Why Cambodia? Why now?
It used to be that Cambodia had the reputation of being a dangerous place to travel, the bitter aftertaste of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s haunting some, yet lost on others who were already too fed up with the war in Vietnam to be bothered by a genocide happening across the border in a tiny country most had probably never even heard of.
The Academy Award winning movie, The Killing Fields, in 1984, exposed a whole new generation to the horrors of those years, and up until the mid 90’s, Cambodia was really only home to foreign journalists, UN workers, hopeful NGO,s and visited by a smattering of the most hardcore backpackers. Say you were going to Cambodia and you’d be met with a wide-eyed look, meaning, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” or “Hope you have life insurance.”
Even in the early 2000’s when I moved to Cambodia, it was regarded by most as a charmless blip on the Banana Pancake Trail, worth perhaps a couple of days in Siem Reap to see the magnificent Angkor temples, but in general, lacking the glitz of anything-goes Bangkok or the seductive beaches of Thailand’s southern coast, the cool factor of Vietnam, or the natural beauty of underdeveloped Laos.
But a lot of that has changed. The infrastructure, while still years behind that of Vietnam and decades behind Thailand or Singapore, is nicely coming into place. It’s easier to get around, and there’s definitely less of a Wild West vibe than just 18 years ago when I first visited Phnom Penh (and was ignominiously a victim of an armed home invasion while staying with western friends). Cambodia is less of a transient place now, and with more expatriates and tourists, traveling is more comfortable than it’s ever been, and more places are accessible to the traveler who is willing to put up with just a bit of inconvenience.
Costs: If you’re on a budget, Cambodia is definitely do-able on $25USD per day. Budget $7-10 for accommodation, $5 per day on average for transportation (motorbike rentals are usually $5 per day, a great way to get around if you’re a confident driver), $5 for food, $2 for a fruit shake and a beer and $3 for admission tickets. Of course, the ante goes up if you’re visiting the Angkor temples with hefty entrance fees.
- Siem Reap: The name of the town as well as the province, Siem Reap is where the magical 1,000+ year old temples of Angkor are located. The Angkor Archaeological Park has dozens of temples which you’ve probably seen photos of, including Bayon (famous for its faces), Ta Prohm (where massive tree roots have impressively reclaimed some of the temple ruins) and of course, the five spired Angkor Wat. All together, a feat of modern engineering from olden times, every inch as impressive as the Taj Mahal or Machu Pichu, and thanks to tremendous preservation efforts led by the French, some of the bas reliefs are still striking in their detail. Being Cambodia’s most visited destination also means there is a wide range of accommodation options and trendy cafes with a decidedly chill vibe.
- Phnom Penh: The capital of Cambodia is a great place to spend a few days, taking in the vibrant riverside, visiting the Royal Palace, catching a shadow puppet show, or getting an education at the viscerally haunting Toul Sleng Genocide Museum with its rows upon rows of close-up photos of victims looking back at you with hollow eyes, putting a face to what really happened during the Khmer Rouge years. Some day trips from Phnom Penh include the zoo at Takhmau, about a two hour drive away, or Silk Island (Koh Dach), about an hour’s trip up the Mekong River by boat (also accessible by motorbike). Other than the weaving village, there are huts set up by the water for a relaxing day of playing cards, lazing around in a hammoc,k or splashing in the shallow river.
- Sihanoukville: Also known as Kampong Som by locals, Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s premier beach destination (about a 3-4 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh), with numerous beaches, some offshore islands, and a chill beach vibe. Beaches are relatively clean, the water is a pleasing dark green color, and there are lots of beach restaurants serving up excellent fresh seafood (a meal of grilled fish, corn on the cob, and side salad costs as little as $3USD) or just a coconut shake for a little over $1USD. Look for tables set up right on the beach at dusk in front of the many thatched, bamboo restaurants that line Ochheuteal Beach. Day trips to some of the nearby islands with very clear water are popular, and if you’re traveling in a group, chartering your own boat for the day is a viable option. If you want to live it up, the 5-star Sokha Beach Resort has a very clean, pretty stretch of beach where vendors aren’t allowed. Anyone can access the beach via the hotel, but chairs are for hotel guests only. I’ve been there when the beach attendant has let me pay a couple of dollars for use of the chair and others when they said it wasn’t allowed. Just beyond the hotel grounds, there is a public beach. Bring your own towels and straw mats.
- Kampot and Kep: Small provincial towns on the coast, not far from Sihanoukville, these two small towns are a quiet alternative for those seeking solitude and relaxation. Kampot, famous for its pepper, has the Elephant Mountains as a backdrop, and despite being an old provincial capital, has the feel of a rural town. At one point, Kep was Cambodia’s “it” beach destination for the rich and famous, but has since fallen into a state of slight disrepair that’s charming in its own way. The beaches in town aren’t all that inviting, so it’s more of a place to relax and do nothing except listen to the waves rolling in while lying in a hammock and gorging yourself with fresh seafood in what’s known as the “Crab Market,” a row of a dozen or so shacks on stilts serving made-to-order seafood. Crab are kept alive in a large pot slung out at sea which gets pulled in when you order. A huge plate of tamarind crab to share will set you back a measly $5-6USD. For swimming, take a day trip to Rabbit Island when the sea isn’t too choppy.
- Koh Kong: Known more as a gateway to the Thai island of Koh Chang and beyond, Koh Kong is starting to develop an eco-tourism vibe with the Cardamom Mountains providing nature’s playground for bird watching, trekking, and river trips. Or if orangutan and dolphin shows are your thing, Safari World might interest you.
- Battambang: For a look at how French colonialism influenced the architecture of Cambodian buildings, detour into Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city on the road between Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, but with a small town feel. You won’t see any high buildings or loads of tourists. Just a few miles out of town, you’ll find yourself in small villages, amidst green rice field,s and be able to observe common folk just going about their agrarian business.
- Ratanakiri: Hilly Ratanakiri doesn’t get many foreign tourists, but Cambodians all seem to want to visit for how different it is to the rest of the country. Best known for its gem mining area (which is why rubies, sapphires and emeralds are a very good buy in Cambodia as long as you go with someone knowledgeable), there are also 60,000 minority peoples in the province. Visiting them can be an authentic joy as they haven’t been jaded by the onslaught of tourists like the hill tribes of Chiang Mai or the Hmong of Luang Prabang.
- Kratie: Situated on the Mekong River, the main reason to visit this sleepy town (or more accurately, the village of Kampi, about 10 miles outside of Kratie) is to see the pink freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. With less than 100 of these shy Mekong dolphins left, now is the time to go. But don’t expect them to perform leaps out of the water or even come remotely close to your boat like their marine cousins. When I went almost 10 years ago, we spent a pleasant afternoon in a wobbly canoe piloted by a boy of barely 15, quietly waiting for these eerily light-skinned dolphins to pop up for a quick breath. There are a few islands in the middle of the river where you can stop for a quick dip, but I learned the hard way to be careful of the river currents which can be stronger than they look.
These are just a few of the many places Cambodia has to offer. Or maybe your thing is just to go 20 minutes outside of a city center and wander around watching people grind rice to make crepes or kids playing with homemade toys. Whatever your interests, Cambodia is ripe for Indie travel now.
Despite being a bit of a foodie and living in Cambodia for 10 years, I didn’t come away wowed by Khmer cuisine. The good news is that Cambodian food has a lot of outside influences, so you’ll be comforted by familiar flavors, like the ubiquitous kuy teav that you can find in Thailand, Vietnam, and China, a clear noodle soup with pork and shrimp that’s my go-to dish anytime I’m on the road traveling. It’s served piping hot so you know it’s safe to eat, and it’s easy on the stomach.
From the Vietnamese, the Khmer have adopted the sweet and sour tamarind based soup (actually calling it somlor machu Yuun, literally “Vietnamese sour soup”), sizzling pancake stuffed with pork and shrimp (banh cheo), and bai saich charouk¸ or rice with grilled pork. You’ll also see carts selling papaya salad (in Khmer bok lahong) which is very similar to the Thai som tam, and in restaurants, you can order Thai style chicken with cashew nuts or spicy Tom Yam hotpot.
However, there are a few uniquely Cambodian dishes worth trying, the most famous probably being prohok, a pungently fermented fish paste. While it’s often used as a salty ingredient for dishes, you’ll also see it as a dipping sauce in beer gardens where various meats are grilled on a brazier right at your table. Amok is also a classic dish ― fish steamed in a coconut-based curry to the consistency of a firm mousse, all wrapped in a banana leaf.
Other than proper restaurants, most locals will usually lunch / dinner at smaller restaurants where pre-prepared foods are on display behind a glass case. Meals are usually around 5,000 riels or $1.25USD, including a small plate of white rice. Simply point to what you want and you’ll be charged by the dish.
Itinerant food carts are also great for a quick bite, although only some of them will be equipped with small (read, tiny) plastic chairs for you to sit on. If you don’t see chairs, that means it’s meant to be taken to-go. Feel free to find a shady spot somewhere to wolf down your loc cha (fried short noodles, usually with a few slices of beef, some bean sprouts, leafy greens, and a fried egg) or mi cha (similar, but made with instant noodles), a great snack for about $1USD.
Transportation options in Cambodia are seemingly limited only by the imagination.
Buses: There isn’t really one big bus station in Phnom Penh, nor are there any municipal buses like you have in Bangkok and Vietnam. Buses from various companies leave from everywhere: their own offices, from parking lots near big markets, or you can arrange to be picked up along the route. Some of the larger companies that I’ve taken include Sorya Transport buses (with a bus station just a block southwest of Psar Thmey, aka Central Market), Mekong Express, GST, and Capitol.
Capitol is probably the most foreigner-friendly, as their staff speak good English and their office is located right across from Psar Orussey market, from where they can arrange tours and visas (extensions for Cambodia or visas for Vietnam). If you’re headed to Ho Chi Minh City, the choice of bus companies doubles as many Vietnamese-owned companies do this route, some with fleets of only a few buses to much bigger companies. Bus tickets between any of these companies usually only vary by a couple of dollars, some providing water and a snack, others with a bathroom on-board, and some who frustratingly make frequent stops to pick up passengers along the road. But you’ll almost always be assigned a seat when you buy your ticket.
Tuk-tuks: Tuk-tuks only arrived on the scene a few years ago, but now they’re quite common. Expect to pay $2 for short trips and $10 for half a day. If you’re heading out to the Killing Fields (which are about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh), you’ll need to pay more to traverse the bumpy road there. Expect the driver to try to overcharge tourists who don’t know their way around ― it’s a given. Ask your hotel for a sampling of prices and be prepared to negotiate with your best smile. I’ve seen tourists storm off when they hear the first price, not realizing that it’s basically expected of service personnel to get as much as they can from you. Don’t take it personally. Just counter with what’s fair and stick to it.
Motodup: Motorcycle taxis are known as motodups (dup means to carry someone as a passenger, possibly coming from the French, double). Same negotiation rules apply. Just be aware that most Cambodian tuk-tuk and motodup drivers don’t read maps. Many of them are from the countryside, especially the motodup drivers. Instead of noting a location the way Westerners would (Street X at the corner of Y), they know places by the name of the neighborhood (which unfortunately, you won’t find on any map) or markets.
If you’re not going to a very well known tourist spot, have your hotel write down the name of the area. It’s best to also have a cell phone where you can call someone at your destination and have them explain it to the driver. This goes for getting back to your hotel as well. Phnom Penh’s streets are numbered (even numbers go east-west, odd are north-south), so it’s usually pretty easy to follow along on a map.
It’s not yet illegal to have three (or more) on a motorbike, but if you’re “Western-sized”, it probably won’t be comfortable with three, as the seat is typically quite short. Better to get two bikes, but make sure they travel together. Few things are as frustrating as getting separated in a city where most people do not speak English. While violent crime isn’t common, bag snatchings are, especially before large holidays when teens want money to spend, so keep your bag between you and the driver, not slung loosely on you. And I’ve heard stories of foreigners who have gotten off the moto at their destination, only for the driver to drive off with their bag. It’s not common, but it has been known to happen. Just to be safe, when you get to your destination, have the driver put your belongings on the ground before you get off.
A cousin of the motodup is the ramork, a wooden wagon with benches attached to a large motorbike. These can seat up to two dozen people and are used mainly to ferry people to the city limits. However, be very careful in taking these as if it gets into an accident, everyone goes flying. Cars tend to drive very fast on roads outside of the city, so if possible, take a taxi instead of a ramork or even a motodup.
Taxis: Surprisingly, metered taxis haven’t really caught on in Cambodia, at least not for rides within the city. In Phnom Penh, you’ll see two main companies (Global and Choice) but usually only in the touristy areas. Otherwise, don’t expect a few to whiz by every few minutes like in Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. Of course, you can always phone them to come pick you up.
Shared taxis for intercity travel, though, are quite common. Taxis congregate in different places around the city, depending on where they’re going. For instance, all the taxis in front of Olympic Market in Phnom Penh are headed for the Vietnam border point of Moc Bai / Bavet. Taxis are usually much faster than buses because the taxi drivers are eager to get to their destination as quick as possible to do the return trip. You pay for a seat in the taxi, and when it’s full, it goes. Just be forewarned that a Cambodian “seat” means four people in the back, two in the front passenger side and sometimes one person who sits WITH the taxi driver in his seat, with the driver reaching over to change gears. When I traveled by taxi, I always bought “two” seats so I could sit in the front passenger seat alone, but with the plethora of buses nowadays, I’d recommend buses over taxis unless you’re in a severe time crunch. Alternatively, if you’re traveling in a group of 4, hiring out a whole taxi can be a comfortable, fast way to travel, but expect to pay quite a bit more than what the bus tickets would have cost.
Cyclos: Cyclos are mainly used by housewives returning from the market with bags of groceries or carting furniture from one place to another, a cheaper alternative to the tuk-tuk. I’ve seen foreigners on them for the slow thrill, but other than cruising around the riverside perhaps, I never found it to be all that relaxing and I always felt strangely guilty sitting in one while some wiry old man pedaled me around. Again, negotiate your price before getting on and have a bit of compassion for these cyclo drivers, who are often the poorest of the poor. I’ve seen quite a few sleep in their cyclos at night, parked along a wall somewhere.
Boats: With the popularity and cheapness offered by buses, boats are becoming less popular. However, the route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (bus / boat combo) are good alternatives if you’d like to travel along the Mekong. Just watch out for sunburn if you choose to sit outside.
Air: A handful of big name Asian airlines fly in and out of Cambodia, like Thai, Vietnam, EVA, and Malaysia. Certain routes have no competition and remain expensive like the Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City leg or the Siem Reap – Bangkok leg. Luckily, Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh only takes 6 hours by bus (~$12USD one way). Siem Reap to Bangkok overland is a long journey, compounded by lethargic immigration officials at the border. My favorite choices for budget airlines are JetStar for cheap flights to Singapore and AirAsia, which currently flies from Phnom Penh to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur .
Outside of the big cities and main tourist spots of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville, Cambodia is still in that transition stage where many hotels cater mostly to domestic tourists as opposed to foreign ones. So while you’re likely to be greeted with a warm smile, don’t expect a lot of English to be spoken (other than perhaps a teenaged niece or nephew of the smiling owner who happens to know a few words but is likely too shy to string more than two sentences together).
Within the main cities, you’ll find the gamut of lodging choices. Siem Reap, in particular, has a huge choice of budget to splurge hotels, with French names and matching prices. Here’s what you can expect for lodging:
Less than $2: The cheapest (and grittiest) places I’ve ever seen have been spartan bamboo beds in the back room of someone’s house, using shared, equally spartan toilets. These signless, nameless places are located near big markets in towns near the borders with Vietnam/Thailand, and almost exclusively host traveling vendors from those countries just looking for a cheap place to spend the night. You’ll have no privacy and people will be walking in and out. They can take anyone, but they’d be really surprised to see a foreigner, most likely. The rate is about 5,000 riels ($1.25USD). If you’re game, try asking for p’teh somnak pram poan riel (5,000 riel guesthouse / place to stay).
$5-10: Dorm rooms aren’t very common in Cambodia, especially in properties operated by the average Khmer. The concept hasn’t caught on with locals. But in most of the major cities, you’ll find expat-run hostels, and for about $7, you will be able to find a dorm room with shared bath. In this same range, you’ll be able to find very spartan private fan-cooled rooms at Khmer-run hotels (don’t be surprised to find the floor and walls tiled).
Once you hit the $15 mark, expect to find a clean room with a TV (still spartan, though!) and with breakfast included. I’ve never been a fan of included breakfasts. The menu is usually limited and not nearly as good as can be found out on the streets for a dollar or two. I’d venture to say that “included breakfast” isn’t the value-for-money perk that it might be in a higher-end property. So once you negotiate your best price, see if the owner will take off $2 or so per night if you skip breakfast!
At the $20+ mark, your choices open up vastly in the larger cities. At about the $30+ range, you might be able to find a hotel with a small pool, which is bliss in the Cambodian heat. At the luxury end, you’ll get more value for money than in most other countries. Raffles, InterContinental, etc. will usually be 20% cheaper or more than other properties in the same chain in the region.
Some things to think about as you’re choosing accommodation:
- Some of the cheaper places may be in residential neighborhoods. That means there may be mobile carts selling food during the day (and especially around breakfast time) but fewer choices as the day wears on. You’ll also need to think about how easy/difficult it will be to direct someone back to your hotel at the end of the day.
- I always love staying near markets and/or the riverside. Most cities visited by tourists in Cambodia will be on the banks of a river, which is traditionally a spot where everyone, young and old, gathers to do early morning exercise, late afternoon hanging out, and weekend fun.
- As with everything else in Asia, bargaining for room rates is acceptable. Most Cambodian-run hotels will probably not have a price list, and even if they do, you’ll likely be able to shave a few dollars off, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.
- If it’s your first time to Asia, expect the bathroom to be a shower / toilet combo. It’s expected that you’ll get water everywhere. Just make sure the toilet paper is out of reach before you shower.
- Having wifi at the hotel isn’t imperative. In most places, there are very cheap internet cafes at just about $1 per hour.
- There are a myriad of Cambodian public holidays throughout the year. The ones which are 3 days or longer are heavy travel periods for Khmers going back to visit family in the provinces. Expect hotel rates to double during those times, and even then, you might have a hard time finding a place to stay.
Why Indie travel to Cambodia?
There are lots of reasons why Cambodia is a great place for independent travel.
- It’s slightly more developed than Vientiane, although nowhere near as frenetic as nearby Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. Towns are small (even Phnom Penh where nowhere is really more than 20 minutes away), and outside of Siem Reap, you don’t see lots of tourists walking around (other than perhaps the Phnom Penh riverside).
- The people of Cambodia have obviously seen an increasing number of tourists for the last 10 years or so, but aren’t overawed or aggressively selling to them. It’s almost a laissez-faire attitude, which is refreshing.
- While most of Cambodia doesn’t get the number of tourists needed to spawn cutthroat competition for cheap package tours, the good news is that with a combination of transport options, almost every destination is accessible, and relatively cheap to reach.
- Costs are relatively low, on par with travel in Vietnam. Admission to museums and monuments typically cost $3USD or less, with Angkor being the notable exception, where passes are pricey but costs go towards conservation (one-day passes are $20USD, three-day are $40 and seven-day are $60). I always found the three-day to be the best value, as you aren’t “templed out” after 24 hours of trying to cram in all of the major sights.
- Of course, interaction with the people where we visit is an important part of indie travel. In Cambodia, people have more time than money, so it’s not difficult to strike up conversations with school/university aged kids just hanging out by the riverside or at the park. Cambodian children all learn English at school, and many university programs are conducted in half English, half Khmer, so the younger generation speaks surprisingly good English. In addition, because many English sounds exist in Cambodian (with 33 consonants and a host of dependent and independent vowels), Khmers have very good English pronunciation when compared to other SE Asian peoples.
- Because of the severity of the damage caused by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia needed a lot of outside help starting in the late 70’s. Some sources put the amount of worldwide aid pledged as recently as in 2010 at around $1.1 billion. However, in the past decade, I’ve seen more and more NGOs transferring into the hands of actual Cambodians ― Khmers helping Khmers. Connecting with some of these organizations by donating time, skills or money can make a difference. It could be as easy to buying something from the restaurants or boutiques of Mith Samlanh, an organization working with street children and their families, or from Tooit Tooit, a small stall in Phnom Penh’s Russian market that sells items made by disadvantaged families so their children can go to school instead of beg on the streets. If you have more time, check out how you can help NGOs like Youth Star, who encourage the spirit of volunteerism among university graduates or visit the schools of Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, an organization that works with the children forced to rummage through the huge garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. A good resource is Stay Another Day, a downloadable booklet (last updated 2011-2012) listing many of the non-governmental organizations and socially-conscious businesses in Cambodia.
If your idea of a good trip is to seek pleasure in simple moments and details, then Cambodia is where you want to be.
Check out the following articles and resources to help plan your trip to Cambodia:
- Read the Cambodia Indie Travel Guide
- Read 11 Reasons Why Phnom Penh Should Be on Your Travel Itinerary
- Find a flight to Phnom Penh
- Check out our adventure trips in Cambodia