When I first started out on my trip to Cambodia, I had planned to see Angkor Wat and then head back to my home in Bangkok. Instead, I ended up falling completely and hopelessly in love with Cambodia! My planned couple of days turned into weeks, which then turned into a whole month, and I was still sad to go. It remains my absolute favorite country I’ve visited thus far, and I can’t wait for a chance to return! I’ve decided to compile my ultimate top 10 reasons to fall in love with Cambodia… so what are you waiting for?!
1. All Things Angkor
There’s no getting around the fact that Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s ultimate national symbol. It’s a historical masterpiece, dauntingly massive, creating that unmistakable skyline against the rising or setting sun. While it’s totally a must-see, and even more amazing in person, the mystique and allure are slightly overtaken by the sheer masses of tourists hanging on in throngs around you. Not to worry!
Few people realize, until arriving, just how massive the Angkor complex really is. There are countless temples crumbling in that jungle, meaning if you play your cards right you actually can stumble around doing your best Indiana Jones impression with a temple all to yourself. Look outside the box (or ask your handy-dandy tuk-tuk guide) to find the kind of place you imagined. But I have a feeling that it won’t be long until even those lesser known spots become as big as Vatican City! All the more reason to get there while the going is good…!
The stop-off point for the temple-hoppers, Siem Reap, is a little spot also worth spending some time exploring. Not to be underestimated, Siem Reap has a burgeoning tourist district with great little bars and restaurants, locals who actually like engaging with tourists, and one of the prettiest little night markets you’ll find.
2. Tumultuous History
While the Angkor complex provides a brief view into the historical glory-days of Khmer royalty, sights like Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Prison offer a somber reminder of Cambodia’s more recent history. Truly, you can’t really understand or appreciate the modern Cambodia without stepping into the bloody past of the Khmer Rouge rule. Don’t forget, everyone over 40–40!–lived through these atrocities.
Even though these dark tourist spots are filled with death, they really just go to show you how much life abounds in this country. Suddenly you realize that all these faces surrounding you are the faces of survival, defiance, and hope. It’s a massive and saddening reality check, but one that I think we all could use.
3. Incredible Food
You see those crabs there? The ones she’s pulling out of that basket, which she just pulled out of the sea? Yeah, I’m about to eat that. It really doesn’t get better than that! Cambodia has pinned down this whole fresh seafood thing to a level I’ve never experienced before. You can take a seat at the edge of a little shack, hanging on stilts over the lapping ocean waves, and watch as your dinner moves from water, to grill, to table. Combined with the legendary Kampot pepper sauces, it’s perfection.
But that’s not the only thing that rules about the food in Cambodia. After spending some time in Southeast Asia, you learn that Western food costs about an arm and a leg, and after an endless string of rice dishes, sometimes all you crave is a massive plate of ribs or a fat, juicy burger. In Cambodia, Western food is actually affordable, and it’s done well. Two meals that specifically stand out: ribs as big as my head in Kampot, and a Mexican restaurant in Sihanoukville ran by Americans, OMG nachos.
4. Khmer People
By far, my favorite thing about Cambodia is the people. While the country has yet to recover from the scars left behind by the Pol Pot regime, the people have moved on. Everything just felt somehow more genuine and kind than my experience with people elsewhere. It wasn’t uncommon for a young Khmer boy or girl to come sit at my table when I was alone, practicing their English and really wanting to know about me and why I had come to Cambodia.
Their smiles are infectious. Plain and simple. Although poverty and the debilitating effects of landmines leaves life for many incredibly fragile, the Khmer people press on with humility and gentleness. It’s refreshing.
5. Pristine Beaches
Powdery soft, white sand. Bright green, swaying palms. Warm, turquoise waters. These are the kinds of beaches that dreams are made of. Even better, you never have to share with too many tourists, as the beaches in Cambodia are notoriously sparse. In the best beaches, you’ll also rarely encounter a hawker, which is a feat compared to the once-glorious, now hawker-filled beaches in Thailand.
That being said, you better check these out soon–Koh Rong (pictured above), Koh Tonsay, Otres Beach… as tourists start to get fed up with overcrowding next door in Thailand, the news is bound to get out. Go enjoy an Angkor Beer with your toes in the warm sand, now!
6. Sleepy Towns
Talk about getting away from it all! Lazy little towns like Kampot and Kep will make you forget all your worries, and very likely the time. We couldn’t seem to leave this haven, with the laid-back attitude and gorgeous sights. Something about these kind of Cambodian spots take away that touristy feel and replace it with pure contentedness. Many mornings, I would walk down the street to my local breakfast spot sipping my special Khmer tea, and just think how easy it could be to just forget the rest of the world. I now understand why people want to run off and retire in a place like this!
7. Lush Jungles
This is the real thing. Cambodia offers miles and miles of intense jungle fauna, still filled to the brim with wild animals. Driving through on motorbikes, we could hear the hoots of birds and the hiss of the jungle whizzing past our ears. Lots more adventure awaits for those up for more than motorbike rides, though. Imagine real treks into the dense forests, spotting wild elephants, encountering hidden waterfalls, and discovering lost temples and forgotten cities! It’s all on offer in Cambodia.
8. Crazy Nightlife
No trip to Cambodia is complete without at least one crazy night out on the town, whether it’s sweating your weight off dancing at “Angkor What?! Bar” in Siem Reap, hitting up the amazing 2 for 1 happy hour deals at random roadside holes, or slurping down snake whiskey while jamming to live bands! Oh, and let’s certainly not forget losing your s#@% in Sihanoukville!
In case you’re wondering, yes, I drank some of that snake whiskey above. A massive pull of it, in fact. And yes, there’s also a scorpion in there. And yes, I discovered to my own disappointment (after bragging about my amaze-balls bravery) that all those little creatures in there were actually plastic.
9. Superstar Status
Okay, so going to Cambodia won’t really make you a superstar. But driving through villages on a motorbike will invariably draw out the local children, running as fast as they can alongside with their giant smiles, waving and yelling, “Hello! I love you!” There’s just about nothing in the world to make you feel as special as you do at that moment. In Cambodia, even the most boring bloke can feel suddenly interesting and special. Combined with the ability to really live it up in fancy bars and expensive-looking beaches, it’s the place to go if you want to feel like a superstar for a short time. Put on your giant sunglasses, get your massage and nails did, and hit the town, baby. You’re not in Kansas, anymore!
10. Ridiculous Value
And that all brings us to the last on the list, the budget! Cambodia is still so cheap that all of these things are possible to experience without breaking the bank. You can get by on as little as $10 a day, and for $25 a day you can really play it up quite well. I mean, the cheapest I paid for accommodation was $1 a night. ONE DOLLAR! So quit complaining about travel being for rich people, start putting aside a few dollars a week savings, and get to Cambodia before everyone else finds out and prices go up! I mean it! Go! Now!
I promise, you’ll fall as deeply in love with Cambodia as I did!
(If you’re lucky, you might also meet the love of your life… 😉 )