Tired of Angkor? Had your fill of beaches? From frog-faced turtles to cowcarts and zipwires, we rounded up some of the Kingdom’s more unusual holiday offerings.
A-moo-zing adventures by cowcart
In Siem Reap, locals and expats alike have been quick to jump on the huge business opportunity that comes with the inundation of tourists, and every year a number of non-temple-related activities spring up around the area.
With July last year came the launch of Cowcart Adventure Tours, a tour operator that aims to educate tourists about the lives of villagers in Siem Reap province – using a cow cart, or ox cart, as transportation.
Tours start from Veal village, Kothchak commune, but the organisers often pick up customers from wherever they’re staying in Siem Reap.
They give people the chance to see local families as they work in the fields, go fishing and make rice wine. Customers will also have the opportunity to visit families’ homes and local pagodas as well as watch the sunset over the village.
There’s the option of embarking on Round 1 – a two-hour trip that costs $20 per person – or Round 2 – a three-hour trip that costs $25. If you’re travelling with one or two other people, you can get a discount. The money spent goes directly to the villagers to supplement their farming income.
Nourn Leap, the founder of Cowcart Adventure Tours, said: “Tourists come to Siem Reap to see the temples, but some people want other places to visit, to make them happy and give them knowledge. We want to show the reality of village life to
The tour, which has already managed to rack up five stars on Trip Advisor, gets more and more popular each month, Leap said.
For those who are averse to riding on cow-led transport, the tour company also organises cycle tours around the villages.
If, after experiencing the local culture, your legs are in need of a stretch, try out Angkor Wat Putt – a mini-golf course with miniature temples as obstacles. The owner, Tee Tom, claims to have founded the first mini-golf course in Cambodia, and spent six months putting together replicas of the temples. For those who really want to relax, there are bells to ring at each stop for the staff to bring you an ice-cold beer.
‘Frog-faced turtles’ in Kratie
Turtles may not be the most obvious tourist attraction for a New Year getaway, but Kratie offers the chance to see conservationist monks preserving the precarious existence of some highly peculiar terrapins at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre.
The Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle, which is known as the “frog-faced turtle” locally, was thought to be extinct in Cambodia until biologists discovered them living around Kratie in 2007.
Its anatomy is odd even by turtle standards, with its massive flat body appearing to have been crushed by an anvil. Able to grow up to two metres in length, they spend most of their lives buried in sandy riverbanks with only their mouths and eyes poking above the surface.
Unfortunately, Cantor’s turtle is also said to make good eating, with captured turtles fetching a high price on the black market. To save the turtles, the US-based NGO Conservation International joined forces with the monks of 100 Pillar pagoda in the town of Sambor (around 35 kilometres north of Kratie town) to collect hatchlings and safeguard them in the pagoda until they reach maturity. Prior to release, the monks put religious markings on the turtles’ shells to discourage locals from harvesting them. Nests are also protected by paying villagers to take care of them.
The pagoda welcomes visitors at the centre ($4 for foreign adults, $2 for children) to watch the monks take care of the turtles. Nine other local species are also cared for at the centre. The turtles’ caregivers also take visitors around the Mekong’s banks to see the turtle nests in nature.
Although there are no hotels or guesthouses at Sambor, project leader Sun Yoeung said that he can arrange home stays at a nearby Mekong island village called Yeav. Kratie is also home to a rustic yet stylish boutique guesthouse called Rajabori Villas.
Located on Koh Trong Island just opposite the main town, Rajabori Villas offers bungalows built in classic Khmer style ranging in price from $50-$94 per night, including free French breakfast. The island is also home to a Vietnamese floating village which attracts far fewer visitors than its more famous counterpart on the Tonle Sap near Siem Reap. Tours can also be arranged to view the famous endangered Irrawaddy dolphins at Kampi around 15 kilometres north of Kratie town.
Contact Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre’s director Sun Seoun at 012-71-20-71 for more information.
Alternative temples at Sambor Prei Kuk
It’s near impossible to visit Siem Reap temples without having to face the hordes of tourists that inevitably flock there. Sambor Prei Kuk, on the other hand, is relatively free of them.
Located 30km north of Kampong Thom town, almost exactly halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Sambor Prei Kuk was once, during the pre-Angkorian Chenla era of the sixth to eight centuries, the capital of Cambodia called Ishanapura.
Now, it’s a vast forest dotted with ruined temples. For people who like to know their history, there’s not much information about each one, so it might be frustrating not knowing the background to the ruin you’re staring at. But the forest is fun to get lost in, and the lack of tourists really makes for something special. In fact, you’re probably more likely to be ambushed by monkeys than by other people, though you might want to go sooner rather than later, as UNESCO has been trying to make it a World Heritage Site – a status that would most likely be a pull to tourists.
The history of Sambor Prei Kuk is an interesting one. Post-Pol Pot it was inaccessible due to the threat of guerilla attacks, and it only opened in 1998.
If you’d prefer a structured visit rather than getting lost with the monkeys, the temple complex is split between north, south and central groups. It probably makes sense to visit the north group first, followed by the south and then the central, as the ticket booth lies to the west of the north group.
It’s probably a stretch to go all the way up to Kampong Thom and back in one day and really get the opportunity to appreciate the temples, so it makes sense to stay nearby. About an hour’s drive south of Sambor Prei Kuk is Bronze Lake Resort, a vast expanse of land in which fancy chalets sit side by side an artificial lake. The grounds are fun to walk around, and the food at the restaurant, both Khmer and Western, is delicious and excellent value.
Zip lines on Koh Rong
Tourists and expats flock to the island of Koh Rong for its stunning beaches, but one company has started to offer something a bit different. High Point Rope Park promises a jungle adventure between 23 trees, with stunning views across the island and right out to the sea.
The course spans 400 metres, and provides a variety of rope bridges, zip lines and moving platforms up to 25 metres high. For the more adventurous, there are also “flying barrels” and “flying platforms”. It’s open 9am-5pm, seven days a week – including over Khmer New Year.
Prefer your adventure in the sea? Koh Rong still provides snorkelling and diving opportunities, with Koh Rong Dive Centre offering a variety of courses at different levels.
With its busy backpacker scene, the island has become something of a party place in recent years, and most hostels and guesthouses will reflect this ambience with parties going on late into the evening. If you’re looking for a party, try Koh Rong Backpackers or Bunna’s Place Backpacker Bar in Koh Touch village.
However, if staying on serene white sands with hardly any noise is more your style, why not catch a boat to the secluded Sonaya Beach for Pura Vita Resort? Cambodian-run with Italian food, all you can hear from the bungalows (around $50 per night) are the waves lapping up onto the shore. Be wary, however, that there’s limited electricity and internet access. But it doesn’t get too hot: the sea breeze will be sure to cool you down.
The lads at adventure tour operators Khmer Ways believe the best way to see Cambodia is on the back of a moto.
Since 2010, Benny, from Germany, and Rong, from Cambodia, have been taking tourists out to see the sights around Siem Reap on their trusty 125cc Honda Dreams.
Their trips range in duration from a few hours to weeklong adventures taking in vast areas of northern and central Cambodia.
Benny said motos were a great way to see the Cambodian countryside.
“We can go on trips where no cars go through and I believe we are more welcome in the villages when we don’t show up in cars or on ATVs,” he said.
“The customers just blend in more because it’s the natural transportation [of Cambodia] and we try and give the customers the most authentic feeling we can.”
One of Khmer Ways’ most popular trips is to Kulen Mountain National Park, northeast of Siem Reap, exploring kilometres of back trails, deep jungle tracks and hidden temples on souped-up Dreams with off-road tyres and stronger suspension.
The 145km Kulen Mountain day trips take in a giant reclining Buddha, a waterfall, the River of 1,000 Lingas, a bat cave and life-size elephant and lion statues, while a 180km overnight version also includes a visit to the village of Anlong Thom to see rock carvings, an ancient temple and royal baths and a night at a homestay.
“People love it because they’re really in the jungle on this tour,” he said. “They come home really exhausted and tired out – the waterfall is particularly appreciated.”
Benny said the moto tours were suitable even for people who had never been on one before. Inexperienced riders are given a short training course and time to practice before setting off.
“The Kulen Mountain tour has some tricky parts, especially up to the elephant statue, but the tours to Beng Melea are suitable for beginners – nothing challenging.
“With Kulen Mountain, going up is easy – it’s just a few kilometres through the jungle [that’s harder].”
The Kulen Mountain National Park day trip costs $95 per person ($85 pp for groups) while the overnight version costs $200 per person ($180 pp for groups) including a $35 government overnight fee.
For more information check out khmerways.com.
Tours of the Areng Valley
Deep in the Koh Kong jungle, the Areng Valley is about as far removed from the bustle of city life as can be imagined. Sadly, the pristine beauty is under threat from a proposed dam, which environmentalists say will ruin the local ecosystem as well as devastate the nearby villages.
A partnership between local communities and Mother Nature, a conservation NGO created by activists and monks fighting the construction of a dam, now offers a unique way to see the area. The Wilk KK Project, an effort to create tourism in order to fight the dam, launched earlier this year and has already seen large demand.
The valley itself is flat terrain, surrounded by the Cardamom mountains. At night, the sky is a canvas of stars. Tours of the area are tailored to individual demands but activities offered include motorbike rides, treks, kayaking and mountain biking.
Some of the most tempting ideas include trips down the Areng River, home to the Siamese crocodile.
“No noise pollution, just birds, dozens of kingfishers, monkeys on
the treetops and a feeling of having stepped back in time 100 years,” the website reads.
On a three-day trek, local guides take guests to a waterfall and a mysterious cave high on a plateau. Nights can be spent in hammocks beside beauty spots like sand banks by the Areng River, in abandoned villages, or a rustic Buddhist monastery.
For those who are looking for cultural attractions, throughout the Cardamoms are scattered ancient jar burial sites to which the organisation can arrange tours.
For a six-day trip, you might expect to pay around $200.