10 things you can do for an off the beaten track experience in Cambodia

Well known for the ancient Hindu temple city of Angkor and notorious for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is often a check on the bucket list for backpackers travelling along the banana pancake trail. Of course, the fact that the people are friendly and the beer is cheap only adds to its charm.

But besides the usual, what else is there to do in this beautiful country? Here are 10 things to make your trip more authentic.

1. Take a dip in Cambodia’s only volcanic lake and hike in the jungle

Cambodia’s northeastern province of Ratanakiri is a diverse region known for its virgin forests and minority hill tribes. It is also where you can find Yeak Loam, the country’s one and only volcanic lake. Yeak Loam is a beautiful lake which is said to have been created over 4000 years ago, and today, you can swim in this crystal clear pool of water!

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An aerial view of the Yeak Loam lake (Credits: Ethan Crowley)

The lake visit can be combined with a hike and traditional bamboo rafting experience in the nearby jungle, or even a homestay with a local tribal family.

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Making a bamboo raft during a jungle tour (Credits: Green Jungle Trekking Tours)

There are numerous waterfalls in the region as well, which are particularly spectacular during the monsoon season.

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Cha Ong Waterfall in Ratanakiri (Credits: Tripsary)

How to do this?

The easiest way to get to Ratanakiri is by taking a bus or minivan to the provincial capital of Ban Lung. You can use Ban Lung as your base and sign up for activities with any of the following operators –  Green Jungle Trekking Tours, Highland Tour or Sona Trekking.

2.Take a ride on Cambodia’s ‘bamboo train’

Those who have watched the Netflix series ‘Jack Whitehall: Travels with my Father’, may have seen the makeshift bamboo train (more like a cart) during their adventures in Cambodia. That contraption is for real!

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The bamboo ‘train’ of Cambodia (Credits: AG Gilmore)

The concept of this improvised vehicle called the ‘norry’ became popular in the Battambang province of the country after the Khmer Rouge. At the time, the rail systems were badly damaged, and what started off as a temporary fix, soon became a common mode of transportation in rural Cambodia.

In 2017, this bamboo railway was revamped by the government to make the system safer and more efficient, with standardized norries/lorries and fixed pricing. This inevitably made it more touristy as well. Still, the open air ride is quite fun as it takes you through the beautiful Cambodian countryside.

How to do this?

This train is only available at Battambang, and you can ask any tuk tuk/taxi driver to take you to the ‘norry’ start point near the base of Phnom Banan (Banan Hill). The ride duration is about 15 minutes on average (used to be much longer earlier) and costs USD 5 per person. Beware of the pushy vendors at the end of the ride, who will try to sell you random things.

3.Learn the ancient art of Silk Weaving

Traditional silk making has been an important industry and art form in Cambodia since the Khmer rule of the 13th century, and today, there are several organizations set up in the country to preserve this dying art. Artisans d’Angkor is one such organization, which has an 8-hectare silk farm near the city of Siem Reap. At the Angkor Silk Farm, you can learn about the silkworm breeding process in the mulberry fields, and take a tour of the factory where silk is hand woven by local artisans. Moreover, you can also sign up for a class and learn how to weave your very own silk scarf!

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Silk making process in progress
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Hand weaving the silk

Note: Artisans d’Angkor runs workshops for stone, wood and soapstone carving as well

How to do this?

Artisans d’Angkor has a workshop near the Siem Reap city centre, from where you can take a free shuttle bus to the Silk Farm. Guided tours of the workshops/factory are free, but the cost of each class is USD 50. For more details, click here.

4.Visit the salt pans of Cambodia

During the drier months of December to April, there is a unique kind of farming that takes place in Cambodia: Salt Farming. Very close to the towns of Kep and Kampot lie acres of salt pans, where you can watch salt farmers collecting crystallised salt in the fields. This visit is not only a great way of seeing the Cambodian countryside, but also of understanding more about the harsh life of the farmers in the country.

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Salt farmer collecting salt at the salt flats of Kampot

How to do this?

The salt fields are easily reachable by scooter, tuk-tuk or taxi. If you’re interested, you can also visit the Pepper Farms in the area. All you need to do is follow Google maps here.

5.Float along at one of the lesser known Floating Villages

Today, a visit to a Cambodian floating village has become a ‘must do’ activity and tourists often flock to Chong Kneas, a village near Siem Reap that has its own floating school, church, clinic and houses built on bamboo rafts and rubber tyres.

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Sailing through one of the floating villages of Cambodia

This village, like hundreds of others, has been built on the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, which is one of the world’s most fertile ecosystems and home to the ethnic Vietnamese minority of Cambodia, unable to live on the mainland.

However, if you are genuinely interested in a floating village experience and want to learn about Cambodia at the grassroots, you should avoid visiting this tourist trap that glorifies poverty and instead visit the smaller floating villages of Kampong Khleang, Mechrey, Prek Toal and Chong Koh.

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Clean water is a big problem for the villages on Tonle Sap, despite it being the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia

How to do it?

There are several local operators like Prek Toal, Insight Tours and Community First that provide tours to these lesser known floating villages. The best part is that instead of pocketing the profits, they invest their earnings back into the community.

6.Sign up for a Khmer cooking class

The best way to understand a new cuisine is to visit local food markets, learn how to make traditional dishes, or try out the local food. Luckily, Cambodia has numerous cooking classes across the country that provide all these things!

In your Khmer cooking class, you typically get to make 3 dishes – a starter , a main course and a dessert. Usually, the classes are in groups, but you can also pay extra and request for a personal session.

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Amok – a classic dish of Cambodia. It is a coconut curry based dish steamed in a banana leaf.

How to do it?

You can directly contact the cooking school of the city you’d like to take the class in. Some of the popular schools are Lily’s Secret Garden (Siem Reap), Feel Good (Phnom Penh), Coconut Lyly (Battambang), Khmer Roots Cafe (Kampot) and Sinuon Khmer Cooking Class (Sihanoukville). The cost of the classes is usually USD 20 onwards for one person.

7.Try some bizarre snacks

Disclaimer: For those who get grossed out by wacky foods, please skip this part. Also please note that this is in no way meant to promote consumption of endangered animals. 

Southeast Asian countries are well known for their strange street foods, and Cambodia is no exception. So if you’re adventurous with food (I’m not!), you can try out some weird delicacies that the country has to offer. Some of these include (but are not limited to):

  • Fried tarantulas, silkworms, crickets, beetles, frogs and grasshoppers
  • Baby crocodile – barebequed, stir fried, and even sometimes served in pizzas and burgers
  • Duck Foetus (pong tia koun) – a fertilized egg that has not developed fully (half egg, half bird). You may also know it as the Filipino delicacy called ‘balut’.
  • Snake Wine- a bottle a rice wine with a dead snake and scorpion inside, which is believed to improve virility.

The food items are often seasoned with salt, pepper and chili, sprinkled with lime or served with a sauce.

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The famous snake wine. The bottle on the left contains a scorpion as well.

How to do this?

Most of these unusual foods are sold by street vendors and available at night markets. For weird insect dishes, you can visit the Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap. If you’re planning to try some Snake Wine, please only purchase from legit retailers, as poor quality snake wine can prove to be fatal.

8.Laze at a secluded beach

While neighboring Thailand is world famous for its spectacular beaches, Cambodia is a hidden gem with beaches that are equally beautiful and less crowded. So if you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, do take some time to chill out at Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Russey, Koh Totang or Koh Tang (the list goes on). Don’t expect any crazy beach parties though – for those, you can head over to Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem or Sihanoukville.

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The pristine beaches of Cambodia

How to do it?

These islands are accessible by ferry or boat, and the best place to use as your base is the beach town of Sihanoukville. You can either take a ferry directly from here, or from a beach close by (transportation to the nearby beach is taken care of). Tickets can be purchased online (details here) or directly at the terminal.

9. Go Museum Hopping in Siem Reap

Most visitors to Siem Reap go temple hopping in the day and bar hopping in the night, but you can add a twist to your Cambodia itinerary by making some time for museum hopping.

Siem Reap has some of the most interesting museums in the country, and a trip to the city would be incomplete without visiting them. The War Museum, War Remnants Museum and Killing Fields are important sites that tell us about the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. There is also a Landmine Museum that highlights the country’s massive landmine problem – there are still thousands of unexploded landmines in the country which were planted during the wars.

To know more about the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, click here.

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Grenades and Landmines at the Landmine Museum, Siem Reap

How to do this?

Follow the details provided on the google map here.

10. Go climbing and caving through Cambodia’s limestone cliffs 

Only 5 km from the town of Kampot, lies the majestic site of Phnom Kbal Romeas, a natural heritage site of Cambodia known for its beautiful limestone cliffs. Those interested in a unique outdoor activity can now try rock climbing, caving, abseiling and via ferratas along these cliffs, to get a scenic view of the green paddy fields, red clay paths the blue ocean.

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Caving through the limestone cliffs of Cambodia

How to do this?

Contact Climbodia to book a tour here. The company offers a variety of tours for beginners as well as experts, and the tours start from USD 25.

Exploring a new country on an off the beaten trail is certainly exciting, but do ensure your safety while doing so. Given the issue of unexploded landmines in the country, it is best not to wander alone in desolate areas without a local guide.

Note: Content and photos on this blog, unless credited, belong to the owner of this blog. Reproduction or usage without prior permission is prohibited.

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