I looked forward to experiencing Cambodia the most out of any country in South-East Asia.
Unlike the streets and beaches filled with backpackers in Thailand, I was excited to experience some areas untouched by tourism and learn about the country’s turbulent history. From the striking temples and untouched beaches to the friendly local people trading rice as their main currency, I would go back today in a heartbeat.
1. Watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat
OK, so this is the one and only time I think I will ever be motivated enough to wake up at 4am and trek through the pitch black darkness! With absolutely no light to help guide us, the tour group joined the crowds at the Angkor Wat temple grounds and clumsily felt our way towards the main building. Something about being sat on plastic chairs, surrounded by people of all cultures and languages, eagerly awaiting the rise of the sun was exhilarating.
As the sky above us gradually started filling with light and colour, the biggest religious building ever to be discovered on the planet slowly came into view. So. Cool.
Now we were slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a ‘Lion King’ inspired yellow spherical sun appearing in the sky (it would definitely have made a better Instagram photo) but I cannot begin to describe the feeling of awe and excitement as we begged for more light so we could go and explore!
Built in the early 12th century, the structure was completed from bottom to top and then intricate carvings and decorations were completed from top to bottom! The carvings still remain unfinished to this day around the base of the building and it’s crazy to think that people used to climb the hundreds of steep stairs along its sides.
A number of monkeys have clued in to the tourist hot spot and will definitely steal your breakfast (and pose for plenty of photos) and you can witness young monks visiting the temple in their robes brighter than the sunrise.
Serene and surreal.
2. Channel your inner Lara Croft at Ta Prohm Temple
Easy to visit in the same day as Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm is worth every second battling through the exhaustive heat and crowds. It was such a fascinating place as if I’d stepped onto another planet, climbing over rubble and ducking under vines. The buildings have slowly been strangled by nature, with trees splitting rocks in two and roots as wide as oak trunks wrapping around old carvings. Nature has so easily turned what once was a beautiful temple to absolute ruins. I can see why it was used as a location for the movie Tomb Raider – Who needs elaborate fantasy movie sets when you can come to Cambodia?!
3. Count the faces at the Bayan Temples
My friends and I tried to count how many faces are hidden and incorporated amongst the buildings and it is near-impossible! I don’t know much about architecture but I can definitely appreciate the genius behind the construction of each face by building blocks, differing in size, shape and style and hidden so perfectly throughout the location. This might have actually been my favourite Siem Reap temple!
*Note: Tourists can ride elephants here, but please reconsider – There are places you can go to see them well looked after and in their natural habitats.
4. Meet the Phare Circus Performers in Siem Reap
The aim of the Phare Circus is “to break the power of poverty by the brightness of the arts”. If you have some time to spare one evening to experience the breathtaking talent of Siem Reap’s jugglers, acrobats and live musicians, I would definitely recommend it! The funny and meaningful story is subtitled in English on a screen next to the stage and is performed by young adults who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Follow their Instagram.
5. Witness the ‘How much can we fit on a motorcycle’ Challenge
After enjoying the street party night-life of Siem Reap, we drove 7 hours across turbulent farmland to Phnom Penh. During this road trip, I couldn’t believe the amount of luggage/merchandise/animals/materials/people that can fit on the smallest mopeds and carts –
My favourite sight was whenever I caught a glimpse of a worker even sleeping on the gigantic loaded pile!
6. Get educated at the Killing Fields Museum and S-21 Interrogation Centre, Phnom Phenm
Not for the faint hearted but so important to visit in order to understand the horrifying (and very recent) history of Cambodia; a country that has only known peace since 1994.
Over one million people were killed and buried at the Killing Fields during the Khmer Rouge regime, 1975-1979. You are warned to try and avoid walking on any bone fragments that may be visible in the ground and the size of the mass graves and trenches are powerfully distressing.
The young tour guide that was assigned to us was so brave when telling us how some politicians responsible for the massacres are unthinkably still in power today and she had already been in jail twice before the age of 21 for speaking out against them.
A touching tribute of multi-coloured bracelets are laid by visiting tourists on the fence and neighboring tree bordering the area where mostly children and babies were killed. Although unimaginably tragic, we felt humbled to speak with 2 survivors who were grateful to spread the word of the atrocities committed. They exuded such strength and positivity that it made me re-evaluate how lucky we are to have lives filled with love and peace.
7. Have your hair threaded in Sihanoukville
Just what you need when you’re sunbathing on a Cambodian beach – A group of locals using serious pressure-selling techniques to convince you to let them thread your body hair.
With yells of ‘no pain no gain!’, perhaps one of my favourite tour group memories is watching a brightly-dressed woman thread away at my shins, my friend’s armpits (and even the backhair of one of the boys…) At around $10, the smoothness was definitely worth the pain and the memories!
8. Soak up the sun in paradise on Otres Beach
Just a short tuk tuk ride away from the busy Sihanoukville main beach, you will find Otres Beach. This was officially my first glimpse of paradise. I was living in a vacation magazine.
Much more secluded and absolute stunning, I was able to catch up on much needed ‘me’ time and we all made the most of swimming in the clear ocean and using the expensive resort-style seating areas along the deserted beachfront.
9. Volunteer with the New Hope Foundation
I was lucky enough to visit this Foundation and witness the incredible work that they do for local Cambodian youth. We visited their Medical Centre, which provides extremely important free healthcare to local children whose families would otherwise be unable to fund their treatment.
We were also asked to sit in on a classroom of teenagers from the local area as they were taught English. They were eager to meet us and practice their language skills; skills that are only available to them due to the organisation providing them free of charge in order to better their futures.
Finally, an incredible dinner was provided to us by the young adults who are learning hospitality skills in the Training Restaurant. Hands down the best Asian food I’ve ever tasted – Including some perfectly seasoned crickets!
They are going to be incredible chefs one day very soon thanks to the foundation and its supporters. It’s incredible how much change we can bring if people choose to make a stand.
If you would like to read more about it, visit their website.
10. Drink with the locals!
What are your best memories and stories from Cambodia?