Over one million tourists each year head to Siem Reap in Cambodia to experience perhaps the most famous temple complex in the world. It’s true, Angkor Wat (the world’s largest religious building) is a sight to behold, some regarding it to be the most magnificent piece of architecture ever built by man! A contester for the eighth wonder of the world, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, it would be foolish for backpackers, from the beer guzzlers to the culture vultures, to leave this off their itinerary!
But once you’ve posed as Angelina among the ruins of Ta Phrom, took endless photos of Bayon’s 214 enigmatic faces and captured the morning sunrise from every imaginable angle… you’ll begin to wonder what else does this enchanting country have to offer?
Luckily the options are plentiful, so we’ve compiled a Top 10 List of things to do in the Kingdom that don’t involve the word Angkor. Unless it involves drinking a cool glass of it after a very different Cambodian adventure…
1. French colonial charm, pepper farms and caves in Kampot
A quiet riverside town, Kampot is a nostalgic throwback to the French colonial era, where crumbling French architecture lines lazy boulevards and locals ride bicycles through the peaceful streets. An up and coming backpacker hang out, Kampot has some great restaurants and watering holes that have sprung up on the riverfront! Located on the scenic Damrei River in the Bokor Mountains within reach of waterfalls, caves and unspoiled countryside, Kampot can be used as a base for adventure. Rafting, kayaking and trekking are all possible in the area, as are tours to the nearby salt and pepper farms for which Kampot is known- don’t miss this one!
Deep in Kampot’s caves by Fiona Mossman.
2. Fish sauce and crab in the seaside town of Kep
Smaller, than Kampot, sleepy Kep is an overgrown fishing villlage famous for its potent fish sauce and succulent crab. A must try is the fresh seafood in the town, where you can gorge on squid, prawns and crab overlooking the ocean for a meagre price! Founded in 1908 as a French colonial retreat, Kep became the favourite seaside desitination of King Sihanouk during the 1960’s, before the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The eerie remains of decadent colonial villas can be seen along the seafront, many of them destroyed during the civil war. The tiny island of Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island, just 2km sq) with it’s sandy shores can also be visited for those backpackers in search of a tropical beach fix. Like much of the Cambodian coastline, things are changing fast as investors move in – perhaps Kep won’t be sleepy for long!
The sleepy fishing villages of Kep.
3. Beaches, windsurf & party in ‘Snooky’ (Sihanoukville):
Sihanoukville or ‘Snooky’ as its fans have begun to call it, an endearing term that likens it to the seaside town of ‘Newquay’ in the UK, is becoming somewhat of a party destination to rival Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi. There are several beaches that make up Sihanoukville, but backpackers have completely taken over Serendipity Beach and claimed it their own! Packed with international restaurants and bars, the atmosphere is almost always geared for a party. Aside from the nightlife, travellers can try windsurfing and other watersports on nearby Otres Beach. Equipment and/or lessons can be hired at a pinch of what you’d pay elsewhere in the world.
4. Off the beaten track via jeep, motorbike or bicycle!
Do you want to see the wild countryside of Cambodia? There are various ways to get off the beaten track in Cambodia from taking a safari adventure in your own private American Army Jeep, to getting down and dirty on a Cambodian dirt bike tour or perhaps you would prefer man-powering two wheels on a bicycle trip? Travel through vibrant countryside and visit remote temples and villages where locals welcome the adventurous foreigner like a celebrity! Depending on which type of adventure you’re after, check out Hidden Cambodia, Cambodia Jeep Tours and PEPY Cycle Tours.
The right way to get out and about by cambodiajeep.com.
5. Diving the underwater treasures of Cambodia
While many people head to Thailand, the popular islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi for their adventures of the underwater kind, Cambodia also has some wonderful dive sites. Scuba Nation is the largest dive school in Cambodia offering trips from Sihanoukville to the islands of Koh Kon, Koh Rong Saloem and Koh Tang. The islands off the coast present some amazing diving with an incredible diversity of hard and soft corals, a large collection of reef fishes, larger pelagics and an enormous variety of macro-life. Most of the offshore islands are uninhabited and between dives you can relax on the white sandy beaches or snorkel off the shore. All of the dive sites are at least 1½-2 hours from the mainland in order to provide the best quality visibility available!
The underwater treasure of Cambodia by Scuba Nation.
6. The floating villages of Tonle Sap, Siem Reap
Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and of great importance to Cambodia. It’s a bit more unusual than “normal” lakes: Its flow changes direction twice a year and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. This means that entire villages are dismantled due to the season and the waterline of the lake, most communities have adjusted by living in so called “floating villages” on boats. The lake is home to a large Vietnamese & Cham community and have managed to adapt very well to the lake’s seasonal changes. So, whether it’s the school or rubbish dump, living room or local store – the boat it not only the main transport system but also home for local residents. You can book a trip of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake from Siem Reap. You can also take the boat all the way to Battambang.
Boat homes on Tonle Sap Lake by Nisa Maier and Ulli Maier.
7. Bamboo Island (Koh Russei) and Monkey Island (Koh Rong)
Two beautiful islands off the coast of Cambodia but which one to choose? Both can be reached from Sihanoukville via boat. But go now, as they’re changing fast! Beaches are the stuff of glossy calendar covers and more often than not end up being entirely your’s and your’s alone. Hammocks are plentiful, lazing around is encouraged, and to-do lists are an unknown concept.
Bamboo Island, undiscovered paradise- for now.
8. Take the Bamboo Train in Battambang
When I was asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train, I had no idea what was on offer. The picture that came to mind was of a cute toy train with carriages made out of bamboo, maybe similar to something you would find at a park or zoo to take tourists for a ride. But I knew there were no such parks in Cambodia. Instead, tucked away in Battambang province in the northwest of Cambodia, what I was in for was a journey back in time on a undeniably unique form of transport, one that understands that the journey is often more important than the destination!
Travel at it’s finest- bamboo train in Battambang.
9. Trekking in the Cardamon Mountains
Head northwest towards the Thai frontier and you come to Koh Kong Province, an area of breathtaking beauty and incredible biodiversity that was almost inaccessible until the completion of Highway 48 just three years ago. As a result, the one-time smugglers’ port of Krong Koh Kong is transforming itself into a centre of ecotourism. The deserted beaches of Koh Kong Island are a major draw, as are the mangrove forests lining the coastline and the ecolodges sprouting along the Tatai River. More adventurous travellers can head upriver to the remote hamlet of Chi Phat, home to a pioneering ecotourism initiative, and the truly intrepid can hire a guide to trek deep into the Cardamom Mountains, one of Southeast Asia’s last great wildernesses.
Miles upon miles of uncharted nature- the Cardamom Mountains.
10. The Killing Fields-Pnomh Penh
Finally, although not exactly an alternative ‘thing to do’ in Cambodia, we must assert that a visit to Cambodia is not complete without understanding more about the history of the country. In an attempt to understand the Cambodia of today, every visitor to the kingdom should be aware of the recent history and the terrifying, four-year reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, in which one third of Cambodia’s population was senselessly murdered. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is the site of mass graves where thousands of victims, (men, women and children) were killed for absurd reasons. Scraps of clothing and bits of bones can still be found on the ground bringing the events even closer, sending shivers down your spine as you try to contemplate how on earth human beings could do such things to other human beings. A Buddhist Stupa made of real human skulls has been erected at the site to commemorate the horrific loss. The site is located about a 40 minute taxi ride South of the city. Many travellers group together and hire a tuk tuk driver for the whole day, (costing around $15) combining a visit to the Killing Fields with the S-21 Museum – which makes for a hard hitting lesson in human atrocity. Once a high school, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) the building was converted to a prison from 1975-1979 during the Khmer Rouge period to house so called ‘enemies of the state’ and their entire families including babies not even old enough to talk. An estimated 17,000 prisoners were kept here under the most dire conditions, many tortured before almost certainly ending up in one of the mass grave sites such as Choeung Ek. Thousands of faces of victims stare back at you from black and white photographs – stories of stolen lives and unthinkable anguish.
Craving more off the beaten track inspiration? Read about Lottie Butler’s experience at Bokor Hill Station.