Imagine what you would think if a group of people, sharing no common culture, language or appearance, showed up in your neighborhood and started pointing at your house and photographing your children. Maybe they are arriving at your home in London, Melbourne, or Dallas and this is a bus full of Chinese, Iranians … or Cambodians. How would you react? How would they be greeted by the residents? It sounds weird when you think about it, but many of us do exactly that when we travel. The truth is that most people greet us with open arms and a genuine smile, and hopefully we would offer that same welcome if roles were reversed. There are few countries where this level of warmth and hospitality is more apparent than in Cambodia.
Between the Kingdom’s tumultuous history with Thailand and Vietnam, lengthy French occupation, tens of thousands of deaths and destruction during the United State’s secret war in Cambodia, which then set the stage for the Khmer Rouge regime takeover, this may be the last place you would expect a friendly welcome. Despite all odds, we (painfully obvious foreigners speaking essentially no Khmer) always got the biggest waves and friendliest smiles.
You probably already have the top things to do in Cambodia on your travel list. Angkor Wat, boat cruise from on the Tonlé Sap Lake, floating villages by Siem Reap, beaches in Sihanoukville, all check. These are the most famous and touristed things to do in Cambodia. While these shouldn’t all be avoided (skipping Angkor Wat would be like visiting India and missing the Taj), there are other lesser known experiences to add to your trip. But with Cambodia still having millions of active landmines left in the jungles from past wars, getting way off the beaten path may not be advisable. The following is a list of our six favorite things to do in Cambodia to avoid the crowds without straying too far off the beaten path.
Homestay – Koh Trong Island
Throughout the country, Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) initiatives have taken shape, creating ways for local economies to grow using economically and environmentally sustainable methods. This has opened the option to stay with local families and experience a different way of life. We participated in one of these authentic homestays on Ko Trong, which is a Mekong River island adjacent to Kratie. Most people visit Kratie for a chance to see the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin along the banks of the river. The population of this rare freshwater dolphin has dwindled to around 90, down from around 3,000 just 50 years ago, with 20-25 living in this area. This relatively new source of tourism revenue has incentivized the local community to help save this mammal, and the population is now slowly rising again.
A great day in the Kratie area includes a half day kayaking trip with Sorya Kayaking Adventures through the Flooded Forest to see the Irrawaddy dolphins firsthand. Afterwards, you take the ferry to the rural Ko Trong Island and stay with a local family for a night. There are two CBET sanctioned homestays, known as Homestay I and II. We arranged the only private room in Homestay I for the night, and had a true Cambodian experience, including a power outage and home cooked Khmer dinner by candlelight. The family’s English speaking daughter spent time explaining life on the island and teaching us a few Khmer words. There is a 9 km path around the island which is best explored on bike the following morning when temperatures are cool. You will find locals selling grilled banana sticky rice, but watch out for adorable toddlers racing towards your bike wanting a high five.
Location: Koh Trong is a river island off of Kratie. There is a ferry that runs throughout the day (until 17:00) for $0.25 one way. Bikes are available for rent for $2 from the CBET office above the ferry port. Homestay I is located at the northeast part of the island with well marked signage. Homestay II is just south of the ferry port. Most locals can point you in the right direction.
Cost: We paid $10 for the fan cooled private room with a double bed. There are also floor pad beds in the common area which should cost around $3. The home has running water with western style toilets and a cold shower (which you will want without A/C). Home cooked dinner is $4 per person. The homestays can be arranged through the CBET center above the ferry port on the island or at CRD Tours next to Le Tonlé Tourism Training Center / Guesthouse on the mainland.
Floating Villages – Kompong Khleang
These are not the over touristy villages closest to Siem Reap. There are no fake donation boxes, begging children or snake shows. All you will encounter are curious looks and dozens of enthusiastic waving children, proud to show off their “hello”. We were with only one other couple on the trip and saw no more than two other foreigners in the whole village. The tour is sponsored by Community First, a non-profit community run organization, with proceeds funding the Bridge of Life village elementary school. The cost breakdown and average profit is available for review on the website.
The first stop is for delicious traditional sticky rice grilled in bamboo and local donuts from a rural street side vendor. The trip then continues to the village (accessible only by boat in rainy season and van in dry season) where you will see hundreds of homes on stilts which protect them from huge fluctuation in water levels throughout the year. People farm, harvest and fish using mostly traditional methods. Adorable children run and play everywhere, knowing no other way of life. The local guide starts with information and a tour of the very small school building, before you set off on a boat trip down river towards the Tonlé Sap Lake. The lake houses a Vietnamese floating village, which is occupied by generations of displaced families who cannot own land. This village actually moves locations depending on water levels. From here, you will have a perfectly serene sunset on the boat before heading back to town.
Location: Kompong Khleang is located an hour outside of Siem Reap, and the tour includes transfer from your hotel, making it a great add on to your Angkor Wat visit.
Cost: $35 if you join a small group tour, or $210 for a private tour with up to four guests.
Bike Over the Bamboo Bridge and Around Rural Koh Pen Island – Kompong Cham
Kompong Cham is a small city located less than two hours north of Phnom Penh along the Mekong River. While the city itself isn’t much, it does have a really cool bamboo bridge connecting it to the river island of Koh Pen. This bridge is only in place in dry season before being washed away in rainy season and then rebuilt by hand each year. Koh Pen is truly rural and traditional with seemingly no influence from anywhere outside of Cambodia. We rented bicycles and rode around the island, seeing absolutely no tourists at all. There is now also a permanent bridge shortly downriver for anyone visiting outside of dry season.
The village is full of waving children and smiling locals. If you get any strange looks, simply smile and wave which will make any resident cheerful. Numerous fruits grow in this rich soil and are sold along the roadside. We bought a 2 kilo pomelo for $1.25 from a local resident. Despite having not a word of common language, they were overjoyed by their unlikely customers.
Location: Koh Pen is just across the river from Kompong Cham. The bridge runs from the west bank of the Mekong River to the north end of Koh Pen Island.
Cost: $0.50 to cross the bamboo bridge on foot, or $1 with a bike.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields – Phnom Penh
The Genocide and Killing Field Museums in the capital city are dedicated to the millions of Cambodians who lost their lives between 1975-1979 during the rule of the fanatical Khmer Rouge. During their short time in power, the regime confiscated all personal possessions, forcibly expelled residents from their homes, and relocated them to rural labor camps. Ultimately 1 in 5 people were brutally murdered in an act of self-inflicted genocide. This conflict placed several million landmines, many of which still remain today. Effects are apparent by the many amputees throughout the country.
Choeung Ek is just one of hundreds of killing fields located in Cambodia where prisoners were brought for execution. Bullets were considered too expensive so these murders were carried out with farming tools. Clothes and bones still rise to the surface of the mass graves which can been seen as you walk around the area. These are somber, highly disturbing places which will put your own life and difficulties into perspective. It is hard to believe that most people you encounter, over 39 years, lived through this time. A visit is important to understand the recent history of the country.
There will be tourists here, but no touts or souvenirs and supporting these museums helps bring awareness to these atrocities. There are very explanatory audio tours available with personal stories from survivors.
Location: The museum is located in the center and fields are located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Cost: Choeung Ek Killing Fields – $6, includes audio tour. Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – $5 without or $8 with audio tour.
Sunrise at the Salt Fields – Kampot
The town of Kampot is located riverside near the Gulf of Thailand. It is famous for sea salt which is harvested several kilometers outside of town. The fields are flooded with sea water and then left to evaporate, leaving the salt to be collected. The surrounding area is rural, and a stark contrast from the tourist section of nearby Kampot. We rented bicycles and set out early one morning to view the salt fields at sunrise. We saw no tourists, or really anyone other than salt workers. There were amazing reflections on the still waters and perfectly tranquil surroundings.
Like most everywhere in Cambodia, curious workers offered huge smiles and waves as we wandered around their lands uninvited. While we feel that a bike is the best way to visit the salt fields, they could also be reached on scooter or foot for anyone looking for a long (and steamy) run. Don’t pay a guide or join a tour for this, as it is easily accessible and can be done solo. You can stop by the small information center near the main road if you want more info.
Location: The salt fields are to the east of Kampot, around five kilometers from town. They are searchable as Salt Fields Kampot on Google Maps. There are additional fields on the large island in the river, although the trip is somewhat less scenic.
Bokor National Park Hiking – Kep
If you are like us, only touring sites and museums will make you stir crazy. We look for ways to find time for nature and outdoor activities, and Bokor National Park is a great place to get in some safe hiking in Cambodia. The park is in Kep, a small seaside town in the east part of the country which is best known for fresh crab. The popularity has caused overfishing which is decimating the crab population and surrounding reef. We personally wouldn’t eat any, but there are also many other more sustainable options. While we wouldn’t come to Kep purely for hiking (or crab), it is a great add on if you plan to visit for fresh seafood or are going to nearby Kampot.
Bokor has a relatively well developed trail system snaking through the mountains. There are several destination points of interest, including a sunset viewpoint, a temple and a large Buddha overlooking town. One main easy dirt trail wraps through the park for easy walking, but more strenuous trails cut off to climb into the mountains. We had some difficulty finding the sunset rock viewpoint using our Maps.me app, which showed only one trail despite the many paths, so grabbing a paper map and following the nice signs is the best option. There is a small cafe just inside the entrance, Led Zeppelin, which is mostly responsible for the movement to mark and clean up the park. They can provide maps and information and it makes for a relaxing place for a cold drink after a sweaty hike.
If your timing is right, the park has dozens of trees flush with tiny mangos. We encountered several locals harvesting fruit along the paths. Coming across a machete wielding man while deep in the woods may normally be a little unsettling, but this is Cambodia after all. We were offered our pick of mangos from their bucket as we hiked past.
Location: Entrance is located below the mountains just up the street from the Crab Market in Kep.
Cost: $1 entry fee to the park when the gate is manned.
What were your favorite things to do in Cambodia? Let us know, we always appreciate a little inspiration!
You read detailed information on our border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia at PoiPet.
You can read other posts from our visit to Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Check out other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, camper van-cation around Tasmania and misadventures in India. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Do you need long term travel in your future? Check out our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others. And as always, feel free to Contact Us if you have any questions about our trips, we would love to hear from you!