The temples of Angkor Wat hog the headlines – and for good reason – but there is so much more to Cambodia, the warm heart of Asia.
Fringed by beautiful beaches and tropical islands, sustained by the mother waters of the Mekong River, cloaked in some of the region’s few remaining emerald wildernesses and home to ever-welcoming Khmers, whose infectious optimism makes a trip to Cambodia an adventure as much as a holiday, this country packs everything Southeast Asia has to offer into one bite-sized chunk. Here are 10 of the best things to do while you're here.
Witness sunrise at Angkor Wat
When a visitor first sets eyes on Angkor Wat, the supreme example of Khmer genius, it's an experience matched by few others on earth. This makes the mother of all temples the definitive spot for sunrise among the many contenders at Angkor.
Simply unique, it is a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of humanity’s devotion to its gods. Get here early to find a quieter spot and consider entering via the "back door," or eastern entrance, to avoid the crowds. During the March and September equinoxes, the sun rises directly over the central tower of Angkor Wat – a particularly popular time to be here.
Walk with the herd at Elephant Valley Project
Travelers in search of an ethical and sustainable way to see these beautiful pachyderms should visit the pioneering “walking with the herd” project, which works closely with local mahouts to rehome their overworked or injured elephants. A sort of retirement home for elephants, this 1500-hectare (3706-acre) sanctuary is set in a beautiful mountain valley in Mondulkiri and is a wonderful way to support sustainable conservation in this remote part of northeastern Cambodia.
Elephant riding is strictly prohibited here – you simply walk through the forest with the elephants and observe them in their element. In the process, you learn about elephant behavior as well as indigenous Bunong culture and forest ecology. It's very popular, so book well ahead to avoid disappointment.
Ride the bamboo train in Battambang
One of the world’s most unique rail journeys, Battambang's bamboo train has had many an obituary written about it over the years, but somehow it's still on the rails, despite the launch of train services on the line from Battambang to Phnom Penh and Poipet.
Each bamboo train (norry in Khmer) consists of a 3m (10ft)–long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, resting on two barbell-like bogies, connected by belts to a small engine. Actor and comedian Jack Whitehall enjoyed a ride in his popular Netflix show Travels With My Father.
Spot freshwater dolphins at Kratie
The freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin (trey pisaut in Khmer) is an endangered species throughout Asia, inhabiting stretches of the Mekong in Cambodia and Laos, and isolated pockets in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesian Borneo, in shrinking numbers.
One of the best places in the world to spot these gentle cetaceans is Kampi dolphin pool in the Mekong River, about 15km (9 miles) north of Kratie. It's best reached by boat: a kayaking trip will take you gliding through secluded sandbars and haunting flooded forest before culminating at the dolphin pool, up close and personal with these beautiful but rare mammals – and without any engine noise to disturb them.
Paddleboard through the "Green Cathedral" in Kampot
The perfect way to explore the beautiful Tuek Chhou River is by stand-up paddleboard (SUP). The river winds its way past small palm-fringed islands, mangrove forest, and traditional hamlets and fishing villages under the shadow of Bokor National Park, and has some of the most spectacular sunsets on the South Coast.
Popular with both local and foreign visitors, the "Green Cathedral" is a narrow channel that makes a stunning circuit through mangroves and aquatic palms, with lots of small guesthouses and resorts to provide refreshment stops along the way. It is located around 4km (2.5 miles) out of town on the river, and paddleboards can be rented from various hotels and resorts.
Browse the bars of Bassac Lane in Phnom Penh
Bassac Lane is the moniker given to a small, eclectic alley that's home to a dozen or more hole-in-the-wall boozers. The venerable Phnom Penh Yacht Club occupies a strategic corner on St 308, also home to lots of hip restaurants and bars, and it's a good place for people-watching during happy hour (5pm to 7pm).
Other popular establishments include the White Rabbit speakeasy for impressive cocktails, the Library for studious drinkers, Casa Diego for tapas and Harry’s for a breezy upstairs lounge. Bassac Lane has cemented its reputation as the new bohemian district of Phnom Penh and is well worth a visit.
Run away to the circus with Phare in Siem Reap
Don’t let the name fool you: Phare the Cambodian Circus is hardly a conventional circus. Its focus is on performance art and subtle social commentary – and animal lovers will be pleased to note that no creatures appear on the bill.
The country’s premier performing arts organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) has nightly shows, and the results make it one of the best activities for visitors to Cambodia. Some weekend performances are also held at the original PPS training campus in Battambang.
Go beachcombing on the island of Koh Rong
One of the largest islands in Cambodia, Koh Rong is fringed by some of the country's most beautiful beaches. Hugging the western shore of Koh Rong is Long Beach, the island's longest unbroken beach, a 7km (4.3 miles) stretch of tropical bliss. Still surprisingly undeveloped for several kilometers, it was previously used as a key location for filming the popular US television series Survivor.
For something shorter, Long Set Beach (also imaginatively known as 4km beach) is a stunning stretch of sand on the south coast of Koh Rong. A handful of hostels and boutique resorts are here, but it's still pretty peaceful and is connected by short paths to nearby Nature Beach and Koh Tuch Beach.
Sign up for a Cambodian cooking class
Unlike the culinary colossi that are its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is not that well known in international food circles. But Khmer cuisine is also pretty special, with a great variety of national dishes, all with a unique Cambodian twist.
To learn some tricks of the trade, sign up for a cooking course. This is a great way to introduce your Cambodian experience to your friends back home by knowing your teuk trey (fish sauce) from your prahok (fish paste). There are popular courses available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Kampot.
Spot rare water birds at Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
Prek Toal is home to the best-known bird sanctuary in Cambodia. It’s an ornithologist’s fantasy, with a significant number of rare breeds gathered in one small area, including huge greater adjutants, milky storks and spot-billed pelicans.
During the peak season (December to February), visitors will find the concentration of birds like something out of a Hitchcock film. Even the uninitiated will be impressed, as these birds have a huge wingspan and build enormous nests. Trips to the sanctuary also bring you up close and personal with the fascinating floating village of Prek Toal, a bustling crossroads (...crossrivers?) between Siem Reap and Battambang, where everything from shops to schools floats on water.
Explore the remote temples of Preah Vihear
For the ultimate remote temple adventure, take a road trip deep into Northern Cambodia to visit the king of the mountain temples, Preah Vihear, stunningly situated atop the Dangrek Mountains; the pyramid temple of Prasat Thom at Koh Ker, Cambodia's latest nominee to be a Unesco World Heritage Site; and the giant jungle ruin of Preah Khan Kompong Svay, the remotest of all Cambodian temples.
Plan a few days on these outermost roads, some of which follow ancient Angkorian highways, using a 4WD or a dirt bike for those with experience.
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