Cambodia was unlike anywhere else I’d ever been to before. Our trip was a real mixed bag of experiences – there’s such a diverse range of sceneries, attractions, and atmospheres in Cambodia that it’s difficult to summarise, though I will try to!
Here is my recommended itinerary that will hopefully offer you an insight on where to go inof Cambodia and allow you to experience as much as you can in the time you have there…
Phnom Penh (3 days)
Phnom Penh is where you’ll find most of the most obvious traces from Cambodia’s dark history. It can be a gloomy way to start your trip, which is why some people prefer to start in Siem Reap (many tourists never actually go elsewhere in Cambodia) and work south. Learning about the Khmer Rouge regime was extremely sobering and depressing, there’s no sugar coating it, but by starting our trip this way it made me understand the state of the country we were in as we went travelled through it. I also had a better understanding of what some of the people we met had been through in their lives. You have to hear the stories of what happened, unfortunately not even from that long ago, to have any proper context to where you are.
The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21 prison, was the first place we visited in Phnom Penh. This wasn’t really by design, but it was the closest ‘attraction’ to our hotel. We stayed for around four hours, listening to the audio guide as we walked around the cells. Many people then visit the Killing Fields afterwards, the two are often offered as a combined tour for day trips from Phnom Penh, but we felt that we had heard enough for the day and it was getting quite late in the afternoon.
Once you have a good grasp of what happened during the Khmer Rouge, there are other attractions in the city such as the Royal Palace, National Museum of Cambodia (pictured below) or Central Market to visit.
If you’re looking to dive straight in and try Cambodia’s national dish, Amok, we had some at ‘Kabbas’ near the National Museum and it was incredible! Amok is a sweet and rich curry usually served with fish, though I had vegetable.
Another great place to eat is opposite Kabbas called ‘Friends’ which is definitely worth a visit whilst you’re in the capital; Friends is a training restaurant that teaches skills to marginalised groups and people who have lived on the streets during their lives. There’s a lovely shop next door too where you can even get your nails done!
The easiest way to get to your next destination, Kampot, is by taking a Giant Ibis mini-bus for $8 per person.
Kampot (2 days)
One of my favourite places in Cambodia is Kampot. Surprising really, considering there’s hardly anything to ‘do’. There are tours available to nearby pepper plantations (Kampot pepper is famous!) or lakes, but we spent our days on bicycles riding around the city.
Kampot is described in a lot of tour guides as ‘sleepy’ which is quite accurate; there’s an extremely laid-back pace to life here which is a real contrast to the business of Phnom Penh.
I recommend visiting Epic Arts Cafe which has a gallery upstairs, where the below photo was taken from. The cafe provides work and community for local deaf and impaired people and their cakes are delicious! Vegan options available too.
Cocktails during happy hour at the Fish Market (not an actual market, just the name of a the bar/restaurant) offer gorgeous sunset views over the river.
From Kampot it’s a short mini-bus ride (we used Giant Ibis again) to Otres – your ticket will be to Sihanoukville but they’ll stop at Otres on the way, just make it clear to your driver.
Otres (2 days)
A lot of people head to Sihanoukville for a beach break in Cambodia. I cannot recommend strongly enough staying in Otres Village (just down the road) instead. There are several guest houses and rooms available, all of which are never more than a 2 minute walk from Otres Beach, which is at least ten times nicer than the beaches in Sihanoukville. There are plenty of restaurants in Otres too, our favourite was Sea Garden which had an amazing view of the beach and really good food. The sunsets are out of this world!
You can purchase ferry tickets to Koh Rong from Otres (I suggest doing it as soon as you arrive if you’re there in high season, they get busy) and a bus that takes you to the Sihanoukville ferry terminal is included in the price.
Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem (3 days)
Depending on where you’re staying, you might need to take a taxi-boat to your resort once you arrive on Koh Rong. Prices start at $20 and it’s a good idea to hang around on the pier and ask fellow passengers if they’re heading in the same direction as you to split the fare. We stayed at the Nest Beach Club Hostel on 4k Beach – we could have taken the 25 minute walk through the jungle in honesty but it was pretty hot and we found two girls to split the boat fare with.
On to the islands themselves – a few people said to me that the ship had sailed on visiting Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem as it was starting to become extremely built up and touristy. It’s no longer an untouched paradise, sure, but I would say it’s still completely worth visiting. During the day there are beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise waters and at night you can usually see and swim amongst bio-luminescent plankton in the sea.
We stayed at Nest Beach Club hostel on Koh Rong, which is set on the beautiful ‘4K’ Beach.
We stayed for two nights on Koh Rong and then took a ferry over to Koh Rong Sanloem for a night at Saracen Bay. Saracen is a beautiful part of the island but because of this, it does get quite busy. A bit similar to Railey Beach in Thailand, boat loads of tourist groups (primarily Chinese) arrive during the day to stay and wander around for roughly half an hour. We had booked a beach cabin for one night which was lovely once things got quieter in the evening.
The ferry tickets we bought in Otres included a return journey to Sihanoukville, you just have to confirm your return time/date with the company in-person at their offices on the islands or by phone. Most hotels or hostels will do this for you.
Sihanoukville (1 day)
I really didn’t like Sihanoukville, so much so it seems I didn’t take any photos! We just used it as a gateway to the Koh Rong islands and stayed there for one night after returning to get some sleep before a long bus journey to Phnom Penh.. Some people do like Sihanoukville, it’s one of the popular Cambodia tourist spots. It’s got a sort of Benidorm/Magaluf vibe to it with crowded, average beaches and plenty of cheap bars. Hey, each to their own!
Phnom Penh (1 day)
It should take around 6 hours to reach Phnom Penh via mini-bus.. However, our bus broke down and it ended up taking 9 hours… luckily we weren’t in a rush to be anywhere. It would have been nice to see the parts of Phnom Penh we hadn’t the first time around, but provided your bus doesn’t break down you should be able to! When we finally arrived our hostel did have a colourful rooftop view of the monastery opposite..
Battambang (2/3 days)
Another bus journey later, this time using Mekong Express, and you’ll arrive in Battambang, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Cambodia.
When we got to Battambang, the tuk tuk driver that took us from the bus station to our hotel offered us a good rate to go and see the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau later that evening, which we took him up on. Quite a lot of tuk-tuk drivers hang around the tourist bus stations for these reasons, it’s a good way of getting a good price on excursions. As with everywhere in South East Asia, you usually need to haggle a little if you’re on a budget and you will almost always get offered inflated prices as a tourist. Anyway, it only cost us $20 for around 5 hours with our tuk-tuk driver, which included a ride to the caves and back as well as a guided tour around them.
When you arrive at the caves you can either pay $10 to get a lift by car up to the top of them, $5 by motorbike, or you can walk. We walked and I honestly thought I might pass out at the top! I’d probably pay for the motorbike next time, though it did look a bit precarious…
At the top of the hill there’s access to the caves where the Pol Pot regime threw the bodies of Cambodian people after executing them at the top/mouth of the cave. There are still some skeletons and bones remaining in the caves, now encased in a memorial. Our tour guide and driver was born in a Khmer Rouge village and told us he was one of the lucky ones. Just outside the entrance to the caves are some sculptures of various tortures and execution scenes, not for the faint hearted.
Once we’d walked around the caves and temples we made our descent to the bottom of the hill where we were instructed to take a seat. Every day, just before sunset, hundreds of thousands of bats exit one of the caves and make their way across the fields to eat. The black line of what almost looks like smoke in the photos below are the bats! It seemed like the line would go on forever.
One of the reasons we chose to visit Battambang was to ride the famous ‘Bamboo Train’ or ‘norry’, a wooden platform that carries passengers and produce along train tracks. In recent times these trains have operated for tourist purposes than anything else and reviews are quite mixed – some people complain it’s ‘too’ touristy. Unfortunately when we arrived we learnt from the locals that the train had closed a few weeks before to make way for the renovation of the state railway. It was a shame for us but also for the train drivers who were having to leave the local area to look for alternate work. As of early 2018 though, there is apparently a ‘new’ bamboo train and track for tourists to ride on! The new track seems to have been built purely to cater for tourist demand, and tickets are $5 per person.
A four hour mini-bus (we used Mekong Express) will take you to your final destination, Siem Reap.
Siem Reap (5 days)
A lot of tourists in Cambodia only come to Siem Reap to experience one of the wonders of the world, Angkor Wat. It was quite funny, and sad, to see how much ridiculously more modern and luxurious Siem Reap’s airport was compared to pretty much anywhere else we’d seen in Cambodia. If you fly into Siem Reap, visit Angkor Wat and fly out again, you’ll end up seeing what I can only describe as the tip of a very polished iceberg; Siem Reap’s tourist areas are certainly not representative of the rest of the country.
At the top of any Cambodia sightseeing list is Angkor Wat. I’ll do a separate post to cover an Angkor Wat itinerary as it’s just too big to include here! You can purchase a a 1 day, 3 day or 7 day pass for Angkor Wat; I think the 3 day pass is your best option – 1 day really is not enough time unless you’re prepared for one of the busiest, hottest days of your life, but 7 days is probably overkill.
You’ll also need a tuk-tuk driver to take you around the sites and temples which is what we did. Other transport options are available – bicycle, car, coach, but a tuk-tuk was affordable and readily accessible. We booked our tour through our hotel which is a great way of avoiding any price scams. We’d heard a few Siem Reap tours horror stories of tuk tuk drivers just leaving you in the middle of nowhere when you refuse to pay a suddenly inflated price they’d demanded half way through the trip!
There was a disadvantage to our hotel driver however, I had researched and planned a custom itinerary of what we wanted to see and our driver just wanted to stick to the set ‘Grand Circuit” and ‘Small Circuit’ routes. This was a bit frustrating because he simply would not compromise, so we had to stop at every single temple on the circuit when we didn’t actually want to. Obviously it’s a great way to see the temples, but I had wanted to avoid a few of the smaller ones to spend more time at the ones that appealed to us. Try and be firmer than we were I guess!
My favourite temples were where the trees had overgrown into the ruins, it looks so cool. The main temples are always very busy. You can see pretty much everything you need to in your first two days, and then I advise spending your third day going back to the places you really enjoyed – it’s inevitable that you won’t have had enough time or it was too hot or too busy for you to enjoy the first time around, so try going again early morning or late afternoon.
Some standard advice for Siem Reap is to book a hotel with a pool, so you can come back from Angkor Wat in the afternoon and cool down. 5am – 1pm is a standard temple exploring shift, after which you’ll be exhausted and extremely hot.
In the evening there are plenty of places to eat, and the notorious Pub Street lined with bars and restaurants. This street is sort of Cambodia’s equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
And just like that your three weeks in Cambodia are over! I would recommend researching Cambodia’s history prior to visiting just so you’re aware and respectful of the climate you’ll find yourself in for a few weeks; I really don’t want to reduce an entire country to a few sentences of my own privileged opinions (so definitely research and perhaps watching a few films and documentaries alongside reading this post) but if I had to summarise I would say that Cambodia is a lot more ‘dressed down’ than other South East Asian destinations like Thailand or Vietnam.
Cambodia is quite a poor country, which is not at all surprising given its tragic history. Government corruption is still in operation and from what we saw, fairly active on all levels; we witnessed quite a few bribes and power plays from officials. Going back to my mixed bag comment, there are also beautiful parts of the country and lovely local people. I hope you can see from the above itinerary that there a plenty of great and worthwhile things to see.
Hopefully you can tailor this itinerary to the days you have available, taking out anywhere that doesn’t appeal, or adding a few days on to the places you’re intrigued by. If you would like any further advice or a custom itinerary please get in touch!
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