Angkor Wat at sunrise
Angkor Wat at sunrise

Backpacking Cambodia: Top experiences

 

  1. Exploring the temples of Angkor — preferably by bicycle
  2. Swimming in the crystal-clear waters surrounding the southern islands
  3. Cycling through pepper plantations to visit temples around Kampot
  4. Motorbiking along the river to tiny villages near Battambang
  5. Getting up to speed on Cambodia’s horrifying history at the unforgettable S-21 Prison Museum

 

Jump to the list of posts from Cambodia, or read on for my comprehensive Cambodia travel guide.

 

Cambodia Itinerary Ideas

 

The temples of Angkor are at the top of the list on nearly everyone’s Cambodia itinerary.

 

You can cover the highlights of the country with a two week Cambodia itinerary. More time will allow you to slow down and do more side trips, or to cover more off-the-beaten-path areas in the northeast.

 

If you’re coming from Thailand, start your backpacking Cambodia trip in Battambang. This gorgeous small city is a good base for visiting nearby temples — rent a motorbike to make the most of it. Then, take the boat to Siem Reap.

 

Spend the next three days exploring the temples of Angkor by bicycle, motorbike taxi, or tuk tuk. Take the time to visit some of the more outlying ruins and get away from the crowds.

 

Next, head to bustling Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s capital is worth a few days of exploration. You’ll need half a day for the trip outside of town to visit the infamous Killing Fields.

 

Finally, finish up along the coast. Sihanoukville is the gateway, but don’t stay in town for longInstead, head out to Koh Rong or the beaches around Kep. Finally, spend two days in the lovely Mekong village of Kampot, from where you can visit pepper plantations or just soak up the slow pace of life (and lack of mass tourism). Kampot makes a logical jumping-off point for Vietnam, or return to Sihanoukville for an onward flight.

 

Cambodia weather and when to visit Cambodia

 

Try to time your Cambodia vacation for dry season if you want beach time.
The beaches on the southern islands are one of the best places to visit in Cambodia year-round.

 

Cambodia weather is similar to the rest of South East Asia — cool, dry winters, hot springs, and rainy summers and autumns.

 

The best time to go to Cambodia if you don’t mind the crowds is November-March. By April, temperatures hit 40+ degrees C — visiting the temples can be miserable, although the beaches are nice and the whole country is less crowded. October is also a great month to visit. You’ll get some rain, but the landscapes will be super-green and it won’t rain every day.

 

Try to avoid timing your Cambodia vacation during the peak rainy season months of July-September, especially if you have ambitions of covering the off-the-beaten-path northeastern parts of the country. Roads are still in rough shape there, and you may hit transportation delays or cancellations if buses can’t run. This time of year is still fine (and quiet) if you just want to visit the temples.

 

Language in Cambodia

 

People who work at the major Cambodia places to visit all speak English well.
Khmer is the main language, but most people you meet at the main Cambodia tourist attractions will speak English.

 

The main language spoken in Cambodia is Khmer. Unlike the languages of neighboring countries, it’s not tonal, and most backpackers in Cambodia are able to pick up basic communication. However, pronunciation is quite difficult and many of the sounds don’t exist in English. It also uses its own script (although Latin alphabet signage is common).

 

If you’re only visiting the major Cambodia tourist attractions like Angkor, Phnom Penh, and the beaches, you will have no trouble getting by in English. Even in less touristic places, you can usually find an English speaker to help you out.

 

Some locals also speak French and Chinese. If you speak one of these languages and are having trouble communicating with someone in English, they’re worth a shot.

 

Don’t have any illusions that speaking a different language will get the kids selling postcards at the Angkor temples to leave you alone. They know their rap in every language imaginable. (I tried “no English … only Croatian …” and they called my bluff.)

 

Budget for backpacking Cambodia

 

The temples of Angor are one of the most important Cambodia tourist attractions. They're expensive, but you can't miss them.
Visiting Angkor Wat is expensive, but it’s a must when you visit Cambodia.

 

Backpacking Cambodia is easy on a tight budget, although costs have gone up significantly as standards have risen in the last five years.

 

The days of $1 dorms in the most popular tourist spots are over — but you could still get by during a Cambodia vacation on a bare-bones $15 a day budget plus the cash for a ticket to Angkor. A comfortable Cambodia budget would be $25 a day, and $50+ a day would allow you to live in luxury.

 

Sample costs

 

Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: $10

Street-stall meal of amok or fried rice: $1.50

French press coffee: $1

Museum or historical site admission: $5-$10

Bus ticket from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: $7

Motorbike rental per day: $5-$10 for a 100 cc bike

Three-day ticket to Angkor: $62

 

Cambodia visa requirements

 

One of the best Cambodia travel tips I can offer is don't overpay for your visa.
If you fly into Phnom Penh, getting a Cambodia visa is easy. Crossing by land is a bigger hassle.

 

Most travelers need a visa for backpacking Cambodia. You can usually get your Cambodia visa on arrival at both land borders and when arriving by air. It’s not a hassle-free process though, especially at land borders.

 

The best way to avoid the various visa bribes, overchargings, and scams is to arrange an e-visa in advance to visit Cambodia. It costs $37 total and is accepted at the main Thai and Vietnamese land borders and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports.

 

If you can’t arrange an e-visa (usually because you’re coming from Laos or flying into Sihanoukville), make sure you have a passport-sized photo (or an extra $2 to buy one) and $30 in US dollars. You can pay in Thai baht at the Thai borders, but border officials round up the price significantly. The process takes about 15 minutes.

 

You can extend tourist visas for one month for $45 in Phnom Penh (the immigration office is next to the airport). You’ll have to pay $5 per day if you overstay.

 

Accommodation in Cambodia

 

You can always find a cheap hotel in the best places to visit in Cambodia.
The beaches have some terrible cheap hostels, but they also have nice guesthouses for affordable prices.

 

You’ll find some of the cheapest dorms in the world while backpacking Cambodia. In both Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, you can get a bed for as little as $3. Elsewhere, you rarely have to pay more than $5. However, you get what you pay for — some of the bargain-basement dorm “beds” are more like a shared a large wooden platform with 15 mattresses packed in side-by-side. Pay a bit extra for something less miserable.

 

The good news is, private rooms start at about $10 in the most touristy places, and standards are much higher. You usually even get your own bathroom at that price point. The further off the beaten path you go on your Cambodia holidays, the better value for money you’ll find. Kampot still has $5 rooms.

 

If you’re flexible about where you stay, you never have to book accommodation in advance. The best places sell out early but you’ll always find an acceptable option. The one advantage to booking in advance in Siem Reap is you can arrange a bus station pickup, which will save you a lot of hassle.

 

Food in Cambodia

 

Another of my big Cambodia travel tips is, try the weird food! You might be surprised.
Khmer food is mostly noodles and rice — simple but tasty.

 

Unlike its neighbors in Thailand in Malaysia, eating isn’t one of the top things to do in Cambodia. But you can still eat well on a budget here. Vegetarians will have some difficulty, especially if you don’t eat fish — fish paste, fish sauce, and dried fish form the backbone of Khmer cuisine.

 

The two most common dishes are kyteow — a noodle soup similar to pho — and amok, which is a less-spicy coconut curry. Both are typically served with meat or fish. You can always find fried rice on the menu as well, alongside simple veggie and meat stir-fries.

 

Local markets are the cheapest place to snag a meal. Market stalls serve bowls of soup and plates of rice for around $0.50. The same dish in a restaurant costs about 4 times as much. Street stalls are another good place for cheap food, although the hawker tradition is less common in Cambodia — street vendors mostly sell snacks like fried bananas rather than meals.

 

If you can’t look at rice one more time, I have good news. Cambodia’s French colonial legacy means baguettes and baked goods are readily available. You can have breakfast at a proper bakery for around $1.

 

If you eat out of the markets during your Cambodia trip, you’ll quickly realize that the locals eat some pretty weird things — bugs, fertilized eggs with half-formed baby ducks, and pretty much every animal part imaginable. They also seem to get great entertainment value from watching Western backpackers try these strange delicacies. If you’re brave enough, it’s a fast way to make friends.

 

Drinks in Cambodia

 

The top Cambodia places to visit have western-style cafes where you can get good coffee. Off the beaten path, it can be harder.
You can get proper coffee in Cambodia due to the French influence.

 

Good news for coffee connoisseurs who have been backpacking South East Asia for awhile — Cambodia has good, real coffee! Visit a French-style cafe or bakery for a proper French press prepared with high-quality beans. If you order it with milk, it will probably be sweetened condensed milk at all but the nicest places.

 

Tea is ubiquitous in Cambodia. While you won’t find it at market stalls, most restaurants will automatically give you a free pot of very weak green tea with your meal.

 

Beer is the most common alcoholic beverage. It ranges from pretty solid microbrews to the awful draught stuff sold on the street for $0.25 a glass. Outside of touristic bars, it usually isn’t very cold — Cambodians put ice in their beer to deal with this.

 

You may also encounter rice wine when backpacking Cambodia. It ranges from weak stuff that’s very drinkable, to home-brewed moonshine that could kill you if you’re not careful. It’s polite to accept a shot if you’re offered, but don’t overdo it.

 

Activities you can do while backpacking Cambodia

 

Cambodia tourism centers around the temples of Angkor -- but there are plenty of other great Cambodia landmarks to visit too.
The Angkor temples are the most popular of the Cambodia attractions — but the country offers so much more.

 

Most people backpacking Cambodia are here to see Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure. It’s admittedly incredible. You’ll get the most out of it with a 3-day ticket. Hire a tuk tuk or rent a bicycle and explore some of the outlying temples in addition to the main attractions. Bring a guidebook like Ancient Angkor to get the most out of your visit — the site has few signs.

 

Angkor isn’t the only place with important historical artifacts. Phnom Penh is another one of the best places to visit in Cambodia. It has the country’s best museums — whether you’re interested in Khmer sculpture or trying to get acquainted with the country’s horrifying recent history. The S-21 prison museum is particularly worthwhile, if very emotional.

 

Another big draw for people backpacking Cambodia is the beaches. Sihanoukville is the most accessible, but it’s trashy and the over-the-top party culture is gross. Instead, head for the best beaches in Cambodia — those on Koh Rong or the islands around Kep.

 

The small towns of Battambang and Kampot are great places just to see local Khmer life. You can rent a motorbike (about $5 a day plus petrol) to drive to nearby temples or just sit by the river with a good book. They don’t make most lists of the top things to do in Cambodia, but they’re very relaxing places to hang out if you have time.

 

If you’re looking for more adventurous things to do in Cambodia, the wild northeast has the country’s best hiking and trekking. It’s still pretty undeveloped for tourism. Sen Monorom is the best place to organize a hill tribe trek.

 

Transportation in Cambodia

 

Wondering where to go in Cambodia? Head to Battambang to pick up a boat to Siem Reap -- and pass floating villages along the way.
Travel by boat to see the floating villages in rural areas.

 

Buses are the primary way to travel when backpacking Cambodia. They’re less luxurious than in neighboring countries, but they’re functional and efficient. You can buy tickets at the bus station on the day you travel, or a couple days in advance from ticket offices in town. Tickets cost about $1 per hour.

 

One annoying quirk of Cambodian transportation is if you’re getting off mid-route, you’ll still have to pay the full fare. If you get on mid-route you may get a discount. You can’t just flag a long-distance bus from anywhere — you have to buy a ticket from a bus station.

 

Boat travel is also popular when backpacking Cambodia. The most common trip is the riverboat from Battambang to Siem Reap (or vice-versa). It costs $20 and takes all day, drifting through small villages and past floating markets. You can also cross the border into Vietnam by boat.

 

Many backpackers rent motorbikes in Cambodia. It’s a great country to try this out in, since the roads have very little traffic and most major attractions are well outside the centers of towns. Just remember that your travel insurance may not cover you if you don’t have a motorcycle license back home.

 

If you’re not comfortable driving a motorbike, try a bicycle — cover your mouth and nose with a bandana to cope with the dust and smog. Alternatively, hire someone to drive you around on their motorbike, like a two-wheeled taxi. If you’ve never done it before, trust me, it’s great fun — and the drivers are less reckless than in neighboring countries.

 

Safety while backpacking Cambodia

 

Is Cambodia safe? Mostly. Just be careful alone at night and watch out for UXO.
Cambodia is generally a very safe country. The biggest hassle is kids selling postcards.

 

Backpacking Cambodia is safe, and the hassle factor is lower than in neighboring countries.

 

Cambodia is a very poor country with a tragic political history that is still all too recent. You will encounter beggars, many of whom are amputees. (The Khmer Rouge would lop off peoples’ arms and legs for sport.) It’s up to you whether to give them money or food. But remember that many of them are truly desperate, so don’t be rude.

 

Robbers occasionally target tourists. Don’t flash your valuables around or walk/cycle/ride a motorbike in isolated areas late at night. On the beach, keep the alcohol consumption under control — drunkenness makes you an obvious target.

 

The kids selling postcards in the Angkor complex can be incessant and get on many travelers’ nerves. Don’t take it out on them, no matter how hot and tired you are. Sometimes a desperate glance at their adult guardian is enough to rein them in. You’ll face more hassle if you’re on a bike or on foot than if you have a tuk tuk or moto driver to ward them off.

 

One of the most important Cambodia travel tips to be aware of is the country is still covered with unexploded ordinance (UXO) from the American bombing campaign during the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge-era conflicts. Never, ever venture off worn trails without a guide, and don’t pick up anything from the ground or in waterways in rural areas.

 

Crossing the border at Poi Pet

 

The border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia at Poi Pet is one of the busiest in Southeast Asia. It also sees a greater proportion of tourists than most. So it deserves special mention as a scam-ridden, expensive nightmare. It’s the single biggest hassle you’ll face when backpacking Cambodia.

 

There are some unavoidable scams in Poi Pet. Onward transport is controlled by a local cartel. There is only one non-cartel bus a day that leaves at 6 am, so unless you’re prepared to spend the night in Poi Pet, you’ll have to deal with their overcharging. But if you know how much things should cost in advance, you’ll be well-armed to avoid the worst.

 

On the Thai side of the border, you’ll be approached by “helpers” who will tell you you can’t get your visa at the immigration office — you need them to arrange it for you. This is not true. You will also be approached by money changers who say you need to change all your money to Cambodian Riels. This is also not true. You can pay for your visa in baht or U.S. dollars.

 

If you stay in line, you’ll leave Thailand, walk a short ways, and get to the Cambodian immigration office. Again, people will try to convince you you can’t buy a visa there. This is no more true than it was before. Stay firm, pay your $30 visa fee, refuse to pay any other fees they ask for, and collect your visa. Don’t give your passport to anyone other than an immigration official.

 

Visa in hand, you can now enter Cambodia. You will immediately be approached by the transportation cartel, which will whisk you to their office. This is your only option unless you want to find a hotel for the night and take the 6 am bus to Siem Reap ($5) in the morning.

 

The bus cartel’s office has outrageous prices posted for onward buses to the major Cambodia places to visit. This is, unfortunately, what you will pay. The best deal is to go to Battambang for $10 (where you can change to a Siem Reap-bound local bus if you really want to get through in one day). There are not many buses, so if there are at least four of you, you can hire a share taxi leaving immediately for the same price.

 

The cartel will make you change your money into Cambodian riel to buy the ticket — they are the only outfit in Cambodia that does not accept U.S. dollars. They’ll give you an absurd exchange rate. Don’t exchange any more than exactly what you need for your bus ticket, no matter how many times they tell you that you’ll need riel elsewhere in Cambodia.

 

Once you’re on your transportation, things go much more smoothly. The share taxis are Thai left-drives operating on Cambodian right-drive roads, which is a little harrowing. They’ll drop you at an expensive hotel where they get commission at your destination, but you’re free to go wherever you like from there.

 

Don’t worry — the rest of the time you travel Cambodia won’t be this much of a pain!

 

Cambodia travel advice for women alone

 

Most things to see in Cambodia are totally safe for solo women. Just be careful in isolated areas, including remote corners of the Angkor complex.
Solo women should be careful when venturing to very remote temples.

 

Backpacking Cambodia is mostly safe and hassle-free as a solo woman. You may experience minor street harassment.

 

Be cautious when venturing to remote temples in the Angkor complex alone. You should be fine on the main circuits, but some temples dozens of kilometers away have seen guards sexually assault tourists.

 

It’s easy to meet other travelers when backpacking Cambodia. The country attracts a concentration of young, party-focused backpackers, especially in Sihanoukville. If that’s what you came for, dive in. Otherwise, staying at local guesthouses rather than super-cheap hostels can help you avoid it. I got more hassle from drunk backpackers than from Khmer men.

 

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Plan your Cambodia travel now! This backpacking Cambodia travel guide will prepare you for the top Cambodia attractions, what to eat in Cambodia, and how to add Cambodia to a long Southeast Asia trip. #travel #cambodia #southeastasia