Country Guide – Cambodia

View across water of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Cambodia is a country trying to recover and grow following great tragedy. This nation was ripped apart by atrocities in the 1970’s and the civil war that followed. But the Khmer people endure and tourists now flock to see what Cambodia has to offer. Highlights in the country today include its ancient temple ruins and great islands. 

Getting there:

Most nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival when entering Cambodia. Check latest details before you go (usually best to check the Cambodian embassy website for your own country.  They have an e-visa system too.

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have international airports that you can fly/in out of from surrounding countries.

You can cross by land from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Poi Pet is the most common crossing into Thailand but also somewhat rife with scams. I’ve crossed at the Cham Yeam border point near Koh Kong Town and it was quick and easy. You reach it by minivan from Trat in Thailand.

If you’re coming from Vietnam then I’d recommend the Boat from Chau Doc via the Vinh Xuong border point. Its quicker and much less hassle than coming by bus.

Getting around:

Long distances busses and mini vans are the standard method to get from city to city, town to town. Once there tuk tuks are the common method of travel. When you exit a long distance bus you will often be surrounded by tuk tuk drivers offering you deals to get where you need. Stay calm and collect your bags before you begin negotiating. Often they will offer you cheap travel to a hotel because they want to strike a deal to show you around the tourist sites later on or the next day.

Currency:

Cambodia uses US Dollars and Cambodian Riel, which is 4000 to a dollar.  When you have change of a dollar note Riel will be given as they do not use coins. Whilst the towns and cities have ATMS the islands do not. Make sure you get out whatever cash you need before you go the islands.

Food:

Khmer food is in a lot of respects similar to other southeast Asian cuisine. Lots of rice, noodles and curry spices for flavouring. Usually based around a single type of meat and fish, or tofu when its done vegetarian.  Try Amok which is a local dish where curry is steam cooked in banana leaves. They are also really big on BBQ here. On the islands in particular you’ll see lots of western options too.  Food is generally pretty cheap and all the tourist areas are full of decently priced restaurants.

Accommodation:

There are plenty of hostels and cheap hotels in Cambodia so you won’t have a problem finding anywhere to sleep. On some of the islands it can be difficult to book in advance so you will just need to turn up and find somewhere.

General Tips:

There was a genocide in Cambodia, perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. After this there was a civil war that lasted until 1994. This has obviously had a huge effect on the country and you should be aware of its past. Be very respectful when visiting the sites linked to the genocide and understand that the Khmer people have their own ways of dealing with the grief.

Linked in with the above there is a great deal of poverty in Cambodia. It can be heartbreaking but I’d urge everyone not to give cash to kids. Even its to buy something like a bracelet.  This just encourages them not to go to school and to beg instead.

There is a common scam where kids or young mothers will ask travellers to buy them milk power. What happens is that they then return the milk power to the shop owner who gives them a cut.  Politely decline and move away from the person.

Cambodia is a Buddhist country so be sure to respect Buddhist beliefs when you are visiting temples. This goes for the ruins at Angkor too. Angkor Wat is still an active worship site.

Suggested itinerary:

Phnom Penh

View of one of the buildings in the royal palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Royal Palace grounds

Phnom Penh can be very intense and you will need to keep alert the whole time. But don’t let that deter you! The Royal Palace here is very picturesque. Cover yourself as you would in other Southeast Asian Buddhist sites. Heads up that it closes at lunchtime. Visiting hours are 08:00-10:30 and 14:00-17:00.  The King of Cambodia uses this as his residence. 

The S-21 prison and the Killing Fields are 2 sites to visit to learn about the genocide. This is a very harrowing experience. You can arrange a tuk tuk to take you to both, they’ll wait for you as you visit. The former was used as detention centre by the Khmer Rouge. They beat, tortured and killed many people here. Of the 14,000 people known to have been interned, only seven survived. The latter are mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh. Over 1 million people were murdered here.

Siem Reip and the Temples of Angkor

Ta Prohm temple entrance overgrown with a tree. In Angkor, Cambodia.
Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat is of course one of the most famous historical sites in the world. The Khmer empire built it in 12th Century CE and it is the largest religious structure in the world. But don’t let it take away from the rest of the temples. The Angkor Thom complex is utterly amazing and the faces of the Bayon really are magnificent. Ta Prohm gets loads of attention too having been a location in the film Tomb Raider.  In truth there are loads of loads of temples to see here. When I visited I wrote this diary entry to document all the ones I went to see.

Siem Reap itself is a party town. Pub Street is the centre of that party. Beer here is cheap and backpacker bars plentiful. There’s also large markets and don’t worry you can find plenty of hostels away from the party to relax in! Arrange a tuk tuk in Siem Reap to take you around the temples for the days you require.

Battambang

The bamboo train in Battambang, Cambodia. Drivers moving one train off the tracks so another can pass.
The Bamboo Train

There are 2 main highlights for me in Battambang. One is the bamboo train, pictured above. You take a ride on the ‘train’ down old railway tracks, it’s a pretty unique Cambodian experience! The other highlight is the Bat cave. Located at the Phnom Sampeau hill, every night at sunset countless numbers of Bats stream out of this cave to go a hunt for food. It lasts for about 45 minutes and is really an amazing sight!

There are a few other things to see in town too. Generally tuk tuk drivers will offer you a tour around the sites for a decent price. The ‘killing caves’ at Phnom Sampeau were used by the Khmer Rouge to murder many people in their campaign of terror. There is a small memorial there. Elsewhere in town you and go to visit giant fruit bats which hang around in one area and see the Battambang bridge. Near it is a Buddhist temple that has some really cool Buddhist imagery.

Kep and Kampot

Locals go out into the sea to catch crabs at sunset in Kep, Cambodia
Sunset in Kep

Kampot is a pleasant sleepy riverside town in the South Of Cambodia. Here you can take tours along the river for sunset and to see wild firefly’s.  Nearby is the Bokor National Park, which you can explore by tour or by motorbike. The big interest here is the ruined Bokor Hotel/Casino. Its part of an abandoned French hill station. There is an old ruined church here too. It’s quite eerie to walk around these abandoned buildings.

Nearby Kep is only 45 minutes away. It has a nice beach area and a great national park that see’s few visitors. Take some time to walk around the park and visit the butterfly farm, look out for the signs directing you to it. There’s a cafe here called Led Zep, and its owner is the one who has done all the signs and directions inside the park. Stop by Gibbon Valley if you want a drink and some nice views. To find the location for sunset pictured above, find a way down to the water opposite the popular Visal Sak guesthouse.

Check my diary entry on the 2 towns for more pics and info.

Kratie

There is one main reason to go Kratie and that is to see the endangered Irrawaddy River Dolphins. Around 80 of them live in a stretch of the Mekong River and you can hire boats to go out and get a view of them. Take a tuk tuk from the town to Kampi village, all the drivers know the drill. Asides from this you can get a nice view of the sunset when in Kratie town. Tokae restaurant is the place to eat here, its great for backpackers. For information if your coming from Laos via the 4000 islands then this a logical first destination in Cambodia.

The Islands

The southern coast of Cambodia gives access to several beautiful offshore islands. Often overlooked in favour of Thailand, these are a great place to spend a few days relaxing. They shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the area!

The first 2 listed here are reached from Sihanoukville. The town itself is jammed full of drunk tourists and is very unappealing. However the Otres beaches here are beautiful and worth a visit. There are regular ferries from Sihanoukville though expect delays if there have been storms and/or rough seas. Sihanoukville town itself is full of bars and restaurants but I really don’t like it so I won’t dwell. Mick n Craigs is a decent guesthouse to stay at if you can’t hack the party hostels.

Koh Rong

Beach chairs with umbrella for shade on the white sand Sok San beach, Koh Rong, Cambodia
Sok San beach

Koh Rong’s main beach isn’t anything to write home about. It’s not that pretty, has a funny smell and is pretty chock-a-block with backpackers. But the other beaches on the island are great. Sok San beach has white sands and you can rent a bungalow on the beachfront. It’s very relaxed and a great place just to chill out with friends. If you can can get a small group of backpackers together then head here to hang out for a while. The Bungalows here have beds for either 2 or 4. In all honestly i’d say this is the kind of beach people dream about being on when they come to Southeast Asia.

Koh Rong Sanloem

Boat on blue water with sand in the foreground. M'pai bay, Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia
M’Pai Bay

This island is very chilled out and a great place to relax with other backpackers. M’Pai bay is a backpacker friendly village here.  There’s plenty of hostels, restaurants and an open roof bar (at Chill Inn) to cover your needs. There are some more pricey options too if you fancy a bit of luxury. One end of the bay as a tourist village and the other a range of bungalows. Head out onto the rocks of the western part of the island for great sunset views across the water.

Koh Kong 

Empty beach on Koh Kong island, Cambodia
Beach on Koh Kong island

Whilst you can’t stay on the military owned island of Koh Kong you can visit if from the town of Koh Kong (yup, same name) and you will find empty beautiful beaches to explore and relax on. It’s up near the border with Thailand so if your planning to cross there (the Cham Yeam border point)  it’s worth spending a day to check it out. Tour operators will also show you a nearby mangrove forest on the mainland and you can discuss other excursions with them.

Koh Tao Kiev and Rabbit Island

Alas I have yet to visit either of these but they are the 2 other islands that backpackers frequent in Cambodia and both have a great reputation. Rabbit island is reachable from Kep whereas Koh Tao Kiev can be reached from Sihanoukville.

 See route on the map:

Where else?

As you can see from the above map this itinerary is very focused on the south coast and a few other major spots. This covers all the main backpacking stuff and then some, but of course there is always more to see. I’ll just highlight Kampong Cham as it is the 3rd largest city in Cambodia. Known for its French colonial buildings, it’s on the Mekong and would be a good stop for any journey between Phnom Penh and Kratie.

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