Apart from the world-famous ruins from the Khmer empire period (not just crowded Angkor Wat complex but also lesser known ruins scattered all over the country), Cambodia doesn’t have world-class tourist attractions. What it can offer instead though is the vibe of stereotypical Asia, with dirt roads, children shouting ‘hello’ and buffaloes grazing on paddy fields. Cambodia lures with its pristine nature: swathes of tropical forest and relatively undeveloped coast. Unfortunately, most of the natural and cultural attractions of Cambodia are really expensive making it a tricky destination for budget travelers.
The thing that you’re going to notice straight away if you’re coming from Thailand is that Cambodia is a much poorer country. In the countryside, farmers work in the fields manually, gathering (unlike Thailand or Vietnam) just a single rice crop a year. Humpback cows, buffaloes and characteristic stilted, wooden houses dominate the rural landscape. This idyllic landscape gets somewhat spoiled with the garbage lying around. There are still plenty of dirt roads all over the country and many people use bicycles since not everyone can afford a scooter or a motorbike.
Destinations in Cambodia
Cambodia for beach bums
Cambodian islands are great rivals to their Thai counterparts since they are equally beautiful but much less developed, less crowded and cheaper. If you’re searching for an idyllic but quiet island, head for Koh Rong Sanloem or smaller Koh Ta Kiev- both easily accessible from Sihanoukville. The mainland beach destination aren’t very appealing, particularly Sihanoukville, full of high-rise buildings is to be avoided. Otres, near Sihanoukville used to be quite pleasant but that is sadly rapidly changing. The Kep beach is mostly a locals beach but the nearby Koh Tonsay island is another place worth checking.
Cambodia for culture-vultures
Obviously the first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of Cambodia is Angkor Wat complex – a place which should be on anybody’s bucket list. If you’re in the area, don’t forget to check out also the nearby Phnom Kulen and Beng Melaea. But the remnants of the Khmer civilisation are scattered all over the country and many of those places are rarely visited by tourists. Prasat Preah Vihar and Bantey Chmar near the Thai border are some of the examples.
Those interested in modern history cannot miss the gruesome sights related to the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh: the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum.
Cambodia for backpackers
Cambodia is a somewhat a contradictory destination for backpackers. On one hand, one can find incredibly cheap, basic accommodation throughout the country, on the other- the cost of travel and especially of sightseeing is very high, much higher than for similar services/activities in Thailand, for example. Among the backpacker-friendly, chilled-out hang-outs, Kratie and Kampot are one of the most appealing.
When to visit?
We visited Cambodia in June /July. June was a good time to visit Siem Reap, the towns along the Mekong and Phnom Penh as the wet season hasn’t really affected those areas yet but it was definitely a wrong moment to go to the coast. Arriving in May/June would have allowed us to enjoy beautiful and unspoiled islands of the Cambodian coast as well as the rain forests of the remote Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces.
Culture, safety and tourism in Cambodia
Scams and touting in Cambodia
Most of Cambodia has quite a relaxed vibe. Only Siem Reap and Sihanoukville are full of annoying touts, and nagging tuk-tuk drivers. Any more tourist-oriented area, (particularly Siem Reap/ Tonle Sap Lake area), is prone to over- pricing and scams. People in the Cambodian countryside are much more honest. We were always given a fair price at the markets in small towns along Mekong and on the Cambodian coast.
Communication is not likely to be an issue. Khmer people speak incomparably better English than their Thai neighbours. Tourism is for many Khmer people the only chance to come out of poverty which means their determination to learn English is much higher.
Cambodian are much more conservative than their Thai and Vietnamese neighbours. Don’t kiss or hug in public and avoid holding hands. To respect the Khmer culture, women should avoid skimpy clothes and should wear T-shirts and knee-length shorts or leggings when swimming anywhere else than in beach resorts. Always visit a temple with your knees and shoulders covered.
Angkor Wat is a national pride so make sure you don’t do anything that might be considered offensive when visiting. The subject of Khmer Rouge regime is something of a land mine and better to be avoided.
Getting in and around Cambodia
Getting to Cambodia
Cambodia, despite it’s growing popularity, still isn’t a prime tourist destination so direct flights to Cambodia are expensive. It’d make more sense to fly to Bangkok and get a budget airline plane or at least half cheaper overnight bus (seater, not sleeper) to Siem Reap. If you have more time on your hands, you could also travel by bus to Trat and from there cross the land border to Koh Kong, on the Cambodian coast.
Poor public transport infrastructure
Traveling around Cambodia is far from easy. Public transport doesn’t exist and all the private bus and minibus transport is in the hands of agencies which are always going to charge a tourist different price than a local. There is no railway network either, apart from a route between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville (with trains running only in the weekends).
Few and poor quality roads
Getting from one destination to another isn’t as straightforward as could be expected from a round-shape country. The infrastructure is so bad that there are simply no roads linking various parts of Cambodia. You’d be quite frustrated to discover that you’d need to come back and forth via the main transport hub of the capital Phnom Penh a few times if you wish to see the entire country. Many roads are quite bumpy and getting to more remote destinations is an adventure on its own.
Independent travel: scooter hire
Hiring your own motorbike is a good option if you’re more experienced with driving on uneven surfaces. Be aware that in Cambodia, just like in Vietnam, cyclists and motorcyclists tend to drive on a wrong side of the road. The silent agreement is that they take space closest to the outer edge of the road.
Tuk-tuks and mobile apps
There are two main ways of getting around towns in Cambodia. Most common are tuk-tuks: motorbikes pulling a remorque (more common and slightly cheaper), however you can also come across imported Indian auto-rickshaws which are compact and a bit faster.
The best way to use either is via Pass App, a Cambodian version of Uber. The drivers of tuk-tuks might have problem not just with communication but even reading maps so be ready with your own google maps to avoid getting lost with your taxi driver or being taken where you didn’t wish to go at all. Phnom Penh is the only city with public transport in the form of a brand new fleet of comfortable A/C buses plying capital’s main avenue.
Dining options in Cambodia
Budget dining options are also more limited than in Thailand and far more limited than in Vietnam. We noticed that a bizarre form of dining ‘apartheid’ exists in Cambodia. Local restaurants (recognisable by their beer adverts) don’t have English menu and the few occasions we entered them, nobody bothered to serve us.
The main alternatives are overpriced, tourist restaurants or stalls at the markets. Tourist-oriented restaurants are the most likely place to come across tofu dishes but less nutritious meatless options aren’t that hard to come by. The truly ‘budget’ dishes (think $1 per plate) have poor value for money in Cambodia: the food is very basic and unexciting, while the portions are small.
Khmer cuisine is distinct (milder and more saucy) from Thai cuisine though many dishes, snacks and sweets are common. There isn’t much variety in terms of dishes- most menus would feature just amok (a kind of curry), lok-lak (marinated and fried meat) and sour soup. Fish and beef are very popular. In fact, if you order noodles or rice with meat it would most likely be beef: chicken is often unavailable. As for the more exotic fare, local people snack on locust and sometimes frogs.
Vegetarians can get by mostly thanks to the tourist-oriented restaurants which serve tofu version of Cambodian signature dish- amok. Vegetable noodles are ubiquitous.