Siem Reap is a great place to start your visit to Cambodia. Here you get to experience the incredible sights of Angkor Wat as the sun rises, discover fine silk fabrics and get to grips with the real Southeast Asian culture.
I stayed at the Siem Reap Hostel and loved every minute. This place is a young travelers dream. They have their own pool, bar and pool table, great staff and it is immaculately clean. And, with a $2 buffet breakfast you really can’t go wrong. Nom Nom.
Upon arrival in Siem Reap organise your trip to Angkor Wat – you will do the majority of your sightseeing here and you are very likely to get ripped off. Decide what type of excursion you would like and get haggling! Many tour operators offer a one-day or a three-day pass and give you the choice of hiring your own bicycles or being driven by a tuc tuc driver. My Canadian friend and I hired a tuc tuc for the day and just blitzed it. Be prepared for an unforgettable day.
After a jam-packed day of sightseeing head to the main strip of Siem Reap’s nightlife – Pub Street. Here you’ll find great bars, restaurants and food stalls where you can pretty much get sozzled for a tenner. Winner!
For an alternative night out, head to ‘Ecstatic Pizza’, ‘Happy Pizza’ or ‘Smiley Pizza’ and order something random from the menu. These pizza places are famous for putting a ‘special little something’ in their tomato base (and no, it isn’t basil). For a cheap thrill the pizzas are amazing and pretty darn tasty too. Expect an intense conversation or three with strangers on the way home after these herby margaritas.
While still on a high, head to Seeing Hands Massage where you can get your body, neck and back massaged by a blind person – a bizarre experience but an experience nevertheless.
“From the ancient city to the mushroom fields…”
After a day or two in Siem Reap escape the tourist trap of Angkor Wat and arrange a bus through Capitol Tours to Battambang. The journey should take no more than 6 hours and will cost less than $7. I highly recommend taking the journey in daylight hours – the roads and general driving etiquette in Cambodia leaves a lot to be desired. Be safe and avoid the roads at night.
Battambang is a little river side town worthy of a stop for a night or two. If you’re looking for a little more adventure take a boat down river from Siem Reap to Battambang ($18 for 5-9 hours booking through Angkor Express or Chann Na) then check out the Bamboo Train. The word ‘train’ is used loosely here – think of it more like a roller coaster.
From Battambang, make your way to Phnom Penh – The capital city of Cambodia.
Phnom Penh can be, for a lot of people, a nightmare. There is so much going on here and constant re-development throughout the city. However, if you step back from all the chaos you can see the city for what it really is – the undiscovered heart of Southeast Asia.
Take time out from the tourist buzz and loose yourself in the culture. Observe the monks as they collect their food at sunrise, visit the Royal Palace after a trip to the hustling markets and drift along the Mekong Delta at sunset. Immerse your senses for a while and just go with it.
The main places of interest in Phnom Penh are The Killing Fields – the sites where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. Visiting the Killing Fields can be quite heavy on the heart and incredibly upsetting so do yourself a favor and have a great night planned for afterwards.
Sihanoukville is the main beach resort of Cambodia and it is stunning, if you go to the right places. Most of the younger travelers will head straight to Independence Beach. This place has been massively built up over the years and looks more like the Spanish islands of Mallorca or Magaluf (and it’s not even good!). Do yourself a favour upon arrival and grab a tuk tuk to Mushroom Point at Ortres Beach. This place is slightly further around the coast, but trust me, it’s worth the drive.
Mushroom Point stole my heart instantly. The location is unbelievable and the staff here are more like friends. The stunning view and mouth-watering food make it very easy to stay longer than expected. Just saying.
Mushroom Point is situated right on the beach front, making it the perfect place to hire motorbikes and get lost amongst the coast. Spend a night or two lounging in hammocks under the stars or propping the bar up while the chef prepares an Amok (Cambodian curry) from freshly caught fish. Enjoy.
“Pepper, Crabs and an AK47 – Just another day in Cambodia…”
When you’ve had enough of the lush green jungle and tranquil waters of Otres Beach, make your way back to the mainland of Sihanoukville. Just be sure to capture one of those incredible sunsets before you leave.
Grab a motorbike and let loose on the crazy coastal roads. Many tour operators within the area will offer mini bus services ($3-$9 each) or tuc tucs to the next town, but where is the fun in that? Kampot is a great destination after a few days unwinding at the beach. Famous for its pepper fields and relaxed riverside vibe, it’s easy to understand why this small village attracts so many expats year after year.
Upon arrival, book into somewhere centrally located. Rikitikitavi and Blissful Guesthouse both had great reputations around the town for comfortable yet affordable stays. Make the most of the Cambodian accommodating nature by asking your guesthouse staff to book a trip for you to the Bokor Mountain the following day. Top tip – wear good shoes!
The Bokor Mountain expedition is a brilliant day out. The 45-minute drive up the hillside on an open-top truck and the stunning views alone are worth the trip. The truck only takes visitors halfway. For the rest of the climb guests are guided through the jungle by a youngster who navigates his way by following strategically placed red ribbon markers around the trees and hanging palms. It’s incredible to watch. Oh, and to keep you on your toes a little, he carries an AK47 with him – ya’ know, just in case he needs it.
The terrifying climb is worth every second. When finally at the mountain peak you can lie across the rocks and see Cambodia for miles. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
Recover from the mountain adventure by spending the next day enjoying the culinary delights of Kampot. Start the day at Epic Arts Café – a cafe that provides work opportunities for the deaf and disabled people in the village. It’s a real gem of a place and offers some of the best food in Kampot. Pull up a seat, look out onto the colonial style boulevard and soak up the sun. Dive into a refreshing star anise and lime iced tea and indulge in freshly baked scones with a knob of butter and a heavenly dollop of homemade jam.
Once fed and refreshed head to the local market and immerse yourself in all things crazy. Watch as the local women gut and prepare freshly caught fish on the market floors, walk through the abundance of towering exotic fruits and haggle your best bargain with the vendors trying to sell the finest of Cambodian silks.
Cambodian people are like no other. Yes, they barter with you and ask for a ‘dollar’ here and a ‘dollar’ there, but they do it with innocence and honesty rather than sleaze or rudeness. They’re just lovely.
At midday hire a bicycle from the tourist center (it costs as little as $1) and get amongst the locals. Cycle around the town in the glorious sunshine, head out towards the nearby fishing village and smile at the children who run alongside you on the roadside. Pull up at one of the many temples along the way surrounded by glistening waters and be still for a while. If luck strikes, you will ride past a street vendor selling bags of freshly made sugar cane juice, and at just 15 cents a bag this stuff is like heaven in the Cambodian afternoon sun.
In the evening wander down to Rusty Keyhole for an unforgettable dinner – they do the best ribs in town. The ‘Dino Ribs’ weigh in at 1kg and the successor of any empty plate receives a beer on the house for such a tremendous achievement. If ribs aren’t your thing, indulge in Kampot’s famous pepper crabs at one of the many riverside retreats.
And finally, to make the most of your visit spend the last night or two in a resort along the river. If you like the scene of young, hearty travelers with a sense of fun and adventure head to Ollie’s Place or Bodhi Villa. The guys here will be sure to pass you a few smokes at night and set you up with some quality water-sport action during the daytime.
If riverside glamour is more your thing then stay a night at Ganesha Riverside Eco Resort. All accommodation here costs less than $45 a night and you have the choice of your own tower, a man made bungalow or a traditional tribal hut. Whatever you decide, I’m pretty sure that Kampot will make a long lasting impression.
Cambodia is a truly wonderful place. The history, culture and food are all magnificent but it’s the people of Cambodia that really make it such a magical country to visit.