Regular readers of Man vs World will know that of all the countries I’ve visited in South East Asia I like Cambodia the best.
It featured highly in last month’s blog post about the highs and lows of backpacking in SE Asia and it won the recent travel showdown with Vietnam and Laos, a fictional boxing match in which it emerged as the country with the best cultural sights and beaches as well as the friendliest people.
Even so, travel in Cambodia may prove difficult if you’re unprepared. The former Democratic Kampuchea is a country in transition – an up-and-coming travel paradise that’s still recovering from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror just 30-odd years ago.
The provision of basic services in the country remains spotty, for one thing, making it a country that you would do well to not get seriously ill in. Meanwhile, the country does have its fair share of unscrupulous businesses and individuals looking to rip-off unwary tourists.
All this, however, means you’ll just have to be a little bit cautious – as you would in any foreign country. Besides the obvious travel advice – shop around if you don’t want to be cheated out of your hard-earned dough and never ever drink the water – here’s some Cambodia travel tips to help you on your way.
Lonely Planet will likely warn you against seeing Angkor in only one day but it can be done – and it’ll save you a wad of cash in the process.
You could easily fill a week exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, taking in the breath-taking remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire that date from the 9th to the 15th century, or, if you’re on a strict budget, you could visit the park’s main sites in one day and save yourself up to $20US a day.
Start your day at Angkor Wat, catching the sun rising over the famed temple, before exploring the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which includes the mysterious Bayon temple, Baphuon and Ta Prohm. Finish by watching the sun set over Angkor from Phnom Bakheng Hill – or you could even do this the day before as one-day tickets to Angkor allow you access to the park from 5pm on the previous day.
Feeling hot and bothered in Siem Reap? Then head to Aqua, a British-run bar and pool just 1.2km from Psar Chaa. The water is warm and the atmosphere is cool; entry to the large swimming pool costs $2.50.
Looking for a lively night out in Siem Reap? Then head to Pub Street, where you’ll find a street packed with restaurants and bars. Drink and food, here, is slightly pricier than at proper local restaurants and bars but it’s far from expensive.
Looking for an affordable meal in Siem Reap? Then head to the outdoor food market at the bottom of Pub Street, where you’ll find a lively strip of Cambodian street-style restaurants packed full of hungry backpackers. The food is cheap and delicious, as is the beer.
Are Cambodian restaurateurs and waiters dishonest – or are they just really really bad at mathematics?
I’d like to think the country’s education system is to blame for the fact that half of the restaurants I ate at in Cambodia tried to overcharge me either by mysteriously putting the price up or by charging me for things I neither ordered nor received.
Every time it would be the same, the waiter or waitress would look confused for a second or two and then say: “Oh, I see what the problem is now. You ordered a sandwich and a small bottle of water, not a lobster and a large bottle of Dom Pérignon.”
Heed this piece of Cambodia travel advice and check the bill before you pay.
S-21 is the former security prison for enemies of the Khmer Rouge, which now serves as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the killing fields of Choeung Ek is where most of them were put to death. Both are simply unmissable when in Phnom Penh.
From 1975 until 1979 nearly two million Cambodians were killed in the pursuit of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s insane dream of a Communist agrarian society. Both sites offer a frightening glimpse into that reign of terror – bones protrude from the earth at Choeung Ek and on display at S-21 are the portraits of most of the prison’s more-than 17,000 victims (all but an estimated 20 or so were tortured and killed).
You’ll leave feeling shell-shocked and bitter, but understanding the horrors of what the poor people of Cambodia went through might be the only way to prevent something like it from ever happening again.
Recover in Sihanoukville
After being reminded of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge you’ll need a bit of recovery time – and there’s no better place than beautiful Sihanoukville.
Cambodia’s best beach resort town is just three or four hours from Phnom Penh by bus. Surrounded on three sides by the bay of Thailand, this chilled-out sea-side paradise has a lot to recommend it: beautiful beaches, nice restaurants and bars, a fun night life and, best of all, cheap and delicious beach barbecues.
Every night along Serendipity Beach – the popular tourist drag where I recommend you base yourself – you’ll be able to get a plate of barbecued beef, chicken or sea food with potato and salad for just $3US. Add a 50c beer to the mix during happy hour and you really can’t do much better anywhere in the world.
Buy your barmen a beer
Cambodians really are a friendly bunch – so when I found myself having a conversation with the chap behind the bar in Sihanoukville I couldn’t help but by him a beer.
I learnt more about Cambodia from a conversation with he-who’s-name-I-can’t-spell than I did travelling through the country. Thinking back now, it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite memories of my time travelling in Cambodia.
I mean, how often do you get an opportunity to have a beer with a local in Cambodia?
So there you have it, Man vs World’s super-useful Cambodia travel tips and advice. Have I missed anything out? Share your travel tips and advice in the comments below…