Cambodia is a bucket-list location like none-other.
I was brought up on Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, so from a child I imagined myself there, exploring the ancient, forgotten temples of Angkor- magical, mysterious places lost to time and reclaimed by nature.
To my youthful mind, it represented everything I wanted in an adventure. There was a mystique to Cambodia that was utterly compelling.
And now, having been lucky enough to visit them I can confirm that the temples absolutely lived up to my childhood expectations! But it also became immediately clear that Cambodia has far more to offer than just its famed temples.
A land steeped in rich history, culture and intrigue, this wonderful South-East Asian country, in spite of its troubled past, captures the imagination of millions of budding travelers every year.
If you’re planning on experiencing the magic yourself, here’s an ultimate guide to traveling around Cambodia.
- Know Before You Go
- When to go
- Cambodia Visa information
- Cambodian recent history
- How to Get Around
- Where to Stay
- Must Do Activities in Cambodia
- Explore the Temples of Angkor
- Paddle around the floating villages
- Enjoy the nightlife in Siem Reap
- Learn about Cambodia’s history in Phnom Penh
- See the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie
- Jungle Trek in Eastern Cambodia
- Sample the Street Food
- Get lost in the Cardamom Mountains
- Enjoy beach life in Southern Cambodia
- Laze on an Island paradise
Know Before You Go
Currency and Prices
The money is a curious (and sometimes confusing) mix between Cambodian Riel and US dollars, where both are accepted forms of currency.
It works out at roughly 4000 riel to $1 USD and you’ll often be given change in a combination of the two! So, it pays to be savvy with your mental arithmetic to ensure you aren’t swindled of your money.
Most cheap items in Cambodia tend to be $1, so it is always helpful to have a bunch of smaller bills with you at any one time.
Thankfully, there are money exchanges in most towns (though not all are free) and banks will usually do the same, enabling you to swap your larger bills for smaller ones.
Remember, many people in Cambodia will not have the financial means to give you change for a large bill/note. Carrying smaller ones is fairer and just makes things simpler for everyone.
Useful money tip!
Cambodians are exceptionally precious about the quality of the USD bills they accept (this is not the case for riel though, which tend to all be ripped, aged, worn and torn!). Literally, any tiny issue on dollars, such as marks or tears, can mean they refuse to accept them.
If you aren’t careful you can end up with a bunch of money you can’t actually use.
So, if you’re changing money make sure all the notes are pristine! And don’t assume money withdrawn from a bank will be perfect either- I know from experience that they’re not…
Check for rips of any size and if you see any, take the receipt and ask for it to be changed.
Again, you can exchange poor quality notes at money exchanges, but usually at a price. The worse the note, the more it’ll cost. I had to swap a dodgy $50 USD note (which I’d purchased in the UK!) for $45, effectively throwing money away!
The main language in Cambodia is Khmer, though, in busy areas such as cities and towns, many Cambodians will speak some English too. In rural areas, English is spoken far less.
Here are some key Khmer phrases:
- Hello – chum reap sour (formal)/ susadei (informal)
- Goodbye – chum reap lear (formal)/ lee hi (informal)
- Thank you – Arkun
- Yes – Bah (male)/ chaa (female)
- No – Ot-teh
- Sorry/ excuse me: Som dtoh
When to go
Off-peak is from around May through early October, when prices are cheaper and it is less busy too. However, it is also a lot wetter! The monsoon season kicks off in August/September/October time.
Temperatures remain fairly warm throughout the year though and even in the monsoon season, you can still find good weather in amongst the frequent showers and storms.
Cambodia Visa information
You’ll need a passport to enter Cambodia, with at least 6 months before its expiration. No passport, no visa!
If you’re arriving by air, visas can be purchased when you land in the country at the main airports in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. A 30-day tourist visa costs $30 USD to be paid at the airport and you’ll need to have a passport photo with you.
E-visas purchased before departure are also accepted, but only at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh airports. For working in Cambodia, buying a $35 USD business-visa would be the way to go, which is easily extendable and allows multiple re-entries to the country.
Regular tourist visas are only extendable by a month and do not allow re-entry.
Coming by land, there are supposedly potential issues with being overcharged by officials, but it is still apparently quite simple to organize visas this way at border controls. Avoiding charges by having visas organized in advance could be worth considering if you’re entering the country by land.
Cambodian recent history
Cambodia has a long and rich history, evidenced most impressively by the incredible Temples of Angkor.
However, its recent past, involving the Khmer Rouge, is one of bloodshed, genocide, and unspeakable trauma. The scars left on Cambodia by Pol Pot’s brutal regime in the 1970s still remain.
I won’t go into detail about the Khmer Rouge here as it shouldn’t overshadow the sublime aspects of today’s Cambodia. But the bare essentials revolve around the Khmer Rouge, a Communist military group and their Marxist leader, Pol Pot, who came to power and decided to forcibly impose an agrarian system (one revolving around cultivated land or the cultivation of land) on the country.
People were forced from the cities into the countryside, ‘intellectuals’ were killed, hundreds of thousands of the middle class were tortured and murdered; up to 2 million people died in Pol Pot’s four-year reign, from all manner of inhumane treatment.
The insanity of the time was brought to an end by invading Vietnamese troops in 1979.
Before you head to Cambodia I recommend doing a bit more reading into what happened during that time, to set things in context and understand better some of the historic and current issues in the country.
How to Get Around
On to brighter topics though! You have many options when it comes to getting around Cambodia!
In cities and towns, tuk-tuks are literally everywhere and you’ll never be short of someone asking you if you want a ride! This is generally the simplest form of transport over short-ish distances, but prices can quickly stack up if you take tuk-tuks all the time. Drivers are also fond of overcharging you, so it pays to haggle over price and never accept their first suggestion!
Motos (mopeds/scooters) are another hugely popular form of transport (for locals and travelers alike). You don’t need a license to ride one either, so for a few dollars per day (approx $5-8 USD) you just hop on and off you go. It is a great way for greater flexibility and control over your day.
Public buses are also common and easy ways to get from place to place. You tend to have a tourist option and a local option when the tourists tend to pay higher rates for slightly more comfort. The local buses are amazing though, if uncomfortable, and I think should be tried at least once for a real taste of Cambodia! I ended up sharing space with a live chicken on one particular bus ride.
Cycling shouldn’t be forgotten either! The bikes are always of a questionable standard, but it is exceptionally cheap ($1-2 USD per day) to hire them and allows you greater flexibility around towns and villages.
Where to Stay
Accommodation is plentiful all over Cambodia, so you shouldn’t struggle to find somewhere to stay. I’d recommend staying in a local family guest house if you get the chance though, which might give you a much greater insight into what authentic Cambodian life is really like.
Accommodation varies in terms of price. The lowest might be as little as $2-3 USD for a dorm bed per night but can go up to $10-15 in some places. Like any traveling through, there will be a range of prices that usually relate to the style of the accommodation.
Must Do Activities in Cambodia
Here’s a selection of things to do in Cambodia to add to your Cambodia itinerary.
Explore the Temples of Angkor
Literally millions of people flock to visit this World Heritage Site every year. And for good reason- it is absolutely sublime. Head to the temples and witness what’s simply a wonder of the World.
Words simply don’t do it justice.
Iconic masonry and otherworldly nature collide in buildings designed to embody and glorify Kings and Gods. Immense ancient history and architecture are on display everywhere you look; it feels like you’ve stepped into a lost world.
Siem Reap, towards the north of the country, is the gateway to the Temples. You’ll need a ticket, which isn’t cheap, and you can buy access for different lengths of time. I recommend the three-day pass, which gives you ample opportunity to get your fill of this awesome place.
There are hundreds of temples – one of the reasons why it is on every Vietnam Laos Cambodia tour out there – with a core selection that comprise the main tourist attraction. You’ll find two ‘circuits’, a big and a small one, which take you around all the key sites in relation to the time you have available.
But you can also venture beyond the main area, extending your temple touring into the areas further north.
Paddle around the floating villages
Not far from Siem Reap is another great tourist attraction that shouldn’t be missed.
The floating villages are so named because they’re literally villages, built on stilts, nestled meters above the waters close to Siem Reap. Paddle gently around and through the villages, observing the lifestyle of a people born and raised in the water.
It is a truly unique experience and well worth seeing.
Enjoy the nightlife in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is tourist central.
To be honest, I felt a sense that things had gone a little too far here, where all the negative sides of tourism were available to see: there’s literally a ‘Pub Street’, where music blares into the early hours.
It doesn’t feel like authentic Cambodia.
But with pubs, clubs, and restaurants everywhere, there are definitely options for a good night out. And, if you’re a little tired of history and culture, the nightlife of Siem Reap might be just what the doctor ordered.
Learn about Cambodia’s history in Phnom Penh
With all manner of things to visit, the country’s capital is well worth heading to. Spend some time wandering around the Russian Market and the Royal Palaces, or just enjoying the waterfront of the mighty Mekong River.
There are many amazing things to do in Phnom Penh. However, with numerous museums dotted around, the capital is also a fantastic way to learn more about Cambodian history: both ancient and recent.
For insight into its ancient past, the National Museum of Cambodia is a good bet; to learn more about the brutal Khmer Regime that I mentioned above, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum could be worth a visit.
Consider taking the slightly longer trip to the Killing Fields too. This is a strange place that treads the line between the unethical commercialization of national trauma, and important, necessary commemoration of those who died at the hand of atrocious human acts.
Essentially, the killing fields mark the place where thousands of people were murdered and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge. For a fee, you walk the grounds (now a peaceful, calm location) where people were killed, listening on a headset to the stories of the people who survived.
It is a bizarre setting of juxtaposition that stirs up all manner of conflicting feelings. To call it a ‘tourist attraction’, which it undoubtedly is, seems an insult when you consider the reality of the place.
See the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie
Further East from Phnom Penh and along the banks of the Mekong, in a cool, buzzing little town called Kratie, you can pay to be taken out on a boat to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.
These amazing freshwater dolphins are now severely endangered, so seeing them in their natural habitat is a humbling and astounding experience.
Try not to get too close and if your boat driver doesn’t do it of their own accord, encourage them to switch the engine off while you wait, to prevent the noise disturbing the animals.
In the midst of the Mekong, watching and waiting to see the Irrawaddy dolphins is a magical thing to do.
Jungle Trek in Eastern Cambodia
The further East you head in Cambodia, the wilder and less touristy it gets.
The East of the country is an awesome place to stay and there’s a lot to do here, including jungle treks. Again, it’ll cost you (approximately $60USD per person for an overnight hike, all-inclusive), but it is well worth the money.
You go with a local guide who takes you deep into the bush, to hike, swim in rivers, sleep by and cook on a campfire, see giant waterfalls and generally get out into nature.
We did this in Sen Monorom and it was one of the best things I did in Cambodia.
Sample the Street Food
The food in Cambodia is out of this World and the street food is a must!
Not only is it far cheaper than eating at a restaurant, but it is also delicious and gives you a greater idea of what eating like a local feels like, with a much wider variety of options on the menu.
Sometimes the cleanliness of the kitchen won’t inspire you with confidence, but (within reason), be adventurous and give it a go!
Don’t be surprised if you see something on your plate that you don’t recognize though! We were told that Cambodians are well known for wasting nothing in their cooking, which means (for a meat dish, for example) that pretty much everything goes in…say hello to lovely crunchy chicken feet!
Get lost in the Cardamom Mountains
In the South West of the country, the Cardamom Mountains were a battlefield in the days of the Khmer Rouge, but they’re now an inspiring place renowned for its lush, diverse rainforest and epic hiking trails.
Head to the Cardamoms for space, solitude, wilderness and walking.
Enjoy beach life in Southern Cambodia
The heat, sunshine and white sandy Southern Cambodia beaches are hot spots for tourists and travelers, who flock to the coast to enjoy the chilled out atmosphere.
It feels very much like paradise here. However, a bit like Siem Reap, there’s the faint tinge of over tourism, which makes it feel slightly ‘un-Cambodian’. All the hostels and hotels that line the sands seem to be owned by foreigners and the lack of locals is striking.
It’s a bit like tourism has taken over.
But, that aside, the South remains a beautiful place to spend some time and escape the hustle and bustle that can prevail in other parts of the country.
Sihanoukville and Otres Beach are the two main places to stay, where Otres beach offers more of a chilled out vibe compared to Sihanoukville’s intensely touristy nature.
Laze on an Island paradise
The South of Cambodia offers a lovely bunch of islands to explore too!
Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem are probably the two most popular, with Koh Rong being a popular party island for backpackers. Though white sand beaches and turquoise waters abound on these two, so do the resorts; the abundance of people and partying may make these options slightly less desirable for some.
If peace and quiet are more your things, be sure to check out Koh Tah Kiev, where it is truly back to basics style on a picturesque paradise island. Electricity is reserved for certain times and toilets are dry, but what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in peace and charm.
However, there are a load of islands to choose from, all of which you can access from Cambodia’s South coast (Otres or Sihanoukville). Ask around and see which one works for you.
Is Cambodia on your list?