Cambodia plays a bit like a little brother to Thailand and Vietnam, but still packs a punch with the historical splendor of Angkor Wat and the cultural sites left behind by the recent genocide. Sprinkle in the beaches of Koh Rong and the relaxed life in Battambong, Kampot and Kep, you’ll soon see that Cambodia can easily fill a month of your travel schedule. When planning a trip to Cambodia, Angkor Wat is the obvious highlight in the land of the Ancient Khmer Empire. However, Cambodia can offer much more for the adventurous traveler.
Here’s our Big 5 Cambodia Travel Guide:
It can make or break your trip to Cambodia. The sweltering heat of February to April can make for an exhausting day of exploring temples and the heavy rains from May to October can leave you soaked to the bone. November to January are the coolest and driest times of the year but also tourist high season. So, choosing your season is paramount. One advantage to visiting in the hottest time of the year or being ready for rain is you can avoid the crowds of peak season. There is something special about feeling like you’ve got the ancient temples to yourself. It just depends on if you want to brave the weather or the throngs of visitors.
Visas are available on arrival for visitors from most countries, at both land borders and the airports in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Different countries require a different fee. Check here to see what your visa fee will be. Be sure you have your passport photos with you (in your carry on, if arriving by air). If you don’t have passport photos with you, no worries. You’ll simply pay a nominal, albeit additional, fee.
No matter what time of year it is, Cambodia is going to be hot! It’s void of high elevations and mountains giving Cambodia tropical temperatures throughout the country, year round. Think light clothes, but remember to dress respectably at the temples (Ladies – cover your knees and shoulders / Men – no tank tops). While it’s not always a requirement, being a responsible and respectful tourist should be a consideration when visiting cultural sites. While visiting the beaches in the south of Cambodia, it can get chilly on the water in the evenings, so having a lightweight sweater is a good idea. They have sand flees, so bring your own remedy or join the locals by slathering coconut oil on before hitting the beach.
* Travelin’ Note: Kari and I both have pretty strong stomachs and seldom get sick from food or water, but I have visited Cambodia twice gotten sick both times. Kari got very sick on our last visit. Each occurrence was an intense 24 hours of “doing the dance” (vomiting and diarrhea at the same time). That said, be very careful with the water (including ice) you consume and make sure any vegetables have been washed with treated water. Be sure that your meals are well prepared and meat is cooked thoroughly. Bringing a diarrhea travel kit is not a bad idea – Imodium, Cipro, and electrolyte powder.
Siem Reap & Angkor Wat:
When I visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in 2010, I enjoyed myself much more than when I visited in 2015. The growth and expansion of the tourist infrastructure and industry is staggering. The once sleepy and seedy Pub Street, Siem Reap’s main tourist area, is now name brands, neon lights and expat-owned bars. The point is, the temples are a big deal and lots of people visit them. I get it. It wasn’t going to stay authentic forever. Siem Reap is now very commercialized and an easy place to visit.
Tons of accommodation is available for all ranges of comfort and budget. Prices for food and drink reflect the commercialism of a tourist areas. You can save a few pennies by eating at local establishments outside of the heavy traffic areas. Siem Reap has a typical tourist market in the town center where you can negotiate deals on everything from Khmer scarves to selfie sticks.
Touring the Temples
Touring the Angkor Wat UNESCO World Heritage Site is an experience most travelers will never forget. You can go on larger group tours through a travel agency either arranged before arriving or once you’re in Siem Reap. You can rent electric bikes or bicycles to take yourself around. Just know that the area is huge, and it’s sure to be hot (those e-bikes may lose power on an all day excursion). My suggestion is to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you around and give you a little more insight into what you’re seeing.
In 2010 I hired a tuk-tuk driver for a whole day. I visited the temples in any order I wished and spent as much time as I liked climbing around the temples, chatting with monks, and taking in the mystique of the ancient ruins. These days the tuk-tuk tours are more rigid adhering to set routes and come with some time constraints. The prices are more or less fixed for each route option and among tour providers throughout the city.
When taking a tuk-tuk tour, this is your transport only and does not include your admission to the temple complex. Admission to the complex comes as 1, 3 or 7 day passes. A 1 Day pass is $20USD, a 3 day pass is $40USD or the 7 day passes are $60USD. If you plan to visit the complex only 2 days, you might as well purchase a 3 day pass. Purchasing passes to the complex is possible at the ticket booth on site. For guide services, you’ll need to hire an official guide inside the complex and negotiate a rate, which can vary based on the season.
While inside the vast complex of over 50 plus temples, you’re going to want to try and narrow down what you’re going to see. I suggest exploring the Angkor Wat temple (be sure to see it at sunrise), the Bayon Temple inside the city of Angkor Thom for the many faces, Ta Phrom (made famous in the Tomb Raider), and Phnom Bakheng for sunset. Everything else is an added bonus. Arrive early as the crowds can make for a less than intimate setting. Having a good spot will give you a good chance for at least a great view.
*Beyond Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is not the only reason to visit Siem Reap. There’s no shortage of activities in and around Siem Reap now that it’s a full on tourist haven. Everything from shopping to cultural tours is on offer. I’m not going to run down a list of all the activities here, but I will make a few recommendations.
The people of Tonle Sap Lake have lived in homes floating on the water for generations living off the fish and agriculture of the lake. Some tours will stop at a school or a shop and while these are a good chance to stretch your legs, just cruising around the waterway and taking in the all the different homes and types of water craft used in this environment is really the highlight. The ingenuity and work it takes to sustain this way of life is a fascinating.
In the wet season the lake swells, putting distance between houses and villages. In the dry season when the lake is low, the villages come closer together as the fishing areas are smaller. This excursion can be skipped if you plan on taking the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang as you will pass many of villages en route and will make a stop at some point.
If you’ve got a few hours to kill, I suggest visiting the crocodile farm near town. It’s a bit dodgy by western standards but can be an eye opening experience and a good chance to see some crocs up close. Admission is a few bucks, and affords you the opportunity to walk around the concrete complex between and above the corrals that house the crocs. There are a ton of crocs here. Just seeing the sheer number of them all in one place is impressive. You can also opt to purchase food to be tossed into a croc pen, showcasing the amazing speed and power of these animals. You can do this on your way to or back from the floating village.
In 2010 I visited another temple complex about 80km by road from Siem Reap called Beng Mealea. It’s not much compared to the splendor of Angkor Wat, but the crowds are markedly smaller allowing you to get more of that “Indiana Jones” feel while climbing around the temple ruins in solitude.
There are countless performances on offer from traditional apsara dances and lady boy cabarets to an incredible circus. They are all worth checking out, and easy to book through your accommodation. Our personal favorite was the Cambodian circus, Phare. You can attend a performance either in Siem Reap or Battambang. We liked it so much, it’s got it’s own section in this post. For more information skip down to the Travelin’ Pick (the 5th section).
A Cambodian friend of mine described Battambang to me as a place where Cambodians go on vacation. Located on the Sangkur River, Battambang is a quiet little foodie town with a colonial past. It’s days as a French colonial river port have left interesting architecture for entrepreneurs to update and transform into nouveau shops and eateries. It’s a great town to just wander around, looking at the old buildings, and ducking into little spots for bites or beverages. You can relax and enjoy laid back river life away from the tour buses that have overrun Siem Reap.
You can get to Battambang by bus, but we suggest taking the slow boat from Siem Reap for an adventure in and of itself. Experiencing the floating villages is a can’t miss. Once in Battambang, a ride on the Bamboo Train and a visit to the Phnom Sampeau Killing Caves are a must.
Hit the bamboo train first and enjoy a speedy ride along 7 kilometers of track to a nearby village. ‘Train’ isn’t entirely accurate as you’ll be riding on a bamboo platform resting atop 2 axles that run on the steel track. The small craft is powered by what could double as a lawn mower engine. Yet, it zips you down the track at some serious speeds. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a high stakes game of chicken if another car is headed towards you on the tracks. Just before you and your cart become bamboo shards, the drivers hit the breaks, disassemble one of the carts and remove it from the tracks to clear the traffic jam, only to rebuild it on the other side of the oncoming “train”. Comical stuff.
Not so funny, are the Phnom Sampeau Killing Caves. If coming from the north, this could be your first in-your-face encounter with work of the Khmer Rouge. The cave is set in the countryside outside of town. The cave now holds human remains and a shrine to those who lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a good intro to what’s to come if you’re headed to Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields.
After climbing down into the cave and to the temple on the top of the mountain, follow the crowd that’s gathered as the sun prepares to go down. All eyes will be on a small cave high up on the hill. As night falls, thousands of bats will begin to stream from the cave. They will continue to stream from the cave for the better part of an hour. It’s an awesome sight to see. It’s also great to watch them cruise through the sky from your tuk tuk on the way back to town.
Eat Well in Battambang
Battambang is probably the best place to eat in all of Cambodia. Restaurants offer delicious well prepared international & local cuisine on an esplanade along the river. A riverfront night market is also a great place to get a taste of local Khmer fare. There are more than enough good spots to eat, but these 2 stood out for us:
Jan Baai – A revenue generating enterprise for the Cambodian Children’s Trust that serves up first rate cuisine and keeps a fine wine list. If you eat one place in Battambang, it should be Jan Baai.
Flavors of India – What I love about Indian food places around the world, is there’s always an Indian in the kitchen. It’s authentic and they can crank up the heat if you like it hot!
Sihanoukville & Otres Beaches
Big long stretches of beaches and plenty of places to eat and crash. There’s a nice beach party seen, but pales in comparison to Thai beach parties. We didn’t spend much time in Sihanoukville proper in favor of the quieter more laid back vibe of Otres Beach. “Eat, chill, drink repeat” should be the motto of Otres Beach. These spots are all fine, but the real fun, bright blue waters, and stunning beaches lie out at sea on the islands!
Honestly…Skip Sihanoukville. Head directly to Koh Rong.
It’s a growing scene there that some folks think won’t last too much longer, but I bet you’ve got some time. Koh Rong is a why you’ve traveled to SE Asia.
The small, mostly uninhabited and secluded island with crystal clear blue water has little to do other than lounge, read and hike by day, then drink, smoke and party by night. On one side of the developed part of the island is a small local village of Cambodians and the other half is for the tourists. The two sides seem to coexist amicably for the time being. The island doesn’t have electricity 24/7, which I only encourages you to live off the grid.
There are some activities on offer while on Koh Rong. Boat tours take you out snorkeling and to a small island with a temple resting up a small hill is the first part of the tour. As the sun begins to go down, you’ll find yourself fishing for dinner with a plastic bottle spooled with fishing wire. You’ll have a fish fry right there on the boat before landing on the secluded and undeveloped white sand Soksan Beach (on the back side of the island, which you can also hike to) just in time to watch the sunset. You’ll be back to port in time to join whatever beach party is happening that night. Be aware, we met more than a few people who were 3-4 day tourists on Koh Rong that became 3 or 4 month residents. It’s a great spot.
Kampot and Kep
Relax by the river, enjoy freshly caught crab, chill on the beach, explore caves, wander through pepper vineyards, get spooked at a ghost town, get even more spooked by its neighboring brand new yet totally empty fancy casino in Preah Monivong National Park, etc.
Rent a motorbike and explore all that these southern twin cities and their outlying villages have to offer. There are a number of places to stay and some great eateries in either city. We chose to stay in Kampot, but explored the entire area. The roads are in great shape, and by SE Asian standards seemingly empty, so it’s a perfect place to test your motorbike skills. A bit off the beaten path, Kampot and Kep are well worth a visit. There’s just enough tourist infrastructure to make it comfortable, but not enough to sterilize the authentic local feel. Enjoy being away from droves of other tourists. Sit back and watch the sunset while the kids cruise the riverside drag on their tricked out bikes.
As the nation’s capital and commercial hub, Phnom Penh offers a look at the future of Cambodia as well as the devastating past. Cambodia suffered one of the worst genocides in history during the rule of Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. It is still felt today throughout the country. But in Phnom Penh, you’ll find a country that’s using it’s past to look forward to the future.
The Killing Fields
There’s not a ton to do in PP. However, in this case it’s quality over quantity. If you visit Cambodia, you should really visit Phnom Penh to experience the Killing Fields and S-21. These are the main sites that tell the story of the Cambodian genocide. There’s nothing left to the imagination with a name like the Killing Fields. It’s the site where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, mostly educated and middle class Cambodians, were taken to meet their end in brutal fashion. The site is extremely well curated considering the subject matter. The audio tour that is provided with your admission ticket, allows you to tour the grounds at your own pace. We think it’s probably one of the most well done exhibitions we’ve encountered while traveling.
S-21: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21, is a secondary school that was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. It is an equally intense experience. A photo display tells the story of the senseless horrors prisoners faced and the punishment they endured. Perhaps the most intense part of our experience at S-21 was that our guide was a survivor from the time. She showed us her scars that remain from the abuse she took at the hands of Pol Pot’s evil empire. She told us of the destruction of her family. A guide isn’t necessary, but you’ll truly be missing out without one. Guides are volunteers wanting to share their stories. You chose what you want to pay them.
Both sites offer cheap admission and are worth the cost. You get a piece of history in a very up close and personal way. While both sites are sad places to visit and can be pretty heavy on the spirit, the exhibitions and storytelling used left us with a feeling of hope. The mission of these museums is to educate those who visit in hopes that a genocide like this won’t happen again.
Other things to do in Phnom Penh
There are also, of course, huge markets to visit, a lovely Royal Palace, and a number of rooftop bars offering great spots for a sundowner and watch the locals gather for tai chi, aerobics, or sepak takraw along the riverside promenade. Staying in Phnom Penh is a piece of cake. There’s a ton of places to stay. We stayed at Lovely Jubbly’s which is fine, except for a funky odor. Check hostelworld.com & agoda.com for a myriad of options serving all budgets.
* Travelin’ Note: There’s a super cool movie theatre, The Flix, where you can watch the film “The Killing Fields” – a gripping story that will give you insight into life in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The Flix also shows current Hollywood films and is a great place to escape the sweltering heat of the city.
I’m a fan of food. It’s hard to find a cuisine that I don’t love. But, when it comes to Cambodian or Khemer cuisine, it falls a bit short. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s that it’s not as good but very similar to Thai & Vietnamese food. To us it didn’t have the same strong identity and pizazz compared to the fare of its neighbors. Khmer cuisine is good but usually not as spicy or flavorful as one might hope. Like most of the SE Asia region, rice and noodles are a staple of dishes from breakfast to dinner. Barbecued meats, pate sandwiches, and fried noodle dishes are popular street foods.
So it’s not our favorite food, but there are some highlights to look forward to while visiting Cambodia:
- Amok: Meat prepared in a coconut curry and then steam cooked in a banana leaf. This makes for a moist piece of meat that takes on the flavor or the curry.
- Lak Lok: Stir-Fried Marinated cubed beef served with red onions on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s accompanied by a dipping sauce comprised of lime juice, salt, & pepper.
- Iced Coffee: Similar to Thai Iced Tea, but with Coffee. A delicious, refreshing boost on a hot Cambodian day.
- Kampot Pepper: The World Trade Organization recognizes Kampot as one of the best pepper growing regions on the planet. The rich, aromatic pepper grows in the region and adds tons of flavor to any dish, especially Kampot crab.
Getting around Cambodia isn’t too difficult if you stick to the tourist route. There are horror stories of folks trying to get further off the beaten track. Our experience getting from town to town was without issue.
There are only two major airports in Camboida, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. This makes ground transport the most affordable option to go from town to town. Buses are the best way to get around the country, but highways are few making for few direct routes. For example, going from Battambang, there’s no direct route to the beaches in Sihanoukville. You must first travel from Battambang to Phnom Penh, then transfer to another bus before reaching Sihanoukville.
We rented motorbikes to explore cities and surrounds. Tuk tuks are the most convenient way around town. There’s no shortage of them, either. By the time you leave Cambodia you’ll be sick of warding off tuk tuk drivers.
Surrounded by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, Cambodia offers fairly easy travel to it’s neighbors as well. For instance, It’s quite easy to get to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from Phnom Penh. You can do so either on a Mekong riverboat, by bus, or a quick flight. And you can get your Vietnam visa from just about any hostel or tour agency in just a couple days.
5) TRAVELIN’ PICK:
Phare Cambodian Circus: The entire experience was completely unexpected, completely entertaining and undoubtedly amazing. The circus performance group is a self sustaining aspect of the Cambodian Non Profit organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak School, located in Battambang. The school is for students that come from difficult social and economic backgrounds. Phare’s mission is to provide education and teach circus skills to children with an aptitude for dance and physical performance. Feats of strength, coordination, illusion, and concentration will have you in awe of this surprising spectacle.
Students of the school spend years honing their craft. They hope to showcase their skills as part of one of the performance troupes. Their product is a show you won’t be able to take your eyes off or be able to shake from your memory. The circus holds shows in both Battambang and Siem Reap. Check the Phare website or check with your accommodation or tour operator for a schedule and details.
Do not miss this unique experience while in Cambodia.
Have you been to Cambodia? Where did you go and what did you love? Let us know in the comments below!