In the compact yet vibrant nation of Cambodia, ancient temples, bustling cities, and traditional village life intermingle, with family values and spiritual beliefs at the forefront of daily life.

Experience the lively atmosphere of Phnom Penh’s palaces, markets, and bars before heading north to Siem Reap to visit Tonlé Sap Lake’s floating villages and the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor. Finally, venture south to the unspoiled jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, culminating in a memorable homestay with a rural family.

Phnom Penh: A Cultural Hub

The streets of Phnom Penh are unusually calm. A lone remork – the ever-present motorised rickshaw – leisurely cruises past the Royal Palace, heading towards the tranquil Tonlé Sap riverfront. Amidst the closed shops lining the palm-adorned promenade, food vendors offer noodle soup and beef skewers to the occasional passerby.

The serenity is short-lived, as the Khmer festival that emptied the city concludes and thousands of Phnom Penhois return from their rural family gatherings. The vibrant chaos resumes, and the ‘Pearl of Asia’ thrives with a burgeoning café culture and an abundance of top-tier fusion eateries.

The city’s prosperity is evident in its cultural institutions, many of which were established during the French Protectorate era that began in 1863. Among these is the Art Deco Psar Thmei, a pastel-yellow covered market with four wings extending from a massive central dome.

Shortly after sunrise, the Central Market is already bustling with activity. Vendors selling traditional checked krama scarves are busy with customers, while shoppers navigate their way past stalls brimming with lychees, dragon fruit, lotus flowers, and fragrant Rumdul – Cambodia’s national flower.

Not far from the market, the National Museum is situated close enough to the riverfront to receive a refreshing breeze. Schoolchildren in matching white polo shirts and flip-flops play in the shade of the terracotta building’s well-maintained garden, while visitors inside contemplate a millennium of Khmer sculptures.

Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is the tallest religious structure in the city.

The nearby Royal Palace, with its sparkling spires and intricate dragon-tail accents, continues to dominate the city’s low-rise skyline. In one of the palace courtyards, a group of artists works diligently to restore a 1901 mural depicting the Reamker, Cambodia’s adaptation of the epic Hindu poem, the Ramayana.

Lead artist Roeung Sreyna explains that her university studies in classical painting included examining the Ramayana. She gestures towards the mural, where celestial beings and horse-drawn chariots soar above a heavenly palace. The restoration process is painstakingly slow, as accurately matching colours and repairing damage caused by humidity requires a delicate touch. Roeung emphasises the importance of taking their time with the project, as it represents their nation’s history.

Tonlé Sap: Life on the Lake

In the village of Me Chrey, water-filled streets meander between floating wooden houses. The village’s 500 families are among the thousands who have settled on the freshwater Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s ‘Great Lake.’

As expected, life here revolves around water. At the break of dawn, Me Chrey is already teeming with activity. Toddlers navigate small aluminium tubs down the main street, fruit and vegetable vendors in vibrant attire and conical hats pilot boats between houses, and locals check for breaches in ‘fish banks’ – submerged reed baskets for storing fish until market day.

Laughter and animated conversations fill the air, occasionally punctuated by a pig snorting from its floating pen. Further out on the lake, a family retrieves traps laden with fish, their movements precise and efficient, honed through generations of living on the water.

Traveling along the waterways, it’s common to encounter floating businesses – from schools and medical clinics to grocery stores and even petrol stations. Residents adapt to the lake’s seasonal fluctuations, relocating their homes, businesses, and fish farms as water levels change.

Angkor: A Journey into the Past

Preah Khan temple, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Preah Khan temple, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

An hour’s drive from Tonlé Sap, the ancient city of Angkor is a testament to the grandeur of Cambodia’s past. Established in the 9th century, the capital of the Khmer Empire eventually grew to cover over 400 square miles, with magnificent temples constructed in honour of Hindu and Buddhist deities.

Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, awes visitors with its intricate bas-reliefs and stone towers that reach towards the heavens. Early morning is the perfect time to explore this architectural wonder, with the rising sun casting a warm glow upon the ancient stones, imbuing the site with an ethereal quality.

Angkor Thom, the great walled city, is home to the enigmatic Bayon Temple, where a multitude of enigmatic stone faces gaze out over the surrounding jungle. Visitors lose themselves in the otherworldly atmosphere of Ta Prohm, where gnarled tree roots envelop the temple’s crumbling walls.

Cardamom Mountains: Unspoiled Wilderness

Heading southwest from Angkor, the Cardamom Mountains offer a glimpse of Cambodia’s wild side. The undisturbed jungle is home to a rich array of wildlife, including clouded leopards, sun bears and gibbons.

A guided trek through the lush landscape leads to a remote village where visitors have the opportunity to experience a traditional homestay. Joining a Cambodian family for a few days, one can gain insight into rural life, from cooking local dishes to learning about the region’s agriculture and conservation efforts.

The Cambodian Odyssey concludes in this beautiful corner of the country, where the simplicity of life and warmth of its people leave an indelible mark on the hearts of those who venture here. The resilient spirit and rich cultural heritage of Cambodia, along with its breathtaking natural wonders, make it a must-visit destination for travellers seeking authentic, immersive experiences.

As the early monsoon rains cascade over the Cardamom Mountains, they punctuate the serene surface of the Tatai River. Lightning streaks through the darkening sky, driving away the fireflies that typically perform their dusk ballet above the water. The forested foothills become a shadowy tapestry, as countless palm trees sway and dance under the relentless downpour.

When the rain finally relents, a mystical mist rises from the river, and frogs emerge from their secret hideaways, exploring the refreshed water levels. A gentle haze drifts through the hills, weaving among coconut palms, wild-plum trees, and the heavy-laden jackfruits. The Tatai Waterfall roars to life, tumbling over boulders and invigorating the moss that clings to them. Local youngsters leap from the rocks, shouting gleefully as they plunge into the swollen pools below.

A closeup shot of a white stork flies over a mangrove sanctuary in Kampot, Cambodia
A closeup shot of a white stork flies over a mangrove sanctuary in Kampot, Cambodia

This lush, green corner of southwest Cambodia is a sanctuary of protected forests and conservation corridors. Yet, it’s the region’s natural inaccessibility that truly safeguards it – a tangled maze of jungle canopies enveloping small villages and, more recently, eco-resorts. It’s no wonder the Cardamom Mountains once provided refuge for the Khmer Rouge, whose militants evaded capture here long after the regime’s brutal reign in the late 1970s.

Paths cleared by hand now connect isolated villages, offering trekking routes for adventurous souls seeking to discover the lesser-known side of Cambodia. One such trail, linking the villages of Takat and Tuleki, has become a well-traveled path. As guide Ravy, or Vy for short, explains, “The trails became well-worn because those two villages are good friends.”

Various species of crabs scuttle out to bathe in the puddles, while a group of long-tailed macaques clamours through the trees, filling the air with their raucous calls. Mushrooms sprout from damp logs, with some varieties used in spring rolls and others as rodent poison. “Fortunately, they look very different,” notes Vy.

Leaves glisten with moisture, soon to be used for wrapping sticky rice, while a dislodged “ant house” – a tiny, leaf-made nest – lies on the ground. Villagers will repurpose it for traditional medicine. In such a remote and plentiful environment, very little goes to waste.

Halfway along the trail, a woman and her two sons emerge from the jungle, carrying weathered baskets filled with wild mushrooms. On other days, they might be filled with frogs. “When it rains, we go out early in the morning with a torch to collect them,” Vy explains. He does the same for durians when they’re in season. “They fall during the night, so I come out at 5am before anyone else can claim them.”

Back at the Tatai River, the sky transforms into a canvas of pinks and violets as monsoon clouds loom in the distance. Birds begin to stir, their songs mingling with the rustling of the forest as animals embark on their nightly rounds – and villagers return home, laden with firewood.

Takeo Province: A Glimpse into Rural Life

Siphen Meas’ childhood in the 1980s was one of subsistence. Like most Cambodians, her family lost their property and savings during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, which ended in 1979. They were among the fortunate few who escaped with their lives. “We didn’t go shopping. We found our own fruit and grew our own vegetables,” she recalls. “After school, I’d pick greens to eat, fish in the lake, or head to the bush to gather firewood.”

Today, Siphen and her family frequent the market, with nearby Angk Tasoam being a favorite. Nevertheless, they continue to work the land in their village of Prey Theat, about two hours south of Phnom Penh. The land generously yields rice, taro, coconut, and mango. Siphen and her husband Mach, both English teachers, now operate a homestay. Their home is encircled by verdant paddy fields, where ducks play under the watchful eyes of yoked oxen, and children ride past on oversized bicycles. A neighbour scoops snails and small fish from a paddy field using a woven-basket, pausing to chat with a family on a scooter – two children squeezed between their parents on the narrow seat.

Rice season spans from July to December, and everyone contributes – including homestay guests. “They work hard,” Siphen says with a grin, “and the villagers laugh and ask, ‘Why do they want to work like that?'”

The homestay serves as a hub for the village, with many residents being related to Siphen and Mach. Siphen estimates they have around 100 family members in Prey Theat. Guests become part of the family as well, staying in bungalows amidst fruit trees or in wood-panelled rooms within the main house. The tranquil, hammock-filled courtyard is the heart of family life – a space for cousins to chat, braid each other’s hair, and exchange village news.

Siphen’s outdoor kitchen fosters a sense of community during meal preparation. As the evening sun casts a warm glow over the lily pond, Siphen arranges dishes of pork ribs, fish amok (fish curry steamed in banana leaves), and beef lok lak (beef stir-fried with red onions), before calling Mach over from his work trimming the grass around the fruit trees.

Assisting her with the cooking are young students from the neighbouring school, who sing Cambodian pop songs as they chop vegetables. Their English is impressive, and they eagerly converse with the native speakers at the homestay, some of whom will visit their classroom the next day to join a class and offer impromptu language tutoring.

Dinner concludes with a mango dessert – the family property boasts seven different varieties of the fruit, which Siphen’s niece harvests using a clever tool crafted from a plastic bottle and long stick.

The homestay truly is a collective endeavour. “Even the distant cousins are close,” Siphen explains. “Everyone looks after one another. Many people were lost from our family during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. So we all feel cold in our hearts and want to be closer to each other.”