Oh, Cambodia. After spending almost one month in this beautiful country, I fell in love with so many places, the people and the culture – there’s definitely a lot more to see than the temples of Angkor Wat. The majority of tourists doesn’t make it much further than Siem Reap, but I hope this guide can convince you otherwise! What can you expect when you’re traveling to Cambodia? Well, they always say that Thailand is the land of the smile, but I believe that title should really go to Cambodia instead. The people in general are just so friendly, open and welcoming, it’s nothing but a delight to experience. They’ll welcome you into their home, they’ll be interested in why you’re visiting their country and you’ll certainly be asked to take a picture with them more than once (be prepared to feel like a celebrity!). Considering the devastating history of this country, and the many problems they’re still struggling with – it’s often eye-opening and heartwarming to see how they try to make a better life and country for themselves. I won’t deny that there are other, more unpleasant, sides of Cambodia as well – to state it in the words of one of our hostel owners after an incident with a Westerner and a (pregnant) prostitute in our hallway: “this country is crazy!”. Yes, it really can be – but so is every other country when you think about it. And in Cambodia, the good will outweigh the bad with certainty.
Like most places in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a relaxed country. Don’t stress when your bus doesn’t arrive on time (it hardly ever will), and be prepared to face a lot of honking. We mainly traveled by bus and minivans throughout the country, which was fine – it all depends on how and how fast you want/need to travel.
We flew into Siem Reap, and stayed for 5 nights to explore the city and Angkor temples. Afterwards, we headed to Battambang by bus where we stayed 4 nights. We travelled on to Kampong Chnang by bus to see the floating villages. There really isn’t much else to do here, so we only stayed two nights. From Kampong Chnang we took the “bus” (aka a minivan shared with locals and a couple of chickens) to Phnom Penh, where we stayed for three nights. Afterwards we headed to the beaches, and spent two nights in Sihanoukville followed by four nights on the beautiful little island Koh Rong Sanloem. This was also done by minivan and (speed)boat. From Koh Rong Sanloem, we took the boat back to the mainland and hopped on a bus to Kampot, where we stayed four nights. From Kampot it’s only a short bus ride to Kep, where we relaxed, ate crab and stayed for another three nights before we headed to Vietnam! Looking at the map, this is a logical route to follow, but it will mean you’ll miss out on potentially interesting places on the northeast side of Cambodia. Even though we were interested in exploring Sambor Prei Kuk and more of the Kratie province too, you can’t have it all (without taking enormously long bus rides, that is). We were really happy with the route we chose and the amount of time spent in these places – so if you have the time I’d definitely recommend a similar itinerary!
The most obvious highlight of Cambodia shouldn’t be left of your list – take some time to explore the iconic and beautiful temples of Angkor, they’re worth it. I’d recommend the three day pass over the one day pass, because this site is just too vast to grasp and see in one day only. We hired a tuktuk driver one day, and explored the rest on our bicycle during the two remaining days. Another thing worth doing in Siem Reap is paying a visit to the Palm Container night market, which I can only describe as “Transformers meet Fast & The Furious”. It’s basically a bit of a hipster night market to shop and eat, where you have a couple of big Transformer type of… things, and lots of pimped out cars blasting loud music. It’s actually quite fun, and not really something you’d expect to find here.
If you’re into cute, cozy and a little bit of hip with a dosis of good food all around, Battambang and Kampot should definitely be on your list as well. These are perfect spots to relax, with still enough to do – and I can guarantee you’ll find it hard not to love! Battambang is Cambodia’s second biggest city, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. The small center is dotted with fun, cheap restaurants, shops, galleries – and most of them are linked to local good causes, which is an extra plus! Some of my favorites were Cafe HOC, Choco L’art café and About The World. Don’t miss taking a day trip to Kamping Puoy, a huge reservoir (and one of the many Khmer Rouge regime remainders) that is really beautiful and peaceful to see. Take a boat ride on the reservoir with one of the locals, it’s a fun trip!
Kampot is basically another hip city that feels like a small town with beautiful natural surroundings instead. Food favorites here were Baraca, Ellie’s, Epic Arts Café and Simple Things. Also make sure to stop by The Bookish Bazaar for second-hand books in a cute setting! And be sure to visit Bokor National Park and La Plantation, a beautiful pepper farm (one of the things Kampot’s famous for).
The capital Phnom Penh, managed to pleasantly surprise me – there’s lots to do here but a visit to the Tuol Sleng museum should really be on your list. We also visited the Killing Fields, which are a bit more out of the city. Even though these activities can hardly be described as “fun”, they will help you understand the (cruel) history of Cambodia better and the audio guides are of good quality and pretty much a must when you’re visiting. Be warned though, you won’t leave without a heavy heart and a knot in your stomach.
I know I’m not doing a very good job in narrowing down my favorites, but I can’t finish this highlight list without including the beautiful paradise island of Koh Rong Sanloem. We read very mixed things about the islands regarding the trash and cleanliness of the water, but in the end we really liked where we ended up. It’s small, quiet, relaxed, has a local feel to it and the beaches and water were really lovely. Go here if you’re into that sort of thing!
THE COST & PRACTICALITIES
Truth be told: when you’re traveling through Southeast Asia, nothing can ever really be defined as expensive here compared to Western standards. We expected Cambodia to be super cheap (more so than Thailand), but we found that wasn’t really true. Entrance tickets and transportation like mini busses will set you ‘back’ the most, and you’ll also pay quite a hefty fee when withdrawing money. This went up to 10 dollars in the south, but was usually 5 dollars in the cities and around Siem Reap. Finding decent and cheap accommodation on the islands will also be quite the challenge. You’ll definitely get better quality for your money in Thailand when it comes to that (simply because they have way more islands and offer compared to Cambodia), so that’s something to take into account when you’re planning on staying on the islands here. You’ll also need a visa in Cambodia, which we got on arrival at Siem Reap airport. It’s easier if you already have dollars and a valid passport picture with you to speed up the process. It costs 30 dollars per person, and you’ll pay 2 extra to have your picture taken there in case you don’t have one. This went really smooth for us, I think it’s never a problem when you arrive via the airport – however the land borders can be a bit more difficult when it comes to bribes and scams (or so I’ve heard/read). My advice is to always read ahead on the current requirements and regulations, so you’ll be properly prepared on arrival wherever it may be.
Cambodia was one of my favorite destinations during our three month trip – if you plan on discovering this beautiful country yourself and have more questions, shoot!