Further off the beaten path than Thailand, Cambodia has incredibly rich history, should you choose to explore it. Travelers from all over come to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, but typically don't get as far as the island of Koh Rong, where white sands meet crystal clear waters.
Cambodia has an incredibly eclectic history for backpackers to learn of, from the ancient temples and spiritual monuments, to memorials for those that were killed during the Genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. It's possible to see the main sites in 2 weeks or less, but for those who want to see a paradise island with minimal infrastructure, similar to what islands in Thailand looked like 15 years ago, I highly recommend finishing a tour of the country with a journey south to Koh Rong for 3-5 days of relaxation.
Cambodia is one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia to travel in, so it's not really necessary to put crazy effort into getting a good deal. You'll be saving money just by spending time here. Unlike Thailand, Cambodia uses the United States Dollar, and for amounts smaller than a dollar, the Cambodia Riel comes into play. I was able to get away with spending between $15-20 per day, and on days of excessive drinking and activities, no more than $20-30. The most expensive activity is seeing Angkor Wat, which costs about $20 per day. Also...do NOT eat street food in Cambodia.
- Dorm Beds: $4.00 - $6.00
- Private Room: $5.00 - $20.00
- Budget Meal: $1.00 - $6.00
- Western Food: $3.00 - $7.00
- Pint of Beer: $.70 - $1.50
- 2-liter Water: $1.00
- Massage (1-hr): $9.00
- Transportation (per 100km): $2.00 - $3.00
Home to Angkor Wat and its accompanying temples, Siem Reap is the most popular city to begin a circuit through Cambodia. I got here by way of day bus from Bangkok, which takes about 7 hours. My favorite hostels to stay at throughout the country are the Mad Monkey's, as they are the most fun for parties and meeting people. If you it interests you, there are a number of shooting ranges nearby that will let you shoot an AK-47 for an exorbitant amount of money. But when else are you going to have the chance to shoot one? Since practically every backpacker in Siem Reap is there to visit Angkor Wat, it's easy to get a group of 4 together so you can hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the temples, and split the fare amongst yourselves.
1, 3, and 5-day passes are available for Angkor Wat, and I recommend doing a 3 day if you want to see the temples in detail. You can make arrangements with the staff at your hostel the night before to get a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the temple for the sunrise the next day, but once you've gotten that out of the way, you can also rent bicycles to ride around the temples on your own clock. Also, talk to the staff about what time the sun is rising that day, and be sure to wake up and be there early enough to get through the crowds and to the main temple with time to enjoy it. It's surreal, to say the least. My personal favorite temple was Angkor Thom, which features the gigantic faced statues pictured below.
Although I completely understand that most people are not traveling to see things that will make them sad or upset, the education from visiting the Killing Fields is beyond important to get, especially for those of us that never saw the effects of war in our home countries growing up. Taking the tour through the Killing Fields was one of the single most overwhelming and sobering experiences I've ever had. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot lead the genocide of all educated citizens of Cambodia, killing 3 out of 8 million people. Seeing firsthand what can happen when absolute power corrupts absolutely, I firmly believe, is essential for all of us to assure that history will never repeat itself.
If you have the wherewithal, the high school that was converted into a prison and torture facility called 'S-21' is now a museum, and also worth a visit to learn about what horror these kind people had to face.
Sihanoukville is a fun beach town that's worth a day or two of exploration. If you plan on heading to Vietnam next, there are a number of passport places here that you can get a visa in advance (Vietnam requires visas to be applied for prior to entry.) The town is a backpacker mecca, and so is a great place to meet people, drink, and trade travel stories. Most people party all over long beach, and there are also a number of other beaches you can explore via short tuk-tuk rides. At your hostel, you'll be able to book a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Rong. At night, people gather on the coast to dance, drink, enjoy the sounds of the ocean crashing onto the beach, and light up cheap fireworks!
Full disclosure, Koh Rong does not have the infrastructure of the Thai islands, but that's what gives it its charm. Wi-fi is spotty, your showers will be short, and going to the bathroom is a mission, but the island is the definition of paradise. It is a truly nourishing island to be on, spending the days alternating between baking on the perfectly white sand, and cooling off in the bright blue ocean. Also, at night the water is filled with glow in the dark, and harmless, plankton! We spent many nights watching the stars from the water, moving our hands throughout them.
The only major thing you need to be careful of: do not stay here during the rainy season. When it rains on the beach, sand flies come out, which are an absolute nightmare. I was bitten by sand flies during my second stay on the island, and got parasitic infections that would not heal with peroxide or anti-bacterial ointment, and required seeing a doctor to get antibiotics. If it's not raining, you'll have a great time. If it rains, RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN.
I have to give a special shoutout to Bong's Guesthouse on Koh Rong. Bong means brother in Khmer, and everyone who works and lives there will treat you like family. They frequently have open mics, and are a great spot to enjoy drinks and live music at night after you've spent the day roasting on the beach. To get to Bong's, keep walking about 50 meters to your right after you exit the ferry dock on the island. Ask for Jake or Millsy, and tell them I sent you!
- Avoid Koh Rong if it rains, but regardless, travel with antibiotics.
- When bussing into the country, keep all of your valuables with you in a day bag at all times, and just clothes in your bag that goes under the bus. At the border, people go through all of the bags underneath the bus and steal electronics and valuables.
- Do not eat street food, it's not as clean here.
- You can get your visa for the country at the border, ignore anybody that tries to scam you into paying them for a visa on a bus.
- Leave a tip for monks when visiting temples.