We were partly sad to leave Cambodia and partly looking forward to our next adventure. We have learnt a lot about the Khmer people, from their greatness during the Khmer empire to the resilience during the Khmer Rouge. Sadly, it is a country where greatness feels like a distant past and poverty is an on-going battle for the majority of the population. Cambodia seemed to be moving forward with a democratic government, but tragically this has become more of a dictatorship, and with the dissolution of the opposition in 2017, it seems politics is on a downward spiral. To give you an idea: in 2018, the current president celebrates his 33rd year in power and was originally part of the Khmer Rouge. With that said, the people of Cambodia are much friendlier than their Vietnamese neighbours and they are desperately trying to improve their future.
Our biggest dislike in Cambodia was the amount of rubbish and the complete lack of any system to recycle or remove it. We sometimes struggled to see the beauty between the plastic bags and bottles polluting the environment. This is something Cambodia really needs help with. People also don’t seem to see it as a problem and don’t understand that plastic is a bad thing (for the environment).
While travelling in Cambodia we spent 3 weeks volunteering and significantly reduced our costs. Over 47 days, we spent £1350. Of that sum, we spent 15% in accommodation, 18.5% on food, 29% on transport, 28% on activities and 9% on various other things.
30 day visas on arrival ($30) are available for most nationalities, but it’s also possible to arrange a visa at a Cambodian consulate. The officials are friendly and helpful. We extended our visas to 60 days at the department for immigration opposite Phomn Penh airport for $30, cheaper than the agencies. Contrary to what we found online, the extention process took seven days. Agencies offer this service for $50-55 but we did not ask how long it takes them to transport passports to and from the capital. During this time they keep you passport to add a new page covering sticker (in addition to your first one). If you do it yourself at the office, you receive a copy of the application form which is accepted as ID; for example when you check into a hotel. Without this paper you will not get your passport back so don’t lose it!
Cambodia has a dual monetary system where US dollars are widely accepted, but change will often be given in Cambodian Riel. The exchange rate is set by the government at around 4000 riel to $1. Almost all shops and places use 4000 as exchange rate. If they use a different rate, they displayed a sign near the checkout. This is dual money system is slightly confusing to begin with, but we quickly adjusted. Be careful as some of the Riel notes have very similar colours but differ by a factor of 10. Dollar bills should not be torn, marked or older than 2013, otherwise they may not be accepted. Annoyingly nearly all ATMs in Cambodia charge a $4-6 transaction fee and most give out dollars to international cards. The only bank we found that doesn’t charge a fee was Maybank but their machines only take Visa cards. Dollars were accepted almost everywhere; even in small shops in Chi Phat. It is still worth it not to get rid of all your Riel as soon as possible because you never know when you might need them.
There are really only two options in Cambodia for intercity travel: road or air. While flights between cities can be affordable and faster than buses, you miss out on the scenery. We mainly used buses and minivans to get around. It’s best to use a reputable company as you get what you pay for. Giant Ibis are good, Virak Buntham were also fine and Sorya was passable from our experience. Depending on where you want to go you might be forced to take a smaller/more local company some of which have older vehicles or lower service quality simply because the big firms don’t go to smaller places. Our go-to-website for any bus travel was from Can By Publications. They list almost all bus connections in the country together with companies, duration and departure times. You can also book them through the site, but we always booked them through hostels or in the bus offices. For all buses going through the west of Phnom Penh you can safely add one hour to the journey just to get in or out of the city.
Within cities bikes and tuk-tuks are both good options. Phnom Penh has a restricted bus service which is cheap, comfy (A/C) and will get you to the airport (it takes around 1 hour from the central market).
For those of you who like travelling by train there is only really one option. There is one line that connects Sihanoukville and Kampot to the capital. Trains seem to only run Friday evening to Monday morning and take about the same time as the bus. We have no idea what the trains are like.
There is loads of accommodation available in every tourist destination. We generally booked a few days ahead online. We really like SLA hostel in Phnom Penh and the Onederz chain were also good (they have pools in all of their hostels which are in great locations). Other than that we booked locally run guesthouses. The standard varies from basic with bucket showers, to five star hotels (no, we did not stay in one of those). On average we spent 14$ per night for the two of us.
The food in Cambodia is delicious. They have more curry and stir fries than Vietnam and also tend to use less chilli. One must taste is the fresh kampot pepper, which we fell in love with. The street food scene is well established and vendors actually have full size tables and chairs (no sitting on a stool on the pavement like in Vietnam). Khmer curry, Amok and Lok Lak are all tasty dishes. Meals cost us around $2-6 per person and snacks of fruit or rice start at $0.5. Despite what some eateries or their surounding look like we never had any problems with the street food. Everything was cooked well and safe.
Our highlights of Cambodia were:
Swimming with bioluminescent plankton on Koh Rong
When it comes to Angkor we recommend staying as long as you have time for. We spent five days temple viewing with the seven day pass. Don’t miss Banteay Srei and some of the smaller temples, which have fewer tourists and therefore more atmosphere. They are all managed by APSARA, so you need the Angkor pass even for the more remote ones and tickets are checked everywhere!
If you happen to go to Siem Reap during the dry season, save yourself the time and don’t bother going to see Kampong Phluk floating village as all you’ll see is a dusty village with buildings perched on 10m high platforms. We don’t know what other villages or the rest of the lake looks like, but this is definitely a rain season activity.
Cambodia has a lot to offer tourists and it is fairly easy to travel around. For backpackers there are cheap options and interesting work aways to lower costs. As a holiday destination a few weeks to explore Angkor, Kratie, the wildlife, Phnom Penh and then relax on one of the islands would be great. Where possible eat and stay local and try to reduce your contribution to the waste problem.