Home to one of the most phenomenal World Heritage sights, the temples of Angkor, never-ending white sandy beaches and a coastline speckled with secluded tropical islands.
Cambodia - once a prosperous country with an abundance of wondrous architectural delights, more recently is known for its turbulent history of mass destruction and misery by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime. It is a country of incredibly inspiring people who have picked themselves up to allow both the country and the community to shine and reinvent itself as a real gem of a destination.
Currency: Cambodian Riel and US Dollars
Capital: Phnom Penh
Language(s): Khmer, English widely spoken in tourist areas
Plug Sockets: Type A, C and G.
Ease of travel: 4/5
Ease of communication: 4/5
Ease of meeting others: 5/5
General costs: £
I spent one week in Cambodia during my trip around Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. I divided my time between Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, and Siem Reap.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived in Phnom Penh was how quiet and poverty-stricken it felt, especially compared to Saigon and Hanoi. It’s not surprising when you realise that the population of this capital city is only 1.5 million, over five times as small as Saigon!
Things to do:
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Beautiful, ornate and striking, the Royal Palace was a great starting point in the city.
2. Wat Phnom
This hilltop structure is a stunning Buddhist temple in the heart of the city. The temple boasts an impressive giant clock on the grassy-flat outside - 20 metres wide.
Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
3. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
This is the horrific sight at which thousands of detainees were executed by the Khmer Rouge ‘ethnic cleansing’ regimen, a regimen which claimed the lives of around 2.2 million innocent people in the late 1900s. It’s a chilling and sickening place but somewhere I felt was incredibly important to visit - it enabled me to understand more about how the genocide happened, who was affected, and helped me to appreciate that any Cambodian I met over the age of 40 will have lived through this harrowing time.
An eerie warning
Visitors hang braids in remembrance of those who have died at the Killing Fields, Choeung Ek.
I’ve visited Auschwitz before, and that nearly brought me to tears several times. The Killing Fields was much worse - the abominable acts are much less concealed; you’ll find yourself walking across soil with human bones poking through and pass blood-stained trees.
Entrance is about $6 and includes a very informative audio-guide.
4. S-21 Prison
Often combined with the Killing Fields as part of a day trip, this is the most famous prison from Khmer Rouge times. Originally a high school, it was taken over in 1975 and turned into a notorious prison where around one hundred prisoners were killed every day. Prisoners were essentially anyone educated or anyone who was considered 'intelligent' (which could be anything from the ability to speak another language to simply wearing glasses), along with anybody who spoke out and other innocent civilians. It's amazing there was anyone left at all when you think about it.
The long corridors and blood-stained rooms are pretty harrowing but I’m very glad I went.
Skull remains of the victims. If you look closely you can see that victims were mostly shot or beaten to death.
There are large areas marked out as mass graves.
5. Phnom Penh Night Market
The night market is nice - best for food and drinks, although they sell a lot of clothes and watches etc.
Sihanoukville was our next stop, and a great place to stop and recharge our batteries during a busy and bustling trip around SE Asia. Think calm waters, sunwashed beaches with hammocks to-ing and fro-ing in the breeze and a cocktail in both hands.
There are a few beaches to choose from - the main being Serendipity beach and Otres beach.
Otres had reviews suggestive of a more relaxed vibe, so we picked that one.
There are some great hostels and hotels to take your fancy along with plentiful bars and restaurants.
The kitten stole my seat and it was too cute to move, Wish you were here hostel, Sihanoukville
A rather less conventional filling station in Sihanoukville!
Other than unwinding on soft sanded beaches, there’s not a great deal else to do here.
I wasn't quite templed-out yet, so took a trip to Wat Krom - it’s a beautiful temple on a hill.
You also get a fantastic view of the sunset from here. (Although walking back to the town centre in the pitch black with no street lights was a pretty terrifying experience…I didn’t think that one through!)
Don’t let the lack of sights put you off though - the area is beautiful and I could have walked along those beaches for hours; sadly, I couldn’t do much barr lie helplessly in the sun, starving, as I had developed oeseophagitis (ouch)... and thereby learnt the life lesson of always taking my antimalarial tablets (doxycyline) tablets with ample water, and whilst sitting up....
We stayed in an incredible hostel in Sihanoukville, ‘Wish you were here’. Great for animal-lovers as they had two adorable dogs and two teeny kittens to play with - beware though when you’re eating - one blink and your food will have been swiftly stolen!
Aside from the pets, it’s a pretty cool place all-in-all - it’s essentially a giant eco-friendly treehouse with private and dorm rooms dotted around and hammocks to swing in during the day.
Sihanoukville was pretty quiet when we visited (wet season), but that didn't stop me jumping over the waves at Otres Beach!
We were looking for an island to escape to for a night and decided to go for Koh Rong, which I can only describe as a real tropical paradise. Pearly-white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, great nightlife and watersport options.
I took a boat trip here to snorkel in bioluminescent-plankton-filled shores - an incredible experience, but sadly one that cannot be captured by any camera I had at the time! (Believe me, I tried).
We stayed in ‘Monkey Island’ resort, which had some cosy bungalows a stone's throw away from the beach.
Getting there was easy. We booked our boat tickets (along with the accommodation) at Monkey Republic hostel in Sihanoukville city centre.
The gorgeous sandy beaches of Koh Rong
Our last stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, by far the place I had been most excited about visiting.
Things to do - The Temples of Angkor of course! Why else have you come to Siem Reap?
First things first - the temples are about 8km away from the city centre, so walking to them isn’t really an option. Nor is walking between them - they are pretty far apart!
You need an admission ticket to enter the site - and you can buy passes at the entrance points. You have the option of 1-day passes ($37), 3 day passes ($62) and 7 day passes ($72). To appreciate the temples and have the time to see them at your own pace, I think the 3 day pass is the best option.
The big three to visit are:
The Khmer’s national symbol, Angkor Wat is, understandably, a big part of Cambodian pride. It’s breathtaking and vast. A popular place to watch during sunrise, and incredibly rewarding. I could have spent hours strolling around.
Getting up at 5am was definitely worth it.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
2. Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom is an immense complex of temples and home to my favourite temple, Bayon, which is a vast jungle-shrouded structure with multiple faces carved of stone.
Be careful of the irregular steps - a very easy place to fall and twist an ankle, believe me - Siem Reap is not the ideal place to hobble around in a bandage… :(
Bayon, and the steps where I twisted my ankle :(
Please read below re- monkeys at Bayon, and don't be an idiot like me!
The many faces of Bayon, Angkor Thom
Oh, and a small tip (actually, it's probably more 'common sense'); DO NOT FEED OR ATTEMPT TO FEED THE MONKEYS AT BAYON!
They WILL cling onto your bike even if it's moving and you're cycling as fast as you can to get away.
Yes, they're cute, but rabies is not.
And yes, in hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do, but they were so cute!
3. Ta Prohm
The setting for ‘Lara Croft; Tomb Raider’, Ta Prohm is another iconic temple to wander through.
Of course, there are many other fascinating temples - but don’t underestimate how far the temples are between each other, and how hot it can get at midday!
Incredible detail at Ta Prohm
The trees literally grow out of the temples at Ta Prohm
Happy snapping away at Ta Prohm
Other things to do in Siem Reap:
Yes, there are other things to do once you’ve exhausted the temples!
Aptly named, ‘pub street’ does what it says on the tin! A great backpacker strip full of lively bars and restaurants.
2. Night Market
A great place to stroll and pick up souvenirs and handicrafts!
I stayed in a fantastic hostel here, Mad Monkey hostel - brilliant atmosphere, pool and pool-side bar - and even a sandy-floored rooftop bar!
From Siem Reap we headed on to Laos!
Journey Times in Cambodia
Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville = 5.5hours - costs roughly 6 USD
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap = 6 hours - costs roughly 8 USD
To get from Siem Reap you need to take the two separate buses - one back to Phnom Penh and then another on to Siem Reap. You can usually get the ticket as a combo ticket though and they make you wear an identifiable sticker so they know you have to get moved onto a different bus.
You can buy bus tickets easily through hostels or travel agencies (which are everywhere!)
Tips for Cambodia
There are a lot of unexploded land mines around - so be careful when walking in the dark and don’t veer off the beaten track.
Currency can be a little confusing as they use a mixture of USD and the Cambodian riel. Your best option is to take USD with you - they don’t use any US coins - just notes. If they need to give you change less than 1 USD, you will get it in riel. It’s confusing trying to pay with both but is something you get used to. 1 dollar is worth 8000 riel, and so 2000 riel is 25 cents.
If you’re a keen blood donator, or even if you’re not - Cambodia has a significant blood shortage. There is a lot of stigma for local people to donate blood and so it’s pretty common for foreigners to donate whilst over here, and it’s something you’ll find a lot of information on in guidebooks. The hospitals that do blood donations tend to be charity run from Europe, and are very safe in terms of hygiene and sterility. We passed a centre in Phnom Penh, but I was feeling a bit peaky, so I ended up donating in Siem Reap in an international childrens hospital. Founded by Swiss doctor, Beat Richner, this hospital was built in an attempt to improve medical services in Cambodia after their destruction by the Khmer Rouge. He’s a pretty incredible icon and a talented cellist who puts on free cello concerts to raise funds for the hospital. I imagine there’s a lot of promotion back in Switzerland as the waiting room was full of young Swiss donators. Everything is sterile and they give you a nice pack to go home with, with information about the hospital, t-shirts and about 5 bars of chocolate and some.
4. Incidentally, if you do get unwell in Cambodia and find yourself needing hospital care, try to get to a Thai or Vietnamese hospital as the Cambodian ones are still poorly regarded in the medical world.
5. Be patient. Travel will take longer than it does in Thailand or Vietnam. Roads are rougher and the network between cities is lacking - for example to get from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap, despite being relatively close to each other - you have to go back to Phnom Penh and then head on to Siem Reap.
6. The food definitely isn’t as mouthwatering as in Vietnam, but there are still some delights to try. There are also some to avoid, namely Cambodian deep-fried frog, which I would not recommend.
7. Cycling in Siem Reap: a convenient way of getting around the temples, it’s fun - but also scary. People don’t follow road rules here. You can pretty much cycle down whichever side of the road you want, and you can go whichever way round the roundabout makes it quicker for yourself. And traffic lights don’t mean anything. Or at least, that’s what I gaged from the Cambodians driving around me as I dutifully followed the rules of the road!!!!
8. Beware on night buses - they’re much the same as other night buses in SE Asia, so the usual tips apply (expect to be asked to remove your shoes and wear shoe covers, bring earplugs and some sort of night-calm remedy). But also beware of pickpockets - I sadly lost my kindle on a night bus that I had foolishly not locked away. Either that or the bus got in so early and I was so sleepy that I left it on there. Looking back, either option was plausible. But beware, regardless!
Getting from Cambodia to Thailand or Laos (and vice versa)
Firstly, to get to Laos you have two rough options - depending on your route in Laos.
If you’re looking to head up Southern Laos to the 4,000 islands for example, then you can get a bus from Siem Reap to Don Det.
If you’re shorter on time and are planning to skip the southern bit, you can head straight to Vientiane. We found the easiest and cheapest way was to go through Thailand. (So if you’re planning to head from Cambodia to Thailand then you are in luck).
Get a bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Cheap - $12, day or night bus options, takes 10 hours.
You’ll need to cross the border half way - but don’t worry, crossing the Thai border is significantly easier than crossing the Cambodian border. You get dropped off at one building, go through, get back on the bus the other side. For UK citizens you don’t need a visa for Thailand and you can enter/re-enter as many times as you want. We did this about 3 times in the 7 weeks.
Once in Bangkok, if you are ready to travel around Thailand then yay, you have arrived!
If you’re still heading up to Laos, you have two options:
Get a flight from Bangkok to Udon Thani (in Thailand) - pretty cheap, lots of flights for about £10.
From Udon Thani, get a bus to the Laos border - named the ‘Friendship Bridge’. Very easy to spot, very well signposted in the airport.
The bus will take you to the border. Here you will need to pay for a visa (bring photos with you) and walk across the bridge.
From the other side of the border you can get a taxi to Vientiane - they do try and con you though, so be prepared to massively negotiate. There are loads of taxi drivers at the border waiting to take you to Vientiane.
From Bangkok you can either get the overnight train to Chiang Mai, day train, or fly. I would personally recommend the train because it’s super comfy, slow enough that you get a decent sleep, and best of all - the restaurant carriage turns into a disco at 10pm serving alcoholic drinks - bizarre and brilliant at the same time.
From Chiang Mai you can get a bus over the border to Laos.
Getting from Vietnam to Cambodia (and vice versa)
Because I came from Vietnam to Cambodia, this journey is written from that perspective - supposedly it’s pretty easy the other way too.
We took a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh (Cambodia).
Crossing borders overland could be confusing and tricky - judging by the articles online. We opted for the slightly pricier but simpler option of using 1 company for the whole trip.
You can do it cheaper and take 2 separate buses with separate companies, but the price difference for us was negligible.
Crossing the border basically involves getting a bus to the border.
You are then given a sticker to wear which allows the company to identify you on the other side and direct you to the correct bus. Before the border the bus takes your passport and visa’s are processed for them all. You then get them given back. You have to walk through the border with your passport, where they check your visa. You walk to the other side and someone tells you which bus to get on. The next bus takes you to Pnom Penh. Yay!
Check what visa you need and make sure you have the correct amount in USD before arrival!