Everyone seems to love my ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ showdowns! So today I am going to give the full open and honest verdict on Cambodia. Let’s be frank….Cambodia is not the best place for first time solo travellers. It’s much more challenging than some other part of Southeast Asia such as Thailand. But, saying that, the rewards of a Cambodia vacation can be MASSIVE, and of course the icing on the cake is experiencing the temples of Angkor Wat. I have to say that Siem Reap is one of my favourite destinations in the world, and nothing I have found yet tops this destination for ancient temples.
So, if you are planning a Cambodia vacation, this blog is for you! I am going to give you my honest opinion of the good and the bad of travelling in Cambodia. There’s nothing I hold back in these reviews and so don’t be put off by the bad (and the ugly!) just take it as a sign to be well prepared.
Trust me, you will have the BEST time ever in Cambodia!
My Cambodia Vacation
To give you a glimpse into my itinerary, I had 3 full weeks in Cambodia. I spent five days in Phnom Penh, ten days with Siem Reap as a base, a day travelling to Preah Vihear and three days in Battambang. I didn’t end up making it to any of the beaches or islands because I loved Siem Reap so much so I decided to stay on there to see more temples.
Getting to Cambodia
Cambodia shares a border with Thailand and most travellers combine these two countries if possible. You can take a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap (which is what most travellers do) or you can even brave it overland! We made the mistake of flying into Phnom Penh via China – do not fly with China Airlines on this route.
It is a long and unpleasant flight with a weird border transition where they give you a Chinese transit visa. We have even heard the nightmare of some travellers being refused this and never getting to their destination as a result!
My Cambodia Vacation – The Good
Cambodia is, as I have mentioned, one of my all time favourite destinations. Phnom Penh was a much more pleasant city than I expected it to be, with sights as amazing as Bangkok but much less crowded. The combination of a fantastic digital nomad scene and the stunning ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat meant that I settled right in and felt so ‘at home’ in Siem Reap!
Highlights of any Cambodia vacation include visiting Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh and (if you have time) Battambang or Kampot. You will find Cambodia to be educational, great value for money and the perfect combination of history and scenery or beaches.
The Temples of Angkor Wat
There’s no doubt about it – Angor Wat is the best ancient temple complex in the world. And so, if religion and history are your thing, this is a must see ‘once in a lifetime’ destination. Surprisingly, Angkor Wat itself was not the temple that MOST impressed me in Angkor Wat. You see it’s not just one temple, but a whole complex of temples over 162 hectares.
Spend at least 3 full days exploring this temple complex (I spent a week!) and set out early with yoru Tuk-Tuk driver (around 7.30am). Remember to get your pass on your first day from the ticket office (read about getting your Angkor Wat ticket here) and carry it with you at all times when visiting the temples. There are several temples and temple routes that you should include on your itinerary:
Phnom Penh Royal Palace
Phnom Phenh was extremely surprising to me, and in a good way! There were well kept roads and beautiful roundabouts with a fabulous promenade along the Tonle Sap river. But, what impressed me the most about Phnom Penh was the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. This is as impressive as the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but no where near as busy. You can enjoy the stunning palace halls, viharas (prayer halls) and gardens quite peacefully. Just remember to wear something conservative – you won’t be let in wearing a vest top and shorts! Cover your shoulders.
Cheap and Great Value
Your money will go a long way in Cambodia, especially considering the excellent value food and drinks. You can find a meal in an inexpensive restaurant for around $3-4 and street food for even cheaper in the local markets. You can easily find a beer for just $1. However, it’s not much cheaper than Thailand, mainly because of the dual currency issue – the dollar pushes it up slightly.
Beaches and Islands
Another good thing about Cambodia is that there are still many less discovered beaches that are over run with tourists. Sihanoukville used to be the place to go for beautiful beaches but it has become over developed in recent years with a massive influx of Chinese hotels and casinos. Avoid Sihanoukville and head to the islands such as Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloem.
The Bars and Backpacker Scene – Angkor What?!
As I’ve mentioned, it’s possible to find a $1 beer quite easily in Cambodia! The bars in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are great places to relax and meet other travellers. I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere on ‘Pub Street’ in Siem Reap! You will finds digital nomads, travellers and expats enjoying and having fun. It’s a sociable atmosphere in Siem Reap for solo travellers, so don’t hesitate to go the bars on your own.
Some of the best bars of Pub Street Siem Reap include…
- Angkor What?!?
- Temple Club
- Laundry Bar
- YOLO Bar
- Banana Leaf
Beautiful and Reasonably Priced Accommodation
It’s also easy to meet other travellers and bloggers in the hotel and hostel bars and communal areas. Accommodation is excellent value for money in most parts of Cambodia. There are a few places that I would particular recommend for you to stay….
- Be Happy Guest House/Baby Elephant in Siem Reap – A beautiful garden with a pool for guests and good customer service. They also provide advice on travel and booking tours.
- Mad Monkey Siem Reap – A great hostel with a pool just a stones throw from Pub Street. Perfect if you want a budget option and are looking to meet other travellers.
- Mad Monkey Phnom Penh – Enjoy the beer garden, bar and restaurant, swimming pool, and massive spread of tours and events. This is the original Mad Monkey hostel and a great place to meet people.
- HM Grand Central Hotel Phnom Penh – Central comfortable Phnom Penh hotel with WIFI, rooftop pool and bar.
- The Place Hostel Battambang – This comfortable hostel had a rooftop bar and organised a fantastic tour of Battambang for me and a few other travellers. It’s well located with the bus and train station very accessible.
Note that the Mad Monkey hostels are in fact, very mad! If you are not a party animal then you may find these a bit intense. Go for a hotel and visit mad Monkey to meet people and socialise.
My Cambodia Vacation – The Bad
Despite the wonders of Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh and some of the smaller cities such as Battambang, a Cambodia vacation is often a challenge! Be prepared for bumpy roads, intense heat, a dual currency and almost non-existent health and safety.
I have to report the challenges of getting around Cambodia – it’s no easy feat!
The language barrier means that you may end up with the wrong ticket, or on the wrong bus! On one bus I nearly had an asthma attack because of the fumes and on another, I nearly wasn’t allowed to board because I booked through a third party booking site that the bus company said that they didn’t recognise (avoid Bookaway in Cambodia). On the way back to Siem Reap from Battambang my bus driver bribed the police to let him pass with tires almost ready to blow! We then had to stop at a garage half way to get the tires replaced – it was not safe to be driving that bus!!!!
Sometimes you will find that the tuk-tuks try to rip you off or take you to the wrong destination, so it’s a good idea to get a tuk-tuk driver recommended by other travellers.
The Climate can be Too Hot!
Remember that the climate of Cambodia is tropical and it is hot all year round. The best time to visit is from November to February when it will be cooler and dry. Avoid the summer monsoon. Whenever you visit Cambodia, you will need to pack sun-cream and clothing that is light weight and comfortable. Get up to see the temples as early as possible and in general, whenever you are in Cambodia, try to avoid being out walking in the heat of the day. You don’t want to end up in hospital with dehydration during your Cambodia vacation.
The Dual Currency is Confusing
Did you know that you will probably end up working with two currencies in Cambodia? Dollars and Cambodian Riels. This is probably the aspect of travel in Cambodia that I found the most difficult to get used to, but I did eventually (after about a week!) get used to it. It really fries your brain when you pay in dollars and then get a combination of dollars and Riels back and have to work out if you got the right change! This is because they prefer to use dollars, but don’t have dollar coins and so change that is less than a dollar will come to you in Riels.
It’s approximately 4000 Riels to the dollar and so 2000 Riels is around 50c and approximately 1000 Riels is a quarter. So if your change was to be one dollar fifty cents you would probably get 1USD and 2000 Cambodian Riels in change! Yes, the money in Cambodia is extremely confusing!
Safety is almost Non-Existent
We witnessed several situations where health and safety guidelines were literally non existent. I’m talking about people working on building sites without hard hats and even without shoes! When I was offered a moto taxi (see below!) there was no helmet in sight…but there was only one way to get up to Preah Vihear temple and so away we went….I held my breath and my moto very tightly!
Bumpy and dusty Roads
Don’t expect smooth rides on the roads in Cambodia….in fact, the roads were almost non existent in some parts of Siem Reap. We travelled down a very bumpy road on the way to play Angkor Wat crazy golf. It was that bad that we actually nearly got thrown out of the Tuk-Tuk!
Once again – hold on tight!
You don’t always get what you Ordered!
Sometimes it’s the language barrier (Cambodians speak Khmer) and sometimes it’s the fact that they just don’t have the ingredients left to fulfil your order accurately! Several times we were brought the wrong food in restaurants and sometimes they wouldn’t even understand us when we explained that the order was incorrect. We found the wait staff would mix up people’s orders on several occasions! Customer service in Cambodia isn’t always the best.
My Cambodia Vacation – The Ugly
Certain aspects of travel to Cambodia were really ugly and in some situations almost unbearable. Be prepared to breathe in toxic fumes, learn about the history of the Khmer Rouge, witness extreme poverty, see animals killed in front of you at local markets and potentially be bitten by fire ants or snakes. I’ve even heard of people being stung by scorpions. Cambodia also has the challenging modern history of the Khmer Rouge that you will need to be willing to understand. It’s physically and emotionally gruelling at times. Yes, the ugly parts of Cambodia really are ugly.
The History of the Khmer Rouge
What you cannot escape in Cambodia is the history of the Khmer Rouge. In the 1970’s, Communist leader Pol Pot took the Cambodians back to what he called ‘The Year Zero’ and the result of his horrific regime was people being worked to death and murdered (particularly if they went against his governments ideology). It’s an awful aspect of modern history that sadly you will need to learn about to truly understand the history and current climate of Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Killing fields tour and visit to the S21 prison will probably feature on your itinerary and is essential to understanding Cambodian history.
Beware – The Landmines
Some places is Cambodia are still cornered off due to risk of landmines. Many areas of Angkor Wat and other temple complexes such as Koh Ker were only cleared of mines relatively recently (in the last. 5-10 years). It’s obvious that you should avoid areas with ‘Beware of the Mines!’ signs, and the locals will tell you where you can and cannot go. If you want to know more about how they clear the areas of landmines in Cambodia then I recommend a visit to APOPO in Siem Reap, where you will meet the hero rats who discover land mines and allow areas to be cleared safely.
It’s likely that you will see poverty at some point in Cambodia. Often beggars surround the tourist spots such as the temples and main sites of Phnom Penh. It can be hard to see because some of them have lost limbs as a result of the landmines. It’s better to give money to the charities rather than directly to beggars if you want to give.
Fumes from burning Tires
The worst thing for me as an asthma sufferer was the way that they burnt rubbish at night. Bin collections are disorganised and rare in the countryside in Cambodia, and so you will experience the burning of rubbish which includes toxic fumes from tire and electrical wire burning.
This was almost unbearable for me on the bus journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Do yourself a favour and book an internal flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with a reputable airline (we took our internal flight back with Lanmei airlines).
Insect bites, Snake Bites and Scorpions
The final ‘ugly’ aspect of Cambodia is the risk of insect and animal bites and stings. My mom got bitten terribly by fire ants while we were in Siem Reap. She had an allergic reaction to the bites which wound her up in a Cambodian hospital. The bites or stings were, as you can see, pretty severe.
This in itself was not the best experience as, although we were insured and so not to bothered about cost, we found ourselves getting ripped off on drugs. At one point I refused the hospital anti-histamines because we already had an endless supply of loratadine that we carry with us on exactly the same prescription. They did not take kindly to this as they wanted us to take their highly over-priced loratadine. We also waited a very long time for the hospital to verify my moms travel insurance, during which time we were offered no food or drink.
I have also heard of people in Cambodia getting snake bites and stung by scorpions. It is literally a jungle out there, particularly in and around the Angkor Wat temples, and so very sturdy footwear and long trousers with a bug spray are essential.
Whatever you do, DO NOT travel to Cambodia without insurance and make sure that you disclose any pre-existing conditions as to not invalidate your insurance policy.
Further Reading on Cambodia Travel
If you enjoyed reading about my Cambodia Vacation then you might also like to read the following articles…
- Cambodia Travel Tips for Solo Travellers
- The best Cambodia Itinerary for 5 days
- What to wear in Cambodia
- Cambodia Solo Female Travel Guide