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Cambodia has well and truly planted itself on Southeast Asia’s backpacker circuit, thanks to its budget-friendly nature, wealth of warm faces and abundance of authentic experiences. Here’s our comprehensive guide on everything you need to know about backpacking across this beautiful, ancient country.
From bargain basement backpackers through to upmarket flashpackers, Cambodia attracts them all with budget travel easily accessible. It’s easy to see why, with tourist hubs like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Kampot dotted with quality budget accommodation, guesthouses, restaurants and bars (and of course, cheap booze).
The traveller scene is lively here, with many approaching the country as a base to relax before exploring the rest of Southeast Asia. As a result there are plenty of like-minded travellers to share tales and make memories with. Part of the appeal of Cambodia is its ‘Wild West’ reputation, with intrepid backpackers able to get way off the beaten track with ease.
If that hasn’t convinced you yet, there’s the multitude of beaches, islands, jungles, mountains, paddies and temples to explore. As it turns out, many travellers extend their stay in the Kingdom of Wonder way beyond expected. So much for it being a ‘stopgap’.
If there’s a crowd of locals eating, it’s safe
Part of the Cambodian experience is sampling the array of street food served from the carts that dot the streets. However, fear of the results of dabbling in these affordable eats prevents many from tucking in. If you see crowds of Cambodians flocked around a roadside diner, then take this as a green light to eat away.
Respect the religion
Cambodia’s state religion is Buddhism and is widely practised among the population. While it’s easy to get carried away by the party spirit while on your travels, keeping your behaviour relatively reserved while in public will go a long way. Keep PDAs to a minimum, keep shoulders and knees covered, especially at temples and places of importance, and don’t lose your temper and cause loss of face.
Learn a bit of the language
Picking up a few essential phrases of Khmer will not only earn you heaps of laughs and smiles, it will also help drive down prices – something that comes in handy if you’re planning on sticking around for a couple of months. Knowing simple phrases, such as how are you?, how much? and numbers for bartering, will enhance every experience.
Cambodia carries an undeserved reputation of being unsafe, which simply isn’t true. Of course, travellers are encouraged to keep their wits about them – as they would anywhere in the world – but the Kingdom is full of friendly faces when it comes to foreigners. This also makes the country a safe place for all those solo female travellers out there. However, be aware that tourist hubs are rampant with reports of bag snatches, so keeping valuables close (or locked in a safe) is advisable.
The country’s biggest killer is its roads. Night travel in Cambodia is notorious, with fatal crashes occurring on its many unlit roads. For this reason avoid taking night buses where possible. When catching day buses, also double-check the reputation of the company, as many accidents occur when drivers who have been on shift for more than 24-hours fall asleep at the wheel.
Night-time drinking is also a problem, with booze-fuelled drivers frequently taking to the roads, so avoid catching motodops (motorbike taxis) at night and stick to tuk tuks or taxis. Several taxi apps now operate in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, such as PassApp and Grab, offering taxi car, rickshaw and tuk tuk rides. If riding a motorbike, always wear a helmet.
When it comes to food and accommodation, Cambodia is awash with a staggering range of options catering to all budgets and tastes. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot and Sihanoukville are a foodie’s dream, with restaurants serving up mouth-watering meals from all corners of the globe.
Staving off hunger won’t burn a hole in your pocket as street food costs little more than a couple of bucks. Plenty of guesthouses and cheap eateries offer hearty courses for as little as $3 USD. If you’ve got a bit of cash to splash and fancy treating yourself, then a top-quality meal can be secured for less than $10 USD.
Finding a bed for the night isn’t hard, thanks to the rapidly rising number of hotels, guesthouses and other accommodation mushrooming across the country. Phnom Penh is home to a cute collection of affordable boutique hotels for those with a bit more cash to splash, while cheap and cheerful guesthouses stud tourist hubs, such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Many offer a mix of dorms and private rooms, depending on your budget. Booking directly with the guesthouse or hotel will be slightly better value than securing a bed through online travel sites.
Cambodia’s thriving traveller scene means making friends is easy. The majority of guesthouses have communal areas, organised activities and bars where you’ll find other backpackers hanging out. Choosing a reputable spot such as Mad Monkey, Top Banana or Lub D, also comes with benefits as they host tours, activities and evening entertainment. A sure set way to meet new people.
Once you’ve got a gang together, head to one of the many beer gardens for the evening. Popular with locals, these usually feature live entertainment in the form of music, karaoke and lots of beer. Cambodians are friendly, and you’ll soon find yourself ‘chul mouying’ (or cheers-ing) the night away.
Again, it’s well worth learning a few essential phrases.
It’s worth noting that while the local currency is riel (4,000 riel to $1), US dollars are the preferred notes. Cambodia is a money-centric country where cash rules, with cards accepted in just a handful of larger outlets. Keep your dollar bills crisp because if they are torn or shabby, they will often be refused. Learn more about the riel here and how to stay within budget.
1 meal ($1-$3 USD)
1 beer ($0.50-$1.50)
1 night at a backpacker hostel (dorm: $2-10; private room: $10-25)
1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel (tuk-tuk: $1.50-$3; motorbike taxi: $0.50-$2)
1 hygiene/medical essential ($50-$100)
1 affordable experience (one-day pass for Angkor Wat Archaeological Park: $37)
Learn more about costs in Cambodia here.
Most people’s first stop-off in Cambodia. Home to Angkor Wat, in high season ‘Temple Town’ spills over with tourists desperate to catch a glimpse of the world’s largest religious structure, and once you’ve seen it you’ll understand why.
A laidback river town popular with those seeking a vacation from their vacation. Book a riverfront hostel, pop open a can of Angkor beer and watch the world go by. More adventurous souls may hire a motorbike and head up Bokor Mountain.
Koh Rong Samloem
For a taste of that postcard perfect tropical island life, add Koh Rong Samloem to your list. Home to a smattering of simple beach huts and swathes of untouched stretches of white sand, the island also boasts translucent turquoise waters perfect for snorkelling.
This rugged rural province is home to less than 100,000 people, many of whom are from ethnic tribes. Home to thick jungle, Mondulkiri is making a name for itself as the country’s eco-tourism centre, with a handful of ethical elephant sanctuaries operating in the area, as well as homestay initiatives.
Designed as a coastal resort during French colonial times, Kep was once peppered with modernist villas used as weekend getaways for the country’s elite. While the devastation of the Khmer Rouge brought an end to all that, the charming seaside town is making a comeback and is the perfect spot for a quiet couple of days. Try the crab and Kampot pepper the town is famous for.
Catch the sunrise behind Angkor Wat
You may well have to battle the crowds to secure a good spot these days, but if you stumble upon a good spot you’ll be rewarded with a cracking sunrise that paints the sky a palette of colour. Absolutely nothing beats watching the sun peek from behind the iconic spires of Angkor Wat.
Ride the bamboo train
Another unforgettable experience to be had that sits in Battambang is the bamboo train. Called a norry in Khmer, the ‘train’ is made of a small bamboo platform covered with a mat and a few thin cushions to sit on. This sits on two sets of bogies with a simple motor at the back. A wooden pole is used as both the brakes and accelerator, with the train hitting speeds of up to 50km/h. A truly exhilarating experience.
Witness A bat exodus
A visit to Battambang’s bat caves at dusk brings with it a truly mesmerising sight. Every evening, a crowd gathers at the foot of Phnom Sampeou (sitting about 12km from Battambang city), to watch the millions of bats that stream from the caves for a night of hunting. A true spectacle that lasts for up to 40 minutes.