Cambodia was the second country I visited during my big backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, and I ended up spending a whole month there. It was a slow-paced month of travel and I managed to cover 4 different destinations: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville. Not every destination was a hit and there were a few travel hiccups along the way, but for anyone planning a similar journey, here’s a look at how I structured my month in Cambodia:
Phnom Penh was not my favourite city, however, I do think it’s an important place to visit as it offers a window into Cambodian history and the atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and under Pol Pot’s leadership they carried out a genocide against their own people. Our guide explained that there are no exact figures yet, but it’s estimated that anywhere between one fourth to one third of Cambodia’s entire population was brutally murdered. This becomes a sobering number when you realize that nearly every person you will meet in Cambodia lost family to this regime.
My time in the Cambodian capital started by hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the city. Stops included Choeung Ek (a former orchard turned killing field by the Khmer Rouge), and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former school turned prison and torture centre). It was a sad travel day, but I think it’s important to have days like these were you learn about a place’s history no matter how sad it may be.
This is not to say that my entire visit to Phnom Penh was somber. There are many other places to visit around the city including the Royal Palace which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia, the National Museum which houses the world’s largest collection of Khmer art, and the Independence Monument which is the setting for parades and celebrations. And if you enjoy wandering around on foot you can also peruse the Central Market (Psah Thom Thmey) which is always buzzing with activity and has great deals to be had.
Where to stay: A lot of the backpacker-friendly accommodations are located around what was once Boeung Kak Lake, while the area around Tonle Sap River caters more to flashpackers with slightly more upscale properties. You can browse accommodations in Phnom Penh here.
One thing draws people out to Siem Reap and that is Angkor Archaeological Park. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Southeast Asia and it holds the ruins of the former capitals of the Khmer Empire which stretched from the 9th to the 15th centuries. If you’re planning to do a little temple-hopping while you’re here, I would recommend going with the 3-day pass – less than that and you may not get your fix, but more than that and all the temples will start looking the same.
There are many options for getting around the temples of Angkor. You can rent a bicycle, hop on a scooter, or even hire a driver to take you around in a tuk-tuk. You can often arrange for a tuk-tuk driver directly through your guesthouse, so that’s what I did. Our driver was very flexible in terms of his schedule, so we started our days before the sun was up and were usually done by 10 in the morning to escape the heat! Rates were around $10 USD per day, though like I mentioned, we usually only lasted a few hours.
My temple hopping days included visits to well known temples like Angkor Wat, Bayon (the one with the faces), and Ta Prohm (the one were Tomb Raider was filmed), as well as lesser known temples like Banteay Srei (the pink sandstone temple) and Preah Khan (where the jungle is slowly trying to take over).
And let’s not forget about the sunrise; even if you’re not an early bird it’s worth getting out of bed early to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat! You will be no means be the only person there – hundreds congregate by the water to the left of the temple – but it’s a spectacular show of nature nonetheless.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Ta Som Guest House which was located en route to the temples of Angkor, about a 15 minute walk to the centre of town. What I liked about this property is that the staff were extremely helpful and kind, and they helped arrange everything from tours to transportation. They prepared a delicious breakfast consisting of omelet and fresh fruits in the morning, and they always greeted us with a smile.
Of course there’s plenty to do in Siem Reap aside from visiting temples. For a leisurely way to explore the town, you can hire a bicycle and ride the length of the river until you find yourself in the outskirts of Siem Reap. You’ll bike past residential areas where women are cooking outside their homes and children are playing in the river. It’s a nice way to see how daily life unfolds.
If you’re looking to relax a bit while you’re in town, there are plenty of places to get pampered including Doctor Fish spas where little fish nibble away at the dead skin on your feet, and more mainstream spas where you can get a foot massage or a shoulder rub.
And then you have the Angkor Night Market which is a favourite with travellers. This market may not be very different from all the other markets you’ll encounter in SE Asia, but it’s a good place to do a little shopping and pick up some souvenirs for friends and family back home. Hippie pants, anyone?
For more of a cultural outing, you can also watch an Apsara. The “Apsara” is a Khmer music and dance performance and it tells the story of mythical beings through a traditional dance filled with graceful movements, coy smiles and intricate hand gestures. One of the most impressive things about watching an apsara performance is seeing the elaborate costumes the dancers wear—gold headdresses, dangling earrings, bangles, anklets and rich silk dresses embroidered with gold patterns.
Battambang was a nice little escape from the busyness of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Even though this is a city, it still had a small town feel and I enjoyed the slow pace of things.
One of the best things Sam and I did while in Battambang was hire a local driver to show us around. This is a city where people are eager to work and you’ll likely be bombarded by drivers offering you their services the minutes you arrive at the bus station. We ended up choosing a very friendly driver, Mr. Bay, who was always hanging around our hotel and smiling as we came in and out.
Since we weren’t familiar with the area we agreed to let Mr. Bay take us around to his favourite spots and show us more of the rural side of town. In the end this was a wonderful choice and it included visits to a fishing village, local farms, and even a roadside stand where we bought some delicious sticky rice that had been cooked inside bamboo.
Another thing we did in Battambang was take a Cambodian cooking class. We ended up choosing Nary’s Kitchen, a small cooking school that is run by Nary and her husband Toot. The class began with a trip to the local market where we familiarized ourselves with the ingredients. We purchased taro root, coconut milk, lemongrass, turmeric, chillies, and plenty of fresh produce which we then carried back to the school. Then, under close supervision, we cooked 3 popular Cambodian dishes: pork spring rolls, fish amok, and beef lok lak.
During one of our nights in Battambang we also decided to visit the circus. I have to admit I was a little hesitant about this, however, it turned out to be such a pleasant evening. The Battambang Circus (Phare Ponleu Selpak) is doing wonderful things for the children of Battambang; their vision is to provide a nurturing and creative environment as well as access to quality arts training and education. That night I watched children who were committed to their discipline and loved what they were doing. They beamed giant smiles on stage and truly put on a wonderful performance. Also, some of the children at Phare Ponleu Selpak have even been awarded scholarships and gone on to train with the Cirque du Soleil in Montreal. Now that’s impressive!
While in Battamabang I also rode the bamboo train. Known as a nori, this train is essentially a bamboo platform on wheels and it can be a fun ride through the countryside. Powered by a small tractor or motorcycle engine, the train runs 7 kilometres over to a nearby village before turning around and brining you back. I did get hassled for more money even I had already paid the pricey $10 fee to ride the train, so be prepared for that.
Aside from that, I spent the rest of my time in Battambang hanging out in various cafes. Gecko Cafe was a favourite because it had a beautiful balcony on the second floor which overlooked the street, and The White Rose served up some outstanding milkshakes and smoothies.
Where to stay: Battambang is a relatively small city and it’s also quiet walkable. Most of the hotel properties are located around the Phsar Nath Market or overlooking the Sangker River. You can browse accommodations in Battambang here.
I’m showing you a pretty sunset photo, but I must sadly admit that I did not enjoy Sihanoukville.
I came here based on recommendations from other travel bloggers and I was really disappointed by both the quality of the beaches and the type of crowd this place seems to draw. I think part of my mistake was staying on Serendipity Beach, which is the main beach in Sihanoukville.
This places may look beautiful in photos, but once you get here you’ll find rows of hostels and bars where gap-year students are parading around with little to no clothing as they go in search of their next drink. Add to that a beach covered in litter including construction materials and several broken glass bottles floating near the shore and I knew I wouldn’t be going swimming in the ocean. There was also a rather unfortunate incident on the beach where a boy turned violent on us because we wouldn’t buy his bracelets (he came back swinging a stick at us and yelled every profanity known to man), and I just didn’t leave Sihanoukville with a very good impression.
Where to stay: I personally didn’t enjoy the main area along Serendipity Beach, but I’ve heard people say positive things about nearby Otres Beach (which 6 km outside Sihanoukville) and Koh Rong (which is an island roughly 30 km off the shores of Sihanoukville). While I didn’t get to experience either of these for myself, they might be good options for anyone planning a visit to Sihanoukville. You can browse accommodations in Otres Beach and Koh Rong here.
Things I would do differently:
- Add a few more destinations. I comparison to my Vietnam itinerary where I covered 7 destinations in 1 month, my Cambodia itinerary was quite tame. I could have probably added another place or two to this itinerary. Maybe Kampot and Kep?
- Time my visit right. I visited Cambodia in April which is pretty much the hottest time of the year. This made it a little difficult to spend the whole day sightseeing, particularly when we reached Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. For anyone planning a trip to Cambodia, the best time to visit is between November and January so that you avoid both the monsoons and the extreme heat. On the other hand, you will have to contend with more travellers during this period.
Have you been to Cambodia?
Which places would you suggest visiting?
Feel free to share your insights with readers in the comments section below.