Top tips and tricks for travelling Cambodia
As always, we loved having the opportunity to experience the culture and lifestyle in Cambodia, but found some parts better than others. The following blog details our travel tips, with a couple of top picks, things to be wary of and a few ideas for potential itineraries.
TOP PICKS FOR…
Accommodation: This was really difficult to chose, but for all the wrong reasons. We found accommodation in Cambodia really over priced, especially when compared with other countries we have visited. The top pick would be Downtown Siem Reap, but only because the pool and common area was excellent and extremely social. Our room was average (at best), but we were quite happy in the common area enjoying the company of others.
Food: The Khmer curry was easily my favourite meal in Cambodia and I happily ate it at least once a day. Slightly different to other curries, it is steamed in banana leaf and has a lovely flavour. Definitely worth trying when you visit!
Activities: As difficult as it was, visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh was an incredibly moving experience. Not for the faint hearted, these memorials detail the atrocities that happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule.
Sights: The Temples of Angkor are some of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. It is amazing to wander around structures that are thousands of years old and wonder how and why such grand and expansive structures were built.
BE WARY OF…
We found travel through Cambodia was quite different to the other countries we have visited in southeast Asia. I constantly felt as though I was being watched or followed and was extremely aware of my surroundings. The uneasy feeling stuck with me throughout Cambodia, however was worst in Battambang and parts of Phnom Penh. We heard multiple stories of people who had been mugged and pick-pocketed throughout their trip. With this said, we had an enjoyable trip and our increased awareness probably wasn’t a bad thing. Consequently, there are a few things in particular to be wary of when travelling Cambodia;
- Bag snatchers: Thieves often work in small groups, one person assessing and picking out the victim before their friend steals from them. Often, they are on motorbikes and grab your handbag, wallet or phone, as the drive past. The thieves are known to be quite violent, often carrying knives or guns so it is advised not to put up a fight when they take your belongings. We didn’t experience anything first hand, however, on a couple of occasions we noticed people sizing us up. They would quickly look down and walk away when they realised we had noticed them. The best way to try and avoid becoming a victim of bag snatching is to be aware of your surroundings, keep your belongings close to you (so be careful taking photos on your phone), use a backpack or bumbag and only take the bare minimum out with you.
- Scams: One prevalent scam is young children approaching tourists asking for milk powder and pointing to their mother with a small child. Once the mother has the milk powder, she returns it to the mini-mart in exchange for cash.
- Children selling bracelets: There are many children that wander around restaurants trying to sell bracelets, books, and other bits and pieces. Sometimes they can be quite aggressive, a few pinched and punched Jimmy when he refused to buy from them. As hard as it is to refuse these children, giving them money feeds into the negative cycle, encouraging them to continue selling on the street.
- People selling books: There are adults selling books in the evenings, either walking through restaurants or set up on the side of the road. Be wary, these are often photocopies of the originals. The Lonely Planet guides are a give-away; the different sections (which can be seen like tabs on the edge of the pages) should be blue. If they are black it is a photocopied version.
- Koh Rong: There are a couple of things to be wary of on Koh Rong (and some of the other islands in the area). Firstly, people frequently report getting food poisoning. This is easily avoided this by eating vegetarian for the the duration of your time on the island. Secondly, there are multiple reports of bed bugs. We solved this by using our sleeping bag liners at both places we stayed. Lastly, watch out for the sand flies. They are all over the island beaches. It seems if you keep moving they can’t bite you, but if you sit still on the beach for a while they attack. Coconut oil is the only thing (so I’ve heard) that stops them from biting. You can buy it from most shops on the island for about $3 USD.
- Don’t pat the dogs: While many of the dogs look friendly, majority of them are wild and some can be vicious. Most commonly the dogs bite people when they see them as a threat to themselves or their puppies. As some of the dogs have rabies we left the dogs to themselves, it’s not worth the risk of getting bitten.
- The boat from Siem Reap to Battambang: A bit naïve, we embarked on an epic journey from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat. Firstly, our boat was extremely overloaded and we opted to sit on the uncovered roof. Secondly, the 7hour trip ended up taking 14hours as it was dry season and the water level was so low. It was an interesting experience and while it isn’t a trip I would do again, it was worth going. Just read the reviews and be wary you may get stuck along the way in the dry season.
IF YOU LIKE…
Food: If I’m blatantly honest, I found the Khmer food quite disappointing. Not only was it difficult to find (most restaurants happily serve western food), the meals were also a bit of a hit and miss. Sometimes incredible, sometimes barely passable. After such incredible food in other countries it was hard to be impressed.
Shopping: As with most places in Asia, the markets are the place to go to shop. Siem Reap is lined with stalls that are eager to sell you something, usually at a hugely inflated rate. The Psar Themi markets in Phnom Penh were pretty impressive and worth visiting. There are several other markets in Phnom Penh, including the Russian Markets, which are all really highly regarded. Have your game face on if you go, be prepared for some heavy bartering and never under estimate the power of walking away. Suddenly the price you offered is alright when you start walking away. If not, the next person two stalls down most likely has the same thing and you can try again.
Physical activity: This is a tough one. We did a lot of walking throughout Cambodia but mainly as our mode of transport to explore the various destinations. Koh Rong was probably the best place to stroll the beaches and trek through the jungle. I’m sure there are other places that we didn’t visit that have a bit more to offer.
Heritage: Again, the Temples of Angkor are absolutely incredible. In my opinion, a trip to Cambodia would be lacking if you don’t visit the temples. Be prepared for tourists en masse, overwhelming heat, and people barging past you to get ‘the shot’, especially at the famous Angkor Wat sunrise. Lastly, some people choose to cycle around the complex. If you’re an avid cyclist perhaps this would be an excellent choice, but the combination of the heat and traffic was enough to put me off. Safety could also be an issue, there are no street lights and the temples are quite a long way out of town, which makes it a long ride in the dark if you are planning to see sunrise (which is pretty magical).
Culture: As the Khmer Rouge tried to abolish all culture (check out the Cambodian History blog for some background), we found it quite difficult to experience any Cambodian culture. With this said, the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang really allowed us to see how the people live off the river. The boat ride was an experience in itself, check out the Battambang blog if you are contemplating the trip.
Beaches: Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem easily have the best beaches in Cambodia. Sihanoukville is also well known for the beach environment, but the water was really polluted and we were constantly interrupted by locals trying to sell massages, manicures, fruit and bracelets. Our tolerance of pushy sales was pretty low by this point and the few days of freedom in Koh Rong was welcomed. Koh Rong and Sihanoukville are well known party towns and we had a couple of sleepless nights due to our poor accommodation choices. Choose wisely and perhaps splash out on somewhere out of the centre, or alternatively head to Koh Rong Sanloem or Otres Beach, which are both a lot quieter.
IF WE WERE TO GO BACK…
To be frank, Cambodia isn’t a country I would hurry back to. While we had an incredible trip and had some amazing experiences, I feel we have seen majority of the country and there would be little more to see and do that would warrant a return trip. Perhaps if we were travelling other countries in southeast Asia, I would return to the northeast area to trek the countryside and explore a bit further.
We travelled from Laos and flew into Siem Reap. This was a really expensive way of travelling but we purely chose to fly as we otherwise would have been stuck on a bus for Christmas. We then travelled to Battambang, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Koh Rong before heading to Vietnam. From what we have seen, the following would be my picks for itineraries.
- One week: I think if you only have a week it would be best to focus on Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. There is a lot to see in both places and you could easily spend 3-4 days exploring each city. Alternatively, if you are keen to relax on a beach for a few days fly from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, spending two days at each city before travelling to Sihanoukville. There are also flights from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville that would help save time (the bus is about 5hours). Conveniently, the ferry timetable (to Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem) is arranged so there is usually a ferry that departs about the same time as the bus or plane arrives in Sihanoukville. The island beaches are much nicer than the mainland and worth the extra 45minutes on the ferry.
- Two weeks: Essentially, the three top spots in Cambodia are Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and the islands in the south. Split your time between the three locations depending on what would suit you best. Some prefer a week on the beach, others a week at the temples. Or spend 4-5 days in each location, which would allow plenty of time to explore each place quite extensively.
- Three – four weeks: With anything longer than two weeks you really have the luxury to relax and enjoy your trip. Take your time exploring Siem Reap (at least four days), there is a lot to see and do especially if you love the ancient temples. Battambang is a quiet town and doesn’t have much to offer aside from the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus, however, the boat trip from Siem Reap was an interesting experience. A day here would be more than enough. Phnom Penh is an interesting city, again four or five days would be sufficient to see the sights and spend some time exploring. From here, travel south to the beaches for some rest and relaxation. For us, five days was enough before we were keen to get moving again. If you still have time to spare, perhaps travel to the northeast area for some trekking (unfortunately we didn’t travel this far so I can’t offer any insight on the area).
Remember, these itineraries are only a suggestion based on the places we went when we travelled through Cambodia. We definitely didn’t see it all and there are many other things on offer.
We enjoyed our time in Cambodia and learnt a lot about the countries history. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help. For a breakdown of what the various aspects cost us have a look at our Cambodia Travel Guide, and for more information on the various towns check out the relative blog posts for Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Koh Rong.