Prepare to be charmed by the beauty of Cambodia
Cambodians have a well-earned reputation for radiating optimism and an unpretentious, friendly welcome. Expect proud smiles to accompany your discovery of their rich heritage, splendid natural scenery and delicious cuisine. It may be a small country but Cambodia has lots to do, and its historical relics, in particular, exert an irresistible grip on intrepid travellers worldwide. This is a destination with a beguiling mix of flooded rice paddies and stilted villages, soft tropical beaches and rustic island escapes… but it is the temples of Angkor that steal the show. From ruins snared among tree branches, to ancient faces carved from rock - they are nothing less than awesome and certainly merit the hype.
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Top things to do in Cambodia
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this Southeast Asian gem. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Cambodia.
A step back in time
The temples of Angkor are a window on to Cambodia's past, showcasing the workmanship of the masons who built them stone by painstaking stone. The Khmer temples are spread across a huge area, but the best known are located near Siem Reap. Each has a unique appeal, but there are a handful that stand out. Angkor Wat is the most celebrated and indeed it is an intricate showstopper of a building, but the jungle-clad Ta Prohm and the mystical faces of the Bayon should not be missed.
As well as its coastline, Cambodia has a set of islands in the Gulf of Thailand. These tropical idylls make a superb destination for adventurous travellers looking for some seclusion. The waters here are calm and warm, empty beaches fringe the shore and the scenery is incredible. Koh Rong Island is best known for paradise beaches and a thrilling phosphorescence in the shoreline waves, Koh Ta Kiev is good for jungle treks, and Koh Thmei is perfect for birdwatching.
The changing lake
Tonlé Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, but it fluctuates in size quite dramatically between wet and dry seasons due to a unique phenomenon. During the rainy months, the direction of the river which drains the lake is reversed, filling the lake and increasing its surface area from around 2,500 to 10,000 square kilometres. Among several floating fishing villages Kompong Phluk is one of the most interesting, with shops, schools and houses all floating on the water.
Lesser-known things to do in Cambodia
While there are many well-known things to do in Cambodia, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Cambodian adventure.
Run ‘amok’ – celebrate local food
There are no McDonald’s here (perhaps Cambodia’s fresh and exotic cuisine was too intimidating). Influenced by Chinese, Thai and neighbouring cuisines, Cambodian food can also have French or Vietnamese notes, with typical flavours being lime, chili, lemon grass, coconut milk and fish sauce. Our in-country experts urge you to try a best-loved Khmer speciality, ‘amok’. It’s actually a style of cooking in which your main item (chicken, fish, snail) is coated in a rich coconut curry sauce, then served up in a banana leaf bowl. Exotic tropical fruits to try afterwards include the hot pink dragon fruit or prickly, football-sized Dorian.
Ream National Park boasts an unspoilt coastal environment fringed by ivory white sands. Our handpicked local experts specialise in daytrips and boat trips to Ream, where deserted, jungle-backed beaches are just the tonic to the intoxicating gin of bustling Angkor Wat. River excursions into the mouth of the mangrove-lined Prek Toeuk Sap river are richly rewarding. Exotic birds flash flamboyantly by, monkeys screech and fishing eagles – and fishing cats – lurk. The abundant underwater activity is testimony to the Park’s protected status.
Battambang’s bamboo train
Charming, sleepy Battambang oozes colonial elegance. The town’s picturesque waterside location makes it a favourite for those in-the-know. By day, hire a bike from a trusted local partner and enjoy two-wheeled trips out to the villages, farms and temples that pepper the local landscape. Boat trips to Siem Reap to access the gateway to Angkor are also popular. Come evening, Battambang’s buzzing bars and night market come alive. A quirkier attraction is the town’s bamboo train, a rickety way to travel along the standard railway line which connects the two small local towns. Think of it as a raft, on rails. And then don’t overthink that too much – just enjoy this one-off railway experience.
When is the best time to go to Cambodia?
If you’re looking to dodge the rain, November to February is the best time to visit Cambodia: despite being the ‘cool’ season, it is still sunbathing weather. If visiting in hot season (from March to May) temperatures can be a toasty 33-35 degrees, so consider heading to the coast to cool off. The heavens open from June to October for the rainy season, which can prove problematic for travelling around the country’s rural roads, but if you don’t mind the daily downpours the monsoon season means there are far fewer tourists and you get to see the jungle blossom into life.
Interesting facts about Cambodia
Cambodia is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
Happy birthday to…who?
In the West, knocking a few years off one’s age for vanity purposes is pretty standard behaviour. Things are slightly different in Cambodia. Traditionally, they’ve never really celebrated birthdays (though, motivated by presents and parties, the notion is catching on with Cambodia’s younger generation). This means that older folk rarely celebrate birthdays, with many genuinely not knowing their birth date or exact age. What is clear, is that Cambodia’s demographic is very youthful and ‘bottom heavy’. With a population approaching 16 million, one third of its citizens are under 15, with just 4% over 65 (allegedly, given the above).
The Cambodian flag is the only one in the world to feature a building. Fittingly, the stylized depiction is of Angkor Wat. Home to the different magnificent capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the former megacity is now protected by Angkor Archaeological Park status. Stretching to over 400 km squared, this UNESCO listed region has many programmes underway to protect and preserve it.
A crisis of identity
Cambodia has changed its name no less than five times since 1970. Its current title, The Kingdom of Cambodia, became official and has stood since 1993. Previously it was known as The Kingdom of Cambodia (1953-1970); The Khmer Republic (1970-1975); Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979); The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989); and the State of Cambodia (1989-1993). It reverted to its 1970 name in 1993.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Cambodia. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Have a capital time in Phnom Penh…
With so much to see at Angkor Wat alone, riverside Phnom Penh – with its sundowner bars overhanging the river – can get forgotten. Culture and commerce are a constant thrum by day, with festivity and finery on view during the nightly promenade. Alongside the obvious (the Royal Palace where the King resides), our handpicked experts are chock-full of insider tips for top quality craft, cuisine or esoteric experiences. The 5,000 silver floor tiles of the Silver Pagoda are quite a sight, the colonial architecture and broad boulevards of the old French quarter are wonderful, and the National Museum deserves a look.
A beach for every bikini…
Cambodia has a staggering number of beaches, ranging from peaceful to party central. With our insider knowledge, your beach days will be the best days. Sihanoukville town centre is no oil painting but the beaches that punctuate its headland truly are. Serendipity beach is your goal for great nightlife and socials, massage and manicures. To chill out, Otres beach operates at a slower tempo. Can’t find what you want on land? We’ve got the downlow on Cambodia’s 50-plus islands in the aquamarine Gulf of Thailand, to ensure you’re not harangued by hawkers or left looking for the party.
It’s customary to…
Not show the soles of your feet to anyone, especially when visiting any Buddhist or religious sites. As the Cambodian proverb says, you negotiate a river by following its bends, and enter a country by following its customs. Resist touching anyone on the head, even children who are being thoroughly cute and lovable. This would be rude as the head is considered sacred.
What to read before you go to Cambodia
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Cambodia, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'A Dragon Apparent' by Norman Lewis
In A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, Lewis is at large in Indo-China during the French regime’s twilight years. A captivating travelogue from the 1950s, it vividly recreates the grandeur of Cambodia’s ancient civilisations and architecture, much of which survived until the Vietnam War. Meeting monarchs, peasants, emperors and slaves, from rarified highland homes to the plains, Lewis finds the Cambodian people gentle, tolerant and discerning, their nation on the brink of cataclysmic, post-colonial change.
'Brother Number One' by David Chandler
The brutal and genocidal political strategies of Saloth Sar, better know as Pol Pot, are widely accused of trying to eliminate Cambodian society as we know it. This in-depth biography probes his comfortable early childhood and years spent in France, revealing his later occupations as teacher, guerilla then ultimately commander of the victorious army in Cambodia’s bloody civil war. A country’s tragic recent history, and the enigmatic man who caused it, are illuminated in Chandler’s ambitious work.
'The Gate' by François Bizot
French ethnologist Bizot, studying Buddhism in Cambodia, was kidnapped by the regime and held prisoner in a jungle camp for four years. The Gate paints a harrowing picture of his life and the country during this tumultuous time. Starting with his relationship with his captor, Douch, focus then shifts to Bizot’s time as an intermediary between the French Embassy and the victorious Khmer Rouge, culminating with his helping a convoy of foreigners escape to Thailand. Bizot’s message? Be wary of the outcomes when utopia is sought at all costs.
'River of Time' by Jon Swain
Exotic villages and landscapes are juxtaposed with violence and corruption in this epic memoir, immortalised in Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields. Swain lived in the Mekong river region in the early 1970s and River of Time captures the scents, sights, colours and contradictions of Cambodia during this turbulent time.
'Hunters In The Dark' by Lawrence Osborne
In this patiently written and transporting novel, pushing-thirty protagonist Robert Grieve enters Cambodia from Thailand and goes intentionally adrift. An unexpected casino win prompts an initial dilemma, to go home or embark on exotic adventures in Cambodia? Choosing to stay, adventure leads to suspenseful misadventure and the domino effect of a ‘jinxed’ windfall. A lyrical tale told by a master of observation, Osborne has been dubbed a modern-day Graham Greene.
'The Last Reel' (film) directed by Kulikar Sotho
Critically acclaimed Kulikar Sotho is the first Cambodian female film director since the 1970s. Her award-nominated film is a contemporary love story told in the Khmer language, peopled by the ghosts of Cambodia’s past and driven by lead Sophoun’s desire to heal her family. It was inspired by Sotho’s wanting to portray a different version of her country’s truth – the premise concerns the final lost reel of a film, buried beneath Cambodia’s killing fields – and to see a film about Cambodia made by a Cambodian.
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