Cambodia has become synonymous with the 400+ square-kilometer temple compound of Angkor, found just outside of Siem Reap. And it is stunning. But Cambodia is so much more than that, and is worth a lot more time than most visitors give it.
In addition to a few days touring the temples, here are a few of the other places and things worth doing:
- Volunteer: I spent a week with children at the Missionaries of Charity in Siem Reap, and it was one of the most heartbreaking and fulfilling experiences of my travels. There is so much need in Cambodia, and so much opportunity to help. I was lucky to spend time with a big group of volunteers from the UK and Australia, who assisted with anything from teaching English to providing legal assistance to an NGO focused on preventing spousal abuse in rural villages. The Cambodians are such beautiful, kind people that it’s almost impossible not to help.
- Go Island Hopping: Cambodia’s coast has islands to rival those of Thailand, with easily 1/3 the traffic. Still relatively undiscovered but with enough amenities to be comfortable, Rabbit Island, Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Sanloem are well worth a few days stay. Or you can park yourself in the sleepy Otres Beach or party-town Sihanoukville and take day trips that will hop amongst the smaller islands just off the coast.
- See a Different Side of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in Battambang: Phnom Penh is the most famous for it’s killing fields, where millions of innocent Cambodians were ruthlessly slaughtered by the army led by Pol Pot. Because of an increase in petty theft crimes in Phnom Penh, I opted to avoid the city as much as possible. However, I still wanted to experience and understand the history of the country. In Battambang, we took a day tour, which included a stop at a Killing Cave, where Cambodians were tossed 50+ feet to their deaths. It’s a chilling experience, and hiring one of the local students is well worth the cash for the history lesson.
- Get a Taste of Local Life in Kampot: This largely rural area isn’t a top ranker for tourists (other than the French), but it is a charming city with heaps of waterfront accommodation options along the Kampot River. Plus, the best pepper in the world is grown in plantations just outside of town, and one of the oldest temples is nestled in a cave in a national park. I had one of the best days of my life on the back of a motorbike zipping through the village roads outside of Kampot.
- Learn to Cook Cambodian Cuisine: Thai food is an old staple, and anyone can whip up a curry without much skill. But how many people can say they know how to cook Fish Amok or Beef Lok Lak? These are two typical Cambodian dishes that are really delicious. Unlike Thai food, Cambodian food isn’t spicy, so you don’t need to worry about alienating your capsaicin-fearing friends.
And here are some practical details for a visit to Cambodia.
- Bus Companies: There are many bus companies that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. The best of these, without a doubt, is Giant Ibis. Especially if you’re traveling overnight anywhere, like I did from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, you will not regret spending the extra money on a sleeper bus ticket with GI. The beds fully recline, there is an outlet and lamp for each individual bed, and your own air conditioning vent that you can adjust at will. If you have to sleep on a bus, this is the way to do it. Pro Tip: Get a top bunk, because full buses mean that sometimes someone will stretch out in the aisle… directly next to you.
- Share Taxis: If you find yourself in jam, like I did when I wasn’t switched onto the right bus just before Khmer New Year, there is a share taxi option. This is faster, but very tight, and usually a little more expensive than a bus. A typical sedan will cram four people in the back seat, and sometimes two in the front, so get ready to get cozy with the Cambodians! You can try to get more space by purchasing two seats. Recommended for shorter trips only.
- Private Taxis/Tuk Tuks/Motorbikes: Jumping on the back of a motorbike is by far the cheapest option to get from A to B, provided you are traveling solo. It’s a fantastic way to really take in everything around you, and it’s the most direct and quickest way to get wherever you want to go. Just be cautious, the drivers don’t always have extra helmets for passengers. Because of the lack of paved roads in many parts of Cambodia, grab a surgeon’s mask from one of the kiosks on the side of the road that sells gasoline.
- They use the US Dollar! This makes things so easy for us Americans, since no currency exchanging is necessary at all. However, many merchants will not accept bills manufactured before 1975, and if the bill is ripped or overly creased, it will be denied. I learned this the hard way trying to buy my pass to Angkor with a bill that didn’t pass muster. If a merchant tries to give you shoddy bills as change, hand it back and ask for a new one. It’s a common practice in Cambodia and not considered rude.
- I started off staying at the highly-recommended Mad Monkey in Siem Reap, and ended up with the worst case of bedbugs I’d ever had in my life. Because of this, it was the last time I used a dorm room in all of Southeast Asia. Because of my intense reaction to bedbug bites, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks. In fact, I spent any savings I would have had on medicine and getting my bags and clothing cleaned and treated. Thumbs down.
- However, I was able to negotiate my way into a hotel room, with air conditioning, a nice shower, and included breakfast, for $15/night. Online, the price was double! It never hurts to walk in and negotiate.