5 Things You Have to Do in Cambodia
Featured destinations: Cambodia
Published 19 April 2016
When the jungle-clad countryside is home to some of the most majestic civilisation ruins of the ancient world, you could argue that Cambodia doesn’t need anything else to boost its allure as an unforgettable destination. So that’s that, a few days exploring the temples of Angkor will suffice – take your photos at sunrise and then vacate the country, right? Actually, Cambodia has so much more to offer and, even without visiting Angkor Wat, you could spend weeks happily exploring one of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating countries.
Tonle Sap Lake
So when you’re templed-out after spending a few days discovering Angkor from a base in Siem Reap, don’t be too hasty to head back to the airport. Instead, head south to Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Fed by the mighty Mekong, the lake changes size and shape with the seasons; swelling with each monsoon rain and flooding the surrounding plains to fuel a diverse forested ecosystem, rich in enough wildlife and exotic bird species to keep any birder happy.
Towards the water’s edge, tall wooden stilts soar up out of the lake spectacularly exposed during the dry season, leaving traditional houses daintily perched up to 10m above the receding waters. These strings of floating villages are home to communities whose whole existence has forever revolved around the lake, entwined with its seasonality. Traditionally, people here make a living from fishing although now some are reaping the rewards of the emerging tourism, allowing visitors to explore their striking settlements and discover a different side to Cambodia away from the bustling cities.
Drop in on the wildlife
If you remembered to pack a pair of sturdy walking boots amid your flip flops, then find a local wilderness guide to make lugging them across Asia well worth it. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the dawn chorus at first light and emerging from your rudimentary tarpaulin tent, bathing in a natural waterfall and setting off to follow weird and wonderful scat trails through the trees.
The longer you trek for, the deeper you will navigate through the untouched ecosystem. Meet remote, indigenous hill tribe communities who rarely see Western visitors and listen as your guide points out slashed tree bark, scratched by black bears clawing for the ants within. Keep your eyes open for exotic birds flitting through the leaves and prowling jungle cats, while deer and gazelle dart past the trees as gibbons look on from above. The northern reaches of Cambodia’s jungle still hide some of the last native sun bear populations, though these are rarely spotted in the wild. To guarantee a sighting, volunteer to become a bear keeper for the day; the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, just an hour away from Phnom Penh, lets you muck in and help care for their gentle bears, rescued from cruel and captive environments.
Try unique local cuisine
Think of Cambodian cuisine and your mind will more than likely conjure tempting images of succulent, delicious curries flavoured with rich exotic spices and accompanied by steamed rice. And it would be right too; the traditional Khmer cuisine is rich and flavorsome, with distinctly Asian influences. Though why not opt instead for a ‘tastes a bit like chicken’ crocodile burger for something different? It’s surprising delicious and merits a brag on the flip-side of the trip.
If your taste buds are in dire need of a challenge, take a look up from the menu card, put down your cutlery and step out into the street for some of Cambodia’s more, uh, intriguing delicacies. Dare to scratch beneath the curry-clouded surface (or venture deep enough into one of the markets) and you’ll find a huge variety of bizarre foodstuffs to try – the only limit is the strength of your stomach. Phnom Penh markets offer no shortage of fried insects, from tarantulas and crickets to skewered snakes and cockroaches. Not for the squeamish, the meat markets are known for making the most of their wares and selling every part of the animal, including the brains.
Cruise along the Mekong
The Mekong River carves its way through China and Laos, skirting the Thai border to reach Cambodia and complete its journey in Southern Vietnam. There’s something for every traveller; whether you’re keen to spend a week or two aboard a luxury cruise ship and float gently in the direction of Saigon or Vientiane and stopping to tour temples and towns with day excursions, or you’re a landlubber who would rather take a short day trip upstream in a traditional wooden boat. A gentle journey between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh allows exploration of both of Cambodia’s biggest, bustling cities and slips serenely through the floating markets, rice paddies and temples that dot the countryside (and negates the need for a long bus journey). Keep eyes open for a glimpse of the instantly recognisable, domed head of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins and the slightly less charismatic, but no less impressive, Mekong giant catfish.
Head for the beach
Often overlooked, or even pushed aside from tight itineraries in favour of Angkor Wat, Cambodia is also home to a pretty snippet of Southeast Asian coastline. Don’t go expecting postcard-perfect island paradise like that of neighbouring Thailand, but if you travel to Cambodia’s southern region you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the charming sands of Sihanoukville. The town itself hustles and bustles with the best of them but the white sand beaches that stretch out into the distance do nothing but tempt lazy days spent soaking up the glorious sun. The palm-fringed beaches are an easy place to learn to scuba dive, offering the winning combination of inexpensive local dive schools, tropical coral reefs teeming with colourful marine life and invitingly warm, clear waters. If you prefer life above the waves, take a boat out to the small islands that lie just off the coast for secluded beaches and a universal sense of relaxation that could have been lifted straight from the Caribbean.