Two weeks in Cambodia passed by quickly. Here’s a brief look back on some of our favorite experiences there.
Places to go
We didn’t see everything we wanted to in Cambodia (like Kampot, or the Cardamom Mountains), but tried to fit in as much as we could during our short time there. Here are some of our favorites.
• The Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. The Killing Fields are a somber attraction, but hugely enlightening. These sites are where over two million people were killed (roughly twenty percent of the population) during the Cambodian genocide and the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted from 1975-1979. It is surreal to walk through the area now, overrun with trees and the sound of birds, and learn about the crimes against humanity that were committed there, and relatively recently too. There’s a self-guided audio tour with dozens of tracks that lead you to different points on the field and explain their significance, and several of the tracks also contain audio of people recounting their experiences during the regime, first-hand. It is at once extremely visceral, endlessly fascinating, and completely disturbing, and definitely worth a visit.
• Angkor Wat. This is why a lot of people come to Cambodia, to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap. It’s a classic bucket list item and we were no exception. It’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world, and we spent hours just wandering around the grounds in awe of all the different temples, reliefs and statues.. A few tips: the day before your visit, arrange for a tuk-tuk driver to be your guide for the day. This is definitely the cheapest way to get around, and as a plus they’ll usually give you plenty of history/background stories cause they’ve been there a million times. Also, if you’re wanting to get a great view for sunrise, be ready to wake up around 4am to get yourself to the ticket office and wait in line before daybreak. Or, you could buy a multi-day pass in order to bypass the line one morning (trust me, it’d be easy to spend a few days in the complex). Finally, there is a dress code, so if you are a woman be sure to wear an outfit that completely covers your shoulders and knees. (I made the mistake of wearing a dress that reached mid-knee and was forced to buy an extremely overpriced sarong at the entrance because they wouldn’t let me in otherwise.)
• Sihanoukville/Otres Beach. Sihanoukville is a pretty young town, but one of the fastest growing in the world. It’s been seeing lots of construction lately (casinos in particular) and is already a very lively tourist hub on the coast. It’s also near Otres Beach, where we spent some time volunteering at a local business and hanging out by the water. It’s a nice place to stop over on your way to one of the islands if you can manage (mentioned below).
• One of the islands. When people talk about Southeast Asian islands they’ll usually tell you about the Thai islands or the Philippines. Nobody seems to talk about the Cambodian ones, but they should - they are truly a hidden gem. We went to Koh Rong Sanloem, a smaller and more relaxed island (as opposed to one of the more party-centric ones). Koh Rong Sanloem hasn’t been touched much by tourism, so we had many stretches of clear and beautiful private ocean. Everyone was super chill, the food was surprisingly good, and the beach was just outside our door. We also realized during our time there it’s probably the longest we’ve ever gone without wearing shoes.
Food to Eat
• Fish amok. I’m pretty sure I had this at least once a day. Amok is a type of thick, yellow curry, made with tons of coconut milk and lemongrass. It is then steamed in banana leaves, which gives it an extremely unique texture, almost like a custard or soufflé. Sometimes restaurants will skimp on time and skip steaming it, in which case you’ll get more of a stew-like texture, which isn’t *technically* amok. So you may have to try a few different places before you find an authentic one, but the good news is it’s good either way. It’s pretty quintessential, and is considered the national dish of Cambodia.
• Lok lak and lap khmer, two traditional beef dishes. Lok lak is a pretty standard Khmer stir-fry with brown sauce and rice/egg, and lap khmer is like Cambodia’s answer to ceviche - thinly sliced raw beef marinated with lime juice and fish sauce, tossed with a few other vegetables and lots of chilies.
• Cambodian barbecue. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when it came to Cambodian barbecue, but we walked passed a restaurant in Siem Reap absolutely filled with locals so we decided to give it a try. For Cambodian barbecue, each table has a clay pot which holds several coals, and on top of that, a metal grill that’s raised in the middle. A very sizable chunk of lard is places on the raised portion, and the rim is then filled with water. At this particular barbecue restaurant, we were shown to an absolutely huge selection of pretty much every meat and seafood imaginable, as well as an endless array of vegetables, herbs, and noodles for us to pick from. The idea is to place the meats on the raised portion of the grill, where they cook in the fat and the juices run down into the water creating a broth, which you can then cook your noodles/vegetables/seafood in. It was definitely a unique experience, and good for the adventurous eater.
• Anything with Kroeung paste. Kroeung is the generic word for a number of spices and herbs that make up the base for lots of different Khmer dishes. It usually consists of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves/zest, galangal (similar to ginger), turmeric, garlic, shallots, and chilies, or some combination of those. It’s a really interesting mix, and probably anything made with it will taste good (these dishes often have a “-kroeung” suffix to let you know it’s in there.)
We didn’t spend long in Cambodia, but our time here - from the chaos of Phnom Penh, to the untouched beauty of the islands, to the majesty of Angkor Wat - is something we will not soon forget.