We were paddling down the Mekong in Eastern Cambodia, over 250 kilometers from the nearest major city. The water on which we rode had originated in China’s Tibetan Plateau, and would eventually empty into the ocean below Vietnam after meandering through six countries. With the exception of a few fisherman and small stilted house villages, there wasn’t much out here. The air was quiet save for the sounds of dolphins surfacing for breath around the kayaks. This was the Southeast Asia we had been expecting.
Cambodia is one of those increasingly rare places where travel still feels real. Somewhere you can make your own path, and get away from the manufactured experiences which have become so prevalent nowadays. What a joy to explore the seldom seen and meet so many locals genuinely excited to see foreigners. And now is the perfect time to visit. The tourism industry is growing rapidly and still centered around three main cities, but friendly welcoming guesthouses have begun to pop up in many smaller towns. The rise in popularity has made overland transport widely available, allowing the more adventurous traveler to get further afield. The country is changing, making now the best time to visit before some of the most meaningful experiences disappear for good.
The famous temples of Angkor, while amazing, barely scratch the surface of what the country has to offer. While a trip could be based around temples, it should also include remote floating villages, Buddhist culture and rural country. We value off track travel and found plenty of non-touristy things to do in Cambodia beyond temples.
1.) The People Are Incredible
Cambodia has been through a lot of difficult times, but the people are without a doubt among the most friendly and welcoming anywhere in the world. It is common for children to yell hello as you pass, parents offer a genuine wave and smile, locals to offer assistance and anyone to try out their English skills on a passing visitor. And unlike so many other places, there was never a hidden angle or expectation. The welcome increased the further we got from the main tourist route.
2.) You Can Still See Intact Culture and Rural Life
It is still possible to get off the beaten path and see rapidly developing rural Southeast Asia, but this opportunity won’t be around forever. The helpfulness of strangers and feeling of safety lets travelers get into areas which might not be visited in other countries. These are where you can see ancient ways of life in farming or fishing communities which aren’t structured as part of a tour. Some of the most rewarding places to visit are easily reachable from nearby towns. We spent a significant portion of our trip visiting rural areas, which were some of our favorite places to see in Cambodia. Our top picks to visit are Koh Pen near Kampong Cham, Koh Trong next to Kratie (also known as Kracheh), the areas surrounding Kompong Chhnang, and the floating villages of Kompong Khleang outside of Siem Reap.
3.) Cambodia is An Affordable Place to Travel
Travel in Cambodia is still very affordable, but prices are creeping up. During our recent visit to the Kingdom, we averaged just under $80 a day as a couple. We stayed almost exclusively in comfortable mid range hotels and guesthouses, and didn’t skimp on the food. Over 25% of our cost came from optional entertainment such as performances and excursions. Our 25 day visit to 8 different areas cost under $1,000 per person.
4.) The Food Is Unique
With flavors reminiscent of Thailand, preparations influenced by China, hints of French and plenty of fresh fruit, you can’t go wrong with Cambodian cuisine. It is not as well known as it’s that from the neighboring countries, but has a unique and vibrant style that every traveler needs to try. It’s also surprisingly vegetarian friendly.
5.) Opportunities to Give Back
We often complain about the damage that unsustainable tourism does to culture, but there are some ways that tourist money can promote positive change. Travel in Cambodia is fun but also offers many ways to enjoy your time while helping out disadvantaged populations. Community Based Eco-Tourism initiatives, NGO sponsored shops and restaurants, and wildlife conservation activities abound for travelers with a wide range of interests. Some of our favorites made our trip to the country memorable and rewarding:
Phare Circus: A Cirque de Soleil type performance located in Siem Reap and Battambang. The organization “seeks to provide education, access to the arts, vocational training, and professional pathways to the children and young adults” in the community. The Circus is staged by former at risk youth who have been taught skills in arts and entertainment.
Irrawaddy Dolphin Tourism: The Mekong River is home to a rare species of freshwater dolphin. Poor fishing practices along the river have led to the near extinction of this species, with just around 90 animals remaining in the world. There are dolphin viewing tours offered from the town of Kratie, and the more adventurous traveler can take a half day kayaking trip to see them up close. The revenue going to local communities from this tourism has provided a motivation to help preserve the habitat, and the population is just starting to see some growth in this area.
Kompong Khleang: Many parts of Cambodia are severely affected by seasonal flooding during the rainy months, and homes in these areas need to be built on buoys or stilts. This floating village offers community run tours which give travelers an easily accessible way to see one of these famous communities without going to the more commercialized ones closer to Siem Reap. All profits go to help the village school fund supplies and build teaching programs.
6.) It’s Still Possible to Get Away From the Angkor Wat Crowds
Even with so many people visiting the complex, we still found it possible to get away from the crowds. The pictures below are from some of the most visited temples including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Phnom Bakheng and Ta Prohm. With an early start without a tour group, you can beat the crowds and buses for less crowded showing at dawn.
The complexes cover a huge area, and there are still many hidden places and temples where you may be mostly alone, even after the tour groups arrive. Tuk-tuk or bus tours are generally structured by traveling either the “small loop” through the main temples, or the “big loop” to see several which are further afield. The big outer loop is significantly less visited but still amazing. The pictures below are from uncrowded parts of the main temples and those on the big loop.
Bonus: You Will Get Developing World Travel Stories
The bumpy road was causing the unexpectedly western style toilet to slosh water on the floor and walls. Not just from the bowl, but also the tank, which was full to the brim and conveniently missing the cover. Inexplicably for a bus toilet, the tank water constantly flowed, maintaining a max level despite significant spillover. The bowl was void a lid, and someone had borrowed or misplaced seat, leaving not the slightest barrier to deter the sloshing. Standing in front of the commode blended two relatively unpleasant activities: a toilet water leg shower and a bad head massage on the Asian height metal ceiling. This loo was clearly for emergencies only, but after coffee and seven hours on a five hour bus trip, it was an emergency.
Do you want to have stories like this too? You need to travel to Cambodia!
One Month Route in Cambodia
The following route passes some of the best and most diverse areas of Cambodia, blending big city and small towns for a wide range of life in the country. This includes temples, beaches, rural villages and Mekong river dolphins. All of these destinations are connected by widely available direct bus / minivan transfers (some of which may even provide a good story). We skipped Sihanoukville, but added it to this list as it is a popular destination for travelers.
Siem Reap: A great intro to Cambodia with famous temples, food, culture and a vibrant feel. 3-5 days.
Battambang: A less touristed and relaxed town with colonial influences and nice cafes. 2-3 days.
Kampong Chhnang: Small non-touristy town surrounded by traditional rural life with the most friendly people in Cambodia, but with limited guesthouse and restaurant options. 1-2 days.
Sihanoukville: Cambodia’s main beach destination. This area could be skipped for those more interested in local culture or traded for the less touristy Koh Kong. 3-4 days.
Kampot: A very enjoyable and relaxed river town with significant colonial influences, many things to do and plenty of food and accommodation options. 3-4 days.
Kep: A small and cute seaside town famous for seafood, but not high on most tourists itinerary. 1 day.
Phnom Penh: The capital and biggest city in the country. Religious and culturally centered with the must see killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Many high end restaurants and hotels make this a place with the option of a more luxurious stay. 2-3 days.
Kampong Cham: A small sleepy town with few tourists and easy access to the extremely traditional rural river island of Koh Pen. 1 day.
Kratie/Kracheh: A very remote and relaxing river town and the best place to view the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin. 2 days.
There it is, a wonderful one month itinerary in Cambodia, one of our favorite countries in Southeast Asia!
If you have questions about our transportation logistics through the country, feel free to contact us. You can read detailed information on our border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia at PoiPet here.
You can read other posts from our visit to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see our pictures from all around the world. Also check out other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, Great Ocean Road trip and South African safari. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Do you have an interest in long term travel? 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.