Cambodia is an unusual destination in Southeast Asia in that some travellers go here just to see one attraction, namely Angkor Wat, the ruins of a vast and ancient temple complex that is officially the world’s largest religious monument. While it is without doubt a must-see, it would be a mistake not to also get to know the rest of the country—as Cambodia has quite a bit more to offer.
Why you should go to Cambodia
- It’s a little adventurous. As soon as you get away from the capital Phnom Penh it’s easy to feel like you have gone back in time. While Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the region (making transportation and such a bit more difficult), you will be able to enjoy its slow pace and its beautiful landscapes.
- One of the cheapest countries in Asia. Southeast Asia is generally inexpensive, though Cambodia has the reputation of being one of the very cheapest countries in the region. You can grab a beer for 50 dollar cents or sleep in a dorm bed for $3. This puts it within virtually anyone’s budget.
- Learn about Cambodia’s history. Cambodia still bears the scars of genocide and oppression. These are not fun topics to think about on your holiday, though the Killing Fields and S20 museum are deeply fascinating. As a visitor you owe it to Cambodia (and to yourself) to learn a little about its troubled past.
- And yes… Angkor Wat!
Tips for visiting Angkor Wat
Let’s face it, Angkor Wat is what people primarily associate with Cambodia, so let’s just start here. Angkor Wat (“wat” meaning temple) actually refers only to one of the central temples—one you may have seen on many a picture before. But there are in fact many hundreds of temples around Siem Reap, spread around a vast area that can actually take days to explore properly.
Many backpackers go to see the sun rise over the main temple of Ankhor. I thought this was cool, though I felt it wasn’t quite as mystical an experience as seeing, say, Machu Picchu in Peru at sunrise, or seeing the hundreds of temple domes on the horizon at Bagan in Myanmar. What you don’t see in the pictures of sunrise at Angkor Wat is that thousands of people gather around the ponds in front of it, and to me it felt like kind of a forced thing that wasn’t as zen as you might imagine it to be. I would still say it’s worthwhile though, and it may tickle your travel gland more than it did mine.
One of the advantages of going in the early morning is that you can subsequently explore the other nearby temples before the hordes of package tourists arrive. There’ll be people around at this hour but mainly it’s just the backpackers who bothered to get up early—and once everyone spreads out you can reasonably have the place to yourself. The main cluster of temples is quite packed together and can be explored entirely by foot. If you start at sunrise, you might have this covered by midday.
Ask to be taken to the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. It appeared in the movie with Angolina Jolie. That’s not why you should go there, but rather because it’s the temple that’s been overgrown with big trees in the coolest of ways. It was probably my favorite location.
Be sure to also spend one or more days exploring the less-visited temples. Ask a driver to take you to some of the outer-lying ones. It may take 30-60 minutes to get to, but you will probably find yourself nearly alone in these places. Hearing only the buzz of cicadas and the chatter of tropical birds in the distance you will truly feel like Indiana Jones. These temples are also less well-restored and more overgrown by jungle which gives them more of an air of mystery. I found this experience to be dramatically different from seeing the main temples, and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.
Angkor Wat does get hyped up and by day two or three you will surely be templed out for a while, but most travellers do agree that it’s a must-see.
Things to do in Cambodia
Hit up the markets in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is perhaps not quite as compelling as other capitals in Southeast Asia with fewer things to do, but an enjoyable activity here is to visit the food markets during the day or at night. If you love to see a lot of hustle and bustle, you will love these markets. At the central Night Market you can purchase some great inexpensive food, and in what I think might be unique for a market in Southeast Asia you can eat your food while sitting down on blankets, picnic-style. It’s a fun way to enjoy some local food with your traveller friends.
You can buy anything at the markets… even stacks of counterfeit money
Visit the harrowing (but unmissable) genocide museums
Yes, it’s unpleasant, but it’s something you have to see to truly understand Cambodia’s recent history. In Phnom Penh, go to the S20 museum, which is a former school that was turned into a brutal prison during the Pol Pot regime. Be sure to visit the Killing Fields museum as well: it’s a place where thousands of people were systematically murdered in the most horrific of ways.
You may need some mental detox after visiting these museums. When I was done with them I felt a strong desire to curl up into fetal position and listen to a few hours of smooth jazz to bring me back down. The “tree” at the Killing Fields is particularly horrific (people who have been there will know what I mean). While there is nothing graphic at these sites, the audio guide is evocative and difficult to swallow at times. This is humanity at its darkest.
Party it up in Siem Reap or Sihanouksille
I’m not quite sure how to segway from genocide to tequila shots, so I’m not going to try. Siem Reap and Sihanouksille are typical party backpacker places, and yes they can be a lot of fun. Drinks are very cheap in Cambodia, and alcohol is at times sold by the bucket as in Thailand.
To my amusement, I found a whole street of pizzarias in Siem Reap all competing to offer the best marijuahana-enhanced pizzas. I passed one establishment advertising ‘happy pizza’, followed by another offering ‘VERY happy pizza’, and finally one claiming to have ‘ecstatic pizza!!!’. Welcome to Cambodia.
Sihanouksville has a main strip of bars including Utopia and Monkey Republic where you can party to your heart’s content. The beaches are decent; not the best in Asia but decent enough, and there’s cheap and good food available right on the beach so you can stay there all day. Sihanouksville is unabashedly for tourists but also not entirely unpleasant: all the development is low-rise and along the beach you will mostly just find bamboo huts. While it’s probably the kind of place that will look radically different in ten years, it still has character today.
Wind down on the island of Koh Rong
Koh Rong is a little gem of an island that can be reached by short boat ride from Sihanouksville. It has a smattering of beach bungalows and hostels, along with a couple of scuba dive shops. With limited development (for now), it’s a laidback place.
Doing my best sloth impression on Koh Rong
Shoot some guns (if that’s your thing)
I mention this only because it’s become a bit of a legend, but there is indeed a shooting range in Phnom Penh and they do indeed let you shoot just about any gun—for a price. Handguns? Sure. M16 or AK-47? Why not. A hand grenade or a—I kid you not—rocket launcher? As long as you bring the cash.
This is not necesserily a cheap activity. For example it’s $40 for just a full round for an AK-47. But if it’s always been your dream to embrace your inner rambo, you can do so in Cambodia. Bizarelly, the shooting range is right near the Killing Fields, and after visiting the museum I didn’t have the stomach for anything involving guns. Pro tip: if you want to go to the shooting range, do it before you learn about a horrible genocide.
Discover the countryside
Why not head out the cities and away from the beach resorts? The sleepy Mekong rivertown Kampot is a traveller favorite. Battambang is another popular destination thanks to its many nearby temples and the infamous bamboo railway. The railway is no longer in actual use, but you can still take a ride on a limited section of its tracks.
During my visit I admittedly had limited time to explore the other parts of Cambodia. I have heard good things about the northeast areas towards Laos; Kampong Thom is said to offer a real taste of village life in Cambodia, while the small city of Kratie near the Mekong River is a laidback place where you can spot Irrawaddy dolphins. While I covered the highlights in Cambodia I would have liked to explore the countryside more, and I hope to come back someday on a second trip.
Suggested hostels in Cambodia
You’ll have little difficulty finding places to stay in Cambodia. Here are just a few suggested hostels and low-budget places to stay:
|Downtown Siem Reap Hostel||Siem Reap||One of the most popular hostels in Siem Reap (so book ahead). Swimming pool brings very welcome relief from the heat, especially after a long day of touring Angkor Wat.|
|One Stop Hostel||Sihanoukville||Modern hostel with swimming pool near Sihanoukville’s main road.|
|Monkey Maya||Sihanoukville||Dorms and bungalows in a quiet area 45 min from Sihanouksville nestled along the river, with family style meals.|
|Envoy Hostel||Phnom Penh||Pleasant hostel in the capital with courtyard and roof terrace. All modern amenities. Dorms start at 8 USD and rooms at 14 USD.|
|Inn the Village||Koh Rong Island||Beach hut accommodation on Koh Rong. Keep in mind the island is largely undeveloped, so electricity comes from generators and there might not be WiFi. Go here to get away from it all for a while…|
Few words have to be minced on this topic because Cambodia is extraordinarily cheap. Budget around $20 to $30 a day.
A budget dinner meal costs about $3, while you can get a beer for $0.50 – $1. A dorm bed will typically cost you $3 – $5 a night, though you may even find a private room for that kind of money. (The most I ever paid for accommodation was $10, which was a private room in Sihanouksville around New Year’s.)
US Dollars are the main currency in Cambodia, though anything below $1 is paid in the local currency which is pegged to the dollar.
Dangers and annoyances
Cambodia is a generally safe (or safe enough) destination. Be on your guard for scams and other nastiness however. Keep in mind this is a very poor country and some will target tourists in less-than-honorable ways. A friend of mine was the last person left in a minivan to Sihanouksville and was essentially extorted for more money hours away from the destination. Travel blogger Adventurous Kate gave a cautionary tale as well. This is not to scare you but just to encourage you to be firm with people (particularly taxi drivers) and be on your guard for any unfair business.
Cambodia still has a lot of uncleared landmines from the war, so you may not wish to venture into random woods or fields, especially in more remote areas. This is not a concern in tourist areas however.
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More info on Cambodia: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.