Cambodia was the third country that I visited on my backpacking trip around South East Asia, and by far the one I was saddest to leave. During the few weeks that Tim and I spent there, we both fell in love with the place and the people. This is my guide to Cambodia and the experiences you can’t miss!
Kratie was our first destination upon arriving in Cambodia. Journeying down from Laos, it is much closer than both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh so offers a fairly short and painless journey in to the country (a pleasant change from the usual lengthy bus rides). Kratie is best known for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the river alongside the nearby village of Kampi. Dolphin spotting in the Mekong is a breathtaking experience which I would recommend to anyone visiting Cambodia.
Our next stop was Siem Reap: the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Dating back to the Khmer era, the site is made up of the ruins of former capitals and is frequently cited as one of the most important historical complexes in the world. This importance led to the park being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site; securing its right to safeguarding and maintenance.
I would recommend hiring a tuk-tuk to aid your exploration of the Angkor complex. Some sites are miles apart and moving between them on foot would take days! We found our tuk-tuk at a reasonable rate through our fantastic accommodation: Angkor Wonder Hostel. Our driver provided us with cold water, fresh fruit and iced napkins which were much needed after wandering around in the blistering heat.
It took us two days to explore the temples of Angkor, although we had to be willing to put in some early starts. It is definitely worth starting your Angkor journey with the smallest temples and building up in size. Some of them can be quite similar so it is a good idea to save the best till last. You also don’t want to miss the less visited of the temples – these have far less visitors! Check out this Cambodia forgotten temples post for some off the beaten track inspiration!
My favourite temple was Ta Prohm, famous for appearing in the Tomb Raider films. If you can drag yourself out of bed early its well worth watching the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. This is a stunning spectacle, though capturing this beauty through a lens is harder than you think.
Luckily, when you’ve had your fill of temples there is still plenty to do in Siem Reap. The famous Pub Street is a great place to relax with a drink but watch out for scammers that target this area. We ourselves were victims of a baby milk scam; consult thinkchildsafe.org for information on what to look out for.
As far as evening entertainment goes, the Night Market is worth a look and a great place to grab a bargain. Whether you are looking for Ali Baba pants or bottle openers, the market has it all and gives you a chance to brush up on your haggling skills. The Phare Cambodian Circus is also a must whilst staying in the city. The profits from ticket sales are pumped into Cambodian communities, giving young adults the opportunity to be educated in theatre, circus and art. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening; the cast were first-rate and the show was both enthralling and thought provoking.
After journeying to Sihanoukville we waited at the jetty for a boat that would take us to Koh Rong. The island features a lively backpacker strip and sheltered beaches so it is a good place to top up your tan. There are bar crawls most nights which means Koh Rong is a great choice if you want to party. An island rapidly growing in popularity, it won’t be long before it is placed alongside Thailand’s most famous party islands.
Koh Rong Samloem
When you get sick of partying there is always the option of visiting the quieter neighbouring island: Koh Rong Samloem. Both Tim and I were completely bowled over by this island which offered some of the most beautiful beaches I experienced during my time in SE Asia. Sunset beach was a standout favourite.
For me, it was so important to visit Cambodia’s capital despite our trip there being hard-hitting and emotional. Phnom Penh is somewhat of an educational hub and aims to inform visitors about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Under the command of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge carried out genocide in the pursuit of a Communist ideal. It’s estimated that between 1975 and 1979, 25% of Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, statistically meaning that most people will have lost at least one family member to the regime.
The prison S21, more commonly known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documents the torturous acts committed by guards against perceived enemies of the regime. There is an eerie feeling that follows you around the prison as you tour the cells and torture chambers. There are only seven remaining survivors of S21 prison, two of which we were lucky enough to meet the day we were there. Both of these men experienced cruel barbarism at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime; their families were murdered and they themselves were tortured within the walls of S21. We both marvelled at the strength of these men for being able to return to the place that held such harrowing memories for them, all in the hope of preventing genocide in the future.
That afternoon we made our way to Choeung Ek for another disturbing insight into Cambodia’s history. This mass grave is the most notorious of the killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge. There is a huge memorial stupa in the middle of the site, filled with more than 8000 skulls of victims. Learning about Cambodia’s brutal past was deeply upsetting, but visits like this are crucial in order to learn from such atrocities.
Phnom Penh wasn’t all bleak though. We took in the sights of the Royal Palace and Independence Monument as well as indulging in a little bit of relaxation. Seeing Hands massage parlour offers brilliant massages performed by blind masseuses and Daughters of Cambodia helps women to escape the sex industry and train to become beauticians. I was able to get a superb manicure here whilst Tim stopped for a spot of lunch in the café upstairs.
Our final stop in the capital was the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. The sanctuary is based just outside the city and is home to a whole range of animals that have been rescued from poachers. Whilst it is sad that such majestic creatures are unable to roam free, it is sadly a necessity to prevent further harm coming to the animals. We were able to feed and pet a stag; a great experience albeit a bit intimidating to start with!
What we missed…
- I would have liked to have spent some time exploring Sihanoukville as sadly we were just passing through. I have heard people speak highly of Otres Beach in particular.
- We also ran out of time to explore Koh Trong in Kratie. Whilst we were able to take in a fair bit of rural life en route to Kampi, I would’ve liked to explore the island and experienced a Cambodian homestay. It’s definitely on the list for our next visit!
- Battambang and Kampot were both spoken very highly of by other travellers we met so I’m also keen to discover these areas.
Have you been to Cambodia? Where would you recommend?