CAMBODIA – a complete travel guide

“…now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need my son:
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack…”

This is an excerpt from the song “Holiday in Cambodia” by the US band “The Dead Kennedys”. They were a punk band, hence the lyrics are meant to grate on you in their very cynical way.

And as a matter of fact, Cambodia has always been a synonym for murder and destruction and by no means a holiday destination; apart from Angkor, Asia’s most important sanctuary, that has been a World Heritage Cultural site since 1992.

Two monks admiring the model of Angkor Wat at the Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot at Phnom Penh
Also, monks were prosecuted during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Only when my friend Philippe told me about his plans of travelling to Cambodia, I took into consideration that it might be an interesting destination and a country worth exploring. I decided following his example.

Cambodia’s Colonial Past

Cambodia has a population of about 16 million people and a size of 181.000 square kilometers. In general, Cambodia has a Monsoon climate with December being the coolest month.

Until 1953, the country was – together with Laos and Vietnam – part of the French colony Indochina. This certainly triggered the political development in the 20th century and lead to the seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

visitors taking selfies at Prince Norodom Sihanouk's Statue.
Today, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Statue is a popular background for selfie-taking visitors to Phnom Penh.

In 1953, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. During the Vietnam war, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality. However, over the Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail and the eastern support bases, the war finally spread into Cambodia. First, the US army bombed only the eastern region. Since according to the US government, Sihanouk did not oppose enough to the Việt cộng, in 1970, they disempowered Cambodia’s government and replaced it by General Lon Nol.

Dancers Angkor Wat
While Angkor Wat was always an admired historical and cultural site, the rest of the country was considered a graveyard filled with the victims of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Four years, this pushed the country back into the Stone Age.

He became president in 1972, supported by South Vietnamese and American troops. This lead to a civil war – comparable to the one in Vietnam.

Four Years for Total Destruction

Initially, many people were even relieved. When the Red Khmer conquered Phnom Penh in 1975, they were hoping for a peaceful tomorrow with no foreign hegemony .

Well, this relief didn’t last since the Red Khmer under guidance of Pol Pot immediately started their reign of horror. His thugs chased people from the cities to the countryside where they had to do forced labor in the fields. Howbeit, they had next to nothing to eat since the Red Khmer shipped the major part of the crop to China in exchange for weapons and ammunition.
They killed everybody who they considered being middle or upper class or educated in whatever sense. The Red Khmer executed people for crimes such as speaking a foreign language or for wearing glasses.

Over time, Pol Pot became more and more paranoid which more and more people paid with their life. During the four years of the Red Khmer terror, almost one-third of Cambodia’s population was murdered or starved.

Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese army liberated Cambodia from that reign of terror.

Today Cambodia is a Constitutional Monarchy, King is Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving prime minister; not judging, just sayin’.

Preparation

How to Get There

Only if you are coming from one of Cambodia’s neighboring countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, you’ll enter the country by bus. The border posts are at Poi Pet on the Cambodian side respectively Aranyaprathet in Thailand and Bavet in Cambodia when crossing to Moc Bai in Vietnam. You read many nerve-wracking stories about crossing these borders, scams included. I believe them all. To be at least a bit prepared, check on my World’s Most Complete Travel Info-Page which visa regulations apply for your nationality.

However, coming from other countries, you’ll probably fly into Cambodia. International airports are in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and, of course, at the capital Phnom Penh.

The Phnom Penh International Airport has a really good website. There, you find all the options on how to get downtown – from the public bus to a fancy rental car.

I try to be very reasonable or even cheap when travelling. Having said that, after a long, exhausting flight, I avoided venturing around and had my hotel sending a driver. I probably paid far too much – as very often in Cambodia, though – but got to my room safe and secure.

How to Get Around

Like in most poor countries – and Cambodia seemed to be one of the poorest countries I’ve ever visited – the public transportation is excellent, however, not fancy.

Obviously, you can fly between the three above-mentioned airports which is not exactly cheap.

Certain routes can be travelled by ferries – not only serving the islands such as Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. You can also go up and down the mighty Mekong.

The most popular means of transportation, however, are buses. Mind you, they come in extremely different qualities. You can join Cambodians taking the regular buses, although I wouldn’t recommend that. Why not? Well, read on my experience how I got from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and you’ll understand.

But don’t you worry, there are enough companies who cater to us spoilt Westeners offering reliable service with clean and comfortable buses.

Where to Stay

There is a wide range of good, clean hotels all over Cambodia. However, accommodation is more expensive than in Thailand or Vietnam. According to my experience, it doesn’t make a big difference if you book through a portal or just walk in.

Room in Kampot
Small but clean’n’cozy: My room in Kampot.

Here you can have a look at what booking has in store – they mostly have the best prices*

Booking.com

Where to Eat

Easy answer: At one of the many good, relatively reasonably priced restaurants. Especially in more touristy places such as Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, there are also options to take a break from Asian cuisine and have some Western food at one of an ex-pat’s restaurant.

Anyway, I’d love to recommend some places where, by eating some of the most amazing, inventive dishes, you are also charitable. The TREE Alliance restaurants are places where students – often from underprivileged families – do their professional training in gastronomy and hospitality.

Sandan Restaurant
The lovely, talented staff of Sandan Restaurant.

At the affiliated restaurants, they serve you excellent, artistic cuisine. Also, they treat you like a Royal since they have to learn perfect hospitality, after all. So you are a – very privileged – guinea pig for the cooks’n’waiters. And your money is reinvested into the training as well as partner NGOs. Feasting for a good cause – what’s not to like?!

Sandan Restaurant Salad
A real treat: Seafood salad with lotus root, banana flower, local herbs, and chili lime dressing – yes, it was at least as good as it looks!

There are seven restaurants, four of them in Cambodia. You can dine at Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng in Phnom Penh, Marum in Siem Reap, and Sandan in Sihanoukville.

Do yourself and those kids a favor and have at least one meal there.

Cash And Cards

Although there is a national currency, the Riel (KHR), mostly prices are quoted in US Dollars. At the ATMs, one can choose between Dollars and Riel, but actually it doesn’t make really sense to get Riel since everything is priced in US Dollars. Only if you pay let’s say 4,50, they give you change for the 50 cents in Riel (2000 KHR).
The current rate – as per January 2020 – is 1 USD = 4,05 KHR, but everybody converts 1:4. You can check the current rate on this page.

Language

Writing in Khmer on a Temple Wall in Phnom Penh
Khmer writing on the wall.

Cambodian people speak Khmer, many pretty basic English. All relevant signs are written in Latin letters.

Communication and Connection

There is a decent internet connection in most places.

The voltage is 230 V at a frequency of 50 Hz and they use sockets A, C, and G.

In the respective section of my World’s Most Complete Travel Information, you’ll find these and many more information for every country around the planet.

Places to See

 

Map

of the route I travelled

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45 Replies to “CAMBODIA – a complete travel guide”

  1. I'd love to go to Cambodia some day! I didn't realize they had 16 million people living there. I definitely thought it was smaller than that.

  2. We just been to Cambodia and have very mixed feelings about it. Some of the things were amazing while others … I agree with you that 2 days is definitely enough time in Phnom Penh. Kampot was our favourite place and instead of 5 days, we ended up staying 10 days there 😀 The tip with the USD is a good one. It's not really worth it to get Riel, you get them anyway as change 🙂

    1. Yes, my favorite destinations were Kampot and Kep – just the right mix of Cambodia and tourism. Let's see how things go on there….Have a great New Year with lots of inspiring travels, Thomas!

  3. Cambodia has a tragic past. Several sites were forgotten and neglected during this tumultuous past. For the last couple of decades they have opened up, I am so glad about that. I visited Siem Reap and really enjoyed the old temples. Hope I can make it to other cities of Cambodia some day.

  4. It's been a few years since my trip to Cambodia, and I only visited Siem Reap. I would love to visit their islands too! I'm just curious, why do you recommend skipping Koh Rong Samloem?

    1. Siem Reap is quite different from the rest of the country since there are sooo many tourists.

      Like I wrote, to my experience it depends rather on which beach you stay on Koh Rong or Samloem than on the island: Koh Rong has fantastic, deserted beaches e. g. on the western shores, the main part is said to be a dirty dump. So is Saracen beach on Samloem. Unfortunately due to terrible weather conditions I didn't have the chance to visit the nice beaches on Samloem (the boats and ferries couldn't go there since it was too dangerous so I got stuck on Saracen beach).
      This is a very personal, individual experience and opinion and I'm sure many people will disagree. The best way to find out is to go there 😉
      Happy travels, Aleah!

  5. Cambodia is a country I would love to visit, but yes, it has a very tragic history and a lot of bloodshed in its past. My sister spent 3 months volunteering in an orphanage in Phnom Penh, and visited a lot of the country in her time off. She said it was both a sobering (re the memorials dedicated to war) but exceptional (re the world heritage and the natural wonders) experience.

    1. I totally agree with your sister. Like Thomas commented above, I think if your not oblivious to human kind, it touches and affects you on various levels.

      Anyway, it's fantastic that your sister did this volunteering job – I imagine it must be heartbreaking and a real challenge for us 'pampered' Westeners!?

  6. I would really love to visit Cambodia someday. I have to say, I thought that poem was going in a different direction:) Thanks for sharing your itinerary. It makes planning future trips so much easier.

    1. Well, Jennifer, it's a punk song and from the early 80s when Cambodia was still quite god forsaken, so… Happy travels – and a wonderful year 2018!

  7. I loved Cambodia! I've been three times. I also love how as an American the dollar was used so much. I would love to go back again and explore more of the country. I've seen a lot but I know there's more to see.

    1. I've heard from people who were there before that it had changed a lot – particularly the touristy regions, of course. So I hope you won't be disappointed when you go back. However, happy travels, Nathan.

  8. Ahhh this is so informative!!! I really enjoyed reading it (despite the dark history) and can't wait to visit someday to experience the historic remnants in person. If only I had 3 weeks of vacation though. I only get 10 days of paid vacations a year at work, otherwise I'd for sure take up on your recommendation for the day/destination allocations!

    1. Well, Jas, I won't tell you how many weeks I have per year, holding a full time job. You might think about relocating to Europe 😉 However, very happy – even short – travels!

  9. Ever notice that the former French colonies seem to have the worst social issues? From West Africa to Asia, many of their colonies have had major issues. I am fascinated by the history in Cambodia between Pot and the temples. I would love to spend a couple weeks tracing the history and exploring the country.

    1. Regarding Africa, I'm not sure if the former French colonies are worse than let's say Portuguese and even British. In Asia it's true, they messed up former 'Indochine' big time and let it shattered and vulnerable to civil wars.

  10. Thank you for the sneak peak into the brutal history of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. I read several books about this before I went to Cambodia four years ago. Anyway, I love that your posts are based on personal experiences. We need more writing like this – pregnant with storytelling and personal pursuits.

    1. Thank you so much, Rye, that's a wonderful, very encouraging compliment! It's good to get this sort of feed back from time to time – I often wonder what others really like to read. I wish you a wonderful New Year and many inspiring trips!

  11. I want to visit Cambodia so bad. I'm so intrigued by the history, would love to spend at least a week exploring. Thanks for all of this information and your personal recommendations!

  12. Some great advice here for visiting Cambodia! It's interesting to know it used to mean murder and destruction, the history is very interesting indeed. Your trip seems to have been fantastic though, I will certainly save this for when I go to Cambodia!

  13. Really great informative post, you've included so much information which is so useful, especially as Cambodia isn't a place I know much about. A friend of mine visited Cambodia and it is still one of her favourite places to date! Nikki x

    http://www.thoselittlemoments.net

  14. So jealous of your Cambodian travels. It has always been a dream of mine to go there. Perhaps one day!

  15. Great post! I have never been to Cambodia, but I'm going to add it to my never-ending bucket list.

    1. Same here. Just because I can cross Cambodia out, doesn't mean my list is getting any shorter…anyway: happy travels, Leelo!

  16. 'A holiday in Cambodia
    Where you'll kiss ass or crack…' those lyrics did make me laugh but having watched a documentary about Cambodia and its past it saddens me how much of tthe population was killed or starved. I believe there is even a skull cave which shows how they couldn't even bury some of the bodies that is how many people were murdered!

    1. Being a punk band, the Dead Kennedys used strong, cynical lyrics to describe the horror taking place in Cambodia during the Red Khmer regime. One third of the population was murdered or starved.

      As I wrote in my 'diary entry' on Phnom Penh and then repeated, the memorial sites are still so horrific that I didn't want to describe them as a tourist "attraction" and especially not posting pictures of skulls. There is a Stupa full of skulls and bones, some still have the rags on them which blindfolded the victims, some of the bones have handcuffs. I felt that if I post a picture of it, it will be sort of sensation mongering – like 'wow, look how horrible this is'. I didn't take any pictures of these things since I felt it wouldn't do the victims justice to be presented in a rather touristy article.
      My articles are rather entertaining which makes it difficult to deal with these things in an appropriate fashion.

  17. Your so brave. My husband jokes that because I am of Mexican descent, I can only travel in groups, but I love traveling with friends and family. I love your photos. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

    1. Solo travel is not for everybody. Group travel isn't either. It's great that we are all different and enjoy different ways of travelling – and living, for that matter. From time to time I have the pleasure to travel with my (adult) daughter which is nice, too. I like both – it especially depends on the destination and the activities. However, muy feliz viajes, Stephanie, y prospero ano nuevo!

  18. l would love to explore the whole if Cambodia and that is very cool that you did especially on your own as a female. l definitely want to add Phanom Penh to my bucketlist when l am there and the beach at Koh Rong

  19. Cambodia is such a beautiful place! Would love to visit it in the future. Good to know that they accept USD because here in the PH, you'll have to convert currency if you're coming from abroad.

  20. I didn't know so much about Cambodia so I found this post very informative and interesting! Would love to visit someday. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  21. I've yet to venture to that side of the world, but Cambodia looks and sounds AMAZING! It's also encouraging to see a fellow female solo traveller doing a destination like this 🙂 x

    1. Until now I didn't have any major trouble being a solo female traveller anywhere in the world. Parts of Malaysia (the East coast) were a bit unpleasant since they are pretty strict muslims and even though I am not walking around half naked I felt 'disregarded' at times, I noticed that people were talking about me – and not in a curious let alone nice way….Other than that – no problem.

  22. I really love how informative your posts are 🙂 it makes it sound even more enticing! I feel like, thanks to your posts, my bucket list of places to visit is growing drastically! 🙂 xx

    1. Thank you, Veronica, it makes me very happy that all the work I put into my posts is being appreciated 💗

  23. I really didn't know what to expect when I traveled through Cambodia, I had fallen in love with Laos, I didn't have the best of times in Vietnam (I know, I seem to be the only one that didn't) so with Cambodia I just didn't know how it would treat me – I loved it! – you can feel the rich history as soon as you cross the border, we actually went to the killing fields and wow I have never been moved so much, and the Cambodian people are so friendly considering what they have been through. This is a great post on educating your readers of it's history, and I think it's important people understand the history of Cambodia before they go. – tweeting this post too 😀

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate it. Well, of course the history is horrible – and I cannot really judge how far it still has an impact on today's Cambodia; mind you, it happend fourty years ago, that's almost two generations; I really don't know in how far the country is still suffering from that rapture. However, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries I've been to – if not the poorest one. Yes, people are very friendly, but nowhere have I been screwed over so often and so ruthlessly. Mixed feelings. Compared to Viet Nam….from my impression, communism in Viet Nam did build up, communism in Cambodia only destroyed.
      I think you and me both are people who observe and think when travelling – I like that a lot!

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