Whether you are interested in exploring local communities, viewing some wildlife, or enjoy spending your time doing outdoorsy activities, Cambodia has something for everyone looking for a sustainable holiday, even those on a small budget. Avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat and see Cambodia from a different perspective.
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A few months ago my boyfriend Kevin and I were contracted to travel to Cambodia and make mini promotional videos to encourage ecotourism for a company called CamConscious. We experienced travel at a slow pace and in a more intimate way.
Families opened their homes to us and cooked us homemade meals from their gardens. Neighbours of our homestay families trusted us with watching over their children. We hiked amongst elephants, motorbiked around lakes, and did a hell of a lot of walking through the small rural towns.
Below are some of our best recommendations for sustainable activities and ways you can volunteer in Cambodia.
Experience village life and give back to the community
We recommend: The AMICA Project
The AMICA Project is a French-owned NGO founded in 2005 and has since been helping provide healthcare, clean water, and jobs for the people of Cheung Kok. Staying in the village of Cheung Kok was our first homestay experience in Cambodia. It is an established project and very well organized; just enough to get you hooked on traveling off the beaten path.
The men of Cheung Kok are rice farmers and the amount of work they have depends on the amount of rainfall the village receives every year. AMICA’s presence has provided new opportunities for families to make extra income through ecotourism. Spending a few nights in a homestay and buying souvenirs from the local gift shop has a huge impact on the economy of the village directly.
We found it to be a unique experience. Every morning we were greeted by the sound of prayers over the loudspeaker, roosters crowing, and our neighbor’s starting their tractors for work in the fields. Many of the families didn’t speak much English but Aline, a local villager who works for AMICA, was there to help translate and make our stay more enjoyable.
How to get there:
Take a bus to Kompong Cham city. From there you can take a tuk-tuk or motorbike to Cheung Kok village. Drivers should know where to go if you say “AMICA”.
+855 (0) 8 666 1984
Hire a local guide to show you around a lesser-known ancient temple
We recommend: Banteay Chhmar
The temple of Banteay Chhmar is one of Cambodia’s national treasures. Similar to the temples at Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar dates back to the Angkorian period. It is a significant piece of history for the Cambodian people. The temple has stayed mostly undiscovered for 800 years while nature had been moving in, resulting in overgrowth and collapse.
The Global Heritage Fund (GHF) and Heritage Watch have stepped in to help oversee the preservation of the temple and help improve the livelihoods of the local community. Banteay Chhmar is on Cambodia’s submission’s list for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Call ahead to arrange a homestay overnight and opt-in for the home cooked meals! This was one of the yummiest Cambodian meals we had!
How to get there:
Take a bus to Sisophon aka Banteay Meanchey town. From there you will have to find your way to the central market where the taxis wait. We were able to get a taxi for $5 USD per person but it can reach up to $25 USD if you want a private ride. From Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar it is another 65km, which takes around 1 to 1.5 hours.
Tip: We were not able to find any busses to Sisophon directly from Phnom Penh. Instead, we took the bus to Poipet (Thai Border) and asked the driver to drop us in Sisophon on the way. Sisophon is a transit point between Phnom Penh, Battambang Siem Reap and Poipet, and almost all busses will pass through Sisophon so you shouldn’t have a problem getting dropped off.
T: +855 (0)12 237 605
Learn about elephants and tourism in Cambodia
We recommend: Elephant Valley Project
At Elephant Valley Project you are provided with an educational experience about the things elephants in Cambodia have to endure, both good and bad, while you closely trek alongside these beautiful creatures in their natural jungle habitat. There is no riding, no tricks, no shows and no stress. If you love elephants and truly care about their wellbeing and future this is the place for you.
Elephant Valley Project offers packages from half day to 3 days (with overnights at the reserve) or if you want to stay even longer you can opt to volunteer for a week or even a whole month! More information about volunteering can be found on their website HERE.
How to get there:
Take a bus to Senmonorom aka Mondulkiri Town. There are many guesthouses in town to stay that are walkable from the bus stop.
EVP Programs Manager
Phone +855 (0) 99 436 354
Volunteer to teach English in a local village
We recommend: Mr. Vanleang at Mondulkiri Tour
We met Mr. Vanleang while we were in Mondulkiri on assignment filming and promoting Elephant Valley Project. While having dinner at his restaurant one night, he revealed to us that his restaurant and tour service are side businesses to provide support for his real passion of teaching English to the children of his village so they will one day be able to leave Mondulkiri and build better futures.
We were touched and offered to help him by making a promotional video to call out for more volunteers. It was probably our favorite project that we worked on because it was so personal and we got to meet Lexi, their volunteer at the time.
Mr. Vanleang is a local of the village where he has built the volunteer school. He helps volunteers with what he can by providing cheap accommodation, meals at his restaurant, and the use of his personal car when you need to drive to the village. There are almost no out-of-pocket expenses to you. Whether you stay for a week or 7 months, like Lexi, you will have a huge impact on furthering the education of these children!
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an eco-tourism project is truly sustainable, but we feel this is as noble as it gets. I hope you can tell this was our favorite project!
How to get there:
Take a bus to Senmonorom aka Mondulkiri Town. His restaurant is called Mountain Restaurant and Bar which you can find just off the main road of Mondulkiri. There is a sign hanging that says Mondulkiri Tour. Ask around for Mr. Vanleang if you are not sure.
+855 (0) 12 82 80 46
Trek amongst hidden waterfalls and swim in a volcanic crater lake
We recommend: Ratanakiri Province aka Banloung
To get the full experience, sign up for a multi-day trek with a guide to visit the many waterfalls in the area. You will be provided with hammocks to sleep in in the jungle and your guides will cook all meals for you. It is a really unique and intimate experience to learn more about Khmer culture, and to get some good exercise in!
Spend an extra day in Banloung city to visit Yeak Laom, a volcanic crater lake, and swim in its crystal clear water. Yeak Laom is a sacred place for indigenous Khmer people and Banloung is a popular destination for Cambodian’s on holiday. Sleep at a homestay or guesthouse in town and rent a motorbike to get around.
How to get there:
Take a bus to Banloung then tuk tuk or walk to your accommodation.
+855 88 454 6466
Eco Tips for traveling in Cambodia
Use less plastic
Refill water bottles instead of buying new ones. Cambodia doesn’t have any recycling facilities implemented and plastic ends up in the same landfill or ocean as regular waste.
Buy local instead of big markets
I quickly learned that a lot of the souvenirs sold in big markets come from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. None of the money from the sales of these goods actually stays in Cambodia. Try to buy from smaller markets or directly from your homestay families so that you can rest assured that you know where your money is going.
Do not ride elephants!!
I cannot stress this enough. Elephant tourism is a huge business in Asia and it is best to educate yourself about the programs that you choose to participate in. Ask as many questions as you need to so that you feel comfortable that you have chosen a program that does not bring stress or harm to these beautiful animals.
Take a Khmer Lesson
This will help you pronounce things properly and you will get a little bit of Cambodian history in the process!
Some useful phrases to help you get around:
Good morning: Arunn Sous-dey
Thank you: Orkun
What is your name?: Neak Chmuah Ay?
My name is…: Khñomm Chmuah…
How are you?: Sokh Sabbay Chea Teh?
Very yummy: Ch`Nganh Nah
Good night: Reatrey Sous-dey
After visiting every other Southeast Asian country along the predestined tourist path, it was refreshing to see Cambodia from a different perspective. I mean, we were initially going to fly in and visit Siem Reap then leave – as most people do! Imagine if we would have missed all this! How bananas is that?
About the Author:
Sara Uduwela was born in Singapore and has been living between California, Australia, and Singapore for most of her life. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, traveling, and eating all things yummy. In her free time she likes to exercise and cook (mostly Singhalese and Singaporean food). These days she lives in Melbourne and works as a freelance photographer while she saves enough money to hit the road again!
Follow her on Instagram and her photography website.