Cambodia is a country that might really surprise you, everyone knows about Angkor Wat, but this country has it all. Beautiful beaches, lush jungle, rare wildlife, interesting cities and culture, and of course the world famous temples. For us the biggest surprise was the cuisine, no one really talks about it but it's delicious. Fish amok even became one of our favourite dishes after a year spent travelling South East Asia.
The people are worth a special mention too. For decades the world turned a blind eye to the atrocities that happened here, but the people have come out the other side: friendly, optimistic and hospitable. We couldn't believe how a nation that suffered so much could be so kind and welcoming.
We spent a month in this beautiful country and have cherry picked the best bits to create our perfect two week Cambodian itinerary for you. We did visit several places not mentioned in the below itinerary so if you have any questions about other parts of Cambodia let is know in the comments, and we can share our experiences with you.
Day 1: Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace
Cambodia is a pretty hot and humid place, so it is best to take it easy on day one, whilst you get to grips with the heat. A nice leisurely activity to start is the Royal Palace, a magnificent building that showcases Khmer and Buddhist architecture. There's lots to see so give yourself a good couple of hours to get round the whole site.
As with most temples in South East Asia, legs need to be covered for women, if you don't have a sarong or long trousers you can hire them at the palace.
Try the local cuisine
It's a good time to check out the local speciality: Amok, a very tasty fragrant but not spicy Cambodian curry that is cooked in banana leaves. This is a stand out dish and one we quickly became addicted to.
The more adventurous could sample the deep fried tarantula. According to our friend Ewa they taste like ready salted crisps. We'll take her word for it....
Just so you're fully prepared if your experience is like ours they will bring the live versions out to say hi before your meal.....eeeek!
We decided to visit Romdeng, the restaurant supports and trains former street children. It's a tad more expensive than other similar restaurants but it's a good cause, a beautiful setting and focuses on traditional Khmer dishes.
Day 2: Phnom Penh
Understanding Cambodia's chequered history
Phnom Penh is home to some of the harrowing remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the barbaric regime that ruled Cambodia under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979. During his tenure an estimated two million Cambodians were murdered in an attempt to create a misguided agricultural utopia.
Visiting the sites is a difficult experience but we think it is important to be educated, and it helped us understand Cambodia a little better.
Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre) have become memorials and museums to teach the rest of the world what really happened here during the four year genocide. They put people and faces to the stories, making it more real and poignant than you can possibly imagine before visiting.
We decided to hire a guide to visit Tuol Sleng and this added to the experience, as we were told additional stories. You can hire the services of a guide on arrival when purchasing your tickets. We looked around the site, which included former cells and torture areas for about an hour, and that was probably as much as you could bear in one go.
The Killing Fields
The Killing fields are 17km from the city centre. It's an easy 30 minute journey by tuk tuk. As with Tuol Sleng, it is a harrowing reminder of what went on throughout the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
It is centred around a huge shrine, holding the skulls found in the Killing Fields. These were just a small fraction of the victims of the genocide carried out by Pol Pot's regime. There's an audio guide that takes you through the Killing Fields in great detail, explaining what happened and what you are seeing.
Any visit to Cambodia should include visiting these important sites as it will help you truly understand what this country has been through. If you are interested in learning more, we also read a very good, albeit harrowing book, 'First they killed my father', author Loung Ung, which was beautifully written and highly detailed.
Day 3: Siem Reap
Ton Le Sap Lake
The Cambodia itinerary moves from the capital Phnom Penh to Cambodia's second major city. It is a long journey that will take up most of the day, so you should get an early departure.
After checking in, arrange a tuk tuk or hire a bike to take you to Ton Le Sap Lake, a place where people literally live in the middle of a lake. Unfortunately the boat tours are, well, very touristy but we were still glad we saw it, as it was something that we had never encountered before. A boat can take you to the main attractions, though that predominantly includes shops and restaurants, all on stilts in the middle of the lake. Beware of a stop aimed to encourage you to buy incredibly expensive rice to give to an orphanage. We don't know for sure but this had a very dodgy feel to it. Ask your boat driver to skip this stop.
If you ignore the hard sells and just enjoy being out on the water for a while it makes for a fun couple of hours.
Day 4: Siem Reap
So as you can see we didn't get much of a sunrise, and we certainly weren't alone but we'd still highly recommend starting your day at this time, fingers crossed the conditions are in your favour. Even if you have to share the view it is still incredible to watch the sun rise over the temples.
You can then spend several hours wandering around this temple alone. There are lots of parts to explore and if you do even manage to get it to yourself at points.
You can enter at sunset the day before for free, so you could do both sunrise and sunset if you wanted, which is what we did, and highly recommend.
Equally as impressive as Angkor is Bayon temple. We particularly loved all the intricate carvings and being able to roam through all the little passageways. Just like Angkor you could spend a couple of hours here depending on your appetite for the finer details.
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple)
So this is one you have probably seen in many photos or in the movie Tomb Raider. It is every but as magical in real life, in fact even more so. The jungle has begun reclaiming the temples and the effect is incredibly dramatic.
It's pretty tiring walking or cycling around the ruins all day so why not head back into town for a massage?
Day 5: Siem Reap
The jungle temples of Angkor
Now that you've seen the world famous temples of Cambodia, head to some that are off the beaten track. Here you'll find the same amazing ancient structures, again largely taken over by nature, but without the crowds of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. The effect is probably even more spell binding. You will have some of these to yourself and it really is worth another whole day of your Cambodia itinerary.
Preah Khan is one of the biggest jungle temples and is really impressive. Yet, you're unlikely to see another person there. You'll see trees growing out of roofs, walls with roots in them and then countless carvings.
Beng Melea has the wild feeling of Ta Prohm but is much more intimate. All the trees are still wrapped around the temple, giving it the feeling that it hasn't been cleared for tourists and is still undiscovered in the jungle. When we visited we didn't see a single other person there!
Phom Ba sits on top of a hill and has the unique feature of having tree branches growing out the top of the temples, making them look like the buildings have become the trunks. Each temple has beautiful murals and inscriptions, as well as great views on the lowlands below. There is also a modern temple near to give you a contrast of the old and new Cambodia.
Day 6: Battambang
The journey from Siem Reap to Battambang takes about three hours, so most of the morning will be taken up. However that still leaves time for....
Take a ride on the Bamboo Train
You will be about ready for some light hearted fun, and the bamboo train has that in spades. We had no idea what to expect and it wasn't quite what we imagined, and that's why we loved it so much! You sit on this 'train' which is basically wooden planks on wheels and speed off down the tracks at a surprising rate. If you encounter another train coming in the opposite direction it is rock paper scissors to see who has to dismantle their vehicle and let the other pass!
When you arrive you are essentially just at a small shop selling cold drinks and a few trinkets. The kids here were a lot of fun though and we were happy to buy some drinks and have a chat. The whole experience only lasts around an hour, including stopping time, but we can definitely say it was the most memorable train ride of our lives!
Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus
This circus is a must do evening activity in Battambang. It is a not for profit project which supports disadvantaged children, and the children are absolutely incredible. So talented, you won't believe some of the things they can do! It starts at 7pm and runs for an hour and a half. The performances are not every night so check the latest schedule here so that you don't miss out.
Day 7: Battambang
Learn Khmer cooking
So you know we told you how much we love Amok? We just had to learn how to cook it for ourselves. Your cooking journey begins with a trip to the market where you will assist in picking out all the fresh ingredients for the meal. When we say fresh, the fish was still swimming in the bowl! They do cater for vegetarians too though, just let them know.
You will then head back to the kitchen and begin cooking up a storm. We cooked spring rolls, amok (fish and veggie) and lok lak (a peppery stir fry dish). You then have a huge feast, and are given the recipe book to try at home. There are a couple of different cooking classes available, we went with Nary's kitchen and had a great time.
Take in the horrors at Khmer Killing Cave - Phnom Sampeau
Phnom Sampeau is 11km from Battambang, and it's another hard hitter but again one that we would recommend taking some time to explore. It's a beautiful setting that is hard to compute with the atrocities that went on here. The cave itself is chilling and it had a very eerie feel to it. The Khmer Rouge threw the bodies of those they had killed through the shaft in the cave, hundreds of the bones and skulls are on display within the cave today.
We stopped by another cave on the way back from the Killing Cave known to have a huge number of bats fly out at dusk (ask your tuk tuk driver which it is, they all knew). It was wonderful to sit and chat with the local children here whilst watching the spectacle, it brought some much needed light relief and is a good additional stop if you are visiting at a similar time of day.
Day 8 and 9: Sihanoukville
The journey from Battambang to the beach is pretty long (8 hours) so there won't be much time for anything other than chilling at Sihanoukville's best beach.
Chill at Otres Beach
We visited quite a few beaches in this area and Otres was definitely our favourite. There's still a fair bit going on but it is less busy than say Serendipity beach, which we found pretty loud and way too busy. The sunsets here were spectacular, and as a rule the further down the beach you go the quieter it gets.
Day 10: Koh Rong
Chill on blissful beach paradise
Koh Rong lies just two hours by boat from Sihanoukville but it feels a world away. It is a quiet island paradise. There are various points on the island you can head for depending on your budget.
The sand is white and the water is clear and calm, perfect for swimming. The vibe is completely relaxed and if you are lucky you might even spot bioluminescence in the water at night (we didn't but met many that did). Just don't let the prolific sandflies spoil your fun, buy the local coconut oil as soon as you reach the island and lather yourself. You can add a lay of suncream afterwards, it won't feel great but it will definitely be worth it!
Day 11: Koh Rong
After all that, you deserve another day to chill :)
Day 12: Kampot
Explore Bokor National Park
We took a day tour to Bokor National Park but if you are happy on a scooter (the access road is quite steep and windy) then we would definitely suggest you take this option. It's the kind of place that would be much more fun zipping along on your own. The height makes it blissfully cool, which in Cambodia, can be a reason alone for visiting.
You can see a pretty waterfall, an old temple, take in the coastal views and explore the ghost town - there are many derelict buildings that should have been grand. There were plans for a huge casino and resort up in Bokor, but it never got off the ground.
Day 13: Kampot
Organic Kampot Pepper Farm
No doubt you will have seen all Kampot pepper all over the menus at all the restaurants in town. Kampot pepper chicken was a real treat but it is also delicious with crab.
You can visit the factory (La Plantation) where the pepper is grown and packaged and taste some of the different kinds (black, white and red). We found it interesting and it was also a good way to stretch the legs as you can easily cycle there. We bought some to take home and it was an instant hit!
See the Killing Fields at the cinema
This is the only cinema we've been to in the world where you can rent a private movie room. You can pick from a number of movies at the Ecran Movie House but as you're in Cambodia we'd recommend seeing The Killing Fields. The movie room had beds with loads of cushions and though we had some sound issues at first it was still a great way to spend a few hours, and watch one of Cambodia's most famous films.
Stare in awe at the fireflies
Watching the fireflies at dusk is a really magical way to spend the evening. You can get to a spot to see them by motorbike, but we preferred the more leisurely boat option and would highly recommend it. You get on board as the sun is setting and cruise peacefully down the river before arriving at what appears to be a cluster of Christmas trees. The fireflies shine so brightly and you can climb into the water for a closer look. Wow factor in spades!
Day 14: Phnom Penh
After that whirlwind trip it's time to head back to the capital. However, if you're heading to Laos why not stop by....
The journey from Kampot to Kratie is pretty long, so most of the day will be spent getting there! It is not far from the Laotian border, so it makes a good place to stop off. But the reason you go to Kratie is....
Irrawaddy River Dolphins
Seeing the Irrawaddy River Dolphins is a unique experience, especially as they are listed as a vulnerable species. You take a fixed price private tour from the jetty (we didn't need to book in advance) and get up close to the dolphins. Early mornings are best for sightings. We were lucky to see nine which is about 10% of the population in the Mekong!
If you plan to stay a little longer in Kratie there is an island you can cycle around, we had planned to do this but were travelling in rainy season, and it was severe that day.
Most people taking this route were heading to 4000 Islands, which was one of our favourite places in Laos.
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