Pairs Well With…Cambodia + Culture + Learning + Understanding
Cambodia is nothing less than a cultural mecca and, like it or not, you’re going to get a big dose of culture (and reality) here whether you want one or not. Coming into this month, I was longing for a culture that consumed me – and this one did. In fact, it chewed me up and spit me out. Most of all, it humbled me.
Living in Cambodia hasn’t been the easiest task, to say the least, but the country’s had its ways of working itself into my heart. I’ve seen and felt things through the activities I participated in this month, but also in the deep and meaningful conversations I’ve had. I don’t know that any country has made me this sad to leave, while simultaneously ready to pack my bags. Cambodia has been a bit of a mind bender, but I stick to what I said the moment I arrived: the people are the most amazing part of the country.
I spent a lot of time learning about Cambodian culture and history through first-hand stories, participating in local activities, and visiting historic sites and landmarks, not all of which were easy for me. Cambodia has been one of the most fulfilling countries I’ve visited in all of my global travels, and I highly encourage anyone looking to get out of their comfort zone to swing on over.
Each of these fifteen activities has either taught me something extremely important about the country’s history and how the Cambodian culture lives or provided me with a culturally immersive or fun experience that was in some way memorable. Without further ado, here’s this month’s fab fifteen list.
TODDLE AROUND IN A TUK TUK. The key to getting around in Cambodia will revolve around these three-wheeled motorbike taxis that rule the streets. They are your best friend and pretty much your only option for transportation besides your own two feet. Tuk Tuks are quite inexpensive costing $2-$3 for a one-way ride. Make sure to negotiate before you get in, or you may be charged a “foreigner’s fee.”
DO A LITTLE DANCE. A COCONUT DANCE. One of my favorite things to do when visiting another country is to learn a dance native to the country’s culture. The all important coconut is an integral part of people’s lives here, responsible for many items such as keychains, desserts, cakes, and cutlery, among many others. It is also used for a very special kind of dance – The coconut dance! This exclusive dance was used to delight royalty during the Angkor empire and is also performed during wedding ceremonies or Khmer New Year. I can’t tell you how much fun it was dressing up in traditional attire and learning this dance of love. You can book this exciting excursion with Backstreet Academy in Phnom Penh.
BOOK A HOMESTAY. Homestay? What’s a homestay? I have to admit that while I had a general idea of what a homestay was, I didn’t really understand the full experience until I arrived for the night. A homestay is essentially when you pay to sleepover at someone’s house that they are living in. For me, that meant crashing on the top level of a non-conditioned house – on the floor, in a mosquito net. You may think this sounds miserable, but there’s no better way to understand how another culture lives until you put yourself right there too. Believe me, it’s eye-opening (and worth it), and I’d double down that you come back feeling very, very grateful for everything you have. And, if you’re lucky, your host may even cook your meals.
KICK IT IN KAMPOT. Now that you know what a homestay is, you’re probably looking for the best place in Cambodia to do one. I did mine in Kampot, a city on the Preaek Tuek Chhu River in southern Cambodia. The city is quaint and cozy, with restaurants and shops lining the river. It’s a great place for a weekend trip and has a handful of natural parks and other historic attractions to take in. Fast fact: Kampot is known for its pepper plantations. Like wine grapes, Kampot peppercorns can only be grown in specific regions or climates, which makes this region’s pepper so highly coveted, as it is known to be the best in the world.
EAT A CRUNCHY CRICKET. You know you’re in Cambodia when…no, but really. I ate crickets this month, and despite a lot of internal debate and scrutiny of these critters, I decided to try this local movie theater favorite. So, you’re probably wondering what they taste like? Honestly, bacon. They tasted like bacon. It’s only the mental hurdle you need to jump. And remember, crickets are one heck of a protein filled snack.
VIBE AT A VILLAGE OR STREET FESTIVAL. You’re likely to find variations of street or village festivals in Cambodia, especially in the springtime and around Khmer New Year (April). In Cambodia, you’ll find many reasons for celebrating: completion upon collecting rice from the rice fields, Khmer weddings and sometimes just because. You can enjoy traditional Khmer games, music, food and dancing – and have a great time soaking it all in.
SEE SILK ISLAND. About an hour outside of Phnom Penh, you’ll find Silk Island, a traditional, working silk weaving village. These skilled workers create beautiful, impressive scarves and garments at their looms, all available for sale on the island as well. Also, you’ll get to see the end-to-end silk production process, including the mulberry eating silk worms at various stages in their lifecycles. The entire process is extremely interesting.
CHILL AT KHEMA’S WINE & CHEESE NIGHT. The Thursday wine and cheese event at Khema is honestly one of the best I’ve EVER been to. Anywhere. For $20, you get “free flow” red or white wine from 6-8pm, a lovely and colorful charcuterie board filled with delectable cheeses and an appetizer buffet. The setup, staff, food and wine were outstanding, especially for this price point. Besides, a little wine and a lot of fun will never hurt anybody, right?
TRY KHMER. None of my “best of” posts would be complete without a sampling of local food. I tried many authentic Cambodian dishes including lort char, chicken amok, dumplings, curries and a handful of noodle variations. You can expect some of these delicious dishes to show up in next month’s A Girl’s Gotta Eat Guide – and you won’t be disappointed. Here are a few must-try meals from a few of my favorite restaurants in Phnom Penh.
EDUCATE YOURSELF AT S-21 (Genocide Museum). I’m not even going to try to sugarcoat it. These next two items on my list are extremely hard visits but are critically important if you want to fully understand the state of rebuild Cambodia is in today. This former high school turned torture, interrogation and execution center is where many people spent some of their last days before being transported to the Killing Fields. The museum serves a helpful prelude to that visit.
REFLECT AT THE KILLING FIELDS. Choeung Ek was the hardest place I visited. You can expect a lot of reflection and emotion as you hear hard stories. I suggest getting the self-paced audio tour versus a guide. While historically a dark and gloomy place, you can begin to see the optimism shine through in the dedicated reflection sites. If you want to learn more about Cambodia’s heartbreaking history, this video sums it up quite well.
ENJOY A SUNRISE IN SIEM REAP. Look on the brighter side of things, literally. Siem Reap, a northwestern Cambodian city, is likely what you’d recognize if you’ve ever received a postcard from Cambodia. Within the city, lies many notable temples including the infamous Angor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm to name a few.
SAVOR THE SUNSET AT OUDONG MOUNTAIN. Sunsets are just as amazing as sunrises, and this spot offers scenic views, perfect for picture taking. Oudong is about a 45-minute drive from Phnom Penh and was Cambodia’s former capital. With its many monuments and ancient stories, it is great for a day trip adventure.
EXPLORE THE ROYAL PALACE. This palace, built between 1886 and 1919, is a fine example of Khmer architecture. The temple complex consists of over three principal compounds including the Silver Pagoda, the Main Palace and the Central Throne in the central compound. You’ll find the present king of Cambodia residing here.
MAKE AN IMPRESSION ON THE CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA. Cambodia offers a lot of opportunities to get involved in a way that’s personally meaningful. I chose to work with the children of Tiny Toones, a program that uses hip-hop culture to engage, inspire and educate some of Cambodia’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and teach dance. Make a difference and help this country to continue making forward progress by influencing Cambodia’s impressionable youth.