Ten top things to do in Cambodia
Cambodia’s multitude of ancient temples, including Angkor Wat and the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, are only 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 provides a lifetime’s worth of intriguing travel moments and experiences.
Here’s a list of ten top things to do in Cambodia that you might not have considered.
Go in search of lost cities
Seeking out lost cities is a ‘must’ on any list of ten top things to do in Cambodia. The ancient centre of Angkor outside Siem Reap is 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 by the jungle, is an exciting alternative.
The 40km tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap means you’ll find the site all but deserted, which will leave you free to re-enact your own Indiana Jones archaeological expedition.
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.
Walk with elephants
No elephant attraction is perfect, but this 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.
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Volunteering opportunities at Elephant Valley involve helping out with reforestation and farming food for the elephants. ‘Elephant time’ is spent observing the animals in their natural habitat. You’ll also learn about the region’s Bunong culture and its unique relationship with these gentle giants.
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.
Go for gold at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium
While Cambodia has only competed in seven summer Olympic Games (and is yet to win a medal), you can visit their Olympic stadium and training centre in the nation’s capital. The building dates back to the 60s, and like many of Cambodia’s public spaces it has a tragic past under the infamous Khmer Rouge.
Today there are fitness classes open to the public, with inspiration from thrilling video montages. Look out for Olympians too, including Hem Raksmey – the swimmer that competed in Atlanta in 1996 at age 12, or Sorn Davin – the popular Taekwondo fighter and flag bearer at the London 2012 games.
Watch bats fly at sunset
As the ancient temples of Cambodia are gradually restored by archaeologists, nesting bats have fled to places like Sampeou Mountain – inhabiting the many caves that are also remembered for their tragic past under the murderous Pol Pot.
It’s quite a sight to see thousands of bats sail from their hiding places at dusk, coating the sky in plumes of fluttering black. You’ll see it over the relaxed riverside city of Battambang.
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.
Take a big screen break at The Flicks
Take a break from sightseeing and immerse yourself in the stories of Cambodia at The Flicks community movie theatres in Phnom Penh. They’re 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 Same Same but Different – the romantic tale of a German backpacker finding love in Cambodia, or The Killing Fields – the determined and hope-filled portrayal of an American journalist and his Cambodian guide enduring the tragic rule of the Khmer Rouge. Both films are based on true stories.
Shop for souvenirs at the Russian Market
Various European influences have added layers of intrigue to the chequered history of Cambodian life. After 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 has evolved over the decades, catering for the visitor looking for a unique piece of Cambodian culture.
Browse the chaotic stalls for a betel-nut box, a miniature Buddha or a watch emblazoned with the Cambodian Prime Minister – and be ready to haggle.
Satisfy the need for speed at Kambol Kart Raceway
While it may not be quite the glittering Formula One racetracks of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Shanghai, Phnom Penh has the Kambol Kart Raceway, which challenges visitors to beat the lap record during exciting go-kart races.
The tropical mid-afternoon thunderstorms will test your limits as the complex gets coated in steamy water, splashing your visor and teasing your tyres into the gravel.
Do you have anything to add to our list of ten top things to do in Cambodia? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the 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 Quechua, the language of the Incas.