Updated August 7th, 2018.
As a kid, I travelled the recesses of my mind like Indiana Jones; a small blonde runaway in search of an ancient world hidden behind the facade of the newer one. The books that littered my nightstand were The Jungle Book, Myths and Mythologies of Ancient Egypt, Arabian Nights and the daydreams that filled my mind belonged to jungle enthusiasts, Jane Goodall characters, and moustached men in khaki safari hats.
Once I grew out of my play phase and learned that all the corners of Earth had already been discovered, I spent days and months coming to terms with the fact that my expeditions to find old civilizations within encroaching forests wouldn’t be so easy.
For a while I wandered around my house in despair, my black woollen adventure hat never leaving its hook on my wall. It was then my mum took me out on an expedition to my favourite haunt, the local public library, for a peruse among the new additions, thinking it might get me out of the funk.
That’s when I found it: A National Geographic photo essay on Cambodia.
From lush forests to golden temples, bustling streets stocked with food vendors and great wildlife vistas, it was like the adventure spirit inside had rekindled, recommitted, and was once again itching to take the hat off the wall.
So every since that day, Cambodia has been the top of my list, and my adventure into the depths of its undiscovered legends and customs fulfilled all the kiddie daydreams that had piled up over the years.
Don’t believe me? Check out my list of places not to miss in the land of Kampuchea, and then embark on your own journey – it’s too good, but it is true!
1. The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap
Even for one as desperate as myself for an authentic, non-tourist trek into the great unknown (and rural) areas of Cambodia, I still couldn’t resist the draw of the world famous Angkor Wat Temple (part of the largest religious complex in the world), so I made my way to the centre of Cambodian civilization for a walk into the diverse and complex history of this Southeast Asian nation.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site status is cemented for many reasons: incredible advanced ancient waterways systems, including canals, dykes, and basins, as well as villages, priceless works of art, the list goes on. It’s incredible to believe that the city held an immense amount of the world’s population during a time when Western Civilization was progressing through what is nicely called the Dark Ages.
In great contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia at this time, Cambodia was cementing its own architectural prowess and distinct style and Angkor is its greatest achievement.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the temple includes vast murals, extensive carvings, and the northern reflecting pool is a popular place for tourists to watch the sunrise.
For getting around the ancient religious city with a strapped budget, I started with buying a three-day pass of the temples for $62 USD that let me explore Angkor at my own discretion for a little longer than a rushed 1-day. (1-day passes ($37 USD) and 7-day ($72 USD) are also available.if that’s more your style.)
For things to do in Siem Reap, outside of Angkor Wat, consider going for a day bike through the countryside or make a side trip to Phnom Kuhlen and the lost city of Mahendraparvata. Just make sure you don’t try to take this tour on your own, it’s required to have a guide into the city because there are still active landmines!
Where to stay in Siem Reap?
While in Siem Reap, I skipped the expensive hotels and all-inclusive resorts and opted instead for a stay at the Jasmine Family Hostel. Much like it’s more expensive counterparts, this joint hostel is family owned, has boutique-style accommodation, and has beyond excellent hospitality but it’s available for a fraction of the price (a couple of euros for a bunk in the dorms was perfect for me). Plus it has the added bonus of being single-traveller friendly so there’s no reason to have a meal or go on an adventure alone unless you want to and they have a great list of one-of-a-kind experiences that you can take part in.
2. Preah Vihear
Another great religious site, Preah Vihear is situated on top of a vast cliff in the north of Cambodia and it comes with killer views and a little controversy, making it perfect as a sightseeing destination!
A little bit of history: When France drew up the lines between Thailand and Cambodia in the early 20th century, the mountaintop temple was partly on the Thai side, and partly on the Cambodian side. Of course, this drew many disputes as to who actually could lay claim to the property but when Cambodia became independent in the 1950’s, a court ruled that the entire Hindu temple was Cambodian rather than Thai, making it a little safer from a visitors standpoint, but no less controversial between the two countries. To understand the full scope of the Cambodian position, make sure to learn up on the contemporary history of the country; it’s truly fascinating and a great way to spend your in-flight time.
How to get there and where to stay: the location of the temple makes it hard to get to, but don’t let that deter you. There’s a Cambodian military checkpoint at the bottom of the hill (you can see the flag of the Thai checkpoint as well), so have your passport ready. Entrance is $10 USD (as of January 2018). Press on to the top of the hill to get a look at crumbling ruin. For accommodation, book a room at the Javier Guesthouse for about 13 euros a night. It’s located in the Preah Vihear City and you can take a motorbike taxi from your accommodation straight to the top of the temple if that’s your pleasure. It’s remote, and a little less traveled than Angkor, but that’s all part of the charm.
3. Otres Beach
Otres is a off-the-map traveller’s maven; it’s where the tourist experience goes to get away from the huge crowds of Angkor, and where you’ll actually get to experience an exotic beach paradise. Unlike many of the more famous Cambodian beaches, the guesthouses along the shore here make up a very small section of the beach and leave the rest for awesome sunbathing, swimming, and just taking in the excellent view. The water is warm, the hammocks are hung high, and the most heard phrase when it comes to recounting tales of this paradise is the ever-used (though actually true in this case): “Go now before everything changes.”
Do: Get a dinner and cocktail to watch the sunset every night – it may seem posh, but it’s definitely the place to watch a sherbert-coloured vista (and to snap killer photos if that’s your jam). Stay at the Moonflower Bungalow, the average price per night is around 20 euros for two (it was a little cheaper when I stayed because I went in the off-season, but it’s still great value), and a bonus is that there are scooters for rent at 5 euros per day, which is great if you want to take a day or two to explore the island. If you want to swing in the hammock all day, that’s a great choice too; it’s completely up to you and you certainly can’t go wrong either way.
4. Ream National Park
Ream National Park is in the same province as Otres Beach (the beach is in Sihanoukville, only 18km from the park) so it makes a perfect daycation, or side trip to make, and I definitely recommend a stop at this Southeast Asian natural wonder.
The best way to do it is to grab a scooter from the bungalow, and take a travel at your own pace. Between the fishing cats (hard to spot, but they are around, and if not, check out the adorable otters), mangrove swamps, and excellent birdwatching (everything from fishing eagles to kingfishers), it’s the perfect day to spend the day. If you’re looking for something a little more in-depth, head for the island of Koh Thmei; it’s virtually empty with no village to speak of and one “resort” with no more than a dozen beach bungalows. Not only will you enjoy the solitude, but the snorkelling here is really wonderful, and if you’re travelling between December and April, you can spot the migrating dolphins.
5. Tonle Sap Lake
One of the great things about staying at the Jasmine Family Hostel was my discovery of an excursion trip to Tonle Sap Lake. With the Floating Forest package (2 days + 1 night), I got to travel on the lake, which sports a stellar ecosystem, and take a good long look at the rural parts of Cambodia that I was so looking forward to.
Between the stilted villages hovering over the flooded forest to getting an up-close look at the lives and traditions of the natives, the tours unique perspective into the inland Cambodian “sea” meant getting to watch fishermen work, check out the local schools, and, if you’re in season, do it all from a paddle boat.
The Kompong Khleang Village is where I spent the night, in one of the local houses, which means I got to watch the sunset over the lake and have a family-prepared dinner filled to the brim with great (and super fresh!) seafood. Other stops along the way included the Rolous Village, with a great local market and incredible countryside views, and then Kampong Pluck to take a tour of the village and accompanying monastery where local children study. All in all, it’s a bit of a world-wind tour, but it’s a snapshot of how the locals live, and it’s a great picture to have in your mind.
Whether you’ve always wanted to travel to Cambodia or you’re still in the “maybe” phase, my advice when it comes to the lush jungles, pristine beaches, and temple extravaganzas of this Southeast Asian nation is just to get out of your box and get your adventure hat on – it’s the best way to travel, and certainly the right frame of mind for taking in this jewel of a destination.
Pin this article!
About the Writer: I’m Claire – a self-confessed travel nut. I’ve been travelling around the world since my mum farewelled me in a teary goodbye and I haven’t looked back since. You can read all about my adventures through 48 cities in 26 countries on 4 continents on my blog Traveltio.com.
Join Our Community
Add purpose to your travels.
Do you want to find out about free opportunities to review hostels and experiences, as well as keep up to date with the latest travel news in Southeast Asia & get special offers on trips? Thought so!