Visiting Cambodia’s multitude of ancient temples — including Angkor Wat and the enigmatic Bayon — 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 top things to do in Cambodia that you might not have thought of.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While Cambodia has only competed in a handful of 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 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. Look out for local Olympians, including Hem Raksmey — the swimmer that competed in Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 12, and Sorn Davin — the popular Taekwondo fighter and flag bearer at the 2012 London games.
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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.
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 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.
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!
While it may not be the glittering Formula One racetracks of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Shanghai, Phnom Penh’s Kambol Kart Raceway challenges visitors to try and beat the standing lap record in a go-kart. The mid-afternoon thunderstorms that often sweep through the area may test your driving skills and tease your tyres into the gravel.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Cambodia? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
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 Quechuan — the language of the Incas.