Angkor Wat rises from the jungle and its image flies everywhere on the Cambodian flag. This country has been hard-hit by years of civil war, but is a rising star in Asia’s tourism portfolio along with its South East Asian neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. There’s plenty more than temples rising from the jungle … just in case they weren’t enough.
Cambodia travel resources
Cambodia sits on the coast of the South China Sea, bordered by Thailand to the west and Laos and Vietnam in the north. The large Tonle Sap freshwater lake, fed by a branch of the Mekong River, dominates the centre of the country.
The remains of the old capital of Angkor are the most popular tourist attraction, and the location of these temples near the borders with Laos and Thailand make this a popular first stop in Cambodia. Access is easy, from a local base in Siem Reap.
There’s no getting around the damage done by war here, with the notorious Khmer Rouge, an ultra-communist regime, responsible for around two million deaths in under four years during the late 70s. Landmines still dot the countryside, although they have been mostly cleared from places tourists are likely to visit. Because of this, it’s always best to have a local guide when venturing away from the main paths.
A lot of tourism revolves around exploring the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the wars that preceded and followed their control of the country. While it can be grim, it’s an important part of understanding Cambodia.
City Focus: Siem Reap
Siem Reap is a small town filled with tourists and a large Cambodian population who have moved from the surrounding countryside to get their share of the tourist dollar. Although the main reason to visit is easy access to the Angkor Wat historical park, the town has a good market and excellent night market with varied goods, some of surprisingly good quality.
The Artisans d’Angkor project maintains training in local crafts and runs a mentorship programme allowing graduates to continue improving their skills when they move back to their home towns. You can tour the workshops, goggle at the amazing pieces they create and take their free shuttle bus to their silk farm and weaving centre about 16km out of town.
Siem Reap is also home to many NGOs working with landmine victims and war orphans, and campaigning to reduce the amount of child prostitution in Cambodia. There are plenty of opportunities for visiting, short-term volunteering and donating directly to the schools and programmes.Read more about visiting Angkor Wat as a solo traveller
Getting to and from Cambodia
There are land borders from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam although the easiest are those between Bangkok and Siem Reap, and between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. Coaches from Vietnam can easily be booked and in most cases the same bus will take you all the way through.
The journey from Siem Reap to Bangkok is a little more complicated with several changes of transport, but is relatively straightforward. The trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap is apparently fraught with scams, be especially wary of minibus rides from Bangkok and ask around before booking anything.
Getting around Cambodia
Intercity coach trips are frequent, reasonably secure and dirt cheap: almost every journey will cost you less than US$10. As always, be aware of your belongings at all times — when waiting for the bus and when on the bus itself — and take normal precautions.
It’s advisable to book one day in advance although you may not have problems with getting a walk-up ticket.
Travel by boat on the Tonle Sap and Mekong River is a great way to get between Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap.
It’s more expensive than the bus and can be unreliable with many stories of break-downs and, during the dry season, some areas may not be navigable. However, if you’re after adventure, this is one way to get it!
Car and camper rental
Private cars are able to be booked for off-the-track travels and for more comfort and security on intercity trips.
Always research these options carefully by searching forums and asking for advice from other travellers to find a reputable driver.
Cycling and hiking
Within towns and cities, tuktuks and motorbike taxis are the most common way to get around, although hiring a bike for a dollar a day is also a fun option and, despite the craziness of the traffic, most drivers are very bike-aware. The quality of roads would make intercity cycling quite challenging.
Top 10 things to do in Cambodia
Visit Angkor Wat Historical Park. There’s not only Angkor Wat, there’s also the Angkor Thom complex and dozens of other temples to visit. Access to the park starts at US$20 per person for one day, and a tuktuk driver to take you around will cost US$10-15 per group.
Tour the Artisans D’Angkor facilities and silk farm. This sustainable tourism venture apprentices students in traditional crafts. You can tour the complex, drool at the shop items and catch a free shuttle to the silk farm where you can follow the process from worm to woven goods. The coffee here is also excellent.
Eat fish amok. One of many delicious Khmer delicacies, this was our favourite. The spicy fish dish is often served in a coconut-leaf bowl accompanied by steamed rice.
Visit S21 and the Phnom Penh Killing Fields. It’s grim, but a visit to the political prison S21 (T Seol) is an important step in understanding the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime and its effect on current Cambodian culture. Follow it up with a tuktuk ride out to the killing fields, where over 20,000 victims were dispatched and dumped over a period lasting less than four years.
Ride the Norri bamboo train. Outside Battambang (one of our favourite stops in Cambodia) locals zip along the disused railway line on bamboo platforms powered by motorbike engines. For US$10 or so per “carriage” you can spend an hour on the rails, helping to disassemble your vehicle whenever you meet an oncoming norri.
Travel by boat and see the floating villages. The river journeys between cities are scenic and memorable, with stops in floating villages to buy snacks along the way. The trip between Battambang and Siem Reap is highly recommended.
Catch a documentary at the Metahouse, Phnom Penh. The German cultural exchange, Metahouse has reasonably priced house wines and often plays documentaries in its rooftop theatre. Pick up an English schedule from them when you arrive.
Hike in Ratanakiri. Boasting the most spectacular hiking in the country, this is a fantastic chance to get wild in the jungle. A local guide is recommended to safeguard against wandering into landmine zones or encountering unwanted attention.
Wander the Royal Palace complex. The luxurious Royal Palace complex houses thousands of finely carved statues, small museums and fantastically decorated shrines and pagodas. The mural running right around the inner wall was a favourite attraction.
Give some time to a volunteer programme and help Cambodia recover from the effects of civil war. It’s been a rough ride for Cambodia and many grassroots NGOs are looking for volunteers, even if just for a day. You’ll be given plenty of opportunity to help out but make sure you’re comfortable with the ethics of those you’re helping.
As an added bonus, the beaches of Cambodia are being developed in an attempt to rival neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. Visit now to enjoy the quiet, undeveloped spots before they all disappear.