Once known as the “Paris of the East” and the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh still retains some of its natural charm, despite being the vibrant bustling capital of Cambodia. The city is an enthralling juxtaposition of old and new, with ancient and French colonial architecture and the glimmering spires of palaces and ornate pagodas sitting alongside mega malls, modern galleries and manicured gardens. While Phnom Penh has plenty of attractions, we say venture just a little further away from the city centre. That’s where you’ll be treated to a glimpse of everyday life in the heart of Cambodia (and get a sense of the much lauded Khmer hospitality) as well as experience exotic flora and fauna up-close – nature in all its glorious beauty. Here are six experiences to try.
1. Take a ferry down the Tonle Sap Lake
Stretching across 250km, this is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The Tonle Sap Lake is an important commercial resource thanks to its vibrant ecosystem – it provides more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. Phnom Penh is connected to the lake by the Tonle Sap River – there is a six-hour-long passenger ferry from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap that travels up the Tonle Sap River, stopping at Kampong Chhnang, and travels straight across the lake. Visit the lake to get an insight into the local’s way of life: admire the floating villages, the towering stilted houses, the sprawling fish traps and the fishermen busying themselves with the catch of the day. There are also local tours that will take you to Chong Khneas, a floating village that is popular with tourists, and where you get a taste of what life living overwater is like. You can also head to the village of Prek Toal at the edge of Tonle Sap. Located within the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve, this bird sanctuary is home to a wide variety of rare waterbirds – particularly in the dry season – making it a popular stop for budding ornithologists.
2. Cruise along the Mekong River
The Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia and the 7th longest in Asia, spanning 4,350km in length and flowing through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh, you’ll find different tour operators running all sorts of cruise tours on their section of the Mekong River, ranging from lunch cruises and exploratory cruises to sunset cruises and dinner cruises. There are also longer excursions: The Aqua Mekong luxury cruise offers a seven-day journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh before completing the journey in Siem Reap, allowing you to enjoy spectacular panoramas of the Mekong scenery in the comfort of an air-conditioned suite or at the top deck if you so wish. Other luxury operators include the Jayavarman and Jahan Cruises.
3. Take a step back in time at Silk Island
Koh Dach, also known as Silk Island, is a great respite from the hustle and bustle of the frenetic capital. Easily accessible via a 45-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Japanese Bridge followed by a quick ferry trip, the quiet island gives you an insight into rural Cambodian life. Here, you can learn all about Cambodia’s silk weaving history at its main silk weaving centre (just 1km away from the ferry terminal) where weavers work their magic on traditional wooden looms. As you explore the quaint island on bicycle – the best way to get around – be sure to slow down and drink in the pastoral scenes of rice paddies, vegetable farms, fruit orchards and historical pagodas all around you. Tired? Stop by the beach in the northern part of the island and cool down beneath a thatched picnic hut with an ice cold beverage. Or simply head over to one of the several riverside food stalls to enjoy some local delicacies.
4. Visit gentle giants at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
This wildlife sanctuary is home to over 1,200 animals, including elephants, tigers, bears, gibbons, otters and leopards. Run by non-governmental organisation Wildlife Alliance, the conservation centre is a place of refuge and rehabilitation for animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, and after they have been nursed back to health, they are assessed on whether they are suitable for release based on their health and strength to survive independently. Sign up for a full-day tour with an English-speaking tour guide that includes opportunities to hand feed elephants, visit adorable baby animals in the nursery and feed baby macaque monkeys. The tour includes a Cambodian-style lunch with fresh coconut water.
5. Go on ATV tours around local villages
Experience Phnom Penh in its full glory by riding a quad bike through the dusty countryside and travelling through several Cambodian villages. Village Quad Bike Trails offers various tours, all of which offer an adventure as well as a fresh new perspective on life as a Cambodian resident. The villages and Killing Fields tour is a three-hour journey that takes you through picturesque paddy fields and traditional Khmer villagers followed by a stop at a Buddhist monastery before ending at the somber site of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a mass grave site that now serves as a monument to those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid to late 1970s. The Sunset tour takes you to the same places but affords you with the opportunity to enjoy the scenery in the gorgeous glow of dusk.
6. Explore the ruins of Ta Prohm Temple at Tonle Bati
Not to be confused with Angkor’s famous jungle temple of the same name in Siem Reap, this temple ruin is located next to the Tonle Bati lake, 30km to the south of Phnom Penh. It is a smaller version of the one in Angkor and also built in the early 13th century during the rule of King Jayavarman VII. The temple structure boasts a collection of well-preserved carvings and bas-reliefs, as well a series of inner chambers. Take time to marvel at the historical significance of the architecture and admire the resilient trees that grow on and around the temple structure. Don’t forget to stop by the scenic Tonle Bati, a popular weekend retreat for for locals looking to do a spot of fishing.
7. Get in touch with nature at Kirirom National Park
Located about three hours away from Phnom Penh by car, this elevated national park is an idyllic paradise spread across the top of a 700m-high hill. It is also Cambodia’s first officially designated national park. With its lush greenery, wild flowers and majestic water features, it’s truly the best place to get away from it all and to be one with nature. Sign up for a tour with a guide and let him or her lead you along winding trails through pine forests with cascading waterfalls and cliffs with amazing views of the Cardamom Mountains. Take a dip at the lake before enjoying a relaxing lakeside lunch at a rustic picnic hut (usually included if you join a tour).
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.