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 places to go for your Cambodian itinerary.
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.
What makes this whole area even more incredible is that it doesn't stop at Angkor Wat. We'd strongly recommend taking at least two days to explore some of the more famous temples such as Bayon, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
However, my personal highlight was taking a photography tour and visiting the lesser known jungle temples.
2. Phare Ponleu Selpak (Circus), Battambang
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 it we hadn't have been told.
The circus isn't the only reason to visit Battambang though....
3. 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.
4. 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!
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. A chilling history lesson, Phomn Pehn
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. Walking around the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison - where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed - is not easy, but it vividly portrays just how much this poor country went through. The more you learn about this period in history, the more ashamed you feel that the rest of the world not only turned it's back on the Cambodian people, but legitimised the Khmer Rouge.
The memorials are a poignant reminder that these atrocities have human faces and should never be allowed to happen again. A shrine with some of the skulls of the people murdered by a regime who wanted to 'cleanse' its own people is particularly harrowing.
9. 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...
10. 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!
11. 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.
If you're thinking of travelling to Asia, then why not check out our following blogs:
- Best things to do in Thailand
- Anecdotes from Thailand
- Best things to do in Hong Kong
- Top Hikes in Hong Kong
- Tackling Hong Kong's second highest peak: Lantau Peak
- Instagrammable Hong Kong
- Anecdotes from Cambodia
- That time we were attacked by bears
- 10 must-see places in Asia
- Anecdotes from Vietnam
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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.