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Ex-Cambodia resident, Chris heartily recommends taking time away from tourist attractions to try some hands on cultural activities.
With a huge array of amazing cultural and historical sites, Cambodia and Vietnam are two of the most diverse, cultural and creative countries in Asia. While there are plenty of must-see sights, you should absolutely embrace the chance to get your hands dirty and feet wet by taking part in traditional activities with the locals.
Here are my top picks:
1. Rice Farming, Cambodia
Cambodia is full of picture perfect rice fields; they’re just about everywhere in the countryside. Not surprising as rice is pretty much the staple in everyone’s diets (you can get a bit riced-out!).
It’s fascinating to learn about the cultivation of the produce; if you’re in Siem Reap, spend a morning with a local farming family out in the fields and learn how to plough the land in the traditional way. After planting and harvesting a much-deserved hearty meal awaits!
2. Angkor Thom Photography Scavenger Hunt, Cambodia
Temples, temples, temples. The majestic monuments from the Angkor Empire are spellbinding, and will undoubtedly be the most amazing aspect of any trip to the region. But rather than simply exploring these with your guide, there are much more fun and interactive ways to discover the secrets of the Angkor master builders.
Those with a sense of adventure and curiosity can awaken their inner Indiana Jones with a fun-filled photography scavenger hunt. Wander around statues of mythological demons and gods, unlocking clues and snapping photos as you go.
Grab a map and a set of clues to uncover mysteries within the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the once-mighty Khmer Empire.
3. Artisans d’Angkor ‘Craft It Yourself’ Workshop, Cambodia
Take a break from temples in Siem Reap and unearth your creative side with a ‘hands on’ workshop at Artisans d’Angkor. The organisation was established in 1992 to support Cambodian arts and crafts, and help young people find work in their villages.
Discover how wood and stone carvings, lacquer-ware, gilded pictures, and silk paintings are created. Under the tutelage of a local artisan you can try amazing carving techniques on a choice of sand stone, soap stone or wood, or head to the private workshop for a silk painting lesson.
4. Cambodian Living Arts, Cambodia
Cambodia was a hive of creative arts before the devastating Khmer Rouge period, and the Cambodian Living Arts are working to bring back these lost traditions.
A trip to the nation’s capital isn’t complete without watching one of their amazing nightly shows at the national museum. Rather than simply watching a performance, you can spend a morning or afternoon with the artists themselves and learn a range of activities; from mastering the moves of the majestic Apsara dance and shadow puppetry, to learning how to play traditional instruments.
5. Water Puppetry Workshop
Water puppetry originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area in northern Vietnam and dates back as far as the 11th century. As well as seeing a performance, you can learn about this ancient art by visiting a seventh-generation puppet maker and performer in his local workshop. Create a personalised marionette and get a little wet learning the basic techniques of using bamboo rods to move the puppets through the water.
6. Thien Tan Hong Organisation
Many creative workshops and experiences in Indochina are organised by social enterprises and NGOs set up to help disadvantaged locals. In Ho Chi Minh City, you can explore your creative side with a ‘hands on’ ceramic making class with Thien Tan Hong; an organisation that trains people with disabilities to earn a living by making handicrafts.
Not only is this an incredibly fun and interactive experience, your visit directly helps disadvantaged people in the area. You also come away with your very own self-made souvenir. Win-win!
7. Lifestart Lantern Making
Lanterns – along with beautifully preserved Chinese shop houses – are the quintessential image of Hoi An in Vietnam. Spend a bit of time away from the more touristed areas to visit the Lifestart Foundation; an organisation that helps disadvantaged and disabled locals with educational and vocational training. Create personalised, handmade lanterns under the guidance of local artisans, a very special souvenir.
8. Moon Garden Homestay
While the five H’s (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City) tend to top Vietnam’s bucket list, the beautiful countryside away from the main trail offers a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s rural communities. The Moon Garden Homestay, in the quaint village of Ky Son, is one of our favourite places for a local immersion experience. It’s just two and a half hours from Hanoi and surrounded by stunning farmland.
You won’t be short of things to do here. With a traditional Vietnamese house as your base, head out to cycle along charming back roads and through rice fields; uncover the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine with a cooking class from your host; take leisurely strolls around charming villages; join Yijinjing exercises and traditional morning rituals; and stop off for a cup of tea at a family home to chat with local people and learn about their daily life.
You can also help the community with ploughing, transplanting seedlings, or harvesting rice, tea, cassava, corn, or sweet potatoes depending on the harvest season.