So this is a part of my new series called ‘A beginners guide for beginners’. I thought that I could offer some insight into what to do and what not to do when traveling in these countries. However, I do not fancy myself an expert so that is why these guides are for a beginner by a beginner. I figure, if you are a wanderer like me some tips from a like minded roamer will be just what you want. And with that! Onward to Cambodia!
Some quick and dirty tips for places to go and those you can skip:
Cities/places to visit:
Siem Reap & Angkor Wat
Cities you can skip:
1.) Phnom Pehn – The Capital
Don’t miss the: Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison and Genocide Museum. It might not be the most fun thing you have ever done, but it is good to learn about the genocide that happened only about 30 years ago.
Try the: food at the Central Market, and for the sake of your hearts skip the fried food at the night market by the river.
Look For: The massive amounts of Tuk Tuks (little motorcycle carts that seem to be the main mode of transportation in most of SE Asia) who will offer you anything from a ride to drugs (just being honest). Also check the bars you are going to for black windows. If you can’t see inside you are probably about to walk into a brothel. Surprise!
2.) Sihanoukville – Undiscovered Paradise
I am so, so, so mad that I wasn’t able to get to Sihanoukville. We didn’t hear about it until it was too late, so I don’t want the same thing to happen to you! Sihanoukille (just Google image it and you’ll be checking for hotels ASAP) is the coastal capital city of the Kompong Som province in the south of Cambodia, and is apparently not only cheap (because it is Cambodia and most everything is super cheap there) but also beautiful. You can get there easily by bus or mini van, and there is also a small airport in Sihanoukville. Everyone I have met who has gone here has loved it! I hope you get to go, and don’t forget to soak up some Cambodian sun for me!
3.) Siem Reap – A Mesh of Culture and Tourism (done right)
Don’t miss the: Angkor Wat Temples (duh), Pub Street and Temple Balcony’s free Apsara dancing shows.
Angkor Wat: Either rent a Tuk Tuk who will stay with you for the day, or rent a bike to get to the temples. Both options are cheap, renting a bike is only about $1, but if it is hot (which it probably will be) you might want to ‘spring’ for the Tuk Tuk so you don’t get too tired touring the temples. A one day pass for the Angkor Wat complex is $20, and a 2 or 3 day pass is $40. We just did one day, but you can easily do 2 if you really want to see more temples. Even though they are super cool, and I felt like Laura Croft the entire time, I felt that the temples began to blend together after a bit, maybe that was just the heat stroke talking. Some of the temples are still used as actual temples, so if you want to go into all of them you need to dress modestly (aka cover your shoulders and knees). It will probably be hot, but one of the temples you need to dress this way for offers an amazing view. There are lots of locals selling pretty much everything outside of the temples and along the roadside. I recommend packing some food and water to take with you, so you don’t get stuck paying a bunch for food (even though “a bunch” in this case is probably like 6 or 7 dollars, but when you can get a big sandwich for $1 outside of the temple complex, it kinda is a lot).
Pub Street: An awesome place for food, drinks, and a fishy massage. The Temple Bar and the Angkor What!? Bar on Pub Street are right across from each other and every night both bars blast music so by the end of the night the street becomes a full on dance party. Can you really ask for more? The Fish massages may seem kinda weird, and oh do they feel weird! However, it is sorta just something you need to do when you are in Siem Reap. Plus it isn’t like you are going to ‘waste’ your money. It is like $3 dollars max and you usually get a can of beer with it. Plus the little fishes are so very hungry! They need your skiiiiinnnn.
Try the: CHEAP food from the street vendors, nothing better than a late night dish of fried rice for $2.50, “magic stick” ice cream (terrible ice cream, hilarious shape), $.50 draft beers, street pancakes with banana and Nutella, and the Cambodian Traditional Chef restaurant on Sok San Road near Pub Street. This restaurant has $1 cocktails and yummy food.
Look for: The immensely nice people. Cambodians are really nice, if you just smile at them there is a 95% chance you are going to get a grin in return. This is diluted a little bit because Siem Reap is a tourist town, but they are still nice.
Now for a more in depth look:
- Most countries need a visa for Cambodia, but they are very easy to get. You can either just get one on arrival at the border or airport or you can apply for an E-Visa. Make you sure, if you are crossing into Cambodia by land, that you are going through the approved border crossings for E-Visas. There are only certain border crossings that support the E-Visa. Here is the link for an E-Visa where you can also find more information straight from the source. http://evisa.mfaic.gov.kh/
We went with the E-Visa option because sometimes you can get scammed while crossing into Cambodia. The E-Visa is $25, and the visa on arrival is $20, but there are cases of people being charged double by the border crossing workers. Hey, I never said Cambodia was perfect.
- Cambodia has it’s own currency, the Cambodia Riel, although most places use USD. Even the ATMs will give you your withdrawal in USD. The exchange rate is roughly 4000 Cambodian Riels =$1. What normally happens is you will use USD to pay for something, and if there is change you will get Cambodian Riels back; they don’t use US coins. I didn’t have any problems using my Chinese bank card with Union Pay in Cambodia, and most ATMs accepted VISA, Mastercard and a whole slew of other cards. However as always, you should take some cash with you just in case.
- Haggle. As with Vietnam you can haggle nearly everywhere you go. Except in the sit down restaurants in Siem Reap. Places with actual menus tend to frown upon you trying to haggle down their prices, but shopkeepers expect you to haggle. This is why the first prices they give you are usually so high (also because they know they will get some people who wont haggle and they get loads more money). I love haggling with shop keepers because they are probably the most fun locals you will encounter. If you can have a good laugh and mess with them they will mess right back. The key is to know how much you will pay before you start. That way you can ‘walk away’ if the price doesn’t fit. Nine times out of ten when you ‘walk away’ they will bring down the price again. In Siem Reap and Phnom Penh there are huge markets where you can get any kind of souvenir your little heart desires.
- As with any place you are unfamiliar with, make sure you take care of your belongings. Cambodia isn’t a rich country and it isn’t entirely without its corruption, so make sure you are not throwing around a ton of money and leaving your wallets and purses in plain view. Basically, don’t be stupid.
You will mostly likely cross into Cambodia from a land border crossings, so your arrival in Phnom Penh will be by a bus. Most hotels and some hostels will offer you a free pick up. We arrived too late in the evening to score a pick up from our hostel, but I had emailed our host prior to our arrival and received directions.
We only stayed in Phnom Penh for about a day or so, and to be completely honest, that was enough for me. I didn’t really feel like it was a hopping place to be with tons of tourist attractions. That being said, I met a few people who really loved it and stayed longer than they planned. It really is your own prerogative. Therein lies the beauty of backpacking! Definitely the main attraction of Phnom Penh is the Killing Field. Get your hostel or hotel to arrange a Tuk Tuk for you to get there, and hold on for the ride through the bumpy backstreets and dirt roads. When you get there it is about $6 for the audio tour, and it is definitely worth it because you will learn a lot more than by just walking around. It is tough to think that only about 30 or so years ago there were millions of people being killed in Cambodia and hardly anyone knew about it. The world was focused more on Vietnam and the war happening there to realize what was happening just next door. In just a few years Cambodia lost almost half of it’s population. 2-3 million out of 8 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields are a sobering reminder that most of those people were killed for absolutely no reason. If you wore glasses. Dead. If you lived in a city. Dead. If you were at all educated. Dead. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, wanted ignorance and he forced it upon Cambodia.
After the Killing Fields, your Tuk Tuk driver will take you to the S-21 prison or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This used to be a high school and was turned into a prison where anyone thought to have information was held, tortured, and eventually taken to the killing fields. Just to warn you, this whole day will be emotionally draining, especially when you see photos of the people held there and see that about a 3rd of them were children. What they thought a toddler could possibly do to their regime I will never, in my most horrid nightmares, know.
After the S-21 prison you can either go home to cry silently into your pillow for a bit, or you can go to the shooting range. We skipped the shooting range even though shooting a bazooka did sound a little fun, but shooting a gun after seeing all that death did not appeal to us. You can, if you really want to, shoot a bazooka at a cow. I’m not a vegetarian and I like meat, but this just seems not only wasteful, but also pretty sick. If you choose to do this, I hope you miss and the cow escapes, runs away, and headbutts you. Sorry, i’m on the cow’s side for this one. Once you get back to the city, head to the Central Market for a crowded, delicious lunch experience. We ended up having this amazing noodle dish heaping with egg, bean sprouts and beef for only about $2.
After the morning you have had, you might want to rest a bit before dinner. Then head to the river front and enjoy the cool air from the water as you scope out where you want to go that night. Head to the night market near the river for dinner, but steer clear of the fried food. It is deep fried twice (possibly three times?), and trust me when I say it might look good, but it so isn’t worth it. It is a nice experience to sit and eat on the blankets spread in the middle of the market though.
After dinner head back to whatever place you saw earlier that looked promising. We chose a bar with a balcony that looked out onto the street and river, plus $.75 drafts. I have absolutely no idea when these bars close, if at all, so stay and chat with your friends or the locals as long as you want!
Oh Siem Reap, I could write you a sonnet. We loved this city so much that we stayed an extra day and wanted to stay longer. You will probably also arrive in Siem Reap by a bus or van, so grab a Tuk Tuk or have your hotel or hostel pick you up. The main touristy parts of Siem Reap are all very close together, so it isn’t difficult to get around. There is so much to see and do in Siem Reap that you wont get bored. Here is a quick list of some things we did:
- Apsara Dancing Shows – The Temple Bar Balcony has a free show every night, but you are expected to order dinner or drinks.
- Fish Massage – Seriously just try it, and try and hold back your giggles. I guarantee you wont be able to.
- Street Massage – Basically these are little roadside shops where you can go and get a $3 half an hour head, neck and shoulder massage. I don’t like strangers touching me, but if I can do it so can you!
- Pub Street – The restaurants on this street are a little more expensive than on other streets, so if you want to eat cheap go a little further away from the tourist strip. This is the place to be for drinking though. There is also a hostel called the Drunken Monkey that has a bar on the top floor. It is a nice bar, complete with sand and beer pong. A nice to start the night and kick a little ass in beer pong before going to Pub Street.
- Play Indiana Jones at the Angkor Wat temples – Clearly this is the main attraction of Siem Reap, and for good reason. The Angkor Wat temple complex is a vast area with countless temples. The main temple is the actual Angkor Wat temple, which is massive and the most crowded, but the other temples are just as cool. Angkor WatIn fact my favorite temple was Angkor Thom, and not because that is where part of Tomb Raider was filmed, even though I do think that is pretty cool. It was left more or less how it was found, so there are trees growing out of it and parts of it have fallen down.
- Take a walk by the river and try and find the Royal Residence – I still don’t know if we found it or not, or if it was just seriously understated.
- Peruse the multiple markets that seem to spread out through the entire city – You can find the coolest stuff in these markets! Don’t forget to haggle!
Overall, Siem Reap was one of my favorite places to stay in SE Aisa. It I hadn’t had a job to come back to in China, I would have seriously considered looking for a job there. I would even go back to waitressing if I could have stayed in that chilled out city. The vibe, the people, the parties, the culture, I loved everything about it! If you are on the fence about going to Cambodia, I would go just simply for this city if nothing else. Yes, Cambodia is a little corrupt and there are more beggars than some other places, but for the most part Cambodia is full of nice, happy people and is a place I personally will never forget.
Where to Stay:
I will always stay in hostels if I can. Of course, I say this now because I’m poor and like to socialize. Maybe in a few years i’ll not want to sleep in a dorm full of fun loving party people…. doubtful but maybe. I love hostels so much because they do everything they can to make you socialize and meet new people!
When I look for hostels to stay in I always use http://www.hostelworld.com or http://www.hostelbookers.com. No, neither of these websites paid me to advertise for them. I just really like using them! I have found all of my hostels through them and I have never (well almost never) stayed in a bad one. The key things to look out for on these websites is:
1.) Location – nothing is worse then finding a cheap hostel only to find out when you arrive that is it out in the middle of nowhere.
2.) Price (duh) – especially in SE Asia if you are paying more than $15 a night (and that is on the very high end) for a hostel room you might as well just pick up a pile of bills and burn it.
3.) Facilities – What do they offer? If you don’t want to bother packing a towel make sure the hostels you are booking come with a towel. Most do, but some you have to pay for.
4.) Look at the reviews, but take them with a grain of salt. I always check the reviews before I book because that is where you find the best information about the hostel. Is the breakfast they offer good? Will the owner talk your ear off? Does it not really offer the things it says it does? However, not everyone’s standards will be the same. I have been in some hostels where one or two people commented that is was filthy and when I stayed It was spotless. Even so, checking the comments is the best way to find out information about the hostel they might not have put on the information page.
Where I Stayed:
Phnom Penh – Hostel Nomads
This hostel was nice, if nothing special. We stayed in a dorm room with the bathrooms and lock boxes in the hallway. The lock boxes have charging ports inside them which is really handy! The dorm room is basic with fairly comfortable mattresses on the ground each with a fan and mosquito net. It was a good price and a good location, quite near to the Central Market and to the water front. The owner is British and will talk your ear off, but he is nice, helpful and clearly loves Phnom Pehn. They also offer food and laundry at a good price. I would skip the laundry though, I got mine back and it wasn’t really cleaned at all.
Siem Reap – Angkor Wonder Hostel
Unless you are looking for a party hostel in Siem Reap, (I don’t know why you would because there is enough of a party at Pub Street all the time) stay at this hostel. It isn’t far away from Pub Street, and the family who owns it are really nice! They also have the softest beds I have ever slept on. No exaggeration. It was like sleeping on straight memory foam which is really rare in SE Asia. It is also really cheap! We paid about $8/night for a private twin with its own bathroom. You really can’t beat it! There is also a party hostel on the opposite side of pub street that has a bar and a small pool, but you can go to the bar and the pool (for a fee) without having to be actually staying in the hostel.
There is no train system in Cambodia, so your mode of transportation will have to be a mini bus or van or a plane. The plane will probably be more comfortable, but much less convenient and more expensive. The roads in Cambodia are not as finished as some might hope, so you will most likely have smaller buses/vans that can handle the dirt roads better. As with anywhere, you should go with as reputable a company as you can find for bus tickets. The easiest way, which might not necessarily be the cheapest way, is to get them through your hostel or hotel. Try not to book very last minute, as you might not get the time you want to leave.
If you take Tuk Tuks that are not sent for you by the place you are staying, make sure you agree on a price before you get in. Most Tuk Tuk drivers are honorable enough that they won’t try and charge you more than you agreed upon, but if they do just insist upon the price you agreed on. If you don’t agree on a price ahead of time, they will ask you for a much higher price and they will be the ones insisting.
I hope that this guide helps you out on your travels. Like I said before, I am not an expert nor have I been to every city in Cambodia, but if you need some honest tips from one traveler to another you know where to come!
I feel like I’m in my classroom when I say this, but if you have any questions about anything feel free to ask away! Also, keep on the lookout for my next post about Cambodia.
Until next time, explorers, never forget:
Adventure is out there, so never stop exploring!