This Cambodia travel guide is for those of you who think that urban metropolises and beachside resorts are becoming a bit too mainstream. How about leaving Singapore and embarking on a trip into the mystical Cambodia, home to the largest religious monument in the world and a recent dark history? For travellers looking for something different, Cambodia is a good alternative to its over-crowded neighbour Thailand.
While Angkor Wat lies in the heart of Cambodia, its undiscovered beaches, relics of the dark past under the Khmer rouge and influences from Vietnam and Thailand in its cuisine makes it an interesting travel destination. In this Cambodia Travel Guide by GET.com, we will show you the best things to see, eat and do in Cambodia!
Top Things To See In Cambodia
A trip to Cambodia is not complete without a visit to this architectural and historical gem. Stretching over some 400 square kilometres, in the Angkor Archaeological Park you will discover the remains of the different Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th-15th century.
According to historical inscriptions, around 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants were needed to build this architectural masterpiece!
There are a variety of ways you can choose to view the Angkor Wat. Some even take a 3-day pass just to be able to observe all the details that went into crafting the walls of the complex. It's definitely worth spending some time here!
A lovely way to start your trip is to get there at sunrise when you'll be able to capture a majestic picture of the complex.
As the complex is huge, most of the hotels will be able to arrange for a "tuk-tuk" or taxi that you can book for the entire day to ferry you to the different temples within the complex while you take your time to explore each of them.
Some of these famous temples include the Temple of Angkor Wat, the Bayon Temple with its sculptural faces, as well as the famous Ta Prohm where Angelina Jolie shot the movie, Tomb Raider.
Dark Legacy Of Khmer Rouge
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, but because of Angkor Wat, most tourists might skip the capital for the more touristic Siem Reap.
Visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum if you are in Phnom Penh for an appreciation of how much this humble country has progressed.
You'd be surprised to find that the Khmer Rouge held its rule pretty recently (1975-1979) and it's incredulous how they've been able to cripple the country so much within a short 4-year period.
An estimated 2 million people have been killed through various methods – political executions, starvation and forced labour.
A visit to these 2 places is obviously a very sombre and eerie experience, but it also helps in understanding and appreciating how the country has recovered and progressed in recent years.
National Museum Of Cambodia
If you enjoyed your visit to Angkor Wat and spent a significant amount of time admiring the carvings and sculptures, you should pay a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia.
Housed in a terracotta-styled building, the museum has some of the finest collections of Khmer sculptures. It contains an impressive collection of Shiva and Buddha statues as well as archeological treasures made out of bronze.
Another architectural wonder not to be missed is the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It was built for the king of Cambodia over a century ago and today it still serves as the current king's royal residence.
It depicts a fine example of Khmer architecture with a French touch. Some of the highlights of the palace include the mural paintings, Khmer roofs, throne hall, the defensive wall and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
In a country which is still recovering from its recent dark past, the palace's architecture is in striking contrast to its surroundings, and bears an imposing presence quite similar to some of the temples we see in Thailand.
While a large part of the compound is closed to the public (because the king lives there!), visitors can still visit the throne hall and the Silver Pagoda.
The latter is quite a sight to behold, with the most notable being a small crystal Buddha known as the "Emerald Buddha" and a large Maitreya Buddha encrusted with few thousand diamonds.
You'll need to respect its dress code though – you can't wear shorts or skirts above the knee and tops will need to have sleeves that reach down to the elbow.
Top Things to Do In Cambodia
Watch An Apsara Dance Show
An Apsara dance show is a classical Khmer dance featuring graceful female dancers in body-fitting traditional dresses.
An Apsara is a female supernatural being that's often featured in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and at the Angkor Wat, you can see many of these Apsaras sculpted on the walls of the temples.
The Apsara dance goes back to the time of Suryavarman II, the Khmer king that built Angkor Wat. Previously, the dance was performed only for the royalty. It was suppressed during the Khmer Rouge and in the last 2 decades it made a comeback.
These days, you can catch an Apsara dance show over dinner. Some of the places where you can see an Apsara show include the Apsara Terrace at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, the Apsara theatre opposite Angkor Village Hotel and Temple Balcony at Pub Street.
Visit Cambodia's Undiscovered Beaches
When it comes to beach destinations, Singaporeans will often reach out to the touristy shores of Thailand and Indonesia. But did you know that Cambodia has its share of unspoilt beaches as well?
Sihanoukville is a seaside town with a number of beaches that aren't crowded with tourists (for now). There are a number of hotels and accommodations built here so you can easily spend a couple of nights here.
Here you can find the cheapest hotels in Sihanoukville.
The Ochheuteal beach is perhaps the most popular here – a 4km-long stretch of sand with a few bars and restaurants. However, there were many street vendors here, so be prepared for your sun-bathing to be constantly disrupted by vendors asking you to buy various souvenirs from them.
If you want to enjoy some tranquility, you can head out to Otres beach which is further south from Occhheuteal. Here you can find the cheapest accommodation close to Otres beach.
If not, follow my footsteps and take a 3-hour boat ride out to Koh Rong. Koh Rong is fairly rustic but great for those looking for their desert island paradise.
Be prepared though, as the island isn't as commercialised, some of the accommodations do not have air-con and may restrict energy and water use to certain times of the day.
Here you can find the cheapest hotel rates in Koh Rong.
What To Eat In Cambodia
Cambodian food is quite similar to the cuisine in Vietnam and Thailand. Many dishes that are widely known as "Vietnamese" are common in Cambodia as both have a shared history of being under the French colonial rule. You even find quite a few French restaurants in Cambodia as well!
There are also many dishes that are similar to the all-too-familiar Thai cuisine that Singaporeans are accustomed to. However, the Cambodian version is usually milder in taste with less chilli and coconut milk.
Amok was one of the first Cambodian dishes I tried because I saw it offered in the menus of many restaurants. The funny thing is it actually reminds me of a local food we have here in Singapore – otak-otak!
The dish is essentially a thick paste cooked with either fish or meat in eggs and coconut milk and steamed in banana leaves. While our otak-otak can be pretty spicy, the orange-coloured amok may look spicy but it's actually pretty mild in taste. Depending on which part of Cambodia you're in, this dish can look pretty different.
If you've eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant here, you might have seen the Bánh mì, a sandwich made with a single serve baguette with various fillings within.
Baguettes are a remnant from the French colonial era and it's not strange that Cambodia has a similar version known as the Nom Pang.
Nom Pang can be found in many places, from restaurants, casual dining outlets to street vendors that stack their carts with mountains of these mini-baguettes.
With a lighter and often crispy crust compared to their European counterparts, the rolls are usually filled with a type of pork pate (although you can find other versions with ham or sardines) not unlike luncheon meat.
The melted butter spread on the bread and the pickled vegetables laid on top of the meat makes it a great lunch or snack to-go.
To put it simply, nime chow is the Cambodian version of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. These fresh rolls are wrapped in rice paper and filled with fresh vegetables, pork, prawns and rice vermicelli.
They are usually served uncooked and as the rice paper tastes pretty bland, it often comes with a tasty dip of peanut sauce or fish sauce.
Grilled Pork On Skewers
You can spot these delicious sticks of grilled pork along the streets with vendors selling them on mobile carts. Quite similar to the satay we have here but in a meatier portion!
Dine For A Good Cause
If you are in Phnom Penh, do spend an evening eating at Friends Restaurant, which serves up delicious Khmer cuisine for a good cause.
You'd have expected social enterprises to serve something of a little lower quality from other full-service restaurants but not at Friends!
The restaurant helps former street kids to gain practical skills and prepare them for employment in the hospitality industry. Students are trained in culinary skills at the restaurant, learning both Asian and Western cooking.
Because the restaurant is pretty well-known and listed in Lonely Planet as well as TripAdvisor, it gets crowded during dinner time so do make reservations ahead!
Address: Friends Restaurant, #215 Street 13, Phnom Penh
Where To Shop In Cambodia
The Russian market is a colourful bazaar located in Phnom Penh where you can find all kinds of souvenirs to take home.
Even if you don't buy anything, there are plenty of things to see – from fake brand goods, antiques, carpets, buddhist statues, silver jewellery, food stuff to hammocks – and it will provide a few hours of shopping pleasure.
The Russian Market got its name from the nickname foreigners used to call it due to a predominant Russian expat population that used to shop here in the 1980s.
It's difficult to guarantee the authenticity of the stuff you buy here so make sure to bargain hard since the stall owners know they are dealing with a mostly tourist crowd.
Whether you are in the market for jewellery or chicken feet, tourist T-shirts or antique coins, all these things can be found under the art-deco-inspired yellow dome of Phnom Penh's Psar Thmei.
Psar Thmei, or more generally known as "Central Market", was built in 1937 by French architects during the French colonial rule.
At that time, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. The place suffered multiple bombings during the Franco-Thai war but underwent a major redevelopment between 2009-2011.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Psar Thmei and it's definitely one of the sights you should see in Phnom Penh.
Angkor Night Market
The Angkor Night market was the first of its kind in Cambodia. Located in Siem Reap with more than 2 million visitors to Angkor Wat each year, you can be sure such a concept will flourish with tourists!
The original 100 stores have now more than doubled and the market is laid out within a wooden hut-style. Most of the goods sold here are the works of local communities and NGOs, so most of them are pretty unique (not the mass-market items you'll find other markets).
If you are looking for silk paintings, traditional handicrafts and wood carvings to bring home, this is the place to get them!
If you are tired from shopping in other similar markets, you can always chill out at the nearby restaurants and bars or have a relaxing foot massage to pamper your tired feet.
Saving Tips For Cambodia
Travelling in Cambodia is already quite cheap, transport and eating out won't burn a hole in your pocket. The biggest expenses you're likely to have are accommodation (although you can still find very cheap hotel rates in Cambodia) and of course, your plane ticket.
To save money on your plane ticket, use a travel credit card that offers cashback, points, miles or travel discounts and book your flight through travel sites like Expedia.com to get good discounts.