It’s no secret that Southeast Asia is a wanderluster’s dream come true — from the picturesque beaches of Bali, to the ancient temples of Thailand. Close to these cultural hotspots is Cambodia, which also happens to be home to many ancient artifacts and natural wonders.
If you’ve never been to Cambodia before, get ready for the adventure of a lifetime. You’ve probably seen photos of Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom (also known as the “Tomb Raider temple”), but pictures don’t nearly do them enough justice. Here are the top five activities that every first-time visitor should aim to include in their to-do list:
#1 – Devote a day to the Angkor Archeological Park
Cambodia is home to the most stunning temples in the world, all of which are steeped in rich history. The Angkor Archeological Park preserves all of these sites, including Angkor Wat, which is very popular among tourists. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is located right at the entrance, right behind the sprawling city of Angkor Thom. Ta Phrom is a bit further afield, but you can easily get to it via bike.You’ll find that one trip won’t be enough for all there is to see here, so it’s worth devoting at least one whole day if you’re seeing it for the first time. This means, however, that you might be spending a lot of time under the heat.
Tip: Cambodia has warm temperatures all year-round, so dress in breezy, light garments. Woman Within’s selection of shorts are made from breathable fabrics and are comfy enough for moving around all day. However, do make sure to bring a wrap or sarong to cover yourself with, since some areas of the temple may have strict dress codes.
#2 – Try some street food
The best way to learn about a culture is through its food. Bai Sach Chrouk (grilled pork with rice) and Num Banh Chok (glassy noodles with fresh vegetables) are both extremely filling without breaking the bank. Grilled food is the name of the game when it comes to street food, with your standard meat skewers and fresh fish soups. You can also be a little bit more adventurous and order some grilled insects, like grasshoppers and beetles. (If this will be your first time eating insects in Cambodia, check out this guide to do it right!)Rest assured, though, that even those without an adventurous palette can enjoy the country’s street food. Cambodian dessert is also a winner, with sweet beans and tapioca served with shaved ice and coconut milk. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the names of certain dishes, just point to whatever looks good – or whatever the locals are ordering – and eat up.
#3 – Enjoy the surrounding nature
The Mondulkiri Project is located northeast of Phnom Penh (capital city), and is a sanctuary which aims to protect elephants and other indigenous wildlife. The park’s conservation efforts are spearheaded by the indigenous Bunong people, who have been living in the Cambodian forests for generations.Tip: Since you’ll be trekking through wildlife, trade your sandals for some hiking shoes. Salomon’s outdoor shoes are not only built for rough terrains, but they’re also waterproof in case you have to walk through dirt or mud. They are perfect for swimming with the elephants too. Just make sure to pick a credible company with ethical practices.
#4 – Learn about Cambodian history
Cambodia is steeped in history, but it does include a few dark chapters, too. To this day, the country is still reeling from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime, which took place between 1975-1979 and the Cambodian people were victims of genocide. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum previously served as one of the regime’s prisons. Now, it chronicles this part of Cambodia’s history, giving people a glimpse of what it was like to be imprisoned while humanizing the faces of the Khmer Rouge victims.
Tip: Many Cambodians who have survived the regime continue to share their stories. Cambodian author Loung Ung’s book brings awareness to the atrocities done to her parents and countrymen. Entitled ‘First They Killed My Father,’ the memoir will supplement your trip to the museum.
#5 – Catch a live show
Cambodian Living Arts hosts shows every week at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The organization’s aim is to revive national art (which came to a screeching halt under the Khmer Rouge) and their shows combine traditional dance, music, and theater into one jaw-dropping performance.
The Khmer Times reports that the organization runs education initiatives for students across the country. The CLA scholarship is awarded annually to 10 young students who want to pursue a career in the arts. Students have gone on to study traditional dance, write screenplays, and much more.