Cambodia is just a sideshow. Or at least, that’s what some people (wrongly) seem to think!
They’re so wrong. Angkor Wat is magnificent, but there is so much more to traveling 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 a wonderful 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 to backpacking Cambodia, I will share with you some of my favorite places, based on my two visits.
While it’s an amazing travel destination, it does seem Cambodia’s charm and natural beauty are constantly under threat by its horribly corrupt government. Conservation, sustainability, or human rights are not high on the agenda… to put it mildly. Some coastal places are also being taken over by Chinese casino development. This is especially true in Sihanoukville, though Kampot and some of the islands may be future victims.
I’ve written about my conflicted feelings about the country; it’s not governed well and a lot of short-sighted decisions are being made. As a visitor, you might not easily notice this negative side, but you can make a small but meaningful difference by supporting social enterprises and genuine ecotourism projects (a few are mentioned on this page).
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 for backpacking Cambodia.
The central parts of Cambodia are very flat — just huge plains without much to grab your visual interest, besides the Mekong river. I like the southwestern part a lot as it has more mountains (and the islands as well of course). Combining Angkor Wat with southern Cambodia can easily keep you busy for 2 weeks or more, and I’d probably recommend focusing on these parts if you don’t have infinite time.
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.
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.
The temple complex of Angkor Wat is the undisputed highlight of 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.
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 travellers come to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Just to set your expectations, it’s not so much a zen-like experience as it is a frantic festival of phones and drones, though it can be a really cool moment anyway. To avoid the crowds at sunset, consider any of these 34 alternative sunset-watching locations.
Whether you go for the Angkor Wat sunrise event at the main temple or not, it’s a good idea to have an early start when exploring Angkor Wat. In the early morning there are fewer people, as the tour buses have not yet arrived, so you can still wander the temples in relative peace. You’ll also avoid the searing midday heat if you’re there in the summer.
If you want to explore the larger area of Angkor Wat, 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).
For knowing more, another blog has an in-depth guide to Angkor Wat.
Other temples (besides Angkor wat)
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.
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 Streetfor cheap booze and entertainment.
A common day-trip from Siem Reap 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 a cynical and 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 Ream (top picks)
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 other grandiose terms). I don’t get that excited by Phnom Penh myself, but it’s still a major city with a lot of things going on, and 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.
Phnom Penh’s genocide museums
Genocide may not be your favourite topic if you’re here on holiday. Still, I think the two museums in Phnom Penh memorializing the Khmer Rouge atrocities are must-visits, as they will help you better understand the traumatic history of Cambodia.
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.
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.
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.
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 travellers seem to know of it, but the town of Chi Pat provides an excellent gateway to 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. While speaking with some of the guides, rangers, and cooks in this village, it really seemed to me like this project is making an amazing difference in a country where conservation is not usually a high priority.
Chi Pat is not the only entry-point into this region, but it’s one I used and recommend. You can read more about my fantastic 3-day boat trip and trek in the Cardamom Mountains.
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. Check out the guide linked to the left for more details.
By the way, Bokor Hill Station has changed a lot. If you plan to go there, you should also read the post linked above for details. It no longer has an abandoned hotel!
In Kampot, I stayed at Samon Village Bungalows [Booking, Hostelworld], which has bungalows on stilts by the river. It’s actually a few minutes out of town, but it’s in a lovely location. You can also eat in the restaurant which is right by the river, and watch all the boats with lights pass by.
I later also learned of a hostel with a mini-water park [website], which seems like a really fun and awesome hangout. Non-guests can also use the swings and slides for $7 a day. This can make for a fun day if you’re looking to take a break from all the sightseeing.
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.
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. I guess 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.
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.
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 snorkelling 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.
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.
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 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. If you’re looking to party, you will probably love the scene in Siem Reap.
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).
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.
Before you go to Cambodia I always recommend getting some travel insurance, even though it is an added expense. It won’t in itself keep you safe or healthy, but if you do get unlucky it can be a real life-saver — especially when you’re far abroad. Keep in mind any medical insurance you have at home will not work in Cambodia.
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