Most of my friends knew my fancy for travel and have seen some of my travel escapades on photos. Knowing I’ve been to Cambodia few times, some of them will ask me what to do there. Thinking about the weekends I spent there, I thought of what I think should be included in the to-do list of anyone who feels like traveling to this place.
Here are 12 things to do:
1. Delight your taste buds.
I was born and raised in a country with rice as a staple food; rice for lunch and dinner… and sometimes even for breakfast. When I started traveling and lived overseas, I learn to appreciate sandwiches and noodles or basically meals without rice. But a visit to Cambodia definitely woke up my appreciation of rice.
Their rice is just so good that I could eat 2-3 cups of it with a selection of their tasteful local dishes .As most of my trips (actually all my trips there) were mainly for volunteer work, I had the privilege to be hosted and toured around by local volunteers… so we got mostly the good stuff.
And if you wish to be daring, you can try some exotic food too… say crickets and spiders?
A trip to Cambodia is definitely a gastronomic adventure that will surprisingly not put too much dent on your pocket.
2. Watch an Aspara dance/ Khmer dance.
Some restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh would have specific days for performance. I was lucky to be in the restaurant on those days. Even some parts of the night market features some dance to entertain those who go for foot massage in open air.
My recommendation: check the performances at Temple Restaurant at Pub Street, Siem Reap. The performances there are quite elaborate and they even explain what each dance is about. Each dance symbolizes or depicts some of our daily life activities with colourful costumes too.
You can also check one of the restaurants along the riverside in Phnom Penh; during my visit we went to a restaurant under NCCLA (New Cambodian Children’s Life Association). They featured some of their beneficiaries, kids from the orphanage, performing a traditional dance; they make sure the kids go back to the orphanage before 8pm so no late night performances too.
3. Watch the sun rise in Angkor Wat
For a night- person like me, waking up at 4:30am to reach Angkor Wat at 5 is just a dreadful thought… hold your breath if I could make it on time. :O
But sometimes the photographer in me tells me it is one of those magical times to catch… and so I gave in and went to join other tourists in the most ungodly time… I don’t think the gods were even awake already at that time!!!
As predicted, I was kinda late and reached Angkor Wat at 530ish… It wasn’t that late but I was welcomed by a huge crowd. I have to squeeze in myself through the crowd to find a good spot for a good sunrise photo. It was like a big concert and everyone were gathered waiting for the big star (or in this case the big Sun *grin*) to come out.
Well, what can I say: it was worth waking up very early… but I regret that I didn’t leave the hotel earlier. When you visit Cambodia, don’t miss watching the sun rise at the great Angkor Wat. Ignore the huge tourist crowd, find a good spot to sit and enjoy nature at its best.
4. Tour Angkor Wat and other temples around the country
After watching the sun rise… continue your tour around the complex. Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples in the huge archaeological complex; the photos you see in post cards are just a small part of it.
The entrance has an option for a day pass (at US$25, in 2011) or 3-day pass (at US$50). I know people who really enjoy visiting the temples but I am the type who just goes around, know the big picture or story about the place and I’m good. So I opted for a day- pass and just visited the main temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom and the temples along the way. I rarely go for guided tours and in this visit, I chose to explore the place by myself too; I made an arrangement with my tuktuk driver to just drop me at certain spots then he will just pick me up at the same spot after a specified time. It worked well for me. But it will be good that you do your homework and read about the history of the temples to appreciate them.
Tip for a tourist on a very tight budget: Sometimes you get lucky to stare at a specific wall in the temple or just have a leisurely walk when a guided group tour passes by or look at the same spot you are looking at… open your ears wide and listen to the small facts that the guide will share. Just don’t stand too close to the group. It will be awkward when they realize they have a new company. 😉
5. Visit some historic sites and landmarks.
Do it the tourist way meaning visit some landmarks in the area you’re visiting. See how the royalties live, visit the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These are depressing sites but they will make you understand the hardships that these people went through. Knowing their history made me understand some behaviour patterns I observed during my volunteer work.
Just make sure to be on proper attire; no shorts or sleeveless allowed in certain places. It may sound ridiculous especially during summertime but think of respect. Respect for the place and the people there.
6. Explore the country on a motorbike.
Even before Mr. T and I became the best travel buddies, I have discovered the joys of exploring a place on a motorbike; though with my travel buddy driving, it is a bit different, needless to say, special.
Being an incompetent bike rider, I have to hire a motorbike with the driver. Is it safe? Well, not very but then you won’t be racing anyway; it was more of a leisure drive. I was lucky to meet a motorbike driver who didn’t cheat me or brought me to some tourist trap. He was quite a good guy who takes pride of the beauty of his country.
When I think about my motorbike tour in Cambodia, passing through a herd of cowsdefinitely tops the memories… it was just an unexpected adventure.
7. Cruise along the great lake of Tonle Sap
Go rent a boat and cruise along the great lake of Tonle Sap… you can opt to go there during sunset but take the risk of going through dark roads on the way back. I did it solo and thinking back… it would be prudent to do it with a group.
You could even have lunch in one of the floating restaurants there… If you happen to get seasick easily like me, just make sure the weather is in your favor,
Warning: Be careful with the scams. Negotiate the price before you take the boat. I got a motorized flat boat all for myself for US$10. If your motorbike/ tuktuk driver is trust-worthy, let him do the negotiation.
8. Visit a floating village.
Going to the Tonle Sap Lake, you will pass by Kampong Phluk, a floating village. Houses built 30m high from the ground and mostly with stilts are the scenery that welcomed me as I cruised the river.
It is great way to see the way of life in the area. During my visit, I saw people working on their fish nets and kids having the river as their playground. I appreciate the simplicity of their lives in the village and at the same time, it made me appreciate the kind of life I have too.
9. Shop… shop… shop.
I’d say Cambodia can be considered as a shopper’s paradise. They may not be the place to go for signature clothes or work clothes either but for casual and light clothes, it is the place to go.
Not just clothes, there are other stuff you can buy there too like accessories, bags, slippers and some wooden decors. The Cambodian local artists are quite good with their crafts too; just visit their markets and you will see one stretch with all the paintings depicting Khmer life.
In Siem Reap, the old market is open daily and has lots of clothes to offer. They have a night market as well. My best buy is a sundress for just US$5; oh and I got 3 wrap around cotton skirt for just US$12 (that makes US$4 each).
When in Phnom Penh, don’t miss the Russian Market there.
Tip: Don’t take a lot of clothes during your trip, you could buy nice, cheap clothes there. And make sure you have some space in your luggage to fill when you go back. Otherwise, just get a new luggage too.
10. Get a good massage.
Go to a reputable massage place. I always get my massage from Biaggini Tradition Khmer Massage and Spa in Phom Penh as it is always my last stop when visiting the country. It is not a fancy massage place to go to but it is reasonable enough and the price is affordable. I got a good 60- minute full-body massage for around US$15- 20. After the massage, enjoy a good drink at a nearby al-fresco bar; it’s almost across (diagonally) the massage place.
Tip: Don’t trust the massage offered in hotels, they are not as good. And if you are like me who doesn’t like to have 20 minute massage on the legs, tell the masseuse beforehand and make sure she understands you. There is nothing more frustrating than hoping for a good shoulder and body massage and end up getting 20 minutes of foot massage… despite saying what you want several times and gesturing them as well. It happened to me in Siem Reap.
11. Learn to cook.
I love Khmer cuisine. I think there was no dish offered to me that I didn’t like or said no to… Euh except the spiders!
It is a completely different experience to learn how to cook the food you like. To me it was an empowering experience; hey, I don’t need to go all the way to Cambodia if I am craving for Amok Fish!
My Khmer cooking lesson was more of an accident. I was having dinner at the Temple Restaurant and enjoying the Aspara Dance when a poster on the wall caught my attention. The following morning, I was in the same venue but not for another meal; I signed up for the cooking class. Our class was a mixed of tourists and foreign volunteers. It was a small group of 8. We learned how to make 1 starter (choice of fresh or fried spring rolls or mango salad), a main dish (choice of Khmer Amok, Khmer Curry or Cambodian Soup) and dessert (choice of banana, pumpkin or green bean). I chose to make the fresh spring rolls, Amok fish (my favourite Khmer dish) and a hot banana dessert (well, there’s no cold dessert option and they were soupy desserts too).
The class also included a short market tour where the guide will explain to you about the ingredients you need and its availability in the market. The market tour is an experience on its own as well.
12. Do volunteer work
The main reason why I’ve gone to this country often is because of volunteer work. I’ve been to places in my country because of volunteer work too.
Traveling is fun and fulfilling. But doing volunteer work makes it more meaningful. It is one way to truly immerse oneself with the community. You get to know the people on a more personal level, you get to experience a part of their daily routine; more importantly, you are able to impart some knowledge and skills to them as well.
To me traveling for a cause means making the world a little better one trip at a time. During my trips here, I met local and foreign volunteers and they all say that volunteering made a great impact to their lives and the experience made them better individuals… I share the same sentiment.
So what are you waiting for… pack your bags for a great Khmer adventure.