One of the sad rules of traveling is that no matter how much time or money you have, you always have to choose what to visit and what to skip. Based on my travels in Cambodia, I made a list of six things to do in Cambodia that really ought to be in every itinerary.
– 6 things to do in Cambodia –
1. Cycling Angkor
I have written a whole article on cycling the great temples of Angkor because every visitor that does not know about this option (and how awesome it is) is at loss in my book. The terrain is easy, flat and the roads are well enough maintained to make this the perfect cycling adventure. Going out on your own wheels enables you to explore at your own pace, visit the temples that you want to but also those that you just happen to stumble upon (and that most others miss). Cycling through the bush with nothing but the sounds of the jungle and the slight squeaking of your bike accompanying you, in search of long lost temples you will feel like a proper Indiana Jones. There’s really nothing like it!
2. Tuol Sleng prison & The Killing Fields
One of the things to do in Cambodia involves facing its gruesome history. When traveling the country you simply cannot escape the damage that was done to the country and its people by the Kmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot . 1/3rd of the inhabitants were exterminated and most parts destroyed. However the kindness of the people and the remarkable recovery the country is experiencing at the moment is proof that the resilient spirit of Cambodia was not broken. A visit to the Tuol Sleng prison in Phom Penh and the nearby Killing Fields is the best way to learn about the gruesome past and the surprising international reactions to (and denials of) it. Even though it will not be a cheerful visit, it is undoubtly informative. The Killing Fields provide an excellent (free with entrance) audio-tour, and Tuol Sleng offers English explanations (and very graphic photos) throughout the prison.
3. Ride abandoned railways on a bamboo raft
There have been talks for years that the ‘bamboo-trains’ around Battambang will disappear when the railways in Cambodia get restored. Even though this does not seem to actually happen in the near future it is better to experience this now you still have the chance! Locals use the abandoned tracks to transport people, goods and livestock on small bamboo- rafts driven by a motorcycle-engine. I have not seen this anywhere else in the world and it is really quite a rush. Even though there is only one specific part that you are allowed to track as a tourist (for 5 USD), it is still quite the rush!
4. cruise the river and Tonlé Sap lake from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
By far the best way to travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is by (slow)boat. You first cross the biggest freshwater lake in South-East Asia, ( Tonlé Sap) and slowly move your way down to Cambodia’s capital in about 6 to 9 hours, depending on the level of the water. Along the way you see floating villages and how the people here live on and with the water which is not only interesting but also very relaxing.
Pro-tip: Travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh instead of the other way around. This way you travel downstream which cuts your travel time by about an hour-and-a-half.
5. Cook the Kmer food (in Battambang)
This is a bit further down the list because cooking courses are not unique to Cambodia. Ofcourse cooking Kmer-food is, but if you are not a foodie you might not be interested in doing a cooking course if you have already done one in a neighboring country. Nevertheless I can really recommend doing it in Cambodia: it will undoubtedly be cheaper but not of lesser quality than a comparable course in Vietnam or Thailand. Personal recommendation: Nary’s kitchen. Both Toot and his wife Nary are friendly, patient and excellent teachers and cooks. For about 10USD you get a half-day course (including a trip to the market, all ingredients and a tasting of your own food afterwards) and it is really value for money.
6. visit Koh Rong
Koh Rong is often compared to the Koh Samui of the 70’s and 80’s. This is truly a tropical paradise with white beaches and blue seas, and still largely lacks development. ‘Hippy’ bars can be found dotted around the island which serve until about 2 AM when suddenly the power is turned off and the whole island turns dark until 8 in the morning. Even though a tropical paradise is not unique to Cambodia, this island is definitely amongst the better onces in the region. Most people plan for 2 or 3 nights but stay much much longer.. so be warned;).
What else to visit?
Next to this top 6 Cambodia offers many more beautiful and interesting sights. In one breath: visit the Killing Caves & bat caves near Battambang, beach-side Kep to taste some fresh crab on its crab-market (and stare at the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc) and Sihanoukville for beach-parties and relaxing (Otres beach 2!), scooter up from Kampot with its pepper-farms and firefly-cruise to the Bokor Hill Station (an eerie abandoned casino) on one of the best roads in the country and spend a few hours at Phnom Penh’s silver Pagoda which is quite stunning in the bright sunlight. But before you do this all, make sure you visit the top 6 places mentioned above, as they are the true gems of the beautiful Kingdom of Cambodia.
– Pop these in your bag for a trip to Cambodia –
A waterproof bag is a lifesaver when caught in the rain but also when kayaking, jungle-trekking or chasing waterfalls. If nothing else it gives you piece of mind when traveling with camera gear or other stuff that just can’t get wet. Get a 5L or 10L version so you can pack it within your daypack. I recommend this one from Mountain Splash. It’s durable and tough, transparent and it has got an easy handgrip.
Yes I view anti-bacterial hand sanitizer as essential. Not because I am germophobic but because this will save you from diarrhea and food poisoning. Most people that get sick from eating street food in South-east Asia don’t get sick from the shitty hygiene at the street food stall but because they didn’t probably wash their hands. Use hand sanitizer, stay a happy traveler. This set got handy Carabiners to latch it on you any pack.
Unfortunately with tropic temperatures come tropic insect. The only known active ingredient to effectively deter mosquitos is DEET. Unfortunately it’s not very healthy which is why I do not recommend using 95% DEET solutions. 40% works perfectly in my experience.
Because its just the best compact travel guide out there. I always take a lonely planet with me for its practical information and background on certain sights. It is a lifesaver for when you find yourself unexpectedly off the beaten path in search of accommodation for the night. For me this is still the best way to read up on a destinations in long haul bus rides. You don’t need internet or battery-life and you can keep it dry in your recently purchased waterproof bag!