Cambodia is a beautiful country containing a wealth of natural riches and awe-inspiring antiquities way beyond its diminutive size. However, most people travelling there go only for one thing, to see the grand temples of Angkor. Flying in and out of Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, they often don’t see anything else of this enchanting country. Granted, the temples are an amazing sight and my first view of the five pineapple shaped towers of Angkor Wat (the main temple) looming tall as the sun rose behind will stay with me forever.
But there is so much more to Cambodia than just Angkor and you can quite easily fill two weeks (or longer) in the country. Here are a few of my favourite things to see and do, in addition to visiting the temples of Angkor of course:
Step back in time
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is where you will really find out about the country’s history. Once considered the loveliest of the French-built cities of Indochina, the city's charm has managed to survive the violence of its recent history and (looking at the city today) it’s hard to imagine that during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) the city was a ghost town with all its inhabitants forced out into the countryside.
Roll on 40 years and the city has a real buzz about it with modern high rise buildings sitting alongside bustling markets and traditional shop houses. Take a cyclo tour through the streets to admire the mix of Khmer and French colonial architecture. Then delve into the cultural history at the National Museum and wander round the Royal Place with its gleaming spires, multi-coloured tiled roofs and Silver Pagoda paved in 5,000 silver floor tiles.
Two places I think should definitely be included in any trip to Phnom Penh are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng was a former high school taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used to torture around 17,000 men, women and children. It is now a moving and incredibly interesting museum. The Killing Fields are where the Khmer Rouge carried out its dreadful genocide burying the bodies in mass graves. Now it is a peaceful memorial set amidst rice paddies. I realise these are not usual holiday highlights - and are heart wrenching at times - but they stand as a stark reminder of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and do allow you to dig below the surface and understand Cambodia and its people better.
Heading out into the countryside you travel past traditional stilted Khmer houses and children living their lives on the river.
Ladies sell all manner of unusual delicacies at the local market such as deep fried tarantulas! This is when you know you’re getting rural.
Here you can really get off the beaten track by staying on an island in the middle of the Mekong River. Accessible only by boat, you will get to experience a pocket of rural Cambodian life mostly spared from the modern world. Cycling round reveals a stunning landscape peppered with fruit orchards, rice paddies and villagers who view you with a mix of curiosity and excitement.
You can also leave a positive (and lasting) impact by accompanying the Chief of the island on a tree planting ceremony (part of the island's forest regeneration programme), which will be marked with a wooden name plaque in your honour.
Avoid the beach areas of over developed Sihanoukville, plagued by Chinese casinos, and instead head to the peaceful seaside town of Kep. Once favoured by the French élite (and fondly referred to as Kep-Sur-Mer) the town came under ferocious fighting during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge and fell into disrepair. Now it is being spruced up with the once stunning colonial villas being brought back to life, places such as the wonderful Knai Bang Chatt. Set in lush gardens, this is a visually stunning resort with five 1960s villas that have been remodelled and impeccably restored.
The whole place has the perfect blend of privacy and serenity. It’s the ideal spot to while away a few days not doing an awful lot except lolling around the gorgeous infinity pool, swaying in a hammock at the palm fringed shoreline (there's to beach to speak of I'm afraid), or sipping sunset cocktails at the next door sailing club which is a former fisherman’s cottage with a lovely rustic, seaside vibe.
However, if you feel the need to do something more active, you can grab some bikes and head off into the countryside or take a trip to nearby Rabbit Island to find your own stretch of deserted beach. A must is taking a stroll to the fascinating crab market to sample the local delicacy of fresh crab deep fried with green peppercorns from nearby Kampot.
Visit the circus
Since your trip will, at some point, involve travelling to Siem Reap, one of the best ways to spend an hour of your time in the evening is to visit the circus. And by that I don’t mean watching men with big feet and red noses. Think more Cirque du Soleil.
Under a big top and sitting on simple wooden benches you will be captivated by a show of modern Cambodian tales told through music, dance, acrobatics, juggling and aerial acts. The talented performers are all graduates of the Phare Ponleu Selpak's training centre in Battambang. Set up by Khmer refugees, it offers young Cambodians a way out of poverty by training them to become professional artists and performers. At Phare, the Cambodia Circus, you’ll be assured of an entertaining and fun evening and at the same time will be supporting a great cause.
Relax on luxury on a private island
You don’t expect to find an idyllic luxury private island retreat off the coast of Cambodia. But this is where you’ll find one of my favourite, Song Saa, which is about 40 minutes by speedboat from the mainland.
There are just 27 villas which all come with the same beautifully rustic, but very chic, interiors and private infinity pools.
It's just the location that varies. Some are hidden in the forest, others edge the sea with a private beach or are on stilts over the clear turquoise waters.
The resort is big on protecting the natural environment and supporting local. The island is ringed by Cambodia’s first marine protected area and a community programme for the local village on the neighbouring island has been set up to provide education on sustainable living and waste management. Even much of the design elements at the resort make use of recycled materials such as driftwood washed up at the village and hulls of fishing boats that have sailed their last voyage.
The one thing I really love about Song Saa is that you resolutely know you are in Cambodia. Some high end island resorts could be anywhere in the world as there is nothing around to say otherwise. At Song Saa over 90% of the staff are Cambodian. Whilst looking out from your infinity pool you see fishing boats going about their daily business and you can easily take a boat over to the neighbouring island to see for yourself how the local village has been helped by the the community programme.
Want to know more?
In my view Cambodia is South East Asia at its most charming and you will be seduced by both the country and the genuine warmth of its people. If you are interested in travelling to Cambodia and want to find out more, or are interested in other areas in Asia, then please do get in touch.