Trekking in Cambodia: Reasons to Go, Travel Tips & Life Lessons
Trekking in Cambodia should be on anyone’s list of things to do in this wonderful country. I was lucky enough to go on an overnight jungle trek in Mondulkiri, Eastern Cambodia, last summer and it was an incredible experience that I highly recommend. Here’s why you should do it, some tips on how to make the most of it and the life lessons it’ll teach you.
We hadn’t been walking all that long when we came to our first waterfall.
It was like stumbling upon a lost world: an atmospheric oasis in the middle of nowhere; a scene that stimulated every one of our senses.
Water cascaded in endless torrents down the 5 metre fall, causing a constant cacophony of sound that seemed to reverberate all around us. Tree trunks, ripped from their roots by the almighty force of the white water above, now lined the banks where we stood in awe of our surroundings.
Cool, watery mist rose from the river, chilling the air and tingling our skin.
And we had it all to ourselves.
Hot from the hike, we stripped off and ventured tentatively over rocky ground into the river, tip toeing our way through fantastically cool waters up to the waterfall, where we stood with backs to the tumult, enjoying the most natural of power showers.
Looking back to the river bank, a few metres to our right, our local guide, called Wing, was stood with knife in hand, whittling away at a bamboo branch.
Initially it was unclear why, but as we watched, it became obvious that he was fashioning a fishing rod. Eventually, attaching a hook and line to the end, he perched himself on a rock at the water’s edge, utterly absorbed in the task of catching our dinner.
Now, redressed, warm and dry at the edge of the river, we sat and let it all sink in. We still had another 36 hours or so of the hike ahead.
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Last summer my girlfriend and I went on an overnight trek in Mondulkiri, Eastern Cambodia, with a local guide.
And it turned into one of the highlights of our trip.
Not only did the two day hike take is through some of the most stunning landscapes, fauna and flora of the country, but it also introduced us to a traditional way of life and gave us a taste of ‘authentic’ Cambodia.
That, and the fact that we were guided by a truly lovely guy who welcomed us into his family and shared his love and knowledge of the local environment, made for a special couple of days.
The trek was valuable in lots of ways.
If you’re tired of temples and get a chance to trek in Cambodia, I thoroughly recommend you take it.
With this in mind, I thought I’d put together a brief rundown of trekking in Cambodia, including the reasons you should do it yourself, some tips on how to do it and finally with the lessons I learned from doing it myself.
My hope is that I can inspire you to go on your own trek in Cambodia and offer some useful tips for an aspiring traveller already considering the possibility!
Reasons to Go Trekking in Cambodia
Get a break from the tourist trail
However, it is also a hub of tourist/traveller activity, which can get frustrating for anyone wanting a unique, personal Cambodian experience.
Trekking in Cambodia offers a great solution to the problem.
It is possible to go in a group, but you can also hire a guide, like we did, who’ll take you deep, one to one/ two to one, into the Jungle.
Not only does this give you some space from other travellers, but it also takes you away from the main tourist routes and provides, perhaps, a more authentic view of Cambodian life.
Learn about and immerse yourself in Cambodian nature
Another reason to trek in this country is to experience its nature.
The diversity of Cambodia’s fauna and flora, as well as the landscapes in which it is all situated, are well worth witnessing and learning more about.
And heading deep into the depths of its jungles is a great way of doing so. Here’s where having a guide comes in so handy though, as, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, they can educate you on all there is on offer.
On our hike we were shown how to make simple hunting darts from grass, ate raw root ginger straight from the ground, imitated monkey noises using a particular plant and had model animals made for us from reeds.
There’s also, of course, the chance to see Cambodia’s wildlife, including monkeys, elephants (see below) and all the lovely creepy crawlies too!
Experience a different side of Cambodia
Like I mentioned at the start, going for a trek in Cambodia offers an entirely different perspective on the country.
You can learn how local communities live off and farm the land, as well as some of the challenges faced by the jungles here, such as deforestation by developers and multinational companies.
Away from the tourist trail and deep in nature, you gain a unique insight into a different kind of Cambodian life.
Get some exercise
Not to state the obvious, but go for a hike in Cambodia and you’ll be getting some exercise!
Though Cambodia is generally flat as a pancake, heading over rough terrain and through dense forest/jungle will definitely get those legs working.
It is absolutely beautiful
Again, going for a trek in Cambodia is worth it if only to witness the natural beauty of the country.
It is easy to dwell on the awesome man made magnificence of the temples, but the beauty of Cambodia’s natural world should also be experienced.
You can see elephants
Seeing elephants is a popular tourist activity, especially in Eastern Cambodia.
You pay a company a reasonably large sum of money to ferry you to a place where you can see and sometimes wash elephants in their natural environment.
You can also see the elephants as part of a jungle hike. Head to Eastern Cambodia and, for an increased price, walk via an elephant sanctuary/site.
It is cool to be around such amazing animals, but it is also contentious, with many people arguing against this as a practice for reasons of animal welfare.
If you do decide to see the elephants (as part of a tour or hike), make sure it is with a reputable company that ensures their welfare.
One of the best known in Sen Monorom is the Elephant Valley Project, who work respectfully and in total support of the local elephants.
Support a local family
Hiring a local guide to take you for your hike not only ensures your safety and provides insane levels of natural knowledge, but the money can also be an important source of income for the guide and their family.
Again, this isn’t without its issues: unscrupulous individuals often exploit the local guides they employ; sometimes taking the money for themselves or not dividing it fairly.
If you organise the guide through a 3rd party, make sure the money actually goes to the guide.
Cambodia Trekking Travel Tips
How to organise it
We organised our trek from a hostel owner in Sen Monorom, from where we began our trip. He was an Australian guy who’d lived in Cambodia for years and had built up local networks; through his connections he organised jungle hikes.
If you’re doing a well trodden hike that’s established on the tourist route, this is less necessary, but for any trek into Cambodia’s wilderness I would say hiring a guide with good local knowledge is essential.
It is just too easy to get lost or hurt in some way.
A good way to organise your trek and guide would be to speak with your hostel owner, or by reading up online or in your travel guide, where there will be operators listed.
There are all manner of operators who run multi day treks in Cambodia.
One example in Mondulkiri Province, in the East, is Mondulkiri Adventure Tour.
It is worth mentioning that guided hikes in Cambodia aren’t particularly cheap. Our two day hike cost about $80 USD for two people (keeping in mind that a meal costs about $1-2 per meal in Cambodia).
However, this paid for absolutely everything including food, water, sleeping stuff (hammock and sleeping bag) as well as the guide, and some rice wine too (a strong alcoholic spirit that came in super handy after a particularly rainy end to the first day of our hike...).
Remember to make sure that a fair proportion of what you pay goes to the guide.
When to go
When to go hiking in Cambodia is entirely dependent on the experience you want. The months from November to March are hotter and drier, whereas May to October is wet season and lives up to its name!
If you’re doing multiday hikes, where you’ll probably be sleeping outside, in hammocks, I’d opt for warm and dry!
However, we did our overnight jungle trek in August/September time. It was definitely wet for some of it (we got absolutely soaked), but there were also dry patches and genuinely good weather too. We had a great time and the poor weather made it far more of an adventure!
Where to go
There are hikes that you can do all over the country. However, there are certain locations that are best known for it.
The “Wild East” of the country, in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, offers immersive experiences in the wilds of the jungles here, like what my girlfriend and I experienced last year.
The Cardamom Mountains also provide lengthy hikes through forest, available in one of the remotest corners of Cambodia.
Check out this great piece by Culture Trip on the best treks in Cambodia.
What to pack
You want to pack light, so, if possible, plan ahead for your hike such that you have somewhere safe to leave the bulk of your luggage.
There’s no point taking your Ipad and computer with you, for instance, and you definitely wouldn’t want these to get ruined while you walk.
When we went on our trek we’d organised it through a hostel owner who allowed us to leave our stuff in a locked room, which we’d agreed to stay for a night in upon our return. He didn’t charge for the room, but he got a reasonable cut of what we paid for the hike.
That aside, you’ll want to take waterproofs, swim wear (for swimming in waterfalls), good walking boots/shoes, insect repellent, something warm to wear in the evening, sleeping bag and hammock (of overnight and probably provided by the tour guide you’re going with), a camera, toilet paper and lots and lots off water.
Travel & Life Lessons from Trekking in Cambodia
It poured down with rain on the first day of our two day hike, which left us stinking and damp for a lot of it; the hike was frequently uncomfortable, I got blisters all over my feet and generally felt like a ruined man by the time we got back to the hostel.
But I wouldn’t have changed it.
I came away with deep reflections from our multiday hike in Cambodia. It left a deeply positive mark on me and taught me a lot.
Here are some of the travel and life lessons our trek in Cambodia taught me.
Spend time in nature
Being so immersed in nature, over what was really just a brief period of time, was very special.
It was dirty, sweaty and smelly, but, physically and mentally, it was natural, organic and wholesome.
When you’re so used to city life and concrete jungles, there’s always something special about getting back to nature. It’s restorative.
The same applied on the trip to Cambodia. Where travel is often hectic, there’s value in slowing down; walking through the sounds and smells provided much needed respite from the intensity of other parts of our travels.
Live off the land
Our guide, Wing, was an awesome human being whose in-depth knowledge of the jungle we walked through was insane.
As well as somehow orienting himself without maps or compass, he could recognise all manner of plant species, animal tracks; he could explain how to find water from special hanging plants and make traps and weapons for hunting.
I came away thinking I should endeavour to learn more about nature; it inspired me to learn how to survive away from the often unnatural modern World.
Be intrepid and test yourself
Our walk felt adventurous.
We swam in waterfalls, explored bat filled caves, walked along fallen tree trunks with deep rushing water running on either side, caught fish (or Wing did...) with a bamboo fishing rod, traversed over treacherous terrain through waist deep white water; slept in hammocks in a wooden shack held together by rope and plastic tarpaulin, ate soup made in a bamboo shaft and washed it down with intoxicating rice wine before waking at sunrise to do it all again.
It was a rough and ready adventure right from the word go.
And it was awesome.
Much of what we did pushed us out of our comfort zone and forced us into situations of which neither of us were used to and that seriously challenged us.
But we did it all and, in hindsight, loved every second of it.
Taking challenge on headfirst and getting through it is a sure fire way to develop as a person.
One of my favourite moments of the trek was when Wing stopped to fish, with the bamboo rod he’d just fashioned for himself.
He looked incredibly peaceful and content as he perched on a rock over a pool of water, next to the waterfall I described at the start of this piece.
We had a long way ahead, but rather than rushing onwards, Wing stopped, concentrated and focused on the job at hand: catching food for our dinner.
You don’t need a lot to be happy
Another lesson I learned from Wing and the Jungle trek was how little you need to really be happy.
On our first day’s walking it poured down with rain, soaking us through to the core. Wing took us to a little wooden hut on the banks of a river, where we were met by his wife and two young sons.
It was in the mud, with water streaming through the middle; there was a seating area, barely large enough for all of us, with plastic tarpaulin offering some shelter from the wind and angled rain that battered the sides of the hut.
But there was a fire. And it was warm. And it was out of the rain. And we could dry our clothes.
Wing’s wife cooked an incredible meal over the fire, in a bamboo shaft, with ingredients we’d gathered throughout the day. The children giggled and laughed as they played rough and tumbles with each other.
The family clearly didn’t have much, but they didn’t need much either. Wing and his family seemed to be as happy and content in their life as anyone I’d ever met.
I hope this guide to trekking in Cambodia has been helpful! The experience was truly remarkable and I recommend it to anyone looking to get off the tourist trail in search of true adventure.
Any questions on trekking in Cambodia, feel free to contact me or drop a comment below!