Cambodia has been inhabited since before recorded history, with evidence of stone tools from 4000 BC and agriculture from before the 1st century AD, but it remains something of a mystery. Americans may still associate the country with the Vietnam war, but that was then and this is now. Just as with Vietnam, peace has been restored and this Southeast Asian jewel is ready to hit the world stage as an exciting travel destination.
But while other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea, have pumped up their tourist business, Cambodia remains on the shy side. They’re quieter and more reserved. If you’ve been passing Cambodia by, you may want to reconsider. Even though they have lots to crow about, Cambodians are a humble, welcoming people with no desire to brag. Let’s zoom in for a closer look to see what they’ve largely been keeping to themselves.
Phenom Penh is the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The city is divided into three sections. The north is largely residential while the south, also known as the French part of town, contains ministries, banks, and colonial houses reminiscent of the countries early French rule. The Centre is very quaint with narrow roads, food/craft markets, food stalls for the most authentic eats to be had, and shops galore.
Someone’s been letting the cat out of the bag, because tourism is on the rise in Phnom Penh and all sorts of new businesses are springing up with the newfound revenue. Liberal investment laws have aided in the cities redevelopment as modern structures now dot the cities landscape.
History buffs will enjoy visiting the Royal Palace, Independence Monument which signifies Cambodia’s freedom from French rule, and the National Museum which also hosts theatrical and dance performances.
Cheung Ek Killing Fields is where 17,000 men, women, and children were transported to their deaths between 1975 and 1978. Skulls have been arranged by sex behind glass panels in a memorial constructed in 1988. Visiting the fields presents a stark reality of Cambodia’s past.
There are several well-known markets where gold, silver, textiles, art, and all manner of crafts are sold at ridiculously low prices. Bars, pubs, and dance clubs now provide an incredible nightlife and dining runs from small roadside stands to 5-star restaurants.
Nature and Wildlife
Nature and wildlife tours are offered by a number of companies and until you’ve spent a few nights in the dense jungles amid Cambodia’s stirring creatures and immense fauna, you haven’t experienced nature in its rawest untamed form.
Osmose, a not-for-profit organization, has created three floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake as a way of protecting waterbirds. The villagers are involved in alternative income-generating activities and tours through the waterways are available.
Roughly 40 miles south of Phenom Penh lies the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Area. The area is full of temples, mountains, and forests, and is home to over 1,200 varieties of animals. Much of the area has been dedicated to tree nurseries as well as animal rehabilitation and care. Many of the animal species are endangered due to illegal hunting.
The Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation is concerned with wildlife conservation in northern Cambodia. Established in 2003, tours ranging from one day to two weeks are offered, along with staying in a remote Cambodian village where wildlife remains relatively undisturbed and an untold number of species can be observed in their natural habitats.
Temples, Temples, and More Temples
Let’s be fair. The Angkor Archaeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and Angkor Wat is considered the 7th Wonder of the World, so this northwest region of Cambodia hasn’t exactly been ignored by travelers. But, there’s so much more than the world-famous Angkor Wat here.
Approximately 500 acres of temple complex trace the area’s rich cultural and religious history from through the successive capitals of the Khmer Empire. Ancient hydraulic features are still in place and villages boasting direct descendants of the original populations are scattered across the park. While Angkor Wat has been meticulously preserved, the Bayon temple, with its 2000+ enormous carved faces, sits nestled in the jungle, a mysterious testament to the past.
Water, Beaches, and Scuba Diving
Some of the most unexpected scuba diving in all of Southeast Asia can be found in Cambodia. Anything from tiny seahorses to huge whale sharks can be spotted in the crystal clear waters of its coast. Koh Tong, a four-hour journey from the mainland, is a tiny island where literally hundreds of varieties of sea creatures feed on the coral reefs.
The beachside town of Sihanoukville offers white sand beaches in a laidback atmosphere where relaxation is the number one sport. Numerous small uninhabited tropical islands await exploration in an area of the world as yet unspoiled by highrises and condos. Many of the islands can be reached by kayak.
The beachside town of Sihanoukville offers white sand beaches in a laidback atmosphere where relaxation is the number one sport. It has all of the conveniences of any other world beach destination minus the crowds. Kampot and Kep are two slow-moving beach towns on Cambodia’s southern coast which are slowly being discovered by the outside world, but the emphasis is on slowly. Life is not rushed in any of Cambodia’s coastal towns and villages.
For the adventurist, Cambodia has it all. Hiking, camping, hunting, mountain climbing, jungle explorations, zip-lining, kayaking, canoeing, caving, fishing, sailing, skiing, and surfing are all readily available.
High Point Adventure Park on the island of Koh Rong is the size of Hong Kong and the adventure never stops. There are over 28 beaches on the island as well as a dense jungle and tall trees. The only dwellings belong to a tiny village and they are in the form of huts. Visitors swing from ropes and vines like Tarzan. There are 21 selected trees and 25 platforms. A zip line soars over the island and the waves are ideal for surfers. A very small village on the island has opened up some guest houses, a few beachside bars, some restaurants, and even a dive center.
Gibbon Spotting Cambodia is the only place in the world where wildlife enthusiasts can see the rare Northern Yellow-Cheeked Gibbon. In efforts to protect the endangered species, only six people at a time are allowed to take the required trek to see them in their natural habitat.
Quad Adventure Cambodia allows people to witness a virtually untouched part of the country via all-terrain four-wheelers. You’ll stop by tiny villages where time has passed them by and revel in the untouched snow white beaches and jungle fauna along your journey.
Cambodia is waking up and they have lots to offer for the traveler who desires something out of the norm. From the large capital city to the deserted islands and mountain ranges, it holds something for everyone. Better get there soon though. Cambodia is finally on the tourist radar.