldn't surprise me if Khmer food became the next trend as it's highly underrated. A great way of understanding the cuisine a little more is to take a cooking class. We took ours in Battambang, but you can do them in Phnom Penh too.
We got to cook some delicious Amok (a fish curry we highly recommend everyone trying) as well as Lok Lak (a type of peppery stirfry) and many other specialities. You get to take a cook book home, so you can surprise everyone at your next dinner party with dishes from this little known cuisine.
Kampot & Sihanoukville
10. Firefly spotting, Kampot
Seeing fireflies is a magical experience, but seeing them in Kampot was a little more unusual. We arrived at the river bank in the dark where our guide picked us up in his boat.
He clearly knew the river like the back of his hand and we soon pulled up to what looked like a random spot on the river bank. He quickly peeled off his clothes, right down to his underpants and began wading in! Within seconds we realised that we were surrounded by hundreds of fireflies, lighting up the bushes and trees around us.
Our guide even managed to get one to land on his hand to show us. Although I didn't quite go as far as the boatman did, I soon jumped into the river to get a closer look. It may not have been the standard tour, but it was certainly one of the best things we did in Cambodia!
11. Motorcycling the Sihanoukville Beaches
Motorcycling around Southeast Asia is a fantastic way to go beyond where the tours and local transport will take you. It's pretty cheap, but make sure you're careful as this whole region isn't known for it's health and safety!
Sihanoukville is a great place to go for a ride as you can hop between beaches at will. We particularly liked Otres Beach's laid back vibe.
12. Go Robinson Crusoe, Koh Rong
Gorgeous Koh Rong isn't as much of a secret now, but if you compare it to many of the Thai islands it is positively empty. The accommodation options are rustic and few have electricity, giving us the feeling that we were experiencing what it might have been like to travel in Southeast Asia in the 90s.
It also has beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise water and amazing jungle interior. Just make sure you have coconut oil to fight off those pesky sandflies., insect repellent doesn't cut it here. The combination of suncream and coconut oil is not a match made in heaven but those views are worth the sacrifice.
Sorry for the lack of photos for this one, our camera broke. It was later fixed with a paperclip and some soldering.... but that's another story!
Other things to do in Cambodia
13. Irrawaddy River Dolphin spotting, Kratie
Kratie is one of the few places in the world where you can see endangered Irrawaddy River Dolphins. It's an incredible experience to see them swimming wild and free in the Mekong. We were lucky to spot quite a few despite suffering the brunt of the early rainy season and spent a couple of hours happily watching them play around the small islands.
14. Happy hour, anytime, anywhere!
It was hard to find a bar or restaurant that didn't do excessively long happy hours in Cambodia. Our favourite in Phnom Penh lasted from 9am until 7pm, offering Angkor Beer for 50c! The beer wasn't bad either...
15. Try to understand the obsession with Durian
Depending on who you talk to, this can be the worst thing to do in Cambodia! However, after a couple of days in Kampot, you'll notice that Cambodians (like many people in Southeast Asia) are obsessed with durian fruit.
We'll leave it to you to decide whether this is the greatest thing ever, or tastes like cheesy vomit, but it's one thing you have to try.
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Have you travelled to Cambodia or are planning a trip there next? If you want any other tips or have some to share with us, let us know in the comments.