CAMBODIA: TRAVEL GUIDE
Cambodia, a country that is a little rough around the edges but a place with so much heart, delicious food, humble and welcoming people and so much more. Cambodia is often overlooked when it comes to South East Asia, but this country is packed full of things to do and ever changing scenery just waiting to be discovered.
I travelled through Cambodia with G Adventures, going overland from Bangkok, Thailand and ending in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. The whole trip in total was 10 days and gave a great taster for the country. G Adventures is a travel tour company aimed towards 18 to 30 somethings who are wanting adventure, culture and a good time all wrapped up into one. As someone who has previously dabbled in group travel, I do really enjoy the insider perspective you get when travelling with a tour company, and G provided just that. Our tour leader Tong was absolutely amazing and really cared about showing us the real side of Cambodia, which is something unforgettable and made the 10 days feel really special.
Cambodian Riel & US Dollars
Cambodia have their own currency, the Riel, however like Vietnam and Thailand, a lot of places also accept and trade in USD. I thought Cambodia was a lot more frequent when it came to trading in USD and you can expect to be told prices in US dollars and given change in a mix of riel and USD. I was also shocked to discover that some retailers don't even accept Riel, so its best to have a mix of currency and a good understanding of the exchange rates. When I visited the exchange was $1 USD to 4 Riel (roughly).
Cambodia is definitely an affordable country, however not as cheap as somewhere like Vietnam or Thailand, especially since they ask for prices in USD. The majority of costs were covered during the tour including accommodation, most day activities, breakfasts and a couple of lunches/dinners. When travelling Cambodia you can expect to pay around £20 - £35 per day, and that would cover everything you need including accommodation.
For reference typically hostels cost between £3 - £10 a night, a meal is between £2 - £8 and a drink on a night out is around £3 - £5.
TRAVELLING OVERLAND IN AND OUT OF CAMBODIA
During my trip I travelled overland from Bangkok into Cambodia and left Cambodia overland to travel into Vietnam. Overland border crossings can be a little complicated and not as straight forward as flying, so being adequately prepared is important. Entering Cambodia from Thailand can take some time so the best way to get through quickly is to get an E-Visa, which takes a few days/weeks to arrive. The E-Visa costs $36 USD and you can buy the visa here.
If you don't have enough time to get an online visa you can also do it at the border, but the line can often be long and slow. With the G Adventures group our tour guide organised visas on arrival pre arriving at the border during the drive for anyone who didn't already have an e-visa, which meant we already had the visa in our passports ready to cross the border (definitely a perk to having a local with you to help you out). Even with everyone already having a visa going through the border crossing, the process still took over an hour.
Crossing from Cambodia into Vietnam was a lot more questionable and you definitely have to be aware of the Vietnam side of the crossing. Leaving Cambodia was no problem, however when trying to enter Vietnam the officers often ask for a bribe (a small amount of cash) before they actually let you enter the country. Unfortunately there is not a lot you can do other than pay them, even if you have paid for a visa. Usually they only ask for around $2 - $5, but sometimes it can be more (you can pay in Cambodian Riel, Vietnamese Dong or USD).
Entering Vietnam for under 15 days is fine Visa free for a lot of countries, including the UK (you can check out the list here). However if you plan on staying any longer you do need to have an e-visa before arriving at the border, this can take a few days or weeks to arrive in your inbox, so make sure you plan accordingly! The standard tourist visa is a single entry, 30 days visa which costs $22 USD as the standard - you can apply for the visa here.
Bus is definitely the easiest way to get around in Cambodia and this was the tour's main form of transport. It's important to note that the main attractions in the country are quite spread out, so you can expect to spend at least 5 - 7 hours on transport to get to your next destination. Another alternative is to fly, and domestic flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are very affordable and takes less than an hour.
Travelling with G Adventures made Cambodia feel very safe, and it's a part of the reason why I enjoyed the country so much. I feel like travelling solo is Cambodia is more than doable, however in some areas like Phnom Pehn you do have to be extra careful with things like bag snatching and pick pocketing. Cambodians are friendly people and will definitely go out of their way to help you when you need, just make sure you are vigilant, like you would be anywhere else in the world!
WHERE TO STAY
During my time with G Adventures we stayed in hotels, which I'll link here for you. If you're looking for a great hostel recommendation, I've heard great things about Mad Monkey, which has locations in Siem Reap, Phnom Pehn, Koh Rong Samloen and Bangkok.
Bangkok - W22 by Burasari
Siem Reap - Sovann Angkor II Hotel
Phnom Penh - Angkor International Hotel
Koh Rong - Palm Beach Bungalow Resort
Chambok Homestay - Exclusive to G Adventures
Ho Chi Minh - Phan Anh Backpackers
MY THOUGHTS ON GROUP TRAVEL
As someone who predominantly solo travels, doing a group trip was a nice change of pace compared to usual and I really enjoyed what G Adventures had to offer. Cambodia is definitely a country you need to be a little bit more confident in when it comes to travelling as it can be a little harder to navigate compared to other South East Asian countries, so it was nice to have everything taken care of during the trip.
If you're unfamiliar with group travel, what is covered in the cost of the group trip is as follows: accommodation, transport, and some meals & activities.
I've previously done other group trips and I was curious to see how G Adventures compared to the others. There were so many things I loved about travelling with G, some of the most notable things were: the activities. I loved how differing they were and each day was so different. Whether it was quad biking, hiking, visiting temples, we got such a great range of options that catered to everyone. Second thing I loved was how community orientated the tour felt. We got to experience the real country with a guide who was local, he shared his personal stories and I felt like I got so much more out of the trip. Speaking of our guide, Tong, our tour leader, was absolutely amazing and he really made the trip special. As someone who has done a lot of group trips I can tell you from experience, a tour leader can make or break the vibe of the trip.
When you think of Cambodia most likely the first thing that is going to pop into mind is the scenes of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is located in Siem Reap and is the largest religious complex in the world and has become the symbol of Cambodia. The temple originally was built as a Hindu temple, but later was changed to a Buddhist temple towards the late 12th century, and now you can see a beautiful mix of architecture styles.
The iconic thing to do at Angkor Wat is get up for sunrise to watch the sun beam over the towers of the temple. Of course doing this you can expect to be up early, I was awake at 3:30am to be exact. Before heading to the temple you first have to get your visitors pass, which costs $37 USD... which is pretty expensive. You have to take a photo and they print off an ID of sorts for you to keep during your visit that allows you to visit the temples throughout the temple complex.
Unfortunately we witnessed a super overcast sunrise, however you could still stand in awe at the grandness of the structure and the intricate architecture. We got a detailed tour through the temple
The area of Angkor doesn't just consist of Angkor Wat, there are dozens of other temples, large and small, which are also a part of the religious complex that you can visit. Some are completely overgrown by jungle, in ruins and a large part are unexcavated. The other two temples we visited were Ta Phrom, which became famous after featuring in the movie 'Tomb Raider' and Angkor Thom.
You could easily spend a full day walking around and exploring the different sites, there are also little food vendors, market stalls and souvenir shops, so you can pick up anything you need during your day trip.
SIEM REAP QUAD BIKING
By far one of the best experiences I've ever done, I genuinely could not stop smiling for the entire time. Imagine this: Cambodian countryside, downpours of rain, mud, and 450 CC quads. In my opinion the rain made the experience a whole lot better, and by the end I was covered head to toe in mud.
The quad excursion takes you through the countryside where you can see local houses, cattle, little kids playing and more. We stopped in a huge field where we got the opportunity to have a free for all on the quads. You best believe there were quads smoking from the water, people getting stuck in the mud, and the instructors doing circles around us on their quads/motorbikes.
If you want to have a look at the company we did the quad bikes with you can check out their website here.
Pub Street is a famous strip in the heart of Siem Reap where you can find plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs open till the early hours of the morning. It comes alive in the evening and I heard that pre COVID, it was pretty crazy. Unfortunately when I went it felt a little bit like a ghost town due to the lack of backpackers and travellers, but the perk of being in a group setting is... we make our own party.
Never the less when you're in Siem Reap it's definitely worth a visit for a drink or two and maybe a little dance, I hope it returns to how it once was a few years ago!
KILLING FIELDS AND S21
Cambodia has a very devastating and dark history that only ended in 1998, and it's something that can be seen throughout the country, including the our tour leader having lost a large part of his family to the regime. For anyone who is unfamiliar, Cambodia was subject to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge for decades, and 1 out of the 4 million people were killed during this time. The Khmer Rouge was a government that separated families and enforced communism, all while the outside world had no idea what was going on.
The Khmer people (Cambodians) were sent to camps, where they were forced to harvest the land, or sent to prison for 'crimes' such as defying the government, being well educated, and so on. There were hundreds of 'Killing Fields' that were created across the country, where locals would be taken during the night and shot or tortured. These places are some of the remains from the regime and you can visit one of the largest Killing Field and S21 (Security Prison 21), just outside of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.
As you can imagine when you visit, it's an incredibly somber and hard topic to fathom, especially since it took place so recently. Walking through the Killing Fields you can see teeth, clothes, bones and the excavated graves, although the majority of it has been left to rest. There is also a temple full of skulls of the victims where you can pay your respects by placing a flower or insense at the door before entering.
S21 is an old school that was converted during the Khmer Rouge and still has a lot of the torture equipment they used, as well as photos of all the victims that were murdered. Out of the estimated 20,000 people who were imprisioned there, only 7 survived, and you actually get the opportunity to meet the final two men who are still alive. Bou Meng and Chum Manh were two of the final survivors and visit the prison a few times a week. You can meet them, take photos (they encourage it) and they have each written books that you can purchase in a number of languages.
The whole experience was something I will never forget, and to really understand Cambodia and how far its come since the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1998, I think it's super important to visit these sites. Please remember to go with respect and I recommend paying for a tour guide to learn and understand the magnitude of what happened to this beautiful country.
The price of tickets for the Killing Fields is $6 USD and $5 USD for S21.
If you're interesting in learning a little more about this period of history I definitely recommend watching 'First They Killed my Father' on Netflix.
PHNOM PENH BOAT TRIP
I wasn't sure what to expect from Cambodia's capital, however I was pleasantly surprised. Slightly chaotic, with aromatic smells of spices, durian and the odd wiff of warm meat from the markets, this capital felt lively and interesting. On the first evening in Phnom Penh the group embarked on a boat cruise along the river. This is definitely one of the best ways to see the city skyline, with the mix of modern sky scrapers and small villages on the riverbanks.
Our boat also provided Cambodian snacks, soft drinks and beers to enjoy for the ride, which was lovely to enjoy as we watched the sun set across the city.
Muay Thai (not to be confused with the popular drink, Mai Tai) is a Cambodian favourite across the country. This martial art remains incredibly popular for a lot of South East Asian countries and we got the opportunity to watch a fight in Cambodia's capital. The sport allows hits from the fists, elbows, knees and shins, and you can see the amazing skill that goes into these fighters.
Even if you're not particularly interested in fighting, the Cambodian's make it into a big event, including a mid time show from a performer.
PHNOM PENH NIGHT MARKET
Across Asia you can find plenty of markets that host a variety of different stalls, ranging from 'tame' purchases, like fake designer products, to the more obscure (to English people, including me) options - including, but not limited to: pigs faces and eggs with cooked foetuses inside. Night markets are super popular due to the intense heat and humidity during the day time, so it's nice to be able to explore during the cooler evening.
Phnom Penh's night market is definitely a must visit when in Cambodia and it hosts a range of stalls including clothes and food. One of the most popular food options is to make your own noodle dish with the range of ingredients displayed in front of you. The food is all fresh, tasty and cheap, so perfect for all backpackers who want to see the real side of the country and enjoy the local cuisine! If you still have room after dinner you have to try out the coconut ice cream stall... absolutely amazing, especially on those humid nights!
When you think of Cambodia, islands aren't the first thing you think of. Koh Rong is a small island a few hours off the south coast of Cambodia's mainland and is a slice of paradise hidden away. This was arguably my favourite stop on the trip and it was the perfect opportunity to stop and relax.
To get to Koh Rong we got the ferry from the town of Preah Sihanouk. From there it's around 2 - 2 and a half hours by boat, weather dependent. Our accommodation was secluded from the rest of the island and during our stay it was only our group that were staying, which means we got to enjoy it all for ourselves. We were staying in small bungalows, each with their own little bathroom. The hotel also had plenty of deck chairs, volleyball net, and a small bar with a pool table where they served 3 meals a day.
We only had one full day on the island but we ensured that it was jam packed with activities. In the morning we embarked on a hike through the jungle in search of ta dak waterfall, which is tucked away in the heart of the island. This is one of my favourite activites from the whole trip and it was a great way to see a little more of the island.
In the afternoon there was a boat trip with some of the locals. We had a go at fishing (I wasn't particularly good at it), then while the boys working on the boat cooked what we had caught we swam, played throwbacks and got to enjoy the views of the island while the sun set.
We only had one full day on the island but there is plenty to do. The water is unbelievably warm, kind of like a warm bath.
For the final stop in Cambodia we spent the night at a local homestay. The homestay was a few hours south of Phnom Penh in a small town called Chambok. Chambok was a typical Cambodian town tucked away in the jungle, with houses built on stilts to avoid flooding and unexpected visitors (scorpions, snakes, and things of that sort), and mattresses on the floor with much needed mosquito nets.
The whole experience was so insightful and was a personal highlight from the trip. Our overnight stay really included a lot: walking through the countryside, meeting locals, riding on tractors, trying homemade durian ice cream, exploring the outskirts of the town (also where another Killing Field used to be, and enjoying a traditional Cambodian dinner at the community centre. It was a really beautiful way to end the trip and you can really see how much it meant to not only our tour leader Tong, but to the local families, how special it was to share their life with us.
NEED A MAP OF WHERE I WENT?
HERE YOU GO!