Cambodia is integral to the backpacker trail. Its charm lies with friendly locals, world-class temples, and a warm and colourful culture. Having backpacked around Asia independently for the previous few months, I decided a Busabout tour would be a great opportunity to let someone else do the organisation for a bit and focus on what was important – getting immersed in the culture and discovering what sets Cambodia apart. With clear must-sees including the ancient Angkor Wat temples, capital Phnon Penh and the bountiful beaches of Sihanoukville, I was excited to meet my group and see what was in store for us…
I met my Busabout group for the next eight days and our tour leader, Amy, in Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s rich yet troubled history is most visible in the capital: a city which was virtually destroyed just forty years ago by government party, the Khmer Rouge. The communist leadership of the time ordered a cultural cleanse: anyone rich, educated, skilled, or even those who wore glasses or had soft hands (signs that you might be educated and that you didn’t work in agriculture) were killed.
The death toll totalled 2 million – a quarter of the country’s population. Tissues were at the ready on our second day of the tour as we visited Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the Choeung Ek (the execution site) to understand better Cambodia’s troubled history and the drive to recover which is so apparent in the people. Later that afternoon we explored more of the city (highlights include the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda) and sampled tasty Khmer cuisine at a local market Amy recommended to us.
Aboard our comfy coach we journeyed to Kep, held up only by me forgetting my bag and us having to take a detour. The break from navigating and organising myself turned me into a total klutz, and it became a running joke before setting off anywhere that the group checked that me and all my things were on board. Kep is a sweet seaside retreat that is famous for its fresh seafood – in particular, crab. We just stopped through for lunch (the perks of not having to rely on public bus timetables…) but overnight stays are possible in hostels or French-style boutique hotels. We ate at Kimly Resturant where two crabs cost just $7 and came served with coconut milk, spices and spectacular views of the river. I could do with this kind of treatment every day!
We arrived in Kampot just in time for a sunset boat cruise. With an Angkor beer in one hand and the sky turning pink and gold, we chilled out after our busy day. On the way back we saw a swarm of luminous blue fireflies hovering on the river bank, and some of our group jumped into the river for a swim. The sleepy, riverside town is home to French architecture and a relaxed vibe so it’s a sweet place to spend a couple of days. It’s also where I first discovered the Asian speciality of iced coffee in bags, a top pick-me-up when you’re moving around fast and suffering from a few too many drinks the night before!
This tongue-twister of a town was named after King Sihanouk but is now less about ancient kingdoms and more about boozing on the beach. Just south of Sihanoukville, Otres beach is where it’s at for escaping the crowds. You can reach the beach via a short tuk tuk ride and it’s home to soft sand, beach loungers and boho-style cafes and bars. When the sun goes down, Sihanoukville comes alive. We ate a delicious dinner at a beach barbecue where floating lanterns fluttered from the beach to the sky and Cambodian kids chatted to us as they braided our hair.
A picturesque island just off the coast of Sihanoukville, accessible for day trips from the mainland or overnight stays. The tour took the (hungover) group out to swim and snorkel in the crystal clear waters and to have lunch on the island. Lots of travellers head to Koh Rong for a few days to relax, unwind and party. It’s not the most developed place so remember to bring enough cash for your stay as ATMs on Koh Rong are non-existent.
Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap is the biggest lake in Cambodia and its riverbanks are home to around 3 million inhabitants. We stopped for a scenic boat cruise en route from Sihanoukville to Battambang. Tonle Sap is a popular spot for floating villages, nature spotting and seeing the local life. A cool spot to break up the long coach journey!
We arrived in Battambang in the evening, feeling ourselves again as our Sihanoukville hangovers had finally subsided. The first thing we did was head out to the famous Battambang circus where the talented performers kept us in awe with tightrope walking, juggling, back flips and loads more. The next day we took a ride on the Bamboo Train: one of the world’s most unique railway journeys. The 7 km track takes around 20 minutes to chug along on carriages made of wood and bamboo slats. What happens when two trains meet coming from opposite directions? The carriage with the least passengers is packed up and removed from the track until the other car has gone past.
A lively town that lots of travellers arrive in or travel to Thailand, Siem Reap has a booming nightlife set around neon-lit ‘pub street’ which is always a top night out. Here we ate a barbecue dinner and enjoyed a boozy cocktail making class in which we made lots of drinks with gin. The main reason tourists flock to Siem Reap is to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We set our alarms for 4.30 am to arrive at the temple site in time to watch the sunrise over the the central Angkor Wat temple. Getting up at that time felt pretty awful but I’d do it all over again – the sun rising between the centuries-old spires has to be one of the most sought-after images of Cambodia, and for good reason. We headed back to the hotel to nap, load up on breakfast croissants and make our Instagram followers extremely envious before heading back to the temple site to explore further.
We hired a tuk tuk and driver between four of us and for just a few dollars each visited temples including Bayon, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, where majestic tree routes have taken over the crumbling carvings. It’s not surprising people travel from all over the world to visit Angkor Wat – the temples stretch out over a 50 km site and the sheer variety and intricate details of the carvings could make for days of exploring. There’s really nowhere in the world quite like it.
As the tour ended the next morning there were tears, hugs and promises of reunion. What an eight days it was! Cambodia moved me beyond belief with its heartbreaking history and had me marvelling at some of the most amazing temples I’ve ever seen, as well as beautiful beaches and spectacular sunsets. Until next time, Cambodia – I’m sure I’ll be back!