– By Han Shin
Cambodia — with its ancient temples nestled in the heart of jungles, floating villages full of life and colour, and some of Asia’s most breathtaking and pristine beaches — is an adventurer’s dream.
The wonders of the country are too myriad to count, but to start: here are five of our favourite Cambodian experiences ideal for the family. Marvel at the legendary Angkor Wat from a stunning vantage point; get serenaded by birdsong as you explore the quieter corners of the expansive Tonle Sap lake; glamp near Cambodia’s “best-kept secret”, lounge and dive in paradise, and rub shoulders with rescued elephants.
One of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and the most famed of Cambodia’s many ancient temples, Angkor Wat — the enormous temple complex ensconced in the forests of Siem Reap — is a must-visit site for any traveller to the region.
But exploring the complex’s grounds by foot is only one way to enjoy this architectural marvel. Another option that’s sure to take your breath away: Take the tour to the skies.
Private helicopter tours arranged by Blue Sky Escapes offer stunning aerial views of the UNESCO heritage site and its surroundings. The sheer size of Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious monuments in the world, will become starkly apparent from that lofty vantage point. An added bonus: There’ll be no crowds to battle with up there in the clouds!
Photo credit: Culture Trip
Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, is the most popular attraction in Cambodia after Angkor Wat — and for good reason. The enormous water body is Cambodia’s most important ecosystem, relied upon by millions of people for food and irrigation. It’s home to dozens of unique floating villages — a few of which welcome visitors — as well as more than 100 species of water birds like ibises and storks, hundreds of species of fish; and many other native creatures including crocodiles, turtles and otters.
Given its popularity, parts of Tonle Sap can get clogged with tourists especially during the peak season, but finding a more tranquil corner on the lake is not impossible. Especially on the humble kayak.
There are plenty of kayaking adventures on Tonle Sap to choose from and Blue Sky Escapes can tailor your experience according to what you want to get out of your time on the lake.
Photo credit: Cambodia Hotels
Pack your sandals and swimmers, and leave your cares at the door. Koh Rong Samloem, a tiny island located a 40-minute ferry ride away from the more bustling beach town of Sihanoukville, is a little slice of Cambodian paradise.
Blanketed by tropical jungle, lined with pristine white beaches and unspoiled by major development, Koh Rong Samloem is 24-sq-km of tranquil island living. All you have to do is lounge, bask and beach yourself by the sea. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, there are excellent hiking, diving and snorkelling opportunities around the island too.
Koh Rong, Samloem’s big sister known for its vibrant party scene, is also just a short ferry ride away.
Photo credit: Mad Monkey Hostels
Angkor Wat without the crowds? That’s Banteay Chhmar in a phrase.
A 12th-century temple complex that’s almost as large as Angkor Wat, Banteay Chhmar was abandoned for some 800 years before the Cambodian government began conservation work on the sprawling complex in the mid-aughts.
Described as Cambodia’s “best kept secret”, Banteay Chhmar is located about 160 km from Siem Reap. Decent accommodation is scarce in the vicinity, save for a smattering of luxury eco-tents — each equipped with comfortable wooden beds and en suite bathrooms — set up on the temple grounds itself.
The glamping experience is run by a group of local villagers as part of a community-based tourism project. Most of the proceeds from the glamp site are kept within the community.
Photo credit: Helistar Cambodia
Have a different kind of holiday experience at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia’s wild northeast. The elephant sanctuary — a well-regarded non-profit which cares for 10 rescued elephants on over 300,000ha of protected forest — welcomes volunteers and visitors, including families with children, to learn more about the region’s elephants and the dangers facing them.
There won’t be any elephant riding or other exploitative practices here. Visitors and volunteers are asked to observe elephants from a distance so the animals can have as “natural” a life as possible in a sanctuary setting. Volunteers can also get their hands dirty by helping with projects like building water towers, and working on on-site banana, bamboo and pineapple farms.
Photo credit: Culture Trip