Often overlooked for her more established and touristy neighbours, Cambodia is a small but beautiful country with a wealth of unique experiences to offer all those who dare to explore. Although there are many different ways for the traveller to traverse this varied landscape, the most adventurous is definitely by motorbike. If you can handle the crazy traffic and often challenging conditions, the freedom of the road is exhilarating. In just a matter of days you can zip from lush rice paddies to coffee plantations ad thundering waterfalls; through metropolitan cities and dense jungle to white sandy beaches.
But no matter how you undertake it, any journey through Cambodia will leave the traveller changed in ways they could never have envisaged. Although the scars of a tumultuous past are still all too visible today, when you get into the very heart of this country, the love and warmth of the people is inspiring, and the hope they have for the future is admirational. Sure, there are also a lot of problems with Cambodia and her seemingly nonsensical ways, but there is method to the madness and it doesn’t take much more than a touch of patience and a smile for you to start to experience the true wonder of the Kingdom.
Witness history in the making
For those with a penchant for history, there are few destinations more appealing than Cambodia. Here you can delve into a rich and diverse heritage that dates back thousands of years and extends far beyond the impact of the Khmer Rouge. Its hard to believe that while Europe was in the midst of the Dark Ages, Cambodian engineers were carving massive stone edifices in the middle of the jungle and giving might to one of the greatest empires in Southeast Asia.
Even today, the influence of the Khmer Empire can still be seen across the region, and nowhere more so than at Angkor Wat. Revered as one of the most spectacular sights in the world, experiencing sunrise at Angkor is atop many a bucket list. Every morning hoards of tourists gather to watch the sun paint the sky over the backdrop of ancient temples, but for those who can bear to miss the action, an even more mystical experience awaits; this is the perfect time to go exploring. Arrive a little before dawn and roam freely through crumbling ruins and endless corridors, letting the heady darkness transport you back to a time of ancient Kings and magical feats of engineering.
One of my favourite places to experience the Cambodia of old is on the south coast. Kep and Kampot were the original holiday destinations of the colonial elite, and they retain a sense of French charm in both their architecture and delicious cuisine. Adventure seekers can explore long-abandoned mansions, climb through ancient cave formations and make the trek to the top of Bokor Mountain, where an old French town hides its secrets in a permanent shroud of mist.
The drive alone is almost worth the journey from Kampot. The roads are perfect for hiring a scooter and cruising through the ancient jungle, slowly ascending into the clouds. Built as a temperate getaway for the colonial elite, the top of the hill is home to the first casino in Cambodia. The derelict town is now a must-see on any adventurer’s itinerary, the ghosts of the past lurking in the red brick walls of the catholic church and the mottled concrete and long-faded floor tiles of the hotel in the clouds evoking an aura of mystery.
Get off the beaten path
For those looking to explore the furthest reaches of this wonderfully diverse region, there is nowhere better to start than Ratanakiri. Referred to as the ‘wild west’ of Cambodia, Ratanakini sits in the far north, bordered by both Vietnam and Laos. Although the long and dusty roads have been improved in recent years, tourism is yet to really take off, and it remains an authentic and fascinating place to visit. The provincial capital, Ban Lung is home to the stunning Yeak Laom crater lake, several magnificent waterfalls and a lively local market, but it is the dense jungle that makes the region so appealing. Spotted with extinct volcanoes, animist tribes and ancient Chunchiet cemeteries full of intricately carved deities, this is the Cambodia of Apocalypse Now.
Another of my favourite places in Cambodia, and by no means the easiest to get to, is Prasat Preah Vihear. An Angkorian-era temple built atop a mountaintop in a highly disputed border region between Thailand and northwestern Cambodia, the Temple in the Sky is smaller than Angkor but just as grand. If the steep drive up and first impressions of the intricately carved temple do not take your breath away, then its status as an active war zone may help. There are trenches and dugouts carved under the ancient stones, and an army of Khmer military heroes camped out on the hillside, their task to protect the national treasure at all costs.
Immerse yourself in the cuisine
Khmer cuisine is not always quite the treat one would be hoping for, but there are some exceptions. Regional delicacies include grilled squid with lime pepper sauce, softshell crab with Kampot pepper and the traditional coconut curry, amok. But if you are feeling adventurous, Cambodia is the perfect place to go on a culinary adventure and follow in the footsteps of Bizarre foodie Andrew Zimmern. Chow down on snake, tarantula, crickets, fertilised duck eggs and even salty beehive!
Find your paradise
The south coast of Cambodia is a perfect getaway location, where endless white sandy beaches meet an azure sea, and a horizon dotted with lush tropical islands creates the perfect backdrop for incredible sunsets. Wile away lazy days hopping from island to island, relaxing poolside with fancy cocktails or trekking through the jungle and snorkeling over colourful coral reefs . After dark, chill out under a spectacular night sky and skinnydip in a sea of glowing phosphorescence or take a handpulled raft to Kerfuffle, a fantastical rave in the jungle. And if you happen to stumble upon Otres on a Saturday, make your way to Otres Market, where a weekly carnivalesque array of live music, artisan food, clothes and crafts is awaiting your arrival.
Traveling Cambodia truly is an amazing and varied experience, with a whole host of incredible destinations and activities to offer the discerning traveller. Despite the stigma of the past, these days Cambodia is an up and coming holiday destination in its own right. And if, like many, you find yourself cramming in all the main attractions on a whistle-stop tour of Southeast Asia, you’ll be surprised by how fast you fall in love with this magical country and it’s genuinely warm and friendly people.
Photos courtesy of author, Cassie Wilkins