Home » Your ultimate, no-nonsense guide to Cambodia

Your ultimate, no-nonsense guide to Cambodia

written by Jon Collins May 22, 2015
Three Cambodian monks walking along a path

The Kingdom of Cambodia sits at the heart of the Southeast Asia loop, boasting a thread of pristine white coastline and an interior of elephant trodden trails, straw hut villages and emerald jungles – all of which can be explored for a very reasonable price.

Most famous for being the backdrop for a scantily clad Angelina Jolie in ‘Tomb Raider’, the ancient city of Angkor is an essential highlight, but it’s merely one of many treasures the country has on offer.

Cambodia is a country where motorbikes rule the roads, where women are adorned in pyjamas at all hours and where you can buy a crispy pork baguette through a bus window when stopped in traffic. It’s equipped with vibrant markets, a quirky charm, a history that will move you and people that will ensure you leave with the biggest grin on your face. This is the ultimate guide to make every moment in Cambodia count.

1. Start exploring in Phnom Penh

For many, the capital is the introduction or point of arrival, but it’s usually as a quick stopover before moving onwards to exploring northern or southern treasures. It’s a shame, because Phnom Penh is crucial to understanding how history has shaped Cambodia and how the culture and people have evolved in the last few decades.

Time in the capital should be spent seeking out interesting gems in the crowded Central Market Dome (think live tarantulas or life size ‘Gangnam Style’ puppets), joining a group on plastic chairs for cheap, fresh grilled seafood at the colourful tents lining most roads, or simply soaking in the colour and chaos of the capital. At the river waterfront outside the Royal Palace, early risers can join synchronized Phnom Penh residents as they move handheld fans to the rhythm of a Tai Chi class. By evening, the waterfront is an ideal spot for lying on the grass with a beer, as young couples walk hand in hand, street vendors sell sticks of barbequed meat and kids invite you to play football or chase flocks of seagulls. For a capital city, it’s relaxed, affordable and easy to navigate (with the help of a smiling face pointing you in the right direction).

Cambodia tour -Image c/o Jon Collins

Image c/o Jon Collins

2. See Angkor, but see it smart

Siem Reap is easily the most visited city in Cambodia, and for good reason. It is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage temples of Angkor and one more step on the road to becoming Angelina Jolie. Unfortunately this region is the warmest part of the country during wet and dry season, so its highly unlikely you’ll be as flawless and sweat-free as Angelina whilst exploring a labyrinth of ancient temples. Many people do not realize how large the Angkor city is, and I would recommend paying a little extra for the 3-day pass ($40) to take it slow. Depending on how you are travelling and how you wish to see the temples, you can travel from Siem Reap by moto-taxi, on the back of a motorbike or by renting a bicycle and riding into the park from Siem Reap.

Cambodia tour -Image c/o Jon Collins

Image c/o Jon Collins

3. Check out the coastal gems

Whether prawn fishing under the full moon in the sleepy shores of Kep, dancing with fire twirlers on Sihanoukville or island hopping to find the most secluded beach away from the mainland, Cambodia’s southern coastline is an ideal place to unwind in the presence of turquoise waters and other travellers. It’s the best place to wake up with a fresh juice from your local stall, snorkel or fish during the day, find a hammock in the afternoon and a lively bar for the evening. Keep an eye out for the green, phosphorescent plankton that may light up the shores at night too. For sheer beauty and chilled vibes, Koh Rong is a top pick that should not be missed.

Cambodia tour -Image c/o Jon Collins

Image c/o Jon Collins

4. Stray off the tourist trail

Like most countries in South East Asia, tourists follow a clear path through Cambodia before moving on and crossing the border into Thailand. As a result, a lot of Cambodia has been left relatively undiscovered. In the remote provinces with less tourism, people can be so receptive and hospitable that you almost never want to leave. For me the greatest memories of the country were made exploring the northern Ratanakiri province on a motorbike, trudging alongside elephants in dense jungle, getting bogged in red mud, swimming in the crystal clear Yeak Laom crater lake, jumping off the edges of waterfalls, wandering through vibrant food markets and joining people for tea or a meal in the middle of nowhere.

Cambodia tour - Image c/o Jon Collins

Image c/o Jon Collins

5. Manage your money

ATM’s dispense USD and when making a transaction, expect to receive a large amount of change in riel in the form of old ripped notes, so be sure to calculate quickly. Stop off or change bus in the highway town of Skuon, or ‘Spiderville’, where the local delicacy is crispy, fried tarantulas, crickets, scorpions and dragonflies covered in chilli powder. Learning basic language gets you a long way in countries where tourists rarely try; even a simple ‘ah-koon ch-ran’ (thank you very much) will put the biggest smile on someone’s face. As a last note, take the time and talk to as many people from as many different ages as you can, they are the foundation for a new and reformed country with a once horrific past and are a true example of how strong humans can be in the face of adversity.

Ready to explore for yourself? Visit Cambodia on an Intrepid group tour

Feature image c/o Shutterstock.

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13 comments

Rohan October 29, 2017 - 6:59 am

I love this guide and I agree with most of it.

However, I personally didn’t much care for Phnom Penh. Of course, it’s absolutely crucial to go there because of its proximity to the Killing Fields, which I think any tourist must at least learn about, despite how harrowing an experience it can be. But as a city in itself, I was quite underwhelmed by PP. I was infuriated by how far apart everything seemed, especially because I generally like to explore cities on foot. So I couldn’t really do that here, and it was also quite noisy and chaotic, but not in a charming manner. I couldn’t get away either northwards or southwards fast enough.

I love what you’ve written about Angkor and the other places though. I’d taken a single day pass during my trip and that turned out to be a grave mistake. I also absolutely love your photographs.

Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

Tc,
Rohan

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Real Estate Cambodia September 20, 2017 - 11:54 pm

Such a beautifully written guide about Cambodia. It’s always nice to come back 🙂

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PSD xpress January 11, 2017 - 8:44 pm

It was a very well curated selection. I think indeed Phnom Penh deserves a longer stay with new joints appearing there like mushrooms.

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Cassidy Armbruster July 6, 2016 - 8:42 pm

Thank you so much for this post!! I’ll be visiting Phnom Penh in just a few short weeks for almost a month and I am really excited. Thanks to your suggestions, I’ll probably stray off the tourist path, and stay a while along the beach, or will explore the Ratanakiri province. Your pictures are wonderful as well!

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Gaby Risanto June 24, 2016 - 5:23 am

Prawn fishing under the full moon in the sleepy shores of Kep : sounds like a perfect plan! Oh how we love this quiet seaside town Kep! Stunning pics, love them!

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Julia June 10, 2016 - 2:43 pm

Hey!
Currently I´m also traveling through Cambodia and was at Angkor Wat last week. It is a really increadible place just as the entire country! If you want to learn more about the Cambodian spirituality or do some great spiritual activities and workshops, I can recommend you to visit the Wayist Center in Siem Reap. There are daily free workshops on Cambodian spirituality and many other spiritual activities and workshops in which I learned a lot. It´s really worth a visit ( wayist.com) .
Enjoy your journey! 🙂

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Valentine April 23, 2016 - 3:16 pm

Hey there, where about in the northern Ratanakiri province were you staying? We only have around 10 days but getting a bit off the beaten track would be amazing

Best

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Things to do Siem Reap March 2, 2016 - 9:19 pm

really an amazing place Cambodia, must visit once.

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Lara // the passage July 10, 2015 - 2:20 pm

What a wonderful introduction to Cambodia! (I am in love with the last photo with the checkered floor and the ‘infinite’ doorways…) My husband and I are planning a trip this coming winter, and reading this not only amplified my excitement, but also made me realize how challenging it will be to choose what areas to visit in what will surely turn out to be too short of a trip. Getting off the beaten track is a must in my book – do you have a favourite rural destination that you could recommend?

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Intrepid Admin July 13, 2015 - 10:03 am

Hi Lara,

What spots are on your itinerary at the moment? If you let me know I can see what areas might be food for you to stop off out along the way…

Also – and this isn’t me trying to sell you on to an Intrepid trip, promise! – you could take a peek at our pre-made Cambodia itineraries for some inspiration. We’ve got tonnes of useful into on our website: http://www.intrepidtravel.com/cambodia

Cheers!
Ollie

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Lara July 16, 2015 - 12:11 pm

Thanks, Ollie! I have only just begun to think about our itinerary…planning on blending it with a visit to Vietnam. So much to consider, it is a bit overwhelming trying to figure out. The wish list seems to continually grow. Will definitely check out the Cambodia itineraries on your website and will write again when I have a better sense of things! Thanks so much for your input..

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Intrepid Admin July 17, 2015 - 10:48 am

No problem, Lara. Happy planning and give us a yell if you need anything else.

Cheers,
Ollie

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Nicolas May 22, 2015 - 3:01 am

nice! very inspiring to travel to Cambodia..

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