Cambodia is a beautiful country, but most backpackers don’t give it the attention it deserves. It’s a poor country with a tragic recent past, but still everyone walks around with a smile on their face. Cambodians are some of the nicest people I have ever met.
Most tourists blaze through on their way from Thailand to Vietnam, just to tick Angkor Wat off their bucketlist. But there are so many cool and beautiful places in Cambodia worth visiting. These were my favourites:
1. Phnom Penh
Often the jump off point to or from Vietnam, you’ll find plenty of backpackers here at any time. Much to my surprise, Phnom Penh is a modern city with wide streets, hip bars and fancy villas. The absolute must-do in Phnom Penh is a visit to the S21 prison and the killing fields. It is not a fun outing, but a very informative, impressive and moving one. It will teach you everything you never learned in school about the dark recent past of Cambodia during the brutal genocide by the Khmer Rouge. Once you are recovered from that, check out the Central Market for anything you might need, treat yourself to a massage, some good food and a drink or two.
Where to stay: Find some relief from the heat in the pool at Lovely Jubbly Villa and catch up on sleep in their fairly priced and air conditioned dorms.
2. Siem Reap
The second biggest, but most visited city of Cambodia, Siem Reap is best known for the Angkor Archeological Park. Angkor is definitely worth a visit, I recommend buying a daypass renting a tuk-tuk and get up early (4:30!) to catch the sunrise. Spend the morning exploring Angkor Wat and the other temples before it gets too hot. You can do several days, but unless you are a real history buff, I’ve never met anyone who thought it was worth it. In spite of the huge tourist attraction of Angkor, Siem Reap is surprisingly relaxed. The Pub Street and Night Market are touristic, but not nearly as bad as Khao San Road in Bangkok. The backpacker scene has more of a relaxed party vibe. Food and beer are the cheapest here of anywhere in Cambodia, so enjoy it while you can.
Where to stay: When it comes to accommodation in Siem Reap there is only one question: how much do you want to party? If you want to be drunk from dusk till dawn, then Funky Flashbackers is the place to be. If you want to chill by a pool, don’t mind a 15 min walk and are on a budget, Yolo hostels 2 USD dorms are what you need.
3. Koh Rong & Koh Rong Samloem
Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are absolute tropical paradise islands. These islands of the southern coast of Cambodia have become very popular in the past few years, but are definitely nowhere near the level of the Thai islands. If you are looking for a relaxed getaway, incredible beaches, blue water and fun parties, than this is the place to be.
I personally prefered Koh Rong, although I’m biased as I ended up working there for two weeks. It is described as the ‘party island’, but it has so much more to offer. It’s slightly more developed, with okay wifi and electricity, but still that remote island charm. There are great parties every night, but also enough space to chill and other activities, such as zip-lining and boat tours. The people that live on Koh Rong are a great community of locals, expats and volunteers. Long Beach on Koh Rong is the most beautiful beach I have seen outside of the Philippines.
Koh Rong Samloem is a bit more expensive and has less to do than Koh Rong. M’Pai Bay is (painfully) hipster and Saracen Bay is lined with resorts. Perfect if you are a couple looking for a romantic getaway, not so great if you are a solo backpacker on a budget.
On both Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem you’ll see a lot of signs ‘staff wanted’ or ‘volunteers needed’. Restaurants, bars and hostels are always looking for Western tourists to stay for a few weeks or months to help out. In return they offer free accommodation, food and drinks. On Koh Rong it also means staff discount at other places and free entrance to parties. I ended up working in Rising Sun restaurant for 2 weeks and loved every second of it. It allowed me to stay on this expensive island basically for free and the work was chill and fun. If you have some extra time, definitely try it yourself!
Kampot was my second destination in Cambodia and I immediately loved it. As soon as I saw the giant durian fruit statue in the middle of town, I was sold. Kampot is a super relaxed riverside town with a great vibe. Definitely visit one of the pepper farms for a free tour and tasting of the world-famous pepper that is grown here. I recommend La Plantation. You can go by tuk-tuk or rent a motorbike or bicycle and drive yourself, but be aware that the road is particularly bad. Kampot is also home to a lot of ‘happy pizza’ restaurants. For a few dollars extra, they add a little extra ‘herb’ to your pizza. Give it a taste if you like 😉
Where to stay: Karma Traders offers comfy dorms, a pool and rooftop bar for a fair price.
Battambang often gets overlooked by tourists visiting Cambodia, which is a real shame, but also part of its charm. Battambang is laid-back and non touristic, so you get to relax and see the ‘real’ Cambodia without all the scams and tourist traps. The town itself has some lovely colonial architecture and there is a lot to do and see in the countryside. Instead of booking an organised tour, I recommend hiring one of the local tuk-tuk drivers to take you around, they charge around 5 USD per person for a half day tour. I rode the bamboo train, which was really fun, saw the killing cave and sunset at the bat cave. The sunset was particularly impressive, not just because it was beautiful, but because of the 10 million bats that live in the cave that stream out to hunt when the sun sets. Truly a unique sight. I also took a great cooking class at Nary Kitchen, where we had a guided tour of the market and learned to cook 4 local dishes for just 10 USD per person!
What are your favourite places in Cambodia? Or are you planning a trip and need help deciding on an itinerary? Let me know in the comments.
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