Cambodia has some of the best places to visit in Southeast Asia — but also a few duds. Having travelled a lot in Cambodia, let me share my advice for getting the most out of your Cambodia trip.
But there is enough to do in Cambodia to keep you busy for weeks, including some amazing opportunities for ecotourism and authentic travel.
Plan your Cambodia trip
How to visit Angkor Wat
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat is the biggest sight in Cambodia — and one of the biggest in all of Asia.
It’s clearly what brings most people to Cambodia.
Since 3D aerial laser scans were completed in 2016, the archaeological site is understood to have not just been the world’s largest religious monument but also a huge ancient city at the heart of the Khmer Kingdom. It’s thought that 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants were involved in its construction.
Angkor Wat is massive. The main temple that appears in most photos is just a tiny part of the 400-square-kilometer site.
To visit Angkor Wat, you should go the nearby city of Siem Reap.
Tip 1: visit the temples at sunrise
The best way to experience Angkor Wat is at sunrise. Yeah, it sucks having to wake up at like 6 a.m., but it’s worth it!
People gather at the main temple to see the sun emerge from behind its spires. You can definitely expect some crowds at this prime sunset-watching location. Still, at this early hour, the tour buses have not yet arrived, so you can then wander the temples in relative peace and avoid the intense midday heat. The early morning light gives the ruins a wonderful glow.
Tip 2: explore the outer temples
Thanks to its large size, there are many areas of Angkor Wat to check out. The main temples get crowded in normal times but there are numerous ruins that are very peaceful (and often wonderfully overgrown by big-rooted trees).
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 mysterious feel.
If you want to explore the larger area of Angkor Wat, be sure to rent bicycles or hire a tuk-tuk for the day. Ask your driver to take you beyond the standard circuit.
How many days for Angkor Wat?
You can see the most important areas in one day or afternoon. So if you really don’t have much time, 1 day will let you get a good impression.
2 days is better as this will allow you to see the more remote temples and learn more about the history of Angkor Wat.
A 1-day pass for Angkor Wat costs $37 and a 3-day pass is $62. The three days don’t have to be all in a row. Although there is enough to see for 3 days of exploration, most people will probably be a little templed out by day 2, so I think two days is probably the ideal time to spend.
What to do in Siem Reap
The best place to stay is Siem Reap, the city nearest to Angkor Wat.
Besides serving as a base for temple exploration, you’ll find many other tours and services in Siem Reap 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! You can see all the activities in Siem Reap here.
When darkness falls, look no further than Pub Street for cheap booze and entertainment.
Considering how much there is to do in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, I think it’s worth staying for at least 3 nights if you can.
Visiting Tonle Sap lake
A common day-trip from Siem Reap to do after Angkor Wat is to visit a traditional floating village on Tonle Sap Lake. But if you do this, be warned.
First, compare the reviews of Chong Kneas floating village with those of Kompong Khleang floating village. Clearly, Chong Kneas is an exploitative tourist trap, while the latter actually helps the community and gives you a positive experience. Make sure you support the right kind of tourism by choosing Kompong Khleang.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
Traveling from Vietnam or Thailand
Many travelers visit Cambodia as an add-on to a trip in Vietnam or Thailand. Here’s how to do this.
With a few days to spare you can go to Cambodia just for Angkor Wat. It’s a long way (and tiring if you go there and back overland) but it’s definitely doable. You will spend a lot of time in transit, but I think many would agree this is still worth the effort to see this UNESCO World Heritage site, at least if your trip will be your only chance to do so.
If you have at least a week, then you can see Angkor Wat and also spend time on the islands or in the jungles of Cambodia — and get a proper introduction to this country.
From Bangkok, Thailand:
- The bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap (the city near Angkor Wat) takes about 8 hours
- You can also fly with a local budget carrier such as AirAsia. A direct flight takes about 70 minutes.
From Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:
- The bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (the city near Angkor Wat) takes about 13 hours
- You can also fly with a local budget carrier such as AirAsia. A direct flight takes about 80 minutes.
Since the journey from Vietnam is quite long, you could break up the journey in Phnom Penh. The bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh takes about 6 hours.
The border between Thailand and Cambodia is known for taking a long time to cross. Apparently it’s not as bad anymore as it once was, but it’s still a good idea to count on some delays at passport control. It’s best not to book, say, a flight out of Bangkok right after your bus’ scheduled arrival from Cambodia.
What to skip in Cambodia
Cambodia is an amazing country to visit, but in truth some places are less worthwhile than others. I just want to be honest in this travel guide to help you spend your time in the best way.
Many itineraries include the capital Phnom Penh and the seaside resort city of Sihanoukville, but you can skip them if you don’t have much time.
Perhaps the reason they still get recommended so often is that many guides just repeat the same itineraries.
Phnom Penh simply is not as exciting as other capitals in Southeast Asia. The markets aren’t as crazy as in Vietnam and the temples are not as impressive as in Thailand. Despite attempts to brand it the “Pearl of Asia”, I think Phnom Penh is simply not a must-see. It’s definitely easier to add in if you’re backpacking long-term or have ample time, but otherwise, Phnom Penh isn’t a huge priority. (Or maybe I’m missing something?)
One reason to still add a quick stop in Phnom Penh is to learn about the horrible history of genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. This will definitely help you understand this country a lot more.
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 quite intense and probably not so suited for children. However, they are hugely eye-opening and educational.
If you are in Cambodia for at least a week, I think it can be worth spending just half a day in Phnom Penh to visit these museums. Otherwise, there are better places to go first.
As for Sihanoukville, this seaside resort is an ugly and uninspiring place. In recent years it saw a huge boom in Chinese casino construction, then a huge bust due to the covid-19 pandemic. Now it’s basically one big construction site: dirty and devoid of any charm. It used to have some beaches with fun bamboo shack restaurants and bars, but these were almost all bulldozed years ago.
Sihanoukville used to be a big backpacker party town, but most hostels are now gone. You can party in other places (like Siem Reap) if this is what you seek. Large-scale development has completely taken over Sihanoukville and unless you are a Chinese gambling tourist there probably isn’t much there for you.
I hope that doesn’t sound too negative! People often don’t like it when a travel blog is negative about anything. I just want to be honest and potentially save you some time, so you can see (in my opinion) the best parts of Cambodia.
Best experiences besides Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the star attraction of Cambodia. Its main temple even features in Cambodia’s flag.
But there is a lot more to Cambodia!
Having travelled all over Southeast Asia, I can say that some of my favorite travel experiences were in Cambodia. I usually enjoy lower-key places where you can enjoy nature or get to know the culture.
So, let me highlight 3 experiences that I think are highly worth adding to your itinerary. They are all in the very scenic southwest. There is minimal travel time between them, letting you create quite a compact and efficient route.
1. Staying on the laidback islands
Off the Cambodian coast you can find a scattering of small islands. These are really some incredible islands to visit, especially since they are less developed than the very popular ones in Thailand.
The biggest island, Koh Rong, is somewhat developed and has a number of small resorts. The other islands are a lot more basic, some of them only having limited power from generators and limited or no internet.
If you’d love to stay in a jungle lodge or a bungalow by the beach, the Cambodian islands are a must-visit. You can definitely get that ‘stranded on an island’ feeling and get away from it all.
The main islands are easily reached by ferry from Sihanoukville. Smaller islands can be reached from Ream or Poi Yopon.
Around the main pier on Koh Rong are some party-oriented hostels and bars, but the rest of the islands are mostly quiet and peaceful.
Keep your eyes on the waves at night; if you’re lucky, you can see bioluminescent plankton sparkling around these shores!
I really liked staying on Koh Rong Sanloem. It’s a bit less developed than the larger Koh Rong but it still has a town where you can shop for things and some small-scale accommodation around several beautiful bays. I spent a week with campfires under starry night skies and swimming during the day. Absolutely blissful.
Barely-developed Koh Ta Kiev can also give you a real castaway feeling, as well as small islands near Botum Sakor National Park.
The waters are clear and beautiful, though definitely more so if you stay in a place that’s a bit more secluded (like in its own bay). The built-up areas near the main docks on the islands do have more of a reputation of being a bit dirty as the island infrastructure struggles to cope there. This is worth keeping in mind when choosing your accommodation.
There generally isn’t as much marine life in the waters as in Thailand or Indonesia. This is why it’s not considered a top location for scuba diving (or snorkeling). However, if you’re just looking to learn, then the many dive shops in Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem can teach you the ropes in about 3 days at very attractive prices.
For beginners the dive sites in Cambodia are actually ideal. You’ll definitely see a few interesting sea creatures, but you can save the truly top tier dive sites for when you have learned your basic diving skills.
2. Ecotourism in the Cardamom Mountains
If you’re looking for impressive landscapes and untouched wilderness, look no further than the southwest part of Cambodia.
This is the most mountainous region that has the most protected nature areas, including one of the last unfragmented rainforests in Asia.
If you want to see lots of tropical birds and other jungle creatures, I highly recommend the ecotourism in Cambodia. The rural areas here will also give you an authentic experience — perfect for local homestays or staying in jungle lodges. You can have more meaningful interactions with the locals and go a bit beyond the usual tourist sites.
Cambodia honestly doesn’t have the best record when it comes to nature conservation (mining and logging sadly get priority most of the time) but these parts are protected — and spending tourism money here will help ensure they stay that way.
I had a fantastic experience visiting the village of Chi Pat inside the Cardamom Mountains. This village has a CBT (Community-Based Tourism) project, letting you go on various trekking and jungle boat tours, with the tourism funds benefiting the entire local community.
I stayed in the village, went by boat into the jungle, and trekked for 2 days with one night spent at a camp inside the wilderness, waking up in the morning to the distant whooops of gibbons somewhere in the treetops.
The atmosphere in Chi Pat was incredibly welcoming and friendly. It was inspiring to meet the forest rangers who once used to be poachers or loggers but are now proudly protecting the nature. While speaking with some of the guides, rangers, and cooks in this village, it really seemed like this project is making an amazing difference. You can read more about my visit to Chi Pat.
Besides Chi Pat there are other projects such as the Cardamom Tented Camp and the Wild KK Project, among others. There are many options that you can find if you research the Botum Sakor National Park and the Phnum Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.
If you’re on a backpacker budget you may find that ecotourism tours or jungle stays may cost a bit more than just travelling in the cities, but this does help fund the nature conservation and local development, so it’s meant to be a win-win.
I think ecotourism is a bit less known than in other countries (like Thailand or Costa Rica) but it’s really one of the best things to do in Cambodia.
3. Relaxing & local trips in Kampot
The small towns of Kampot and Kep 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. You can expect some wonderful sea views and a small municipal beach. Better than the beach are the woods behind the town where you can hike around and see some cool abandoned French colonial villas from the 1960s (when Kep was a luxury beach resort).
They usually say Kampot is popular with a younger crowd and Kep is a bit more for travelling families or ‘flashpackers’ — backpackers looking for nicer accommodation. Prices are a bit higher than in Kampot.
By the way, don’t miss Kep’s famous crab market! It’s abuzz with sellers and filled with stacks of whicker baskets brimming with live crab.
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.
There are numerous things to do around Kampot and Kep. The region is known for its pepper farms and salt fields, and it’s home to many fishing villages, mangrove forests, and caves. The region around Kampot is known to produce some of the best peppercorns, so it’s fun and educational to visit a pepper farm and see how it is produced.
If you are able to ride a scooter (small motorbike) you can have a lovely day out driving via rural roads to the pepper farms, hidden temples, waterfalls, and caves. Alternatively you can pay for a local tour to take you to these places.
There are some concerns about new developments in Kampot that may change its character in the future (since Chinese money is flooding into Cambodia) but for now it’s a very charming town and highly worth staying a few days.
Cost of travel in Cambodia
In a (coco)nut shell: Cambodia is a very inexpensive country.
If you are traveling on a budget you may even be able to get by on $20 a day or less (backpacker budget). You can find dorm beds for $7 a night, beers cost about $1, and cheap street food and stir-fries can keep you fueled throughout the day.
If you are on a holiday and staying in normal (by which I mean non-luxury) accommodation with private rooms, then about $40 a day per person is a good guideline to use.
That said, you can easily find nice bamboo bungalows and basic double rooms in places like Kampot or the islands for around $20 a night, so even if you’re travelling as a couple on a holiday you may not have to spend a whole lot if you still travel ‘local style’.
I usually like travelling on a modest budget as it gets you a bit closer to the ground. If you prefer higher-end accommodation or more creature comforts then you can definitely find this in the major locations like Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. The island of Koh Rong has some 5-star resorts if that is your style: one night at The Royal Sands can cost around $300. So, there are different levels for everyone.
Cambodia has its own currency but US dollars are mainly used. ATMs will give you US dollars.
Tickets to Angkor Wat cost $37 for 1 day or $62 for 3 days, so your daily average budget will probably be a bit higher in Siem Reap.
If you will be getting a visa-on-arrival or 30-day tourist e-visa, this will be another $30 expense.
How to get around in Cambodia
Getting from A to B in Cambodia is generally not so difficult, though as in any developing country the road conditions may not be perfect and sometimes there can be delays.
Many coach services operate especially between the cities of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Battambang, letting you travel in relative comfort.
Other destinations are often serviced only by minivans. These minivans will definitely get you where you need to be, though they are often crammed with luggage and passengers. On some routes, you’ll have to transfer between connecting minivans, which can be a bit annoying. (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. If you’re not a budget traveler then private taxi hire will let you get around this.
There are a couple of train lines in Cambodia. There are usually known for being very slow, infrequent, and not worth it. But new train lines are being constructed, so this may change in the future.
You can easily buy tickets for buses or minivans through local travel agencies that can be found in any tourist location, or via the reception of your hotel or hostel. The easiest way to book online is through the 12go Asia booking platform.
Going off the beaten track
I really like the southwest parts of Cambodia where the landscapes aren’t as flat and where you can find a lot of mountain, jungle, and island experiences.
I tend to advise to the south first as there is a lot to do and the travel times between points of interest aren’t that long.
But if you’re in Cambodia for a few weeks, you can poke around a lot more.
Consider adding these places to your itinerary:
This laidback town by the Mekong River makes for a nice stop especially on your way from Laos or Vietnam.
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. You’ll be sure to get some amazing Mekong Delta sunsets.
If you’re in Kratie, consider staying at Le Tonle. 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. (Le Tonle had to close because of the pandemic but plans on reopening in January 2023.)
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.
Other Khmer 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.
Cambodia’s second-biggest city often gets overlooked in favor of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. However, it has a more authentic atmosphere; it’s quiet, cheaper, and less commercial.
I haven’t yet been but this northwestern province is often touted as a laidback and remote part of Cambodia with a lot of nature and waterfalls. It’s a bit out of the way from other sights, ensuring it will surely remain untouched by large-scale tourism development.
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