Christmas in Cambodia – Where to stay, what to see, how to celebrate
This is the second Christmas in almost a decade that my husband and I are staying put. Of-course I have the best reason not to jet-set anywhere and to let the explorer in me settle for a moment – I am 32 weeks, or 7 months pregnant.
Considering the way my husband and I love to travel, it is best that I leave Asia, one of the continents I am most passionate about for another Christmas. Although I will miss the contradictory smells and sights of so many various cultures.
No, this sis not a rebuttal to anything Western; after all our combined holiday spirits dressed in our unique celebrations of these time-passed traditions are what make the regular days so special, and the special days so deeply memorable.
Not that I don’t love being home and seeing family, but our most unique circumstances have left us fairly open on Christmas, and being that it is one of the slowest times in our business we have often left the US and traveled.
Where have we been on Christmas?
Countries where we’ve celebrated the holiday have been; Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Israel and Jordan and Japan.
Why are we able to leave?
No, we don’t ditch our family, I am a firm believer in holidays and family, and having two grandparents still alive in their eighties we celebrate every holiday together. However Christmas is not our holiday. In Russian tradition gift exchanges and Santa comes on New Years Eve, so Christmas was never a holiday for our family. Therefore my husband and I are always left to enjoy this very special time together, and we have found through the years that leaving the country and giving each other the gift of travel has been the most rewarding way to celebrate.
And yes, we always make sure to return for New Years and spend that very special day with our family.
Why South East Asia? Asia and the Middle East?
It is truly incredible to me, to witness something so different from the things we are all used to. To experience a culture and a setting so contrasting to my own that I am forced to see the world as a whole, to experience it in a new way and to do it all with the person I love.
It is a gift unlike another to experience something new. To explore and learn and share those most unique moments. To leave the Christamas carols for the customs of monks and their own songs of prayer. To watch the locals try and make a tree out of the native flowers, and to somehow still remember to wish you, the visitor ‘A Merry Christmas’.
I have one incredible memory of standing on a mountain top and releasing a small bird out of its cage, watching it fly over the Myanmar sunset, soaring over the peaks of temples and into the distance, beyond which this day is celebrated in countless different ways.
Things to consider, if you are considering traveling to South East Asia for Christmas Holidays.
Don’t expect to see Santa, Christmas trees or reindeer. If you love your ginger bread cookies, eggnog and all of the incredible tradition that comes with this day, you may want to think twice about travel to countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and many others. You may find a tree in your hotel (depending how five star it is), but there will be little other places where the traditions of Christmas will appear.
You should also consider that if you like snow and cold, South East Asia is hot (even during December) and you will more likely swim in a pool then play in the snow.
My favorite places in South East Asia to visit on Christmas
In no particular order;
Places you should be a seasoned (not first time traveler to go);
Lets talk Christmas Cambodia
December through March are actually the best months to go to this country – it isn’t rainy season and not overly hot.
Cambodia is an incredible place and I particularly enjoyed spending Christmas in Siem Reap. We stayed in a pretty pricey hotel (but it was our honeymoon) and while in some countries I opt to save and rent Air B & B’s in Cambodia and most of South East Asia I make the choice to pay more and stay in hotels.
One reason for this choice is safety; food, cleanliness, amenities and security goes a long way in any third world country (not judging but being smart and practical), and while in most of Europe, or Japan or many other countries I opt to rent a home or apartment, in South East Asia the safety elements alone truly win over the costs.
Another reason – five start in South East Asia is more like 10 star, NO JOKE, if you have stayed in five star rated accommodations in Europe or the US, when you get to Asia in general five star just skips levels. I have no doubt that Thailand, Cambodia and many other countries hotels will blow your mind and may be some of your best experiences.
Top Hotels in Siem Reap
Located in northwestern Cambodia, Siem Reap is a place of old French Architecture and countless ancient temples. The type of temples that tell stories and unravel history and mysticism and truly engage the explorers spirit in a way few other places do. You will see poverty, but also a richness of life; families eating together, herding cattle, working in picture perfect fields. You will see a way o life that will both humble and inspire.
Sadly the hotel we stayed in (amazing Hotel Del LaPaix Angkor -which was a five star boutique) has been sold to a larger chain, however here are the top five star hotels according to travel and leisure;
These are in no particular order, as I believe each hotel will fit a very unique guest, and you should research which may be best fitted for your style, goals and mood.
Sofitel Angkor Phkeethra Gold and Spa -(the pro is it is lux, but the con is the size, Siem Reap is a small city and you may feel overwhelmed by the 200 something rooms and gold course here)
Phum Baitang– they call this a five star spin on tradition, it has private villas and is located on rice paddies
Amansara – As the former guest villa of Cambodian royal King Norodom Sihanouk, many call this place a true oasis
One Hotel Angkor – modern luxury in a beautiful setting
Hotel Be Angkor – this is said to be a five start artists hotel with sculptures and art dressing every corner
Things Not to Miss in Siem Reap
• YOU MUST take time to explore Baphuon and Angkor Wat, two massive Buddhist temples built in the 11th and 12th centuries, these are incredible structure that deserves hours of walking and seeing. You will hear cicada and be mesmerized by the architecture of these massive structures.
If you can hire a historian that would be an amazing learning experience and well worth the money. (See if your hotel or travel agent can arrange it).
Take your camera, not just your iPhone. The picture perfect moments here are endless, and these structures are a unique mixture of Asian and India architecture that stand on their own and tower over you in such beauty you feel like you are transformed into an accident time.
If you love adventure, this is where Angelina Jolie filmed a part of Tomb Raider, and the locals will tell you all about how they turned the lake of Angkor into a massive floating city during filming.
By the way, those beautiful trees in Tomb Raider? Thats at Ta Prohm, one of the temples, but is also the most busy and most photographed. Go there and explore, but don’t miss all of the other cool areas of this massive ancient city.
My greatest piece of advice here? TAKE YOUR TIME.
My husband and I still feel like we could have used more days and slower walks to explore this ancient city grounds. We talk often about the next trip there and how we would schedule more days to re-vist both structures.
• If you have kids with you, visit Siem Reap and spend the day at the Cambodian Cultural Village, which is an EPCOT-like theme park and museum featuring miniature villages representing the many local cultures in Cambodia. It is great for kids ages seven and up, as they will undoubtably feel more connected to the culture.
• You must NOT miss the floating villages. Schedule a day to visit Siem Reap’s freshwater lake, Tonlé Sap, and visit the floating villages that dress this massive body of water.
When Dan and I set out to see this we had no idea how special this would be. We met a guide and boarded a small private boat he hired to take us out into the lake. Just minutes in a small boat pulled up to ours and a small girl jumped into our boat trying to sell us candy and snacks and coke. We bought some and she happily hopped off back into her own boat.
When we entered the villages it was incredible to see floating homes, schools, gas stations and the people that dressed this city. Three boys where getting around in wood barrels, they steered with oars and when we pulled close to one he pulled out a massive snake and showed it to me proudly.
• See the ruins of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Khmer empire. This is an incredible site with massive sculptures and incredible rooms, some of them where monks still worship.
• Shop, eat and visit the Made In Cambodia Market, it is huge and has all of the jewelry and scarves and sculptures.
• Ask your guide (hire one for the day) to take you into the Cambodian country side to visit villages. Any reputable guide can do this and you will see how people truly live in this incredible city. Water is scarce and you will also see and have an opportunity to contribute to building a well for a family or a village.
• Take a cooking class! In most hotels they offer this, or you can have your hotel find another hotel that does. I loved this experience so much because before cooking your cooking teacher takes you to the traditional market (you must be ready for smell, sight and sounds you have never encountered before). You will see snakes and eels and well, tons more. You will also learn about spices and the culture.
Your guide will then take you to a kitchen in the hotel and you will learn how to make some of the most traditional Khmer dishes. You will also get the recipe so that You can try to recreate it at home. And, after everything you’ll sit and eat your creation.
• Visit a traditional monastery and get a blessing by a monk. Any travel agency or hotel can arrange this, and guys – this is special. Your guide or hotel will tell you what you need, and we did donate some money (not a lot) which we placed in an envelope. In return we received an incredible blessing during which the monks sand and tied a red string around our hands, which i had on for over a year until it broke. (It says that once it breaks you no longer need it)
Christmas Eve in Cambodia
Tell your hotel that you celebrate the holiday – trust me!
My husband did and when we got home from a day at the floating villages we found two hand made Christmas stockings with candy hanging on our bedsides. It was super special and just the type of celebration we wanted – simple, elegant and insightful. Not overdone in a country where the people have so little, and yet so special we felt truly blessed. (Yes, we still have the sticking handing in our home).
Then, make a great dinner reservation – ideally on this night an one of the five star hotels, or if you want a more traditional and authentic meal of Khmer specialties (stir-fried frogs, dried snake) try restaurant Meric.
If you are in a gift giving mood, this may be the day to visit a village and donate a well (100-200 dollars in cost it may be just the type of gift giving you will never forget).
Cambodia has had a very hard history, and this history is very recent. While I do not want to dampen the mood, I will say that you should educate yourself on the genocide that happened in this country. May of the men and women driving your cars, working in the restaurants and hotels and saying hello to you in the streets were young children when this happened. may have lost family and their isn’t a single family in all of Cambodia that hasn’t been impacted in some way.
I read the Killing Fields the book on a train ride to the country, if this is too much for you, just read up on the recent history of Cambodia, or pick up Angelina Jolies book ‘my travels’ where she talks about this in great details through the stories of others.