Cambodia has so much to offer as a tourist destination, and it’s now making its mark on the South East Asia Circuit. With the ancient and glorious Angkor Temples, the crazy nightlife down Pub Street, the museums in Phnom Penh and laid back beaches in Sihanoukville, backpackers are flocking to this poor Southeast Asian country at booming rates. Cambodia has a truly dark and disturbing history just from the last 50 years, and if you’re lucky enough to have a conversation with an older member of the Khmer culture, you will hear their firsthand accounts and see the terror in their eyes.
Despite the recent trauma of merciless genocide, the people are unbelievably gracious and friendly. Many of them speak amazing English. Prices are relatively cheaper than in neighboring countries, and they largely deal in US dollars, making it real convenient for American travelers. All in all, it’s a really interesting country with friendly locals, tasty food and cheap beer.
Here’s what you need to know:
Visas – Whether you’re traveling by plane or bus, you will need at least one passport photo and $35 USD. It’s easiest if you fill out the paperwork beforehand, but you can do it on arrival as well. If you’re traveling by land, don’t be scammed into paying for a medical check – it’s not necessary. You also don’t need to have your bus driver do it for you. They charge an extra $5, and you can easily do it yourself. We crossed the border from 4000 Islands in Laos by bus. We bought a ticket from a travel agency in town for the boat ride to mainland and bus ride to the border for $13 USD. From the border we had a company called AVT pick us up from there and took us to Siem Reap. Altogether it was a 12 hour day, and costs around $28 USD.
Travel – There’s plenty of regularly scheduled busses to get to and from anywhere in Cambodia. The route from Siem Reap -> Phnom Penh (and vice versa) takes around 6 hours. We traveled with Giant Ibis for $15 USD. The bus was spacious, had wifi and great A/C. As for tuk tuks in the cities, for the most part, you shouldn’t pay more than $1-2 for where you want to go. Unless you going outside the city limits for attractions, don’t let the drivers scam you into paying more than you should. There’s a million tuk tuks in this country, and they’re all competing for work so stand your ground when you know what the distance is worth.
Safety – It’s true what they say. You need to be more careful in Cambodia than most. As with everywhere you go, you need to be aware of your surroundings and not walk alone at night, but even more so here. Pickpocketing and bag snatching is fairly common, so just keep your bag by your side, be aware of people behind you and never ever walk alone at night.
Angkor Wat – If you stay in Siem Reap, most likely you’re there to see the Angkor Temples. Many guidebooks say that you should do the three day pass ($40), but I’m not too much into spending three days walking around in the heat looking at temples. I thought one day ($20) doing the main tour was plenty enough for me. Absolutely get up early for the sunrise over Angkor Wat. You should be able to get a tuk tuk for the day for $15-20. Try to get there around 5 am so you can get a good spot near the lake. It gets SUPER crazy with tourists and cameras, but it’s really worth it. If you go into any travel agency, you can take a picture of their basic itinerary, and then take it to a tuk tuk driver so you make sure you see everything you want to see.
Charities & Social Enterprises – There have been many foreigners that have started amazing chatrities and social enterprises here in Cambodia. To see a country so torn from horrific acts and poverty, it’s great to see so much good being done here. These organisations aren’t just throwing money at a problem. They’re teaching locals valuable entreprenuerial, professional and life skills to get them back up on their feet and self-sufficient. Some of our favorites we came into contact with were Cambolac, Project Gen Z, Friends N Stuff and many restaurants/stores that teach disabled and disadvantaged locals how to make and sell goods.
Scams – With that said, be aware of whether the organisation you may be buying from or donating to is a legitimate organisation. The kids you see on the street selling bracelets are not a part of the programs. As hard as it is to look into their eyes and not give them money, you need to understand that it is only fueling the problem. If you see moms holding babies asking you to buy them milk at the grocery store because “they don’t want money, only to feed their baby,” it’s a scam. They return the milk once you buy it, and split the profits with the store owner. Again, I know it’s hard to say no, but there’s a handful of really amazing organisations doing their best to help the people in better ways.
Nightlife – Cambodia’s nightlife is getting crazier as the years go by. It’s officially landed its spot as one of the better places to go to party the night away. You can usually get a good happy hour special for .50 cents for a local draft beer. In Siem Reap, you can take a wander down Pub Street at night and will find something that suits your fancy, from bars to clubs to boxing matches. There’s a pub crawl on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays that meets at 8 pm at X bar for $10 USD. Phnom Penh has a well-known underground scene with loads of clubs that party until the morning hours. Be careful at night and always go out with a group.
Food – The food is similar to Thailand and Laos – lots of rice and noodle dishes. There’s an abundance of western food to choose from, so you’re never in need of a taste of home. I’ve actually eaten more pasta in Cambodia than I have this whole year. Prices for plates range from $1-5 USD, depending on where you eat.
I’ll go into a bit more detail on the next post on what to do in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but for now this should give you a basic guideline as to what you should expect.