The first stop on our Indochina Discovery trip was Cambodia. I had heard so many wonderful things about Cambodia; stories of how people fell in love with the country at first sight. How it was by far the best place they have ever visited and long to return. To relocate there even.
We only had just over a week to explore Cambodia, but that didn’t put a stop to us having some wonderful moments and experiences there. I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite moments from the trip – the bits you definitely don’t want to miss out on if you’re visiting Cambodia anytime soon!
This goes without saying – Angkor Wat cannot be missed if you’re travelling through Cambodia. Even if you have a worst case of ‘temple exhaustion’ South-East Asia has ever seen, you have to see Angkor Wat. Be aware that it will not be a private experience; you will be gathered with hordes of other tourists watching sunrise and you will have to wait patiently in line to enter a temple – or even see the famous Tomb Raider tree at Ta Prohm – but hey, go with it. You’re able to touch stone engravings that have been standing for hundreds of years, climb up the same stones steps that ancestors of the Khmer Empire did and see nature take over one of the greatest manmade structures with such elegance and grace it’s almost like it was designed to be so intrinsically intertwined. If you’re planning a visit to Angkor Wat, I’ve written a blog post specifically on how to the get the most out of your visit here.
Quad biking in Siem Reap
This was a blast! If you’ve never been quad biking, don’t worry neither had I and I had loads of fun! We went with Cambodian Quad Bike tours in Siem Reap and it was definitely a wonderful way to get out into the countryside and see some rural parts of Siem Reap. We had a four-hour tour through villages and rice paddy fields, timed perfectly for some great sunset photos too. It was about $35 but varies depending on the length of the tour and how many were in the group. The staff were so lovely when they were teaching us how to drive the quads and also when we stopped they were brilliant at taking photos for the group – well worth the money!
Dinner at the Planeterra Project, New Hope Cambodia Vocational Training Restaurant
G Adventures supports Planterra Projects across the world that help improve local people’s lives. One of the newest project, started in 2011, is the New Hope Cambodia Outreach Centre in Siem Reap. It’s a community centre nestled in a small village on the outskirts of the town that provides free education, training and counselling to young people in the surrounding area.
In addition to traditional subjects like english, maths and health, New Hope Cambodia Outreach Centre incorporates vocational training in food preparation, cooking, accounting, restaurant management, hospitality, tour guiding, computer science, sewing, massage, and beauty therapy into their curriculum.
The Outreach Centre provides access to social workers, counsellors, and family advisors to the community, and has drastically reduced the rate of domestic violence in the community since the program’s inception. The proceeds from the restaurant go back to the community to support the free school and health care system that the New Hope Project manages.
Not only was this one of the best dinners we had in Cambodia, but everyone was so warm and welcoming. We chatted to Fila, who ran the restaurant with her family and watch as they showed us how to cook the traditional Cambodian meal amok – creamy coconut curry steamed in a in a banana leaf. Incredible!
The Killing Fields and S21 Prison, Phnom Penh
This was probably one of the most upsetting days in Cambodia. And I don’t think anyone made it through the day without shedding a tear. It is a horrific experience but it deserves to be seen.
During the years of 1975-1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975), the Pol Pot’s regime and the Khmer Rouge party brutally killed and buried over a million people. It is widely regarded as a state-sponsored genocide of Cambodian people, in Cambodia.
In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was converted by Pol Pot’s army forces into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon turned into the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia. Today, you can visit S-21 (also known as the Tuol Sleng Museum), which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. I would recommend hiring a guide for the museum tour – while there is audio tours available, having a local guide meant we told some wonderful stories of human perseverance and survival as well as the horrors.
The Killing Fields is the name given to a number of sites in Cambodia where over a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Today, the best known monument of the Killing Fields is at the village of Choeung Ek and within the first three years of the Pol Pot’s regime, more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken here to be murdered.
It is the home of a beautiful but chilling Buddhist memorial to the victims – its tiny interior holds the skulls of the victims found at Choeung Ek, each marked with the kind of injury they sustained that caused their death. The memorial park at Choeung Ek has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims, most of whom were executed after they had been transported from the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh.
The most chilling part of the tour was being able to see bones and clothing surface through the earth as tourists walk around the park. There is an elevated walkway currently being built which will help stop the disturbance of these shallow graves, but there are constant reminders of just how recently these hideous events happened. A powerful and eye-opening experience.
Snorkelling and beach BBQ in Sihanoukville
Our final days in Cambodia were spent in the beach resort town of Sihanoukville. Far from any Costa Del Sol, the beach strip is lined with bars and restaurants that offer up sun loungers and umbrellas during the day, and shore front dinner tables at night.
We spent Christmas eve heading out on a traditional Cambodian boat (through some pretty rough waves!) to a secluded cove for some snorkelling. Thankfully the water in the cove was much calmer and we were able to spot some beautiful fish, coral and even some dangerous looking sea urchins.
After lunch we headed to a nearby private island for a beach BBQ and some sun-worshiping on the shore. The water was pristine and the sand was dotted with delicate shells and mother of pearl that had been washed ashore.
The price for the whole day was $20, and that included two drop off points for snorkelling, a feast of BBQ fish and meat on the private island, and all the alcohol a band of merry sailors could manage! You can organise these kind of trips with the majority of the bars and restaurants along the beach strip, or with the travel agents.
I feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface when it came to discovering and understanding Cambodia.
The country is so deeply drenched in rich culture, and its turbulent past hasn’t had the exposure and understanding that it deserves. The country deserves respect for surviving through some extremely unsettled and tumultuous decades. At every turn, Cambodia and its people want to share their history, they want you to know how strong and steadfast the nation has become despite its past. And that was truly awe-inspiring to see.
Have you been to Cambodia? What were your favourite moments from your travels? Please leave us a comment below or tweet me @nikkicanning!