Local travel experiences in Cambodia

by Meagan

Go beyond the tourist attractions and get more out of your Cambodian holiday! Here are 5 activities to introduce you to Khmer people and experience local life.

Angkor Wat. Floating villages. Cooking class. Pub street. Fish massage. Night market. You’ve checked off the sights, done the activities and bought the souvenirs. And it was grand! The people were smiling, the kids trying to sell you postcards were cute and you were great mates with your tuk tuk driver by the end of the day.

There’s no question that Siem Reap is a great holiday spot but sometimes one leaves such a tourist destination craving more.

More contact with local people, a greater sense of place, a deeper understanding of contemporary Khmer life.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to get away from the tourist destinations but even in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or Battambang you can find a more authentic travel experience.  Just seek out the following activities where you can mix with the locals and gain greater insight into Cambodian life.

1. Visit the markets

Local markets are the centre of any community and always a good starting point for a local experience.  The vast majority of Cambodian people shop at local open air markets – supermarkets are very rare outside of Phnom Penh.  Buy some tropical fruit or sit at a market stand and have a light meal.  Vendors and buyers alike are usually very friendly and interested to know what you are buying, what you plan to do with it, where you come from, how old you are - and pretty much everything about you!

Explore the local markets
Explore the local markets
Khmer people love to picnic
Khmer people love to picnic

2. Take a picnic in a local park

Khmers love to eat together outdoors.  On road trips take away meals are frequently bought and eaten when a suitably pleasant place has been found on the side of the road.  Anywhere you go in Cambodia you will invariably find parks or waterside locations with food vendors and rows of bamboo huts for picnicking.  On weekends they will be full of Khmer families and young people.  Find a local picnic place, sample some local snacks, hang out there, make friends!

3. Sing and dance

Karaoke is a national pastime!  Almost everyone you meet loves to sing and dance – or  professes talent in at least one of the two.  Wherever there is a PA system – and they are ubiquitous in this country – people will sing. But if you don't fancy taking to the stage at a public event just find your nearest karaoke bar.  Almost every town has karaoke bars with private rooms available through the night.  Go along and find some Khmer friends to join you.  Be aware that the song menu may not include anything from after 1985 – except for, quite bizarrely, the occasional old-school marketing jingle that somehow slips in (“always the real thing, always Coca-cola!”).  Embrace it, and in turn, be entertained by long love ballads and cajoled into Khmer-style dancing.

You can karaoke wherever there is a PA
You can karaoke wherever there is a PA

4. Get active

Public aerobics is a popular dawn and dusk activity in many towns around Cambodia.  Local parks fill with groups of up to 100 people or more following an instructor or TV set through some simple aerobics moves, set to great tracks from Khmer classics to Hotel California!  Muy, bpi, bay, buen, muy bpi, bai, buen. Count from 1 to 4, follow the person in front of you and even with only basic coordination skills, you should have no trouble getting through it.  Expect to be conspicuous – you could well be the only barang (foreigner) there so all eyes will be on you and people will want to talk to you.  And if aerobics just isn't your style, never fear, there will always be a football kick-about, badminton muck-about or other goings on nearby.

Public aerobics in Svay Sisophon
Public aerobics in Svay Sisophon

5. Glam up

Should you be lucky enough to score a wedding or other party invitation in Cambodia you will want to make the most of the opportunity to do it like the locals.  Book an appointment and for only $3-5 get your make-up done and your hair styled in whatever elaborate look you desire.  Expect crimping irons, thick foundation, bright pink lipstick, fake eyelashes and heavy eye-brows…  Sa’art na! (very beautiful!)

And the rest of us don’t have to miss out.  Most large photo shops will do glamour shots – book in to be transformed into a Khmer princess (or prince) and bring back the photographic evidence as the ultimate souvenir.  The small price includes hair and make-up, clothing and jewellery hire, your choice of truly extraordinary photo-shopped backgrounds - and complementary airbrushing.

Khmer party dresses
Dress in traditional Khmer bridal outfits
Dress in traditional Khmer bridal out...

Live local

It doesn't have to end with these specific experiences.  Ultimately, a truly authentic and satisfying tourism experience comes from meeting local people.  Opportunities to do so will open up if you do ordinary things the local way - eat at local restaurants, use a local gym, take local transport such as share taxis and bicycles.  Village homestays are also a great way to meet local people and experience rural life.  Language can, of course, present challenges, but these are part of the fun.  These days many young people in Cambodia have some level of English language skills and are keen to practice.                                   

Khmer people are among the friendliest I have come across anywhere – getting to know some local people, gaining insight into their way of life and sharing experiences together will make your Cambodia visit infinitely richer and more rewarding for all involved.


More articles on Cambodia

Updated: 03/19/2012, Meagan
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Meagan on 04/20/2012

Oh I am a little jealous! I do love that feeling of arriving back in Asia. I haven't been back to Cambodia since I moved away quite a few months back - and I miss the place! I expect it is getting extremely hot and humid now - or did the rains started early again? Thanks for stopping by!

humma on 04/20/2012

I am in Phnom Penh right now and enjoying it once more after an absence of 2.5 months. It is like coiming home with friends and family.

Meagan on 02/10/2012

Humagaia, yes it is incredible how grateful and generous Khmer people are. Always smiling, always welcoming, always wanting to share what they have. They love nothing more than to put on a large feast and invite you to enjoy it with them and sometimes mention that to do this is so important to them precisely because they know what it is like to starve. It is hard to really comprehend the what my friends there have lived through. I do love Cambodia - I was very fortunate to spend time living among Khmer people and to start to know and understand the place in a deeper way. There is much more I want to write but it's harder now I have left and I wish I had taken a million more photos to accompany my stories! Thanks for your wonderful comment!

Meagan on 02/10/2012

Ralpapajan, do visit Cambodia, it is a truly wonderful place! Thanks for your comment.

humagaia on 02/09/2012

Such a great place you describe. Wish I had visited. Hope I can visit. The people always look so beautiful, happy and glamorous. I suppose they are just grateful they have come through to the other end of a nightmare. They have awoken to see the wonders around them, the sunshine and the rain, and blossomed. The beauty was always there, but dark clouds had stopped the sun glinting off their skin.
Please keep writing about Cambodia: you obviously have a love for the place. It shows through in your eyes when you write about it.

Ralpapajan on 02/05/2012

One of the places on my Wish List! Lovely descriptions of Cambodia and its villages.

The scenes you show in pictures and words spurs me on. TYVM.

Meagan on 02/04/2012

Nightowl, you are absolutely right - Cambodia does have a very special charm and I too hope it will last. However the pace of change there is quite incredible. No McDonalds or Disneyland yet but KFC arrived while I was living there and quickly multiplied... Thanks so much for the Editor's Choice awards!

Sam, definitely do put Cambodia on your list - its a very special place to visit!

Fennelseed on 02/04/2012

Awesome and enticing ideas for a full Khmer experience.

Sam on 01/25/2012

Oh, that sounds lovely! Really puts Cambodia on my list of 'Must See Places Before I Die ;-)

nightowl on 01/25/2012

I love how you focus on the genuine and authentic experience of travel. Something that seems to get increasingly difficult in our age of Disneyland and McDonalds. I hope Cambodia will retain its unique charm and identity (at least until I finally manage to visit there)... :)

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