A Backpacker’s Guide to Cambodia

Top places to visit (and a few to avoid) in the Khmer Kingdom

First published in 2013 — fully revised and updated in 2018.

Cambodia is just a sideshow. At least, that’s what some people seem to think. ‘The only great thing to see in Cambodia is Angkor Wat’, they say. And so they only visit on a quick detour from their trips to Thailand or Vietnam.

They’re so wrong. Angkor Wat is magnificent, but there is so much more to Cambodia. It’s a real shame to miss out.

For starters, Cambodia still has some of the prettiest islands in mainland Southeast Asia. In the Cardamom Mountains, it has one of the last unbroken rainforests in Asia — a vestige of wild elephants and tigers, and an emerging ecotourism destination. But it’s rural Cambodia that especially rewards the curious traveler with its rivers, caves, rice fields, and charming little towns. In this guide, I will share with you some of my favorite places.

In this Cambodia guide:

The karst landscapes around Kampot

Creating your Cambodia route

Considering the potato-like shape of Cambodia, you’d think it would be perfect for a circular route. Sadly, its road layout doesn’t quite cooperate with such plans.

The main transport arteries are between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (running north and south of the Tonle lake). Other main roads shoot off in different directions from the capital. This means that if you want to travel all over Cambodia, you might have to come back through Phnom Penh once or twice.

The map below marks some of the key travel destinations in Cambodia.

Map of travel highlights in Cambodia

The central parts of Cambodia are very flat, so the landscape is a bit duller. I like the southwestern part a lot as it has more mountains (and of course the islands). Combining Angkor Wat with southern Cambodia can easily keep you busy for 2 weeks or more.

Many bus services operate between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Battambang. Other destinations are often serviced only by minivans. They’ll get you where you need to be, though they are often totally crammed with luggage and passengers. On some routes, you’ll have to transfer between minivans multiple times, causing much delay. (The 4000 Islands in Laos to Phnom Penh route is notorious for this.) The only solution is to be patient and to take estimated travel times with a pinch of salt.

Or just catch up on some sleep…

Support good things!

Cambodia is a tragically corrupt country and its government cares little for sustainability, conservation, or human rights. Poverty remains a huge issue. As a tourist, you can make a small but meaningful difference by supporting social enterprises and true ecotourism projects. A few are mentioned on this page.

Places to visit in Cambodia

The following are just some of the must-see places in Cambodia. While there’s plenty to see off the usual paths, these destinations often end up in many people’s itineraries.

Angkor Wat

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is the undisputed highlight of Cambodia. Since 3D aerial laser scans were completed in 2016, the archeological site is understood to have not just been the world’s largest religious monument but also a huge ancient city.

Angkor Wat is massive. The much-photographed main temple is just a tiny part of the 400-square-kilometer site. If you have the time, it’s worth getting a 3-day pass.

Many travelers come to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It’s not so much a zen-like experience as it is a frantic orgy of phones and drones. Still, it’s not a bad idea to have an early start. If not just for the sunrise, it’s simply wonderful to explore the temples during the early morning. There are fewer people and you’ll avoid the searing midday heat. To avoid the crowds at sunset, consider any of these 34 alternative sunset-watching locations.

To explore the larger area, be sure to rent bicycles or a tuk-tuk for the day. Ask your driver to take you beyond the standard circuits.

There are some outer-lying temples that can take 30 to 60 minutes to get to. They are not often visited by the larger tour groups. If you’re lucky, you can still be there alone hearing only the buzz of cicadas and the chatter of tropical birds. The outer temples are not as well-restored and are more overgrown by jungle, giving them a more gnarly and mysterious feel.

Angkor Wat can also be seen from the air in hot air balloons or on microlight flights, though this doesn’t come cheap (it’s $125 for a 40-minute balloon flight).

Alternative temples

A new road has put several other temples within easy day-trip reach of Siem Reap. It’s about a 2-hour drive to the Beng Mealea temple and the Koh Ker temple, a 30m tall pyramid-like structure rising high above the surrounding jungle. Even further afield is the Preah Vihear temple. It sits on top of a 525-meter cliff overlooking the border with Thailand.

You’ll either need your own transportation, or you can book private 1-day tours that operate from Siem Reap covering all three of these temples. Unlike Angkor Wat, you don’t need a costly permit for these temples.

Beng Mealea (CC – photo credit)

Siem Reap

Since it’s the city nearest to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap inevitably became Cambodia’s main tourist destination.

Besides serving as a base for temple exploration, you’ll find numerous other tours and services here to keep you entertained. Cooking classes, pottery classes, quad bike tours, vespa tours, ziplining, massages, fish pedicures, gondola sunset boat rides… you name it, Siem Reap’s got it. When darkness falls, look no further than Pub Street for cheap booze and entertainment.

A common day-trip from Siem Reap is to visit a traditional floating village on Tonle Sap Lake. If you do this, please be warned. Compare the reviews of Chong Kneas floating village with those of Kompong Khleang floating village. The first is clearly a cynical and exploitative tourist trap, while the second actually helps the community and gives you a positive experience. Make sure you support the right kind of tourism!

Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s hot and dusty capital seems like a love-it-or-hate-it place. I think many travel guides often hype it up too much (e.g. by endlessly repeating the ‘Pearl of Asia’ phrase and using other grandiose terms). I don’t get that excited by Phnom Penh myself, but I do think it has its moments.

Most hotels and guesthouses are in a district just behind the Royal Palace. This area is a bit of a jungle of beer-brand signs and has a slightly sleazy vibe. But once you get out of this tourist ghetto, things get more interesting.

For instance, a walk along the river promenade will give you some excellent opportunities for people-watching. Not much happens there during the day, but at night this area comes alive with colored lights, street vendors, and people lighting incense sticks at a Buddhist shrine.

Phnom Penh has an interesting rough-edged feel for the most part. But with a rising middle class also come plenty of glittering new malls, sky bars, and cineplexes.

Young Khmer go out to places like Jet’s Container Night Market, an assemblage of hip neon-lit bars and restaurants built inside stacked cargo containers. Tourists instead favor the so-called Russian Market, a great place to get some cheap street food or to buy souvenirs.

Get your bamboo at one of Phnom Penh’s local markets

Cambodia’s dark past

Genocide may not be your favorite topic if you’re here on holiday. Still, I think the two museums in Phnom Penh memorializing the Khmer Rouge atrocities are absolute must-visits.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum S-21 is a former school that was turned into a brutal prison during the Pol Pot regime. At the Killing Fields, people were systematically murdered in the most horrific ways. Both museums are intense and probably not for children. The self-guided audio tour at the Killing Fields can be particularly dark and viscerally upsetting. While difficult to digest, these museums are also extraordinarily eye-opening, educational, and essential for anyone visiting Cambodia.

Kratie

Ribboning along the Mekong river, this small town in northeastern Cambodia is a laidback place. It makes for an ideal stop for anyone traveling to Banlung or the 4000 Islands in Laos. But more than just a waypoint, it’s also a great place to visit in itself.

Kratie is favored mostly by independent travelers, thanks to its local character and easy access to rural areas. Its center features some crumbling French colonial buildings with arched verandas and a vibrant market area. Just across the water is the riverine island of Koh Trong, offering a lovely slice of rural Cambodia with cycling trails and floating villages.

Around Kratie you can visit many temples and basket weaver villages. The main attraction though are the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the river about 20 km north. Unlike your usual flavor of dolphins, these don’t jump around! But keep your eyes peeled and you might just see them pop their heads above the surface.

By the way, the sunsets in Kratie are very pleasing to the eye. Don’t miss seeing those deep orange hues over the Mekong.

Gorgeous sunsets over the Mekong river in Kratie. (Nope, no filters…)

Consider staying in Le Tonle [Booking, Agoda]. It’s a restaurant and guesthouse that doubles as a vocational training center for underprivileged Khmer. It has several cozy wood-paneled guestrooms and serves good food. The staff is also totally delightful.

Cambodian Rural Discovery Tours is another social enterprise in Kratie. It offers dolphin encounters, homestays, trekking, and other experiences. All funds directly support local communities and conservation efforts.

Cardamom Mountains

The southwestern part of Cambodia contains one of the last unfragmented rainforests in Southeast Asia. The Cardamom Mountain region is a true wilderness where wild elephants still roam.

Not many travelers seem to know of it, but the town of Chi Pat provides an excellent gateway into the national park. An NGO-backed ecotourism project offers a wide range of trekking and jungle river tours from Chi Pat. You’ll also have the chance to experience local life in a Cambodian village.

Keep in mind that the money you spend here helps directly fund the protection of the forests. It literally makes the difference between people making a living as forest rangers or as poachers. I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews hyperventilating about how the 2-hour boat ride to Chi Pat costs — gasp! — ten dollars. But the slight premium you pay helps stave off illegal logging, poaching, and mining. It’s a gorgeous nature reserve and ecotourism can hopefully keep it protected.

Chi Pat is not the only entry-point into this region, but it’s one I used and highly recommend. You can read more about my fantastic 3-day boat trip and trek in the Cardamom Mountains.

Other nearby ecotourism projects include the Cardamom Tented Camp on and the Wild KK Project, which operates further north closer to Koh Kong.

Kampot and Kep

These two small towns are often mentioned in the same breath, as they are just 20 minutes apart. They’re easily among my favorite places in Cambodia.

Kep is a sleepy seaside resort that’s infinitely more dignified and charming than Sihanoukville. Expect some wonderful sea views, but don’t expect too much of a beach — it’s sort of like a small municipal beach and the sand actually gets shipped in from elsewhere. The town is also a bit stretched out and without a real center. Still, there’s much to like here. Don’t miss Kep’s famous crab market!

Kampot is a riverside town with a lovely buzzing atmosphere. The downtown area is very lively, though there are also many quiet bungalows along the river just outside of town. I love Kampot and think it might be very underrated.

There are numerous things to do around Kampot & Kep. The region is known for its pepper farms and salt fields, and it’s home to many fishing villages, mangrove forests, and caves.

(By the way, Bokor Hill Station has changed a lot. If you plan to go there, read the post linked above for details.)

I stayed at Samon Village Bungalows [Booking, Agoda, Hostelworld], which was totally lovely. I later learned of this hostel with a mini-water park [website], which seems like a pretty hilarious and awesome hangout. Non-guests can use the swings and slides for $7 a day.

The Kampot area produces some of the world’s finest peppercorns

Monks shopping at Krong Kampot’s central market

The Cambodian Islands

The scattering of islands off the southern coast is still blissfully underdeveloped. I think these are some of the best beaches and islands you’ll find in Indochina — more beautiful than those in Vietnam, and less crowded than those in Thailand.

Koh Rong island

But things can change quickly. I first visited Koh Rong in 2013 when the entire island had a real Robinson Crusoe vibe. Now that’s changed as Koh Tuch beach has become a kind of mini version of Koh Phi Phi with thumping music, booze buckets, and 24/7 partying. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it.

The party scene is limited to Koh Tuch beach though (which is about 10% of the island). Koh Rong is a whopping 10km across, so if you want a different ambiance you can find it on the other beaches.

Koh Rong Sanloem

In 2018 I stayed on Koh Rong Sanloem, which has an easygoing backpackers-and-bungalows vibe. The fishing village at M’Pai Bei has many guesthouses and shops, but it doesn’t have the best beaches. Consider the many other bays which have beautiful views and a more secluded feel. I’ve shared some impressions of Koh Rong Sanloem in a separate post.

Other smaller islands (that I haven’t yet been) include Koh ta Kiev, Koh Totang, Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) and Koh Thmei.

Keep your eyes on the waves at night; if you’re lucky, you can see bioluminescent plankton sparkling around these shores. It’s quite the magical sight.

One caveat: the snorkeling and scuba diving in Cambodia is categorically awful. It’s better to save your money and see the underwater wonders in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines.

Battambang

I sadly still haven’t been to Battambang. But it always gets great buzz, so I wanted to give it at least a mention here. Cambodia’s second largest city is known to be less commercial (so to speak) than Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Friends of mine raved about its many art galleries and remnants of colonial architecture. This blog has some nice tips.

By the way, there was an abandoned rail line near Battambang where locals would ride small improvised bamboo flatbed vehicles. This gave rise to the infamous Bamboo Railway tourist attraction. The original Bamboo Railway is now closed as the railway line got recommissioned. A brand new track was constructed just for tourists, but that of course removes all of its quirky authenticity. If you don’t mind this, it might still be a fun activity.

Sihanoukville

So far this has been a list of top places to visit in Cambodia. But I’m mentioning Sihanoukville here lastly only to say that you won’t miss much if you skip it.

Sihanoukville (a.k.a. Snooky) is an ugly and uninspiring place. Once the domain of Western sex tourists, it’s now rapidly transforming into a Chinese gambling town.

I must admit, I had a great time celebrating New Year’s Eve here some years ago as a younger backpacker. It’s still probably a decent party town. But its beaches are lackluster at best, its waters are dirty, and it’s just — let’s be honest here — a wretched place devoid of any charm. Home to mafia and international fugitives, I doubt this will change anytime soon.

In 2018, the main strip of beach bars on Serendipity Beach was demolished to make way for casino hotels. Otres is still the nicest beach with a low-key backpacker vibe. It’s about 20 minutes out of town, though it too has been marked for large-scale development.

It’s truly a mystery to me why so many Cambodia itineraries see the need to include Sihanoukville at all. For a much better time along the coast, simply go to the islands or to nearby Kampot and Kep. And those looking to party will probably love the scene in Siem Reap.

I’m sorry Snooky.

Are you insured?

Cambodia is no longer a dangerous place, but it’s still a bit of a wild frontier. It’s always a good idea to have proper coverage for medical expenses, theft, personal liability, and more. I recommend World Nomads, which offer flexible travel insurance with 24-hour worldwide assistance.

Get a quote at world nomads »

The viewing point at Bokor Hill Station

Cost of travel in Cambodia

Just a few final notes on budgeting your trip. Keep in mind that while it’s very cheap to travel in Cambodia, prices are a little higher now than they were a few years ago. For a backpacker budget, probably aim for around $25 – $30 a day (not including Angkor Wat). Some prices on blogs and travel guides are probably a little out of date.

A ticket to Angkor Wat costs $37 for 1 day and $62 for 3 days (these are new prices since 2017). A dorm bed costs about $5 on average, with basic rooms starting at around $10. Most meals cost about $3 – $5.

You can read more in my Southeast Asia cost of travel overview.

Related posts

Cambodia: before you go

Sockets/Plugs
Incompatible? Get a universal travel adaptor.
Flights How to Find Cheap Flights Like a Pro
Currency 1 USD = 4,071 Cambodian Riel
1 EUR = 4,661 Cambodian Riel
1 GBP = 5,191 Cambodian Riel
(Today’s rates.)
ATMs It’s best to look for them in large cities. Some small towns and smaller islands don’t have them. Tip: Get a prepaid debit card with Transferwise or Revolut to avoid international ATM and currency conversion fees.
Internet Low WiFi coverage. Good 2G & 3G coverage. 4G coverage available in the cities.
(Need a VPN?)
Insurance Get a quote at World Nomads. Travel insurance covers you for theft, medical emergencies, and more. (Why it’s wise to get travel insurance.)
Places to stay
Pack & Prepare
Books for Cambodia

37 comments

  1. Sammi Reply August 8, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    Hi Marek,

    Great guide as always, thanks! I’m heading to Cambodia from HCMC on November 2nd. Do you think 10 days is enough to travel Cambodia? Catching a flight to Australia from Bangkok on the 15th November..

    As a route I was thinking Phnohm Penh – Kampot / Kep – islands – Siem Reap. Not sure how long to spend in each place or if this is a rational itinerary.

    Any thoughts would be great,
    Sammi

    • Marek Reply August 8, 2018 at 6:55 pm

      Hey Sammi. Yeah, Cambodia is not toooo huge so you can see quite a bit of it in 10 days and it’s certainly not an unreasonable amount of time. I’d recommend just a quick stop in Phnom Penh, and then Siem Reap for however long you want to check out Angkor Wat. Kampot/Kep and the islands are the best bits in my subjective view and worth allocating a few more days to 🙂

    • Marek Reply July 25, 2018 at 3:43 pm

      Many people ask that 🙂 I get existing vector maps and then edit them using Figma.

  2. Alexandria Miller Reply July 14, 2018 at 5:41 am

    Thank you for this informating! I am finding it very helpful while planning my trip!

  3. Niclas Reply July 12, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Incredibly helpful guide, with places I haven’t even heard of before! Will definately consider going to Chi Pat and Kratie as well during my trip to Cambodia. How did you find the food experienc in Cambodia? I have read mixed things about it 🙂

    • Marek Reply July 12, 2018 at 2:08 pm

      Glad it’s helpful Niclas! I’m also a bit ambivalent about the Khmer food. I like Thai, Vietnamese and Laos food much more though it’s not like Cambodia is culinary torture either. It’s always a good idea to ask for local tips for restaurants. 🙂

  4. Sineth Siv Reply March 14, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Hello Marek,

    I appreciate your article pointing out to support the local people. I see in the comments that many people are wondering if it is a safe place to travel, especially for a single female. I see that you use a service to show places to stay. But I hope that maybe if people ask you for a recommendation, you would come and stay at my hostel so you can make a recommendation to others who ask. You can check my websites and I hope you can visit on your next trip. https://AlisHouseSR.wordpress.com or https://facebook.com/AlisHouseSR

  5. farenexus nexus Reply February 27, 2018 at 6:53 am

    So nice to come across this page as I am currently planning (as soon as vacation is approved) to visit Cambodia later this year. I have always wanted to come and finally see Angkor Wat but no one is interested or they said they’re busy.

  6. Carmela Reply February 7, 2018 at 4:55 am

    Hi Marek,

    So nice to come across this page as I am currently planning (as soon as vacation is approved) to visit Cambodia later this year. I have always wanted to come and finally see Angkor Wat but no one is interested or they said they’re busy. My main question is, for a single traveler, is it safe to go there? Anyway, I’m still planning to join tours for convenience. Any tips?

    • Marek Reply February 7, 2018 at 12:47 pm

      Hey Carmela. Glad it’s useful to you! There are many solo travelers in Cambodia and it’s generally quite safe. I believe Phnom Penh has a bit of a reputation (for bag snatchings mainly) but on the whole it’s not a country to be particularly worried. Plenty of tours available everywhere… they’re easy (and cheap) to book locally.

  7. Serge Reply February 3, 2018 at 6:30 am

    Hey Marek,
    you are talking about some less-visited temples in Angor, 30 to 60 minutes away from the main temples. It would be helpful if you could reveal some of these locations you’re talking about.
    Thanks a lot and great blog, super helpful! 🙂

    • Marek Reply February 3, 2018 at 9:09 pm

      Hey Serge! I’m actually a few days away from totally updating this page. 🙂 There’s many… two examples are Ta Nei or Banteay Srei. Further away are ones like Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. These are actually not part of Angkor Wat but approx 1 hr from Siem Reap.

  8. Isabelle Reply January 24, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Thanks a lot for the information.. It will be our first backpacking trip and I’m like the only one organising it cause my boyfriend isn’t a big help haha..even an all in is big trouble for him so thanks a lot.. I’ll need this =)

    • Marek Reply January 24, 2018 at 11:24 am

      Glad it’s proving useful to you (and by extension your boyfriend!). Be sure to come back in a few weeks as I recently went back to Cambodia and will be updating this page 🙂

  9. Karthika Nair Reply November 29, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Hey Marek,
    Fruitful info about the place bud. I am planning for a solo trip to Combodia. Would you suggest how safe it is for a solo female travellor and whats the overall budget for a week.

    Thanks in advance.

    Karthika

    • Marek Reply November 29, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      Hey Karthika. Cambodia is quite safe with few incidents of crime. Read up on possible scams though, and pay close attention to your belongings as always. Many women travel solo in Cambodia. I usually suggest about $30 a day (backpacker budget).

  10. Cristina Reply November 13, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Hey! I will be going to Cambodia December 2017 as well! I will arrive the 22nd. Where should I begin to explore?

    • Marek Reply November 13, 2017 at 4:45 pm

      Hey Cristina. That’s so cool! Some of the most popular places are Battambang, Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat), and the islands around Sihanouksville. But on my next visit I’ll be checking out some less-visited ones, like Banlung, Kratie and the Cardamom Mountains…

      • Robin Besems Reply January 3, 2018 at 6:05 am

        Hi Marek,

        We are also planning to travel these places soon, but we still have doubts about the best way to travel them, do you recommend scooters, bus or maybe some other ways of transportation?

        • Marek Reply January 5, 2018 at 2:17 am

          I recommend buses and minivans for moving between the major places, and scooters for local sightseeing. Central Cambodia is a bit dull for a road trip (a lot of straight roads and flat land) so I think it’s nicer to bus it there.

  11. Keisha Reply August 23, 2017 at 4:13 am

    Big help. Planning to visit Phnom Penh next year. This one is helpful. Thank you 🙂

  12. David from travelscams.org Reply August 14, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Great article, thanks for the tips! With the stunning temples of Angkor, moving historical sites like the Killing Fields, delicious food, colorful markets, and the mighty Tonle Sap, Cambodia is a joy to visit. However, there are numerous tourist targeted scams to be wary of http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-cambodia/

    Do be wary of the visa scam, coin collectors, scam orphanages, Angkor Watt touts, incense/prayer scam, Tonle Sap floating village rice scam, milk/food beggar, pickpocketing, snatch theft, invitations to a local home for gambling, tuk tuk scam, rape accusation, fake police and many more!

  13. Maddie Reply February 28, 2017 at 2:41 am

    A great intro to Cambodia! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and your wonderful photos.

  14. jacob Reply December 15, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Thanks man, this is a big help.

  15. Karl Reply November 20, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Btw. the “Tomb Raider Temple” is actually called Angkor Thom!
    You’re Welcome!

  16. Ray Reply September 28, 2016 at 8:35 am

    do you know what’s the name of the shooting range at phnom penh nearby killing fields? can’t seem to find anything online.

  17. Peter Reply May 1, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    To what extent is it realistic to backpack Thailand and Cambodia in 2 weeks?

    • Marek Reply May 2, 2016 at 8:35 am

      I’d probably pick one area in Thailand (e.g. south or north, not both) to keep a compact route. It takes about 1 travel day to get from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and they do combine pretty well.

  18. Aleksa Reply April 25, 2016 at 5:58 am

    Thanks for your amazing blog! Helps me lots by planning my trip 🙂

  19. Mike Reply February 13, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Btw Marek, about the stacks of counterfeit money. It’s not exactly counterfeit money. You don’t buy those things. It’s for the death. People bought it and burn for the deaths.

    • Marek Reply February 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      Didn’t realise it was for funerals. Interesting! 🙂

  20. Jack Reply December 20, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Hey, I love your website. It’s SO helpful. One question: Is it necessary (or a good idea) to book hostels in advance for travelling in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Koh Rong) in June? I’ve heard of them having reduced prices for certain months, so I was wondering if there is a best time to book. Thanks a lot.

    • Marek Reply December 20, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      Sites like Hostelworld or Booking.com will show you the price based on your selected dates, so any seasonal price reductions should already be reflected here (i.e. there’s no advantage in waiting to book later). There’s almost always some accommodation available so you can definitely wing it, and without a booking you can sometimes negotiate over the price. But if you want to be assured of a bed in your preferred place (e.g. a hostel or guesthouse with a high rating) it definitely helps to book ahead. Good luck! 🙂

  21. anonymous Reply May 22, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Definitely some quality tips here. Thank you for the suggestions and the easy-to-read style !

  22. Luke Reply February 18, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Great guide, thank you. Planning to travel to Cambodia for a few months in May.

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