My mother doesn’t understand why I like to go to poor places. It’s true that Cambodia is not as developed as other Asian countries…but there are reasons; the floods, the landmines, the genocide. You cannot always see, but it’s still affecting the country today. I love Cambodia because I love the locals. I love to see how they are slowly rebuilding their lives and country. Sometimes, beauty is in the most abstract form…and that, I think, separates people who like to travel to Europe and those who like South East Asia. Call me a sucker for rice paddies, stilted houses and hard-working and earnest people who still have a smile on their face at the end of the day.
Aside from being one of the best budget destinations in Southeast Asia, here’s a quick roundup of what else you need to know.
The town of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia is the access town for the world-famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temples.
In my post, Cambodia: The Temples, I wrote about the 3 main and most popular temples in Siem Reap:
I flew in on a Monday night, rested, and prepared myself for a day of temples on Tuesday. Unless you’re Tomb Raider, you’ll probably need to prep yourself as well. Here are some tips:
- Hydrate beforehand. It’s hot and you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
- Cover your thighs and cleavage (out of respect).
- If you can go in during low season (May – October). During the peak season, my tuk tuk driver warned me that the temples get so crowded it’s like a marketplace.
- Get a tuk tuk with a driver and an official tour guide. Way more fun than a car. I love tuk tuks.
- If you have the money do a helicopter tour of Angkor Archaeological Park
- You need a pass to get into the park. They go by 1 day ($20), 3 day ($40), and 7 day ($60). You can buy them on the day you visit.
- Bring lots of water!
- Visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, visit the other ruins, then take a break for lunch. It gets really hot around lunch time so take a break, go back to your hotel, swim in the pool, and relax. THEN, go back to see Angkor Wat at sunset.
The temples are absolutely gorgeous of course but it really helps if you know a thing or two about the history and the stories depicted on the bas-reliefs. I recommend at the very least skimming the Wikitravel page of Angkor Archaelogical Park.
Where to stay in Siem Reap?
I stayed at Hak’s House. IT WAS AMAZING! The building is airy, clean, and new. The ensuite bathrooms in each room are quite modern and have hot water at no extra charge. There are televisions with movie channels and plenty of other English speaking stations to choose from. The food is good and you get free breakfast with a real cup of coffee every morning.
So, to sum it up, when you stay at Hak’s House you get:
– Free Breakfast
– 1 dollar Tuk Tuk rides ($2 round trip) to town
– All your temple tours arranged for you including a full day private tuk tuk driver for a great price
– Free airport or bus station pick up
– Travel arrangements for your outgoing journey from Siem Reap at no extra charge (you only pay cost)
– Inexpensive home cooked meals
– Free drinking water
– Friendly, personal service
People will ask if there is anything else worth doing or seeing in Siem Reap besides the temples.
Well one evening in Siem Reap I did the tourist thing and went out for dinner and a show. Giant dinner theater, huge buffet, teeming masses – you know the drill. The dancing was fascinating, not least for the stark contrast between the glacial formality of the apsara dance and the up-tempo humour of the peasant dances.
The apsara dance, Cambodia’s classical dance style, is based on the poses of the apsara carvings found in the ancient Khmer temples. As a formal dance discipline, it’s actually pretty recent, codified by a Cambodian princess in the mid-20th century, though it’s based on traditions that are much older than that. There are loads of places that offer the show: I recommend the one at the Temple Club on pub street.
Sihanoukville, located 230 km, or a 3-4 hour bus ride, from Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s most well-known beach location. Streets are lined with inexpensive guest houses, hostels, restaurants, movie houses, and luxury resorts. The town is set back away from the beaches but is still a short 10-minute tuk tuk ride away. Sihanoukville is the premier beachside destination in Cambodia, although premier for Cambodia is very low key compared to Thailand and the destinations that most westerners are familiar with. But its still worth a visit and provides a nice break from temples if you aren’t heading to Thailand.
In my post, Cambodia: The Coast, I talk about a few of the many beaches that one can visit in Sihanoukville.
My advice to travellers heading to Sihanoukville is to book one night somewhere along on these beaches. Then get a boat to the Koh Rong Island or Koh Rong Samloem Island and spend a few nights on these pristine islands. It’s easy and inexpensive to arrange the transport and island accommodation when you get there. Check out boats heading to Sun Island, Bamboo Island, Lazy Beach or Monkey Island.
You can’t go to Cambodia and not get a massage. In fact, you can’t even walk 5 minutes without being offered a massage. From $7 massages to $100 spa treatments, Cambodia runs the gamut when it comes to massages and Phnom Penh is the cheapest place to get it done!
Read about places to visit in Phnom Penh in my post, Cambodia: The City.
Getting around in Cambodia
I don’t mean jumping in a tuk tuk and going to the nearest restaurant.
Most people wonder how they will get from one city to another in Cambodia with the lack of trains. The answer is buses! Despite all the horror stories I read online, I took 3 long distance buses and had no problems.
There are two main ways to get around in Cambodia. The first is via taxi, either shared or private for around $45 USD. You can split one with someone else to split the cost. The alternative is via public bus. I picked the cheap option and opted for the buses. My bus tickets cost between $6-$10 depending on the distance and destination. I am unsure if there is any “tourist tax” included however, for a 5-10 hour bus rides, I figured that the cost was ok.
The view from the bus is what makes the hours spent inside it, bearable. You’ll see farms, lotus ponds, paddy fields, traditional housing and animals. It’s beautiful.
Cash in Cambodia
Cambodia is soooooo cheap! No really! I took around 500,000 won for 10 days ($432) and lived like a queen!
Exchange rate: 4,088 Riel = $1 USD (August 2012)
Cambodia does have their own currency, the riel, but the main currency used is US dollars. ATMs give out USD or riel and in transactions you’ll pay with USD and get back USD and riel in place of coins.