The Southeast Asian country of Cambodia is of course famous for Angkor Wat which draws visitors from across the globe. It is one of many Khmer temples that remain in Cambodia today, and you can enjoy days exploring them here. The country also has some fantastic natural landscapes. Of particular interest are its islands, which are becoming an increasingly popular destination for backpackers. However there has also been some tragic events in Cambodia’s more recent past, particularly under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. This Cambodia Itinerary is designed to show the highlights of this country but also give you some context, so you can understand what to expect when visiting.
I have written this Cambodia Itinerary based on my own trip to the country. So please consider it to be from a backpackers perspective, not a definitive guide! My aim here is to help you plan a trip by telling you about the destinations and what to see there. I will also advise you what I think is a good length of time to spend in each one.
In terms of the time to complete it I’m stating it will take 3 weeks from arrival. You will note I’ve actually only listed 20 nights worth of destinations. This is so you can use the 21st day for getting to and from the airport, should you be flying in or out. If your coming and/or going by land then I will cover some border crossing ideas throughout this post. At the end of the route I will give you some ideas about how to extend it based on what other backpackers have told me. You can of course amend it as you see fit, adding or taking out parts to plan you ideal trip.
What this Cambodia Itinerary will cover
- A quick overview of the country’s history
- Some need to know’s before you go
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap
- Koh Rong
- Koh Rong Sanloem
- Other options (including Koh Kong)
- Information on onward travel to Thailand
A Quick Overview of Cambodia’s History
The history of Cambodia is of course a long one. In terms of your information relevant to your visit we will start with the Khmer Empire. Existing from 802 CE till 1431 CE, it was during this time the temples you find today at Siem Reap were built. Their powerful empire actually extended beyond modern day Cambodia, covering parts of surrounding countries too. During it’s time it’s rulers switched between Hinduism and Buddhism, though this is of course simplifying it. The temples you see today will feature a mixture of imagery from these two religions.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire the locals fought with the Siamese and Vietnamese for control over land and resources. Then the French Colonial Era began in 1863 when the country become a protectorate of France. This continued as part of French Indochina until World War 2. After the Fall Of France in 1941 Japan took control of the region. Upon the war ending in 1945 defeat France tried to regain control over the region but eventually Cambodia became independent in 1953.
After a civil war the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975. At this point they were considered communist, though under Pol Pot they morphed into genocidal agrarian nationalists. They killed an estimated 3 million people from a population of 8 million. What they did was truly horrific, as well as the killings they forced people out of the cities into the countryside. They tried to make everyone become a farmer, regardless of their profession, and fed them hardly anything. Eventually in 1975 the Vietnamese invaded and removed them from power, though conflict lasted in the country until the 1990’s.
So the reason I included this history is so you understand the situation in Modern Cambodia. I always think context is important but it feels especially so for this country. The people have obviously been hugely effected by the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and the war that followed. You may see people that lived through this, and of course many who lost family. There is also a big gap between rich and poor here and poverty is rife. I personally found this quite upsetting at times.
The Vietnamese left in 1989 though animosity remains towards them despite it being their invasion that stopped the genocide. The Khmer Rouge itself finally ceased to exist in 1999, with its remaining members largely either going on trial or going into hiding. To be honest I think it’s quite a complex situation, so whilst I have given a quick overview on here I can’t really do it justice.
Additionally knowledge of the Khmer Empire is of course of interest to understand the temples and the religion in the country. Most Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhist, which is the state religion. Also the fact that the French ruled for so long here means you will see their influence too. Look out for it in the architecture and food in particular.
Important Info Before You Go
When to go
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, the weather can have a big impact on your travels here. Generally wet season (aka rainy season) runs from May until October. There can be particularly heavy rain during this monsoon. However you will avoid much of the crowds and also see the vegetation here at it’s greenest and lushest. The dry season then runs from November until April. I personally visited in February and found that to be a good time, though it was very hot. November generally is the coolest, though that can also be busiest.
Take US Dollars
The Cambodian riel is the national currency here however it generally only used for small change. Widely used are US Dollars and it’s definitely advisable to take some with you before you go. There are some ATMs in the big cities however they can be a bit dodgy, so it’s advisable to take a good amount with you. Be sure to keep it safe from petty thieves.
Make sure you check the visa requirements for your nationality before you travel. Most countries can get a visa on arrival. You can get a good overview here on wikipedia. Be sure to check official sources for up to date info and prices.
Cambodia Itinerary – The 3 Week Route
We begin this Cambodia Itinerary in the capital, Phnom Penh. Personally when I visited Cambodia this was my first stop, having come in from Vietnam. As I mention in my Vietnam Itinerary, a good way to cross into Cambodia is my boat via one of the Mekong Delta tours. Its quick and efficient, plus you get the excitement of arriving on the water. This is a great introduction to Cambodia and a reminder of how important the Mekong Delta is to the Southeast Asia region. It also saves you from the hassles coming in by bus can cause. Namely long queues at the border and attempted scams. I’ve heard many a tale of stories of travellers crossing the border being asked to pay non-existent extra fee’s, for example.
If your coming from Thailand by land, then you are better off starting this Cambodia Itinerary in Siem Reap. That’s because it’s quicker and easier to get a bus there from Thailand than to try to head straight to Phnom Penh. In that case I would suggest doing Siem Reap and Battambang first, then taking a bus to Phnom Penh and continuing from there. Be careful crossing the border by bus, I have heard of scams that happen there.
Phnom Penh has an international airport, so if your flying into the country this may be your starting point anyhow. Siem Reap also has an airport, so flying into here to start is a valid option. Again just amend the route as above.
If your coming from the 4000 islands in Laos its also worth doing Kratie as your first stop, then heading to Phomn Penh to continue the route.
Phnom Penh – 2 nights
A great way to start this 3 week Cambodia Itinerary is with a visit to the Royal Palace. Dating from 1870, when it was completed, it is the official residence of the Cambodian Monarchy. Their are some beautiful buildings to admire here, as well Buddhist stupa’s and imagery. Not too far away you can find the Cambodian Independence Monument. It was built in 1958 to celebrate their independence from France and is worth a stop. Although I haven’t been myself I have heard the National Museum is good, so if you have time to spare that could be a good place to check out too.
On your second day here take a tuk tuk to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-2) and the Killing Fields. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge really hit home and it can be a very emotional day. As I talked about in the history earlier they killed millions of people, and you will see graphic detail of their atrocities. I won’t go into further detail here, you should see and and learn about it for yourself. Just be prepared to really see horrific details.
In terms of Phnom Penh as a city, it’s not somewhere i’m fond of. I definitely recommend seeing the sites mentioned above, but I think other Southeast Asian cities have a lot more to them. You need to make sure you keep safe whilst in the city too, its a hot spot for petty theft and bag snatching. Don’t let this put you off, just use precautions. This is why I’ve only recommended 2 days here.
Kratie – 1 night
The town of Kratie is really known to travellers for one thing. That is the opportunity to see Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong river. They are very rare and at last count only 92 of them were left here. You can be taken out by local boatmen who will show you the Dolphins. They can be disturbed by boat motors, but the boatmen should know when to use their oars and make sure not to upset them. When I visited the boatman kept a sensible distance and I saw many Dolphins going about their lives, which was an awesome thing to witness.
Understandably, there are ethical concerns about this kind of tourism. Its important to remember that the 2 main threats to the Dolphins are fishing and potential of the river being dammed. Tourism brings in money that encourages locals to help protect the Dolphins. The WWF work with locals in the area to help protect them too. You can read about this here.
If your interested in going, I advise you travel is morning, then head to see the Dolphins as soon as you can. That way you will only need to spend one night here and can head to the next destination the next morning. You will have to pass back through Phnom Penh to get there, so will likely need to switch buses.
Siem Reap – 4 nights
The first day here is really just devoted to travel and arrival into Siem Reap. Even if you haven’t been to Kratie, it’s still a long route here from Phnom Penh. The next 3 days are devoted to seeing the fantastic Temples Of Angkor. Upon arrival I recommend you arrange a tuk tuk driver for these 3 days. Drivers are always keen to secure 3 days work, and you can ask at your guesthouse/hostel for drivers they recommend. You can discuss with them the best temples sites to visit, they usually have a recommended order.
Siem Reap is full of accommodation and food options, so it makes for a good base for visiting the temples. The (in)famous Pub Street is full of bars and clubs and a popular party spot. There are markets in Siem Reap too that are popular with tourists. They can be a great place to buy souvenirs, cloths and trinkets if that’s what your looking for.
On your second day the first thing you will do with our driver is head to buy a 3 day pass. You will need this for seeing all the temples. There are so many to see so for this Cambodia Itinerary I will just do a quick run through of the highlights.
The most famous of the Angkor temples, its an obvious place to start. Its particularly popular for sunrise though that can get very busy. I enjoyed visiting during the morning and spent a couple of hours exploring it’s interior. Historically it was built in the 12th Century as a Hindu temple, and was later converted to Buddhism. Whilst your exploring the site look out for it’s intricate decorations. Of particular interest to me was the mural showing the ‘Churning Of The Sea Of Milk’. Its one of the key legends in Hindu Mythology.
This is one of the most popular temples in the Angkor site. You can really see here how the jungle has grown over the temple buildings, with tree’s and roots covering them.
Once home to a million people, the Angkor Thom temple site is huge and spread out. There is a lot to see here and you should take your time to explore. The most popular part and arguably the most visually striking is the Bayon temple. Its at the centre of Angkor Thom and features many faces, carved into huge towers. Originally it was built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple, and later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist aspects were added by rulers following those religions.
The Grand Circuit
Having spent the first day of temples exploring the 3 above, the second day can be devoted to what local guides call ‘The Grand Circuit’. This is where you go further out from your base in Siem Reap and explore even more impressive temple sites. 2 I particularly enjoyed when I visited were Banteay Srei and Preah Khan. The former is quite far out and contains phallic pillars indicating worship of Shivea. It feels a bit smaller and intricate there, plus the reddish brick makes for different look. The latter Preah Khan is quite overgrown with jungle and you can see tree’s growing over the ruins. I also enjoyed East Mebon as it’s quite high so gives you some great views around the local area.
The Roluos Group
These are some of the oldest temples in the area, having been built during the 9th Century. They are quite far out too, about 13Km away from Siem Reap. They have a different look and feel to what you would have seen so far, smaller and more intricate. My favourite here was Preah Ko, I recommend asking your driver to show you it for sure.
Battambang – 2 nights
After 3 days of hardcore temple sightseeing, chances are you will be pretty tired out. I know I was when I did it! Lucky the next stop Battambang isn’t too far away, meaning after arriving on your first day you can get some rest. Try some of the city’s restaurants where you can get great local Khmer dishes as well Thai food and international delicacies. Its good to book a tuk tuk driver for the next day, they can take you to the sights around the city.
The second day here is all about seeing the varied attractions. Tuk tuk drivers will normally have an itinerary they will drive you through which takes in the big spots. You can discuss with them prices and what you want to see. The Bamboo train is a great place to start. You will be taken along an old railway line on a small bamboo cart, it’s quite a strange experience!
Some of the other things you can see include fruit bats, local farms and a Muslim fishing village. One big stop to see as evening approaches is the Phnom Sampeau hill. This was one of the sites of Khmer Rouge atrocities and it’s quite upsetting seeing details of their crimes. There is a cave here named ‘The Killing Cave’ where victims were executed. You will see a small shrine here including skulls and bones of some of the victims. There is also a shrine at the top of the mountain which has some good views over the area, as well as a local monkey population. Hide any food or water you have so they don’t steal it.
Nearby you can end your day with Battambang’s biggest attraction, seeing millions of Bats heading out for their evening meal! It really is impressive, what happens is that as the sun sets the local bat population flies out from their mountainside cave home to hunt for food. Its hard to say exact numbers but it seems like an endless stream.
Kampot – 3 nights
Your going have a full days travel coming from Battambang, unfortunately that’s just how it is going by bus around Cambodia. When you arrive the best thing to is find your accommodation, have some food and then get some rest.
Kampot is a pretty relaxed place with a nice riverside setting. After having an explore in the day you can take a river cruise in the evening. These are a good way to socialise with other travellers as well as see the local landscape. Cruises normally take you to see fireflies too, which is pretty cool.
For your final day here I recommend a bit of an adventure! Its time to visit the Bokor Hill Station. Up on Bokor mountain in the Preah Monivong National Park you can find some French Colonial Ruins. Most notable is an abandoned Hotel/Casino, that you can roam around and explore. Nearby there is also an abandoned Catholic Church. These ruins are quite eerie and definitely worth a visit. You also have the chance to admire the jungle of the national park and get some cool views across the area. If you or a friend rides a motorbike that is a great way to get to the top, otherwise you can join a minivan tour. You can rent bikes in the town.
If your pressed for time you can of course compact these 2 days into 1, doing Bokor in the day followed by the river cruise in the evening. I recommended 2 full days as thus far this Cambodia Itinerary has been quite packed so its good to relax. But of course if you wish you could save time here by compressing it.
Kep – 2 nights
Around half an hours journey away from Kampot is the small town of Kep. There is a nice beach here where you can relax. Its a pretty laid back area. The main attraction here is the Kep National Park. Its a great place to walk and explore the fauna. Look out for wildlife and see what you can spot. There is also a Butterfly Farm here that is worth stopping by.
Again, you could compress this into 1 day if your rushed for time. I’ve listed it as 2 days to allow for a beach day, but honestly if you arrive early enough you could do the park and beach in 1.
Koh Rong – 3 nights
Now it’s time to head to the islands! To get to them you need to go via Sihanoukville. I really don’t recommend hanging around for long there. It’s not a nice town and form my understanding it’s only gotten worse since I last visited. Take the boat as quick as you can to get to Koh Rong. On arrival you will land at the main beach. This beach is by far the worst I’ve seen on the islands, with a stench of sewage and far too much development. Still it has a nice vibe and is a good place to gran some drinks.
After staying a night on the main beach, you can set sail for one of the islands better beaches in the morning. There are several options and of course you may be limited by what accommodation is available, particularly if the island is busy. Personally I stayed in a hut with some friends on Sok San beach, and it was a really nice experience. Its good to stay a couple of nights on the island and relax and enjoy the scenery. Its possible to walk around the island by jungle paths but these can be overgrown and confusing, so I recommend sticking to using local boatman if you need to get around.
Koh Rong Sanloem – 3 nights
The next stop is Koh Rong’s neighbouring island, Koh Rong Sanloem. You should be able to take the boat straight here from Koh Rong’s main beach. I recommend staying in the laid back M’pai bay. Its set up for backpackers, with several hostel options. If you want more luxury there are several resorts on the island that are good options. Ko Rong Sanloem is a great place to relax and enjoy the island life. I found some good spots for sunset when I was here, as well as some nice beach walks.
I think Koh Rong Sanloem is a great relaxed place to end this Cambodia Itinerary. Unfortunately you will have to pass through Sihanoukville on your way out. If you do have to stay the night then I think it’s worth investing in a private room and dorm etiquette can be pretty bad here.
Got longer? Extending this Cambodia Itinerary
One place I’ve been that I recommend adding to this Cambodia Itinerary is the island of Koh Kong. Its very quite and you can’t actually stay here, only visit. You will need to stay in the town of Koh Kong and take a boat tour, but it’s worth it. It gives you the opportunity to explore quite beautiful beaches and see the local wildlife with very few people around. You can also visit the local national park where there is an impressive Mangrove Forest.
There are a couple of islands I have yet to visit that have been recommended to me by fellow backpackers. The first is Rabbit Island, which you can reach by boat from Kep. Its reportedly pretty quiet and a nice place to stay for a night or two in a beach side bungalow. I’ve also heard nice things about Koh Ta Kiev, which is another island you can reach from Sihanoukville. There does seem to be plans to ‘develop’ this island for mass tourism though, which is disappointing.
Other places that look interesting include Tonle Sap lake, which is home to floating fishing villages. There are some more national parks too, as well as the city of Kampong Cham if your interested in seeing more of Cambodia’s urban side.
Crossing to Thailand?
If you heading to Thailand next then I recommend crossing the border at Cham Yeam. You can take a tuk tuk there from Koh Kong and then cross by foot. Here you can take a minibus to the Thai city of Trat and go on from there. Options include taking a ferry to the island of Koh Chang or a bus to Bangkok. This is of course as an alternative to the most common route from Cambodia into Thailand, the Poipet-Aranyaprathet crossing. It is infamous for it’s scams and I think it’s worth going via Cham Yeam to avoid that hassle. Plus you can check out Koh Kong which I as mentioned above is worth a visit. When I went I was the only backpacker I saw crossing the border and the mini van to Trat was reasonably priced.
Thanks for reading this 3 week Cambodia Itinerary! I hope it helps you plan your travels to this country. If you have any feed back please leave a comment or contact me Twitter, Instagram or Facebook!
The featured image for this Cambodia Itinerary is of the Banteay Srei temple. As mentioned earlier, this was visited as part of the ‘Grand Circuit’ tour in Angkor.
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