Backpackers Guide to Cambodia
NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old so some of the info may no longer be 100% accurate. Get more current info on Cambodia and the rest of the region in our Southeast Backpackers Guide (EBOOK).
Population: 15 million (rough estimate)
Size: 180,000km2, bit smaller than UK, about same size as Oklahoma, USA and bit bigger than Greece.
Weather: Monsoons from May to October, dry November to April. Hot all year with temperatures varying between 30-35°C. November to January is the peak time to visit when the monsoons are over and the temperatures are at their lowest.
Law: Laws aren’t dissimilar to most countries, however the law enforcement here is very different. The cops are almost all corrupt and as a foreigner you can probably to do what the hell you like. If caught breaking the law and they actually bother to chase you down, a small bribe normally will see you on your way, bearing in mind the wages for some policemen can be as low as $20/month.
Exchange Rate: Steady at around $1:4000 Riel. In reality the US Dollar is the main currency in Cambodia and are preferred except for when paying for items under $2 or so. You will often receive change in Riel as US coins aren’t accepted. ATM’s in main towns but not in less touristy parts so take enough cash out before heading to rural areas.
Time: GMT +7 hours, same as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Religion: 95% Buddhist
Typhoid and Hepatitis A are recommended. If you’re staying a long time (over 3 months) in Cambodia and South East Asia you might want to look into several more vaccines such as Hepatitis B and Diphtheria so consult your local health surgery. If arriving directly from yellow fever infected countries you need a certificate of immunistation but this only applies if coming from parts of Africa or South America. Malaria is a problem in pretty much all of Cambodia so you’re going to need some malaria tablets such as mefloquine.
Visas required for most nationalities including British, US, EU and Australian citizens. Easy to obtain on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap Airports and valid for 1 month. Also can be obtained on arrival at Bavet (from Vietnam), Poipet and Koh Kong (from Thailand) Border Posts. Cost is $20 (and is payable in US$), slight overcharging is fairly common practice. You do NOT need a return or onward ticket.
From Bangkok: take a bus or train to Aranya Prathet (4 hour bus 6 hour train). Take a tuk-tuk to the border post which is open 7.30am-5pm. Cross the border into Poipet and catch a share taxi to Siem Reap (2-3 hours). The whole journey should be about $10. There are direct buses from Bangkok to Siem Reap although reports exist of this been a nightmare journey, so be adventurous and go it alone. If your heading to Sihanoukville then head to Hat Lek and cross there.
From Ho Chi Minh City: Buses go to Phnom Penh and cost 150,000 Baht ($7-8) plus $25 instead of the official $20 for sorting the Cambodian Visa out when you approach the border, which is annoying but they have been known to leave people stranded at the border who refuse to pay the extra $5. The journey is around 6 hours on a good day although border formalities can take a while so allow for more.
From Laos: Few travellers cross from Laos into Cambodia but if you fancy heading off the beaten track it’s well worth it. There’s only one crossing and it’s not an official one. The Voen Khan-Dom Kralor crossing is open 8am to 5pm and guards may ask for “administration fees” which you can probably bargain down. You need a visa in advance which can be obtained in Vientiane. There are buses from Pakse to the border taking 3+ hours for $2ish. After crossing the border, Stung Treng is a 90 minute speedboat ride away.
Border Crossings (Cambodian town is always second)
Vinh Xuong-Kaam Samnor
Tinh Bien-Phnom Den
Xa Xia-Prek Chek
Voen Kahn-Dom Kralor
Chong Jom-O Smach
Ban Pakard-Psar Pruhm
Hat Lek-Krong Koh Kong
Best Places to Visit
The Temples of Angkor Wat are without doubt the highlight of this country and source of immense national pride. You don’t have to be a history buff or have a fascination for architecture to appreciate it. They are located just outside Siem Reap, which has developed into a great place in it’s own right to spend a few nights. It is also the most touristy part of the country but not overwhelmingly so by any means. For a taste of the real Cambodia of the 21st century then visit anywhere else in the country.
Capital Phnom Penh is the only place resembling a city but is as laid back a capital as you’re ever likely to find. It’s also a good place to learn about the horrific genocide that took place here in the late 1970’s. Visit’s to the genocide museum and killing fields are grim but educational and shed light on the horrors that took place here. Buddhism is thriving here, monk’s roam the streets and there’s many wats, pagodas and palaces that make this city surprisingly pleasant on the eye. Aside from that Phnom Penh is a downright bizarre psychedelic kind of place. Other fun activities here include firing weapons and cockfighting. If you have the money the Cambodian Military will let you loose on any of their weapons from machine guns to rocket launchers! For those not in the know cockfighting involves chickens with blades attached to their feet going at each other until one decides to through in the towel. This is serious business, punters bet on the outcome and $2 will get you a ringside seat at a cockfighting event.
Beach bums should head and check out Sihanoukville’s backpacker paradise (one of our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots). This is where the best beaches in Cambodia are, although they don’t really compare to those in Thailand. A good idea might be to head off to one of the islands off the coast which are often deserted. Other highlights with very few tourists include Ratanakiri province in the far north-east which provide opportunities for trekking through the highlands and forests of the Virachay National Park, swimming in a volcanic crater and some impressive waterfalls.
Buses like just about everything else in Cambodia are ridiculously cheap and will get you to the main towns from Phnom Penh. Unfortunately there are no buses from Sihanoukville to Battambang or Siem Reap, so some thought should go into planning your travels here to avoid having to backtrack, even if you are a go with the flow kind of traveller. Journeys can be slow and not always comfortable, but the main bus companies such as Mekong Express do have air conditioning that will make you feel like you’re somewhere in Antarctica. Buses normally depart from the main market square in each town and don’t depart until they’re pretty full.
There are no trains running any more in Cambodia. The Battambang to Phnom Penh train stopped in 2009. Share taxis and pick-up trucks offer alternatives to buses and your best option in parts of the country. Share taxis normally involve alot of random driving around until the car is full to bursting (you’d be surprised how many people you can fit into a 5-seater!). It’s not an uncommon sight to see pick-up trucks with upto maybe 50 standing local people crammed in the back on the main highways.
There’s also various journeys you can do by boat along the Mekong River which runs from Vietnam through the heart of Cambodia and up north to Laos. You can also catch the fast boats from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, costing $20-25 along the huge Tonle Sap Lake in the heart of the country. Boat journeys are scenic but can be crowded and have little protection against the sun.
If you plan on independent travelling by bike or long hikes then be very careful not to stray after major paths, there are still millions of landmines all over this country and people regularly lose limbs to them. Bicycles can be rented for as little as $1/day and are a fun way to get around the Temples of Angkor Wat.You can get by on foot in all the towns, but tuk-tuks and moto taxis are everywhere, and you can arrange single, return or day trips with them.
The most common route through Cambodia for a South East Asia backpacker is probably Bangkok-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh-HCMC or vice versa. Each leg on this journey is roughly 6 hours although can be and often is more. The border towns on this route aren’t pleasant with massive casino resorts to attract the wealthy folk from Thailand and Vietnam, so be prepared for a negative first impression of this country. Buses run all the way along this route, although you might want to consider a share taxi from Siem Reap to Poipet on the Thai Border.
For fitting it into a South East Asia trip see our Backpacking Route for the region.
There is some exciting nightlife in the main towns of Phnom Penh, Siam Reap and Sihanoukville. Inevitably in a country where drugs are so cheap and readily available, nights can get a little crazy and you will encounter many people, locals and foreigners alike completely off their faces on drugs. Each town has a slightly different scene though.
Siem Reap attracts more package tourist types with a bit more cash and the town has a slightly classier feel, but there is still a great traveller vibe to it with people just come back from a day at Angkor. There are some lively bars on and around the brilliantly named Pub Street and this town really comes alive at night with some great night markets to test your haggling skills and fish massage places that you should check out!
Phnom Penh has the biggest selection of nightlife. The main backpacker ghetto is the lakeside (Boeung Kak) and the place is oddly charming even if drugs aren’t your thing, although it certainly helps! Elsewhere bars and clubs are dotted around the city, attracting a mix of foreigners and wealthy local youths. Phnom Penh is actually fairly safe when you consider the utter lawlessness of the place (the police are corrupt and useless). Compared to Bangkok it’s nowhere near as seedy although the city does have it’s share of prostitutes and ladyboys. Happy pizza parlours are found all over the city, offering tasty pizzas that get you high…fun times!
Sihanoukville has lots too offer too. There’s plenty of 24 hour bars so nightlife here can and does last too well past sunset. There’s lots of beachside bars and budget food places and bbq’s. If you arrive at full moon time then there’s often parties on the beach if not quite on the scale of Koh Phangan. The most lively backpacker scene is around Serendipity Beach.
Khmer is the official language and script of Cambodia. Anyone working in the tourist sector will speak enough English so you don’t have to know Khmer but if heading off into the wilderness it’s very useful to learn some basics.
hello- johm riab sua
goodbye- lia suhn hao-y
yes-baat (if you’re a dude) jaa (if you’re a girl)
thank you-aw kohn
when does the bus leave?-laan ch’nual jein maong pohnmaan?
bus station- kuhnlaing laan ch’nual
how much is that?- nih th’lay pohnmaan?
too much- th’lay pek!
1 muy 2 pii 3 bei 4 buan 5 bram 6 bram muy 7 bram pii 8 bram bei 9 bram buan 10 dawp 11 dawp muy 12 dawp pii
Typical Backpacker Budget
Roughly $20 a day or less will get you a basic room and couple of decent meals a day with enough left over for several drinks in the bar and a couple of joints if you so fancy. Most activities and tourist attractions are cheap and you can travel practically the length of the country for under $5. The main towns are all small enough to get by on foot, but it won’t break the bank to take a tuk-tuk every now and then. The temples of Angkor Wat is the only exception to the general cheapness with entry fees of $20 as it is the only site in Cambodia which attracts large numbers of international tourists.
Budget room in Phnom Penh $3/night
Budget room in Siem Reap $4/night
Draught glass of Angkor Beer 2000 Riel
Jug of Angkor Beer $1.50 (6000 Riel)
Joint in a bar $1
Ounce of weed (bought in guesthouse or on street) $10
6 hour bus journey $4
A meal in a cheap restaurant $3
A moto ride in town 2000 Riel
A moto ride at night $1
AUGUST 2015 UPDATE
Recent traveller reports suggest inflation has hit and although Cambodia is still very cheap to travel in, the prices featured in this guide may have increased. For the latest check out our article on the cost of travel in Cambodia, which is newer and will be updated more regularly.
This article was published in May 2011.