Emily Lush is a freelance writer, blogger, and communications consultant from Brisbane, Australia, who made her first trip to Southeast Asia in 2012. Captivated by the culture and the chaos, she has returned to the region every year since, eventually moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2015. In 2016, she found a job with a small NGO in Phnom Penh. Emily loves traveling slowly and getting to know a country, so she couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a year in Cambodia. While based in Phnom Penh, she traveled every chance she got, making good use of Cambodia’s 27 public holidays to explore almost every corner of the country. Here are some of the off-the-beaten path highlights from those travels.
“Cambodia is divided into 25 provinces, each with a commercial center of the same name but with the prefix of Krong (so, Krong Siem Reap is the capital of Siem Reap province). Phnom Penh is classified as an administrative zone, and is in fact an enclave within Kandal province. It’s a bit of a cliché, but the ‘real’ Cambodia really does lie outside the big cities. Thankfully, it only takes about 15 minutes to escape from the sprawling capital and see it for yourself. Ferries crisscross the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers around Phnom Penh, connecting with Kandal’s hamlets. Not far from the Independence Monument in the center of town, you can board a ferry to Akreiy Ksatr Village, a collection of fishing shacks, shophouses, and rice paddies, and home to a beautiful monastery. The visible contrast between Phnom Penh and Kandal reflects the tension that exists in modern-day Cambodia between concentrated wealth and widespread poverty.”
“One of the most interesting things about Phnom Penh—my adoptive home for the past 12 months—is that almost everyone who lives there is a settler. Phnom Penh-ers trace their family back one or two generations to a rural province (‘What’s your province?’ is a handy icebreaker to use in the city), and on national and Buddhist holidays, the capital completely empties out as everyone journeys back to their hometown. Coach, minibus, and taxi are the most popular transport options—but single-lane highways, constant construction, and heavy traffic make Cambodia’s roads hard-going. In 2016, the country’s only passenger train was resurrected, giving travelers an affordable alternative. A single line connects Phnom Penh with Takeo, Kampot, and Sihanoukville. It’s only operational on weekends and mainly used by local families.”
“Unlike other parts of Asia, Cambodia doesn’t experience a monsoon and the rainy season is relatively dry. ‘Green season‘—which falls between unbearably hot April and crisp, dry November—is my favorite time of year. There’s just enough rain in the afternoon and evening to wash away the day’s dust, but not enough to interfere with your travel plans. The landscape comes alive during these middle months and in the provinces, everyone’s attention turns to the rice fields. This photo was taken in July, Cambodia’s wettest month, during rice planting season in Kampot.”
“Battambang has always been thought of as Cambodia’s cultural capital. The city suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime, which targeted creative types and intellectuals, but in recent years, entrepreneurs have returned to re-establish Battambang’s long traditions of music, performance, and visual arts. Romcheik 5 is one of many galleries on the city’s contemporary art circuit, and it doubles as a studio/residence for a quintet of young Cambodian artists. Their provocative and often political work is a perfect counterpoint to Battambang’s other main tourist attraction: its colonial architecture.”
“Chong Khneas, a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake, is a popular excursion from Siem Reap; but in recent years, it’s become overpriced and tourist-filled. A more authentic alternative is to be found in Kampong Chhnang, less than 100 kilometers from Phnom Penh, where the Tonle Sap river meets the lake. Fifteen dollars (USD) will get you a two-hour trip around one of the loveliest floating villages anywhere in Southeast Asia. Tourism is still in its infancy, so tours are comprehensive without being too intrusive. The Tonle Sap is the only river on Earth that changes direction partway through the year, and in Kampong Chhnang, every aspect of life is intertwined with the waterway. This is a good place to overnight on your way to Battambang or it can feasibly be done as a day trip by taxi from Phnom Penh.”
“One of the best things about traveling around Cambodia is sampling the different regional foods. Every province has its own specialty: It might be a local ingredient or just something that tastes better here than anywhere else. Kampot’s salt and pepper is probably the best-known example. Kep has its crab, Takeo its freshwater lobster, and Kampong Cham its juicy snails. In Kratie province, north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River, the ultimate snack is bamboo sticky rice. It’s made by funneling grains and red beans into a piece of bamboo and then steaming it over an open fire. To eat it, you peel away the bamboo casing and pinch off the bite-sized chunks of delicious rice. No province does it better, and it’s difficult to find this item outside of Kratie.”
“More evidence of Cambodia’s regional diversity lies in the ‘One Province One Product’ initiative, which highlights each province’s unique exports. Takeo was once famed for its cotton textiles; now, many young women migrate to work in garment factories and the industry has all but disappeared. A number of social enterprises aim to revive cotton weaving, including Cambodian Weaving Village, a co-op where women make krama (Cambodia’s ubiquitous checkered scarves) and other textiles for brands in Phnom Penh and beyond. You can overnight at the adjoining Cambodian Homestay and spend a few days exploring the surrounding countryside. The Village and Homestay are both run by the Meas family, who have lived on the property for generations.”
“When its temple time in Cambodia, nothing rivals Siem Reap’s Angkor—but there’s a smattering of lesser-known lone ruins and vast complexes all across the country that are also worth visiting. Banteay Prey Nokor (Wat Nokor) in Kampong Cham is one of the most beguiling. On the outside, it has all the hallmarks of a pre-Angkorian temple: impressive stonework, intricate carvings, maze-like nooks. Inside, a new sanctuary has been dropped into the crumbling shell and painted with exquisite Buddhist murals. The result is a nesting-doll temple that reveals layers of history and alludes to Cambodia’s convoluted spiritual past.”
After a year of getting to know Phnom Penh, visiting provinces right on the capital’s doorstep and as far away as Mondulkiri, Emily Lush bid adieu to Cambodia. She slow-traveled through the Caucasus, including Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijian, and now she is working for an NGO in Hanoi, Vietnam. To keep up with her many adventures, follow her on Instagram at @emily_lush.