Seven things to see and do in Cambodia
Cambodia is a beautiful country with a uniquely vibrant atmosphere; inspiring when you consider the Khmer Rouge regime almost wiped out the country’s population only 35 years ago. Full of colour and rich culture, the locals are friendly and welcoming towards tourists. From the hustle and bustle of the capital Phnom Penh, to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and infamous killing fields, Cambodia is a real destination of discovery.
Water festival – Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a fantastic city which comes alive for a three-day water festival in November. The event includes a 400-stong boat race, fireworks, food stalls and a full-moon religious ceremony. The festival celebrates the reversal of the Tonle Sap river current, the only river in the world to flow in opposite directions as a result of monsoon rains. Full moon is a beautiful evening, with candles lit and religious offerings made by the Chief Priest. Make sure you try fish amok, a Cambodian specialty.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Choeung Ek is a short tuk tuk ride through Phnom Penh, and is the most notorious site of the Khmer Rouge genocide regime. The site includes around 9,000 bodies of Cambodians who were executed between 1975 and 1979, one of the worst atrocities in history. An audio service allows you to hear stories from survivors as you walk around the site, creating a real sense of loss and despair. The graves are large open pits; pieces of bone still force their way to the surface in what the commentator describes as the dead’s ‘defiance’ of the regime. A large monument at the centre includes 5,000 skulls of all the deceased. This is an upsetting experience, but vital in understanding Cambodian history.
Siem Reap is a fantastically vibrant town for shopping, eating and drinking. Pop to the night market for handcrafted produce, including beautiful local artwork at knockdown prices. The town is littered with restaurants and cafes, hidden in tight laneways and market streets; these serve a range of international cuisine and local fiery soups and curries. Pub Street is also great for travellers; I loved talking to some of the local vendors here, you can make a lot of friends who will remember you the next evening, just spend a little on whatever they are offering, it’s worthwhile. Make sure you also head to Island Bar for cocktails and some delicious nut snacks.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s greatest tourist attraction and the largest religious monument in the world. Arrange an early morning visit via a local tuk tuk driver; you will need to wake up at 4.30am but the beautiful sunrise is well worth it; during the day it can get uncomfortably hot. As you arrive, you will have a beautiful panoramic view of the temple, which sits between a flamenco pink sky and shimmering water from the surrounding moat. I also recommend that you make a special effort to see Ta Prohm, where the Tomb Raider film was in-part filmed. On the way back there are opportunities to feed wild monkeys, this is an amazing experience just be careful not to get too close; they may have rabies!
Siem Reap to Battambang by boat
The boat journey from Siem Reap to Battambang is a real treasure, allowing you to take in beautiful scenery and floating villages along the way. These villages are Cambodia’s little Venice, quaint and characterful; you can see children taking boats to school and traders selling breakfast soups and local vegetables of all colours. The rich, green vegetation is also really inspiring; although you may need an extra cushion for your bottom whilst on-board, which will be sore by the end!
Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s number one beach location, a pretty peninsula dotted with tiny islands and white sands. The islands around Sihanoukville are one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets: Koh Rong Samloem has beautiful turquoise waters where you can coral dive, snorkel and fish; Koh Russei (Bamboo Island) is a smaller secluded spot with incredible sunsets and opportunities to swim in phosphorescent moonlit sea. Sihanoukville town is busier than the islands but has a nice low-key beach town feel, with plenty of restaurants serving delicious, local fish dishes.
Kompong Cham is a sleepy town with a rich heritage and beautiful scenery. It is decorated with a wealth of beautifully maintained gardens and Angkorian temples. If you walk around the town’s main street, Monivong Boulevard, at night, it is illuminated by beautiful ornate lampposts which have an almost heavenly feel. Phnom Proh and Phnom Sray, ‘Man Hill’ and ‘Woman Hill’, have beautiful views of the area and some lovely temples, as well as a wealth of fortune tellers and characterful street vendors.
It is not hard to fall in love with Cambodia, just ingrain yourselves in the culture and make as many friends as you can!