In a country where there has been gruesomely horrific brutality in too recent history, with a land torn apart, we unassumingly found Cambodia to be beautiful, and it’s people to be sincerely kind. Before visiting Cambodia, it’s helpful to understand it’s past. It speaks volumes to how resilient it’s people truly are, and how much they’ve gone through to be where they are today. We fell in love with everything here, and hope you do too if you happen to visit someday!
- History of the Cold War era in Southeast Asia
- History on the rise of the Khmer Rouge
- Cultural notes and etiquette tips
- Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick. This book details the unbelievable experience of an 11 year old boy who lived through the Khmer Rouge, and grew up to found the Cambodian Living Arts Foundation, explained as it relates to the Aspara Dance section below.
Net fishing on the rice fields. We came across this adventure via Backstreet Academy and can say honestly that it was a trip highlight. Net fishing is how many of the locals to this day fish for their families on a regular basis. Our guide/teacher grew up net fishing with his father, and created this course to help share with others, the art and tradition of the skill that he so proudly appreciates. He showed us how to to cast the net for the widest catch, remove the fish from the net once caught, and how to spot where bigger (catfish-like) fish were swimming. He had become friends with the family who lived nearby, so once done for the day, we worked with them to clean off everything we caught and cook up a delicious meal from our day’s laborious work. As the sun set over the fields, we got to know our new friends over a few of their favorite beers, and some version of Cambodian sangria. The woman of the house even cooked us jasmine rice from her own field as a special treat. A very memorable and special experience!
- Angkor Wat, Siem Reap. We’d recommend going for sunrise. Seeing the sun come up behind this great architectural masterpiece is a breathtaking experience (and also helps beat the crowds that come later in the day!)
Insider tip: Look for the stone engravings of the women performing Aspara dance on the temple walls. The dance is one of Cambodia’s oldest and most beautiful, and seeing the motions preserved on the walls of Angkor Wat is fascinating.
Note: We unfortunately didn’t get to the other popular temples and terraces while in Siem Reap, but they are included as part of your Angkor Wat admission ticket if you’d like to visit them while there.
- Killing Fields, Phnom Penh. This is one of the most notorious sites from the years of Pol Pot, where the Khmer Rouge killed multiple thousands of Cambodians from 1975 – 1979. Through the guided audio tour, you will see remnants of mass graves, hear the tearful stories from survivors, and fail to grasp the unimaginable living conditions and fear that these prisoners faced for those terrifying 4 years.
- S-21 (Genocide Museum). Once a flourishing high school, Tuol Svay Pray was turned into one of the most highly secretive torture, interrogation and execution centers during the Khmer Rouge. Like the Killing Fields, you will follow an audio tour through each of the five buildings, each of which had been transformed from once colorful classrooms into suffocating holding rooms, split into micro cells made of wood and brick to hold innocent prisoners until their interrogations. Photos on the walls capture those horrifically gruesome moments in time, and the metal beds and chains left behind give you only a fraction of an idea of the inhumane treatment these prisoners faced while there. There are often feature exhibits that give you a further glimpse into what life was like at S-21, and you can spend time listening to the unimaginable stories of those who were lucky to survive and relatives of those who didn’t.
Note: There are a number of other places to see in Phnom Penh related to the genocide and times during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge that we haven’t listed here, but available to visit via any tuk tuk, guest house or hotel tour if you’d like to see them.
Aspara Dance Performance. You can find these performances at various places in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, though we were intrigued by the dance performance at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Hosted by Cambodian Living Arts, an organization founded by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, to rebuild the arts and humanities culture of Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge nearly destroyed it, the night is filled with ornately costumed dancers, both women and men alike, performing ancient, indigenous, and all theatrical dance. It runs for 90 minutes in an airy outdoor venue and is a mystifyingly intriguing art to see.
- FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club). Mythed to be the cornerstone for hungry journalists back when Phnom Penh was known as more of a volatile Wild West (with gun shots heard throughout the night, spotty electricity and crime up and down the riverside), FCC opened it’s doors in 1992 and has been serving great drinks and food to fuel the insane and the story hunter ever since. You’ll find it tucked within the strip along the riverside; a three level building which houses the open air restaurant, bar, and terrace. With it’s breezy ambiance, combined with their savory food, craft cocktails, and history of it’s beginnings, we favored this place greatly. Half of their ample menu is splashed with colorful cocktail descriptions, usually featuring their pick of the day. With an extensive selection of both Asian and Western favorites to choose from, you can’t go wrong with any of their food dishes either, all while taking in the impressive views of the Mekong River.
Suggestion cred: Friends from sunset dinner sail and ATV adventure
- Friends the Restaurant. This restaurant started out as, and remains as of today, a place to help provide practical skills to the marginalized youth of Cambodia. The founders hatched the idea for Friends after dining out in Phnom Penh one night back in the late ’90’s, when Cambodia was still very much a place of social unrest. They wanted to do something to help the children, without forcing Western ways of thinking upon them, giving them instead practical skills that they could use within their own culture to have a better life. Today, Friends is part of the Tree Alliance NGO, which has other similar establishments throughout Southeast Asia. It’s a must-not-miss if you’re in Phnom Penh as the food is extraordinary; the recipes created by the students themselves, enhanced only with their teachers’ support.
If you have an interest to volunteer during your time in Cambodia, we’d highly recommend the orphanage south of Phnom Penh, CPOC. See our special feature post dedicated to our time there, here.
Must go cinema
The Flicks 2. This was Phnom Penh’s first independent cinema, set up by a New Zealand couple in 2009. It’s grown to become a legendary staple within the city, and unlike your traditional movie theater, The Flicks 2 has one screening room, smaller in size, furnished with pillows lining the floors, and couches decorated with cushions, for a fully relaxing viewing experience. If playing while you’re in town, we’d highly recommend seeing “The Killing Fields,” a film that introduces the atmosphere in Cambodia during their civil war from 1970 – 1975, then details the rise and control of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979.