Why Cambodia? Well, Australia came to an end and so I had to choose a new destination. What was really something I wanted to experience as a solo traveler? At that moment all I was craving for was some cultural variety, some adventures outside my comfort-zone. Even though Asia was never really my number one place to go to I still chose to do a classic South East Asia backpacking trip. And I must say that all of the countries i have been to really stole my heart because of their food, culture, nature and hospitality!
The first country I visited was Singapore and Indonesia (before I took off to Australia) and so I had plenty of other countries I could still visit in South East Asia. I booked a ticket to Cambodia even though I didn’t know what to expect other than Angkor Wat! I only had one week in Cambodia and so I was not able to take much time to visit the whole country. Therefor I visited the two main cities of this history-rich country; Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
When you fly into Siem Reap you’ll probably be surprised to see a brand new chique airport. Nothing compared to the chaotic and poor infrastructures in and around Siem Reap. Get a Tuk-Tuk ride to your accommodation and keep your eyes open.
In between the poor houses and food stalls big fancy hotels shoot out of the ground like mushrooms. It’s really confusing to see the local poverty besides those extravagant hotels. What I heard is that these hotels are mostly occupied by rich Chinese couples and their adherents that hire a complete hotel complex for their wedding.
Siem Reap is a rather sandy and dirty city with roads that haven’t been maintained and buildings that almost fall apart. Nonetheless it is with fascination that I watched how chaos can still work. Traffic just zig-zag through each other, tuk-tuk drivers constantly stop and ask you if you need a ride and to cross the road you almost need to go on a suicide mission! But this was exactly what I was looking for; chaos, culture and the unknown.
As I was not planning to get married nor having a big bank account balance my choice of stay was a limited to a hostel. Onederz Hostel situated in the middle of the city center only two minutes walk from the famous Pub Street. It has a rooftop swimming pool, delicious cheap food and great spacious rooms and beds. It was probably one of the best hostels I stayed in in South East Asia! As in most hostels they offer activities like visiting Angkor Wat, Floating Village, Night Market, etc..
Another important thing to mention is the confusing combination of currencies in Cambodia. You can either pay with US dollars (USD) or Cambodian Riel (KHR). 1 USD is about 4100 Cambodian Riel. At most ATM’s you can choose whether to get your cash out in USD or in KHR but now how does this dual currency work?
While both currencies are simultaneously used there is still a system to it. The Riel is used for small purchases (for example, you’ll normally receive Riel as change at restaurants and convenience stores), the vast majority of normal-sized transactions are made in US dollars.
What to do?
Tour Angkor Wat
Of course this is the first thing on everyone’s list when coming to Cambodia and Siem Reap. Magical, mysterious, and absolutely astonishing, Angkor Wat is a bucket list place to see. Here is the largest Buddhist temple on earth, which took 30 years to build during the 12th century (113-5BC) and spans over 208 hectares (500 acres).
Bear in mind that you do need to buy a ticket before you go to the site. This is strangely not at all close to the entrance of the Angkor Wat temples. You can buy a 1 day (37$), 3 day (62$), or 7 day (72$) ticket so think about how much time you’d like to spend exploring this magic. The Angkor Wat temple complex consists of about 50 temples and thus you have to make choices which ones you would like to visit. Of course there are several that haven’t been dug out as much as other and so I’ll list the ones you should visit in my opinion:
- Angkor Wat
- Angkor Thom
- BaYon Temple
- Ta Prohm Temple
- Preah Khan
If you would happen to stay in Onederz Hostel you can organize a tour with them and you get to meet fellow backpackers from your hostel!
Explore Pub Street by day and by night
The easiest way to orientate yourself in Siem Reap is to just keep one street in mind: Pub Street. This is probably the most known street in Siem Reap, full of expats, tourists and backpackers. Around mid afternoon this area get’s busy as the restaurants open their kitchens and people can dine and drink before all things go loose. At midnight this street transforms into a full open air discotheque!
Visit the day and night markets
Ever fancied tasting a fried scorpion or tarantula? This is one of the many specialties you can try on the food night market. During the day the markets are mostly filled with locals buying meat, fish and vegetables while at night the ‘special’ local foods appear. Try to taste the different kind of insects as well as the nice local cuisine and finish off your night with a beer in Pub Street!
Take a cooking class
As in every Asian country the food is expected to be delicious. Why not learn how to make this amazing food yourself in one of the many cooking classes around town?
Eat, eat and … eat
The food of Cambodia isn’t as famous as Vietnamese food but nonetheless it is different and very delicious as well! Check out trip advisor or just hop in to the many small local restaurants and taste the Cambodian flavors. Some dishes you should definitely try are Lok Lak, Amok, Khmer Curry and Tom Yum!
Book a trip to Kampong Phluk floating village
About a one hour drive from Siem Reap you find Kampong Phluk floating village. A remote area where people live in ‘pile houses’ and roam around solely by boat. The community largely depends on fishing for survival, spending Cambodia’s wet season (May – October) fishing. During the dry season (November – April) as the river thins due to receding water, many turn to farming to supplement their income.
Try to attend the Water and moon festival (end of October)
I happened to be very lucky to visit Cambodia at the start of what was called The Cambodian Water and moon Festival or Bon Om Touk. It marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. If possible it would be a surplus to your experience with millions of people on the streets, many many festivities and dragon boat races everywhere. At the end of the boat races locals will light up little candle lanterns and put them on the river. For me this was probably the most memorable festival ever because of the diversity of people and culture.
Get a massage at ‘Seeing Hands’
In a country where there is no formal social support system in place, people with disabilities are all too often forgotten in Cambodia and many are left to beg on the streets for survival. With the country’s blind fitting into this category and an estimated 43,800 Cambodians blind in both eyes various organisations have taken steps to turn this trend around. One innovative initiative that has taken off is blind massages, with Seeing Hands centres found throughout Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Pehn.
A six hour bus drive further East lies the capital city of Cambodia; Phnom Pehn. In 2019 it had a population of 2,129,371 people so you can imagine how crowded this city must be. Unlike Siem Reap the infrastructure seemed more maintained. Through the middle runs the famous Mekong river with a long stretched boulevard on each side of the river. Phnom Pehn has a rich history because it was invaded and overtaken by the devastating Red Khmer Army. Many Innocent Cambodians got killed for just wearing glasses or for being smart and rich. Walking through this immense and chaotic but fascinating city you can still feel how it has suffered in 1975.
Because my Onederz experience in Siem Reap was so fantastic I chose to stay at Onederz in Phnom Pehn. A totally different building, less fancy, but nonetheless has a rooftop bar overlooking the Mekong River. Because I was there during the Water and Moon Festival I couldn’t have been in a better location. And again almost all activities I did where organised through the hostel.
What to do
Killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
As previously said, Phnom Pehn has been one of the headquarters of the Red Khmer during their communistic regime. They evacuated the whole city and violently killed many innocent Cambodians.
The Killing Fields are a number of sites in where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. A heartbreaking sight when walking through the many graves and seeing the collected bones, skulls and clothes from murdered Cambodians of all ages. For sure grab an audio guide because only then you’ll really experience the horrible history of this communist regime under Pol Pot.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum also chronicling the genocide.The site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng was just one of at least 150 torture and execution centers established. Also here I would recommend you to rent an audio guide.
Royal Palace of Cambodia
The Royal Palace is a complex of buildings which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. It is situated at the Western bank of the cross division of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong River. Take your time to wander around the different buildings and definitely have a detailed look at the wall paintings which will tell you the history of Phnom Pehn.
It will probably take you about two hours to walk around this temple complex properly and the entrance fee is only 6,5 USD. If you would like to have a guide it is around 10 USD.
Just like in Siem Reap there are plenty of opportunities to go out for a nice snack or a chique dinner. As I said, Cambodian food is very tasty so don’t miss out on this!
Walk along the Mekong river or dine while sailing it
As previously mentioned there is a wide boulevard running next to the Mekong River perfectly set up for your evening sunset walk. If that doesn’t do it for you there are plenty of boat restaurants that want to take you out on the Mekong River while serving you food and beverages. At least you can tell people you had dinner on the Mekong river!
My experience of Cambodia
When I first landed at Siem Reap airport I was surprised to see such modern architecture. This overruled my assumptions of Cambodia. But while sitting in the back of a Tuk-Tuk and slowly leaving the airport I started seeing exactly what I expected. Poverty, dirt, chaos but yes … that South East Asian culture. I loved and i hated it but it was exactly that what I was looking for. I couldn’t see myself staying in Siem Reap nor Phnom Pehn for longer than a few days because of the dust and chaos but that was also never my intention.
Also I was really looking forward to the South-east Asian cuisine. Same but completely different in every country but oh so delicious. So many flavors and that at such an affordable price. I probably went out for food five times a day just because it was so easy, cheap and yum!
I was very lucky to have been in Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn during the Water and Moon festival which made my experience a thousand times better. Not only was I drenched into pure Cambodian culture but also got the chance to party, dance and drink with the kind and hospital Cambodians. For a moment you forget that they underwent such a harsh history of innocent people getting murdered because they were rich or smart. For all that time I spent on the festival, for all those locals I’ve met, you could just feel the acceptance, happiness and love towards every other person around.
Overall Cambodia was a good first South-East Asia country to visit as it prepared me for the chaos and poverty as well as the people’s love and hospitality.