Learn Some Khmer
Although the locals don’t expect tourists to speak Khmer, trying some basic phrases can make them open up to you. People in Cambodia are generally reserved unless they’re trying to sell you something. A simple johm ree-uhp soo-uh (ជំរាបសួរ – hello), aw gohn (អរគុណ – thanks), etc. will bring a smile to a Khmer face and make whomever you’re speaking with more comfortable practicing their English with you.
Click here for help learning Khmer.
Don’t shy away from their dark past
Ok, most people don’t go on vacation to visit morbid sights and hear about a country’s troubled past. However, to really experience Cambodia and understand where it’s at today, you have to understand its past. Most people over 40 will be familiar with what happened in Cambodia after the United States left Vietnam, but what is now known as Cambodia has a history as complex as any of its’ neighbors. The Khmer Empire once included the former South Vietnam as well as parts of modern-day Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S-21 prison) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields) are the most commercialized sights documenting the horrors which killed more people than currently reside in Manhattan. Both are located around the capital of Phnom Penh and can be visited in a half day, but talking to people that experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge can be just as profound as seeing the skulls at Choeung Ek or pictures of pre-teen victims at Tuol Sleng.
Eat What They Eat
Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia’s food is not well known internationally. While most small cities in Canada and the United States have at least one Vietnamese and one Thai restaurant, Cambodian food is difficult to find in the food mecca of New York City as well as Washington, D.C. Does that mean it’s not good? No! Go to South Philadelphia if you want Cambodian food on the east coast.
For more conservative diners, amok is an ideal dish to start with. It’s made with fresh coconut milk as well as kroeung, which is a Khmer curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal, and ginger. Unlike a lot of Thai curries, amok (and Cambodian food in general) is not spicy. At the more upscale restaurants, amok will be served in a banana leaf. Although fish amok is the most common version, most menus will offer it with meat as well.
For the more adventurous eaters, there’s Lap Khmer, which is a raw beef salad (think ceviche with meat), with the beef marinated in lime juice. For the most adventurous eaters, few countries can offer as much as Cambodia. Much of the food that scares foreigners can be found at roadside stands. Grilled frog, rat and snake are most common in the west of Cambodia and there are also insects of all sizes available around the country. If you want to try insects in a more formal setting, many restaurants serve red tree ants with beef and holy basil.
Perhaps the most controversial food in Cambodia is VIP meat. Tourists coming to Cambodia expecting to see dog on every menu will be disappointed. Like in Korea, it’s been pushed to the fringes. Signs boasting VIP meat are the local way of saying we sell dog meat. Although anyone is welcome, most of these places are in areas where few tourists will venture and that’s no accident. It’s pretty much treated like other vices in that you have to know where to go or talk to someone who does.
Cook What They Eat
What better way to learn about this cuisine, which is not yet internationally known than to cook some with the guidance of a Cambodian chef? There are cooking courses available in most countries, but the ones in Cambodia are some of the most affordable in Asia (i.e. no excuses for not going).
Champey Cooking Class in Seam Reap is centrally located and gives you ingredients to take home as well as a certificate of training. Go hungry! You’ll likely make spring rolls for an appetizer, cook fish amok for the entree and eat fried banana for dessert. If somehow you are still hungry afterwards, there’s pretty much every type of food Cambodia has to offer within a couple blocks of the class. Check out Champey’s YouTube channel for more info.
Ride the Tuk Tuk
Tuk tuks are an essential Bangkok experience and the same is true of Cambodia. Although none of their cities are as crowded as Bangkok, tuk tuks are still the most authentic way to get around for short distances. Phnom Penh is said to have more than 6,000 and they are omnipresent in other cities like Siem Reap and Battambang as well.
Ride the bamboo train
If you make it to Battambang, you should ride the bamboo train (even if you’re not traveling with a chiropractor). It’s uncertain how much longer the bamboo train (ណូរី – norry in Khmer) will exist and if it’s gone ten years from now, you can say you rode the world’s most uncomfortable train. While you won’t want to do it more than once, it will be a ride you’ll never forget.
Your pictures have captured Cambodia very well! I love the ancient looking ruins, it reminds me of the Jungle Book. The food doesn’t look too bad either, would definitely like to see it one day 🙂
Kerry, you like all of the food? I stayed away from the roadside snacks!
Wow! I really loved this article. I’m planning a trip to Cambodia – this will help for sure 🙂
Thanks for the tips! I’ve been planning to visit Southeast Asia later this year so this is just perfect! And by the way nice photos!
I got to admit that Cambodia has never attracted me. But I heard of the cuisine and I wasn’t a big fan of it either ! the tuk tuk rides look fun tho
Let me start by saying OMG, that railway looks like it’s going to break any minute. Thanks for the tips at least it came before my trip to Cambodia so I’ll know what to do.
I always want to visit Cambodia and Vietnam. These countries might overshadow by other South East countries but they trully have amazing nature and historical heritage which worth to visit.
Great tips, I would have never thought of taking a holiday to Cambodia but looking at the fantastic architecture I might give it another look.
This is so interesting, and Cambodia has always been one of the places I wanted to visit. I am HAPPY they don’t have dog meat!! Even though I don’t eat meat at all, but well. The pictures were amazing, and exploring a country’s history and culture is also part of a vacation in my opinion.
Well, they do eat dog meat, but they keep it away from tourists.
Very interesting. I really don’t know much about Cambodia or their cuisine. The buildings have a very unique look to them.
Amazing pictures! I’m not sure i would dare to eat some of the food they’re selling on the streets, but tuk tuks and bamboo train sounds like fun! 😉
I didn’t even know what happened to these people! I totally agree with you, when you travel somewhere you should experience the whole culture. But this was a long ”hello” haha!
That looks like a fascinating trip, and I feel I just got a bit of an education from your post. For one, I had not heard of the bamboo train before. Your photo of the tracks says it all. Very interesting read.
I think it is important to try and learn some of the basics when visiting a new country even if it is just hello, please and thank you because it is kind, considerate and respectful. Cambodia is such a cultural haven it would be difficult not to fall in love.
These are great tips! Knowing a little of the local language is super important. Furthermore with youtube, duolingo and so many free things online, it’s easier than ever to brush up on a language.
It was a great insight to Cambodia. In fact, I was planning to go there next year. the photographs were very nice. 🙂
I love that you suggest people learn a local word or two. People are becoming more and more entitled and manners like these small gestures make all the difference to your travel experience. I also love your point about embracing their history. Morbid perhaps but it’s just like visiting concentration camps in Europe. You get so much judgement from some people for these activities. Why choose ignorance? These things very much happened and we should know and experience it for ourselves. Terrifying, sad and a shameful waste of life but it happened and there is no education like travel and the experience of other cultures! I would love to see this part of the world one day.
I’ve tried Cambodian food a few times in Paris and I think it’s really tasty. I’d love to try real, authentic Cambodian food though. I’m travelling through SE Asia this summer but I haven’t decided if this is a company I’ll visit. You’ve given me some inspiration though 🙂
Hmmmm…….. Cambodian food would generally not go down well in Ireland. Ha ha! I’m surprised that you cannot get more conservative Cambodian dishes in New York and can in South Philadelphia. Anyway I think I would like the Amok dish it seems delicious.
The Cambodians have their own neighborhood in South PHL!
Is that track for real, haha?
I have had the horrors of seeing dog meat in Vietnam and also in China, in the local market where tourist would usually not venture. The market was always a shocking experience, and even if I am usually brake and I eat unusual things (like bugs for example), I would never be able to eat a snake or a frog that have been skinned alive for example.
Such an amazing place! <3 Beautiful photos and thanks so much for sharing these great tips! Hope you're having a great day!
I loved the cuisine in Vietnam so would love to sample amok or take a cooking class in Cambodia!
Oooooo Cambodia looks like an interesting place to visit!!! I can only hope my travels take me there one day 🙂
This definitely sounds fun! I have not been to Cambodia yet. Don’t know if I will be able to go there ever. I always try to learn the basic sentences or words when I visit a country but the difficult part is remembering them later onwards. I have taken a tuk tuk ride in another country, it is fun!
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Cambodia in on my bucket list, I’ve always wanted to see the temples at Angor Wat, and for some strange reason, I’ve always wanted to see the monuments and museums about the genocide, maybe because I remember the movie The Killing Fields and the actor who won the Academy Award that year. I need to hurry because I’d love to try the bamboo railroad but those might be the worst looking, wonky tracks I’ve ever seen!
Great article and great tips. It made me seriously consider visiting Cambodia to add to my list of travels around the world. Also would love to experience that bamboo train before it’s gone…
I would definitely make an effort to get an authentic experience. This is great advice. It would be fun trying some new things.
I’ve been to Cambodia several times and think you captured these essentials really well (: Contrary to what most people think, they do have some really nice food dishes and I really miss their hospitality! I’ve never ridden on that bamboo train though! Will keep it in mind for my next trip!
I have never been to Cambodia and it has never been on my travel list – until now. It sounds like you had a fantastic trip and you’ve inspired me to travel there.
Some great pointers here, its our dream to visit Cambodia, specifically for the temple of Angkor Wat, your post will be very helpful in that context, thanks for sharing.
I just like that you have put a video along with so much detailed information! I didn’t know they were called “Tuk tuk” even if a friend has visited Cambodia and rode them.
Looks like a cool place and such beautiful pictures. Thanks for the tips!
Hi Cristal. You are welcome. Any interest in visiting Cambodia?
I can see why many people would stay away from a place with such a dark past, such as Cambodia but I think it intrigues me more to visit. I love learning the history of what makes a place the way it is, thanks for sharing!
Cambodia is a beautiful country and your photography is amazing! I agree with suggestions in regards to eating want the locals eat. I love when I am visiting trying the local cuisine! 🙂
Love the photos!! I would love to visit Cambodia someday!
Hi Jen. Definitely different from that northern Sweden trip you did a few years ago!
Great photos. I was just in Cambodia a few weeks ago for the first time, and can really relate to what you’ve shared.
What an amazing trip!
Connecting with a place through food and history! My favorites. Whether it’s sad or happy, it’s important to remember things in the past to understand not just the people in the area who it directly affected/still affects but also humans in general. As human population we’re not that different or above repeating things if we forget.
Hi Shelly. Thanks for commenting!
As brave as I think that I am I don’t think ode have the stomach for someone this dishes?
Loved this article! It brought back so many great memories of Cambodia and inspires me to want to go again!
Love this attitude to travel – do it like a local!
Your Bokeh photography is on point!
This is great. I don’t have to many Asian countries high on my list, but Cambodia is one of them. I love all these suggestion and would so love to do a cooking class to get more familiar with cooking with different spices and flavors. Also, I agree about learning the history of a place – good and bad – as it reveals quite a bit about the culture and the people you’ll meet.
really fascinating. I still need to learn about the history in Cambodia (can’t imagine what they went through…) and try Cambodian food. There’s a Cambodian town in Long Beach, California. Your post just made me realize that I should try it and how it wasn’t really easy to find it as much as Vietnamese or Thai food. Thank you for the insight!
Philadelphia has a Cambodia town. Post coming soon?????
Great post on Cambodia! I spent a few days in Siem Reap touring different temples.
That seems to be the one place in Cambodia that everyone visits.
Have been to Cambodia and was lucky enough to visit the Killing Fields, very profound but highly recommended. The food, as you mentioned, is delicious. Love the article.
I didn’t know that Cambodia has so many things to offer and its colorful food looks amazing! Though I’ve never tried Cambodian Cuisine! I’d love to ride on the bamboo train and tuk tuk! Thanks for sharing these amazing tips to enjoy Cambodia! Have pinned your post!
I’m not sure how much u REALLY want to ride the bamboo train, Ana! After one minute, I was wishing the ride was over, lol.
I would have to agree, a lot of people are a little hesitant to go to Cambodia but it’s really beautiful there! When I travel, one of the things that I enjoy doing is to try the local food, it’s how you experience one’s culture anyway!
I’ve always wanted to visit Cambodia! Looks like a great place, thanks for the tips 🙂
Hi Laura. You are welcome. Hope you get to visit one day!
Cambodia has so much to offer to a traveller lover. Riding a bamboo train sounds like fun and would love to try it
The food looks…different. But that’s what I like about going to places where the cuisine is different to my own home country! Cambodia is a place that I hope to get around to visiting one day for sure, and these tips will definitely help me get the most out of the experience. I agree that it’s important to not shy away from its dark past; for better or worse, a country’s history is also its identity.
Hi Joe. It’s good to mix in temple and food tours with the darker history.
I had the best fish amok in Senmonorom – it was perfectly prepared in a traditional palm leaf. Yummy!
Hi Lydia. It’s not easy to find in New York nowadays. Easier to find in Philly.
The Champey Cooking Class sounds and looks delicious. Its a cuisine I don’t know much about
Great tips. It’s always good to blend with the locals . This not only gives us a taste of their culture but also helps them get closer. Because when they see us making an effort to assimilate, they also get more comfortable with us.
Hi Neha. Definitely check out a night market or two.
Wow, this looks like such an amazing trip! The Bamboo Train looks so scenic. I’d love to go here one day. 🙂
I very much enjoyed my trip to Cambodia. Your post brought me back nice memories. I am glad that you touched things below the surface in your post. Great read.
Hi Anita. I regret not crossing the border into Cambodia when I visited Khao I Dang the following year.
These are excellent tips – especially to not shy away from the country’s dark past – it is incredibly important to learn and understand the Khmer Route and any visitor, in my opinion, should be ashamed if they do not visit some of the sites!
Bamboo train sounds unique even though can be uncomfortable. As a adventurous foodie, I don’t mind trying raw beef salad, but definitely not snake/rat/frogs!
Hi Cat. Yes, I’m glad the bamboo train wasn’t too long. And I skipped the snake/rat/frog as well.
Is there not a Metallica song about a tuk tuk ride? I feel like there is.
Not that I know of, but HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA is a Dead Kennedys song.
I’m not sure if I’m adventurous enough to try the local delicacies, but I’d be willing to take a ride on the bamboo train though, it looks like fun!
Great post. I’m moving to Cambodia in September and I am definitely going to try a cooking class. Thanks for the info
Thanks Kevin. What part are you moving to?
I have to admit, I didn’t really like Cambodia when I went – but maybe I’ll have to give it a go again. Thanks for sharing.
These are tips not only for traveling in Cambodia but anywhere in the world really. My takeaway from this is to embrace the local culture, be it through language, history, food or transport. I only visited Phnom Penh & Siem Reap so I’m looking forward to exploring more of the country on my next trip to South East Asia
Well, that’s a thoughtful look at what Cambodia really has to offer the traveller. Thank you. It’s not a country I know much about, but I would like to try some snake…
I am returning from and writing about Cambodia right now 🙂 and I can’t believe I missed the bamboo train! well, we can’t do everything everywhere, can we?