Travel In Cambodia
We crossed into Cambodia from Thailand, taking the bus directly from Bangkok to Siem Reap. We made our way across the country over the course of an entire month and eventually crossed over into Vietnam. Cambodia is a really great place to travel for backpackers and has a super unique culture along with an important recent history. It is incredibly affordable to travel in Cambodia and tourism is now the country’s second largest industry. The key attraction of the country is the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap. The capital, Phnom Penh, is a bustling city that doesn’t cater to tourists in the same way that Siem Reap does, but has plenty to keep you busy. The island of Koh Rong is a point of pride for the country as a beautiful beach paradise and vacation destination. There are many other great small towns around the country that are each unique in their own way and always welcoming to foreigners. The Khmer people are very friendly and eager to meet foreigners, but many of them can only do so by working in the tourism industry and so there is often a level of separation you feel. Many of the friends we made started out as an interaction with someone who was trying to be our taxi or tour guide but then we ended up just becoming friends and hanging out instead.
Siem Reap is the town most people are familiar with in Cambodia because it is base camp for visiting Angkor Wat. For some people it is their only taste of Cambodia and, while it is a growing city full of activity, you can really see the strain of tourism on the city everywhere you go. Sixty percent of all visitors to Cambodia enter via Siem Reap. The number of travelers visiting Angkor Wat increases by hundreds of thousands of people each year. That would be great if it weren’t for the fact that the bigger attraction seems to be the “Pub Street” downtown, where people spend the majority of their visit in Siem Reap, getting completely trashed. We spent one week in Siem Reap and stayed on the outskirts of town in order to stay within bicycle riding distance of Angkor Wat. We got the three day pass and rented bicycles for $1 a day to visit all three days. Angkor was extremely impressive and well worth every effort it took us to finally make it to Cambodia and see it. What was perhaps more exciting was realizing how many more temple complexes there are within the park to visit that are even older and every bit as elaborate. While the number of visitors is growing rapidly, we were still pleasantly surprised at the amount of privacy and tranquility we found while visiting the various temple complexes.
The capital of Cambodia isn’t the tourist hot spot that Siem Reap or some of the beach areas are. However, it is one of the more authentically Cambodian experiences you can have as it is the most populous city and the economic center of the country. There are several huge outdoor markets and night markets along with the typical national museums and capital buildings to see. We stayed for 5 nights and spent most of our time wandering up and down the busy streets and talking with the locals. The residents of Phnom Penh like to hangout by the river and around the national monument in the evenings. Both are great places to put down a blanket and relax with friends and family over some crickets and beers. The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are the major sites for visitors. Both highlight the all too recent history of the Khmer Rouge and resulting Cambodian Genocide. Everyone that visits Cambodia needs to know this story and both of these places are vital in telling that story. I highly recommend reading the book First They Killed My Father before heading there.
Kampot is a quiet riverside town that makes for a nice stopping point for travelers coming and going to other parts of Cambodia. Bokor National Park is one of the main attractions in Kampot. However, there are no hiking trails in the park so it is really just a nice long scooter ride with some good views. There is a large waterfall that you can visit along with an abandoned church and an abandoned village too. Back in town there are many great restaurants to eat at and plenty of nice places to stay. I would suggest you keep it local with your dining choices because the expats don’t need/deserve your money when there are so many local business owners trying to make ends meet. There is a small night market that has some food stalls and a larger covered market that is open during the day and is full of fruit, meat, seafood, and clothing. Kampot is a major connection point for buses going to other parts of the country too, so you will inevitably end up there at one point or another if traveling around Cambodia. Try to catch the sunset by the river and watch the fleet of fishing boats go out to sea.
Koh Rong is the Phi Phi Island of Cambodia. It is about an hour ferry ride from Sihanoukville and is a major stop on the backpacker, moonlight party, douchebag, circuit. If you ignore the fact that practically every business in the town is owned and staffed by Europeans, the rest of the island is a pretty cool place to visit. There are long stretches of beaches that have yet to be developed and the crystal clear waters are both beautiful and refreshing. We spent a whole week camping on the beach as far away from the village/spring break beach party area as we could. Once you get away from town you will feel like you are on your own private island.
Sihanoukville seems to get a bad rep from some backpackers, but I assume that is only because there isn’t just an abundance of clubs and bars. It is actually pretty cool though if you can act like an adult and stop drinking long enough to have some authentic interactions. Most people just stop there to push off to the islands or stay at the Chinese casinos. However, it is a pretty popular vacation spot for Cambodians. That means there is a real local vibe and a cool place to learn a little more about Khmer people and how they like to relax. The beach stretches way further than you would think and it is lined with restaurant stalls cooking fresh seafood every night. There is one backpacker street that leads up to the ferry port to avoid. We spent 3 days in Sihanoukville and I would have been happy to stay a few more.
Kep was our final stop on our journey through Cambodia. The town of Kep is primarily known for its seafood and the Kep National park. The national park isn’t exactly hiker friendly, as all of the trails are either big enough that there is scooter traffic on them, or so overgrown that you can’t walk on them without a machete. It is a nice walk around the loop in the morning or evening when it isn’t so hot out. The main highway comes down to an area with just a few restaurants and a tour agency where you will arrive and can book your ticket onward. There is a small beach where sand is brought in from elsewhere to keep it looking nice. The crab market is a great place to get some fresh BBQ seafood right on the ocean. Grab some skewers of grilled squid and shrimp and sit at a table to enjoy your feast with an ice cold sugar can juice.The Kep beach is small and they ship in white sand to keep it looking nice. Kep is the last town in Cambodia before reaching the Vietnam border, so there are a lot of backpackers coming and going. There are only a few hotels in the small town and it is a very laid back and relaxing place to spend a couple of days.
Cambodia Travel Tips
- Champa Tours is the main booking agency for transportation around Cambodia. No matter where you buy your bus ticket or who you book from, it will likely land you at one of their agencies. They are notoriously terrible and you should avoid using them if you can, but sometimes it is inevitable. Expect undeclared transfers and stops, wait times of 3-5 hrs, miss-information, and no refunds for buses that they canceled.
- Be prepared to get ripped off a lot. There is a reason nothing has a price tag on it. The price is determined according to your skin color and is at the discretion of the store owner. If someone speaks English or has signage in English, you are definitely going to get ripped off.
- Locals never need a menu to order in a restaurant, so when they bring out that English menu to you, know that it has been made specifically for tourists and the prices reflect that.
- Despite being a poor, developing country, Cambodia is becoming increasingly more and more attractive to foreigners, but for all the wrong reasons. Expats are rushing in to open businesses because it is low cost and there are few barriers to entry. There is limited competition from locals because they can’t afford to compete on the same level. There is a blatant. almost in your face, sex trade problem that can be observed all over the country. It is much worse than Thailand or anywhere else I have ever been. Young people also come from all over the world to Cambodia, but only to frequent the various party streets or “pub streets” around the country. Shirtless and barefoot with a beer in their hand as they romp through the streets, the vast majority of these kids will make it out of Cambodia without having a single authentic interaction with a Khmer person. My plea to you if you visit Cambodia is to please try your best to make some friends, be polite to the locals (even if they are pestering you for their tuktuk), support locally owned businesses, and don’t spend every waking moment getting drunk like a college freshman.