Long before Angelina Jolie put Cambodia on the celebrity map by filming Tomb Raider there, becoming a Cambodian citizen and adopting a Cambodian son, travelers in the know have been visiting this small but diverse kingdom for decades. Firmly on the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail”, a route through Southeast Asia first made popular by backpackers in search of new adventures on a shoestring budget, Cambodia has come into its own in recent years. While not as well known as its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, my 10 years in Cambodia showed me a beautiful side to this “Kingdom of Wonder” making Cambodia very worthy of being a destination all on its own.
1. The people are kind, sincere and speak pretty good English! In my 10 years in Cambodia, I witnessed part of the healing of Cambodia after the atrocities under the Pol Pot regime in the mid-70s. While I spoke to plenty of older people still haunted by the past, I saw a new generation of hopeful young people, taking advantage of the international aid available to get an education abroad and return to continue rebuilding their country. Khmer people are inherently friendly with a ready smile and by and large are not as jaded by tourism as in some more established Asian countries. In addition, while the Khmer language is terribly hard to learn (it uses a Brahmi-like script from ancient India), there are many sounds in Khmer that are similar to English, meaning Khmers tend to have clearer English pronunciation than their Asian counterparts who often have to overcome tonal and monosyllabic issues.
2. Cambodian cuisine is unique in the region. Yes, you will find dishes influenced by its neighbors (like the Vietnamese sizzling crepe known in Cambodia as “banh cheo”) but there are a host of uniquely Cambodian dishes as well, often involving staples like rice and fish (thanks to the Mekong River which flows from Laos in the North to Vietnam to the East). Amok is the Khmer take on curry, often cooked with fish, and uniquely steamed in banana leaves which act as a little bowl. The ku tiev (a take on noodle soup inspired by the sizable Chinese population of Cambodia) is also delicious, so much so that that same soup is known as “Phnom Penh Noodles” throughout Vietnam. And don’t even get me started on all the street food available like stir-fried noodles with beef or grilled pork and rice, all for around USD 1.
3. Clean, uncrowded beaches. The southwest of Cambodia is bordered by the sea, from Koh Kong (the gateway to Thailand) to Kep, just across the border from Vietnam. When I was living in Phnom Penh, I’d often hop on the bus for the 4.5 hour drive down to Sihanoukville (aka Kampong Som) for a long weekend of relaxation. The nearby beaches of Otres and Ream have become popular in recent years where you’re more than likely to share the pretty beaches with just a few other people. The islands just off the coast are also being developed with accommodations ranging from barely-there huts to ultra luxurious all-inclusives. Just pick a sun lounger and have the USD 1 fruit shakes coming all day. Mobile vendors will come by with offers of freshly peeled pineapples and other tropical fruits or grilled squid with chili dipping sauce. In the evenings, restaurants set up tables right on the beach with a bountiful meal of grilled seafood setting you back a mere USD 5. Throw in USD 1 beers and you’ve got a party.
4. Angkor Wat. Enough said. At more than 1.6 MILLION sqm, the Angkor site is the largest religious complex in the world. Initially planned and built in the early 12th century, the temples are simply jaw-dropping in size, quantity and beauty. Numerous organizations have helped to restore the site, meaning that many of the temples are in excellent condition. While it’s easy to get “templed out”, a good guide can help you see the temples most interesting to you and plan a custom order of visiting the temples with a view to staying one step ahead of the crowds. Angkor is located just outside of the town of Siem Reap which has gorgeous boutiques, chic cafes and really good eats.
5. Make like a tree… and leaf (for the forests)! While Cambodia is experiencing pressure on its natural resources like many developing nations, almost 50% of the country remains forested. One of my favorite nature getaways is Kirirom National Park, just a few hours’ drive from Phnom Penh. Hills, pine forests, waterfalls and streams are part of this 80,000 acres of forested land. Venture deeper and you might even come across some of the park’s fauna, including gibbons, sun bears and tigers! Mostly, though, we were happy to get our feet wet in the streams and play board games all day with intermittent hammock breaks!
6. Up-and-coming Phnom Penh. While you won’t find as many high rises as in Saigon or Bangkok, the allure of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is its diversity and ease of getting around. Head over to the riverside for a pretty boardwalk with a plethora of reasonably-priced restaurants. There’s also the Palace and Silver Pagoda to visit as well as the beautiful Fine Arts Museum, all within walking distance of the riverside. If shopping if your thing, the Central Market and my favorite, the so-called Russian Market, are excellent for picking up handcrafted souvenirs at bargain prices. And if you’re weary from all that walking, there are lots of well-appointed spas offering 1-hour foot massages for around USD 10!
7. Cambodia can be a good travel hub. I traveled extensively while I was living in Phnom Penh. You could easily book buses or taxis to all parts of the country and beyond. The temples of Angkor as well as the Vietnamese metropolis of Saigon are just a 6-hour bus ride away. Budget airlines fly the hour or so to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (sometimes for less than USD 100 round-trip, taxes included!). Cambodian visas are easy (and cheap) to get, either on arrival or arranged in advance online.
8. Stretches of beautiful countryside. Cambodia has one of the lowest population densities in Southeast Asia, at 85 people per square kilometer, compared to 132 for Thailand, 282 for Vietnam and almost 8,000 (yikes!) for Singapore. That means you’ll see vast stretches of forests, mountains and rice paddies as you travel the country. The scenery outside my window, ranging from rice paddies in every shade of green to densely forested hills made road travel enjoyable, where the journey was at times as exciting as the destination!
I was privileged to spend 10 years exploring beautiful and diverse Cambodia – from the historic temples of Angkor to the pristine beaches of the south to the small towns all along the Mekong. For those with slightly less time to explore, thankfully there are now loads of sightseeing Cambodia tours which takes most of the work out of exploring the length and breadth of this “Kingdom of Wonder”! Happy travels!
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored, however, all experiences and opinions are my own.