Cambodia was the one country on my travels that I was hesitant to visit. Whenever I met other backpackers it was always 50/50 whether they loved or hated it. They had regaled me with tales of how they had been robbed and I was petrified to go. My boyfriend and I decided it was better to wait until our friend had arrived so the 3 of us would go together. Strength in numbers and all that.
I got a Tuk-Tuk outside the airport and drove 10 minutes to our hostel. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic clutching my backpack to my chest inside the Tuk-Tuk so nobody on a motorbike could swipe my belongings from me while driving. We had planned on a short visit to Cambodia. ‘Let’s go just to say we’ve been’ sort of thing. I look back and laugh now as I write this because Cambodia is one of my top two favourite countries in South East Asia.
Entry Requirements and Visas
Something for you to note. Before you can board any vehicle headed for Cambodia you need to have proof of onward travel i.e a ticket to show when and how you are leaving Cambodia. As a backpacker, with plans that are ever changing, it can be hard to decide how long you will spend in a country. To allow me the flexibility while travelling I used a site called onwardticket.com for proof of my onward travel. This site lets you reserve a flight for roughly €15 and holds your ticket for 24 hours. You simply show this at the desk and the reservation expires after 24 hours. This will give you the freedom to travel without a deadline date. You will never be asked for proof on onward travel after entering Cambodia.
The visa process is super quick and easy. You will fill out a visa form on the flight and present it when you land. The visa fee is $35, you have to have this in cash as they do not accept card. USD is used widely in Cambodia along with their own currency Riel. They will not accept any USD that have a slight tear or look worn so be careful when handling your money so as to avoid being out of pocket. I have found while traveling that USD come in handy a lot of the time so if they won’t accept it in Cambodia you will be sure to be able to use it elsewhere.
When backpacking around Cambodia you will either travel from North to South or vice versa. There is an airport in Phnom Penh (N) and Siem Reap (S) which makes it easy to travel to and from other countries from Cambodia. I began in Phnom Penh as I flew from Thailand. You can also opt for a land crossing which is much more budget friendly. Once you are in Cambodia you will travel quite cheaply via bus, train or boat to the other destinations.
Phnom Penh (2 Nights)
I spent two nights in total in the capital and this was plenty of time. I stayed in Mad Monkey Hostel which is a chain hostel found in South East Asia. You can be guaranteed to meet plenty of other backpackers in these hostels as they are sociable and always have plenty of events on. It cost roughly $8 a night for a shared dorm.
I booked through the hostel to visit the S21 prison and the Killing Fields. These tours give you an inside look into Cambodia’s dark history – the genocide killings committed between 1975 – 1979 by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. This tour is not for the faint hearted but I would highly recommend going.
I booked my 3 hour transfer bus from Phnom Penh to our next destination through the hostel. Plenty of mini buses depart a day so you’ll have no issues booking one. The bus cost us roughly $10 and will leave you in the centre where taxis will be waiting for you with a fare as low as $3 to your accommodation.
Kampot (3 Nights)
I spent 3 nights in Kampot in Karma Traders backpacker hostel. The accommodation cost roughly $5 a night for a shared dorm room. They had events on every night like Taco Tuesdays, Burger nights and table quizzes. If you do stay in Karma Traders be sure to lock away your valuables especially if you are staying in one of their outdoor dorms that can be accessed by the general public.
Another accommodation option popular amongst backpackers is Arcadia. A sociable hostel located on the river that has a selection of water activities for you to try out.
There’s plenty to do in Kampot if you’re looking for an adventure. You can rent a motorbike from your hostel or you can hire a driver for a few hours to bring you around if you are not a confident driver. Check out a list of things to do in Kampot here.
From Kampot I planned on getting the 5 hour train to Koh Rong however, when I arrived at the train station the train was sold out. Be sure to go over a day in advance of your trip or book a train ticket online to avoid disappointment. The views from the train are breathtaking and it makes for a smooth, comfortable journey.
Alternatively, you can get a mini bus from your hostel that will drop you to the ferry point in Koh Rong. If you suffer from motion sickness I would avoid the minibus option as the roads are full of potholes. There is one stretch of road that should take 10 minutes to drive that takes an hour due to the potholes. Make sure to wear your seatbelt as you’ll be bouncing off the roof (I’m not even joking). The minibus seats 12 and it cost roughly $20 each.
When you arrive at the ferry port you will purchase an open return ticket for roughly $30. This boat will make two stops. First stop is to Koh Rong and the second is to Koh Rong Samloem. You can choose to do these islands in whatever order you please. I went to Koh Rong Samloem first but I would recommend going to Koh Rong first.
Koh Rong (3 nights)
There’s not a huge amount to do in Koh Rong and you can walk the entire island in about an hour. This was a great place to simply chill and recharge. There are plenty of lovely restaurants along the beach front that are super cheap, tasty and give generous portion sizes. A backpackers trifecta.
I needed a break from the hostel lifestyle so I booked a bungalow for our stay in Koh Rong. I would recommend your stay in Koh Rong overlap with a Saturday because there is a hostel called The Nest that runs a day festival called ‘Nestival’. They hold plenty of games similar to a school sports day with the inclusion of alcohol. It is a great day that helps you meet people and spend your day doing something different. You can opt to stay in The Nest hostel or stay in local bungalows.
I stayed in Happy Elephant Bungalows. My room slept 3 people, had a private bathroom, a porch with a hammock, fans and towels were supplied and it only cost $46 between three people. Absolute bargain!
Make sure to bring enough cash with you for your time on the Koh Rong islands as there are no ATMs on these islands. There is one restaurant on the entire island that will double as an ATM but charge you a surcharge of 10% to withdraw money. You also have to pay for your accommodation by cash as the entire island is run off of a generator.
Koh Rong Samloem (3 Nights)
You can get a quick 20/30 minute boat from Koh Rong island to Koh Rong Samloem. I recommend going to Koh Rong Samloem first as there are plenty more boat times going in this direction. You can get an early boat to arrive in Koh Rong Samloem early and have two full days on this island as I felt 3 nights was too long.
I stayed in Mad Monkey hostel for roughly $6 a night for a shared dorm. You will definitely experience the remote island life here. I stayed in a 6 bed dorm that is in a hut, there are a couple of fans in the dorm room and a hammock outside on each porch. Be sure to bring mosquito repellent with you for your sanity.
The hostel runs daily excursions and you can also get a daily boat over to the mainland as Mad Monkey is more remote than the other hostels. This does add to its charm. Mad Monkey have a bracelet payment system so you top up your bracelet by X amount using your card (again, you’ll incur a surcharge) or by cash. What you don’t spend on your bracelet will be refunded to you on your departure.
Another hostel option, located on the mainland of Koh Rong Samloem, that is popular amongst backpackers is Onederz. A dorm in Onederz is roughly $9 a night.
Siem Reap (5 Nights)
The journey from Koh Rong to Siem Reap is not one to be taken lightly. I began by getting a boat from Koh Rong island back to the ferry port. I had to reserve a time slot for my return trip. Once I arrived back at the port I hailed a taxi to drop me to the bus terminal for a sleeper bus to Siem Reap. This bus is advertised as a 10 hour sleeper bus it actually takes 15 hours. There are no single beds only doubles so if you are travelling alone prepare to have a bunk buddy. The beds are not your typical sized double, more like a large single so it will be a tight squeeze. The bus also picks locals up along the way so the pathways on the bus will be full of people and luggage.
I arrived in Siem Reap centre in the early hours of the morning and there were plenty of taxi drivers waiting. Don’t be afraid to barter with them as they tend to ask for double the going rate. Be sure to check how far of a drive your hotel/hostel is from the bus terminal so you’ll have an idea of what you’re happy to pay.
I stayed in Lub d hostel for roughly $6 a night in a dorm with a shared bathroom. The bathrooms in Lub d are sex segregated. I love staying in Lub d hostels as they are super clean, kitted out with everything you’d need, and the food on site is always delicious. Usually Lub d is a treat as they can be expensive to stay in, especially in Thailand, however, this was not the case in Cambodia.
Siem Riep was definitely my favourite place in Cambodia. You could easily spend 3 days in Siem Reap and see all you need to see but I wouldn’t spend less than that. I was located in the centre which gave me the freedom to walk most places. There is a bustling nightlife, amazing restaurants and plenty to do in Siem Reap.
The main tourist attraction is Angkor Wat – a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. You will also recognise it from the Tomb Raider movies. I booked my tour through the hostel so that transportation and a tour guide was included. You can purchase a day ticket or a multi-day ticket depending on your interests. This tour is a full day tour as you are up at 4.30am to make it to the temples in time for sunrise. Other tours you can embark on are to the landmine museum, national parks, dance and dinner shows and much more.
If you are thinking of heading to Cambodia as part of a backpacking trip across South East Asia or as a stand alone trip I would highly recommend it. You can experience Cambodia as a budget backpacker or a luxury traveller. The Khmer people are so friendly and helpful, the food is delicious, and the views are stunning. What more could you want?