Visiting Cambodia’s multitude of ancient temples — including the world renowned Angkor Wat complex — is just the beginning of an adventure in this enchanted kingdom.
The country is layered with history and rich with enduring virtue. Nestled between the popular tourist hotspots of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia, Cambodia has distilled many of the best elements of each, and a visit here will provide a lifetime’s worth of intriguing travel moments and experiences.
Here are ten great things to do in Cambodia that may not be on your travel radar.
1. Seek out ancient temples and lost cities
Stepping back in time at Cambodia’s ancient temple complexes is a must-do. The temples of Angkor, located outside Siem Reap, are undoubtedly captivating, but sometimes difficult to appreciate while jostling amongst the thousands of visitors that descend on the site each day. Beng Mealea (meaning lotus pond) — a 900-year-old temple partially reclaimed from the jungle — is an exciting alternative. The 40-kilometre tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap means that you’ll find the site all but deserted, which will leave you free to re-enact your own Indiana Jones moment.
2. Master the moves of an apsara
Stone sculptures, dancing apsaras, delicious cuisine and energetic martial arts are some of the unique aspects of Cambodian culture that most visitors love to experience. Return home with your own piece of that culture, gleaned from local tutors from the Backstreet Academy — a website dedicated to facilitating organic, hands-on tourist activities. Learn to carve your own sandstone lotus flower, prepare your favourite Cambodian curry with a local family or move with the graceful poise of an apsara — the angelic dancing tradition practiced in Cambodia for centuries.
3. Walk with elephants
No elephant attraction is perfect, but this one is a haven compared with the staged performances and elephant rides around Siem Reap’s temples. Share a quiet moment with these majestic animals at a 1,600 hectare conservation site in Cambodia’s east known as Elephant Valley. Volunteering opportunities involve helping out with reforestation and farming food for the elephants. You’ll also learn about the region’s Bunong culture and its unique relationship with these gentle giants.
4. Watch weavers working with silk
Glittering silk stores in Cambodia’s main tourist precincts tempt visitors to fill their luggage with beautiful pieces at bargain prices. Visit the Angkor Silk Farm outside Siem Reap to see where the colourful and delicate material comes from, before it’s woven into homewares, clothing and accessories. You’ll discover the secrets of the silk trade, from its humble beginnings at the mulberry bush to the last careful stitch that completes each masterpiece.
5. Go for gold at the National Olympic Stadium
While Cambodia has only competed in a handful of summer Olympic Games (and is yet to win a medal), you can visit their Olympic training centre and stadium in the nation’s capital. The facility dates back to the 1960s and like many of Cambodia’s public buildings from the era, it played a tragic role under the infamous Khmer Rouge. Today the centre stages public fitness classes and various sporting events.
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6. See bats fly at sunset
As the ancient temples of Cambodia are gradually restored by archaeologists, nesting bats have fled to places like Sampeou Mountain. They inhabit the caves that are also remembered for their tragic past under Pol Pot — the Khmer Rouge’s murderous leader. It’s quite a sight to see thousands of bats emerge from their hiding places at dusk and sail across the sky in great clouds of black. You’ll often see them flying over the relaxed riverside city of Battambang.
7. Learn the secrets of Cambodian cooking
You might have been tempted to taste fried tarantulas from touristy roadside food vendors, but enjoying traditional cuisine in Cambodia doesn’t have to be as frightening (or hairy!). Find out how to add the fresh, sweet fusion of French and Khmer flavours to your meals at home with a cooking class at Phnom Penh’s La Table Khmère. Learn the secrets of the Crying Tiger — a beef satay with a dash of Cognac, or samlor korko — a steamy and colourful fish stew with capsicum and tangy pineapple. Leave room for dessert — either the crème brûlée or num plae ai — a sweet mixture of sticky rice and palm sugar.
8. Catch a film at The Flicks
Take a break from sightseeing and see a film at The Flicks community movie theatre in Phnom Penh. It’s one of a kind! Grab a choc-top or a tub of buttery popcorn and choose a comfy armchair or even a floor bed to watch movies like Same Same but Different — the romantic tale of a German backpacker finding love in Cambodia, or The Killing Fields — the gripping portrayal of an American journalist and his Cambodian guide enduring the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Both films are based on true stories.
9. Shop for souvenirs at the Russian Market
Various foreign powers have added layers of intrigue to the chequered history of Cambodia. Following a flood of Russian immigrants in the aftermath of the Cold War, a market frequented by these expats slowly grew in Phnom Penh. The Russian Market, as it is known today, caters for visitors looking for a unique Cambodian souvenir. Browse the chaotic stalls for a betel-nut box, a miniature Buddha, or a watch emblazoned with the face of the country’s Prime Minister. Be prepared to haggle!
10. Enjoy a beach break
Cambodia may not necessarily spring to mind as a beach destination, but it has many stunning stretches of coastline. If you’re up for the full resort monty, the port city of Sihanoukville is one option. Thanks to a tide of foreign investment, what was, until fairly recently, a low-key beachfront lined with seafood BBQs and popular with blissed out backpackers, is now a fully-fledged resort and casino hub. Sadly perhaps, you can’t stop progress…
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of great things to do in Cambodia? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Barry Johnson is a freelance travel writer living in Sydney, but with previous homes in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. His love of adventure led to getting lost in a Californian forest a week after The Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert, and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.