Why Cambodia Was My Backpacking Highlight of Asia

In the last few weeks I’ve given the same advice to every backpacker I met in Asia and anyone on Facebook I know is heading that way soon – make sure you make time for Cambodia.

Cambodia is now without a doubt my favourite country out of all I visited during my time there.

In fact it has made me regret spending so much time in Thailand during my stay.

But Thailand is awesome I hear you say – and you’ve said that heaps yourself.

Very true – Thailand is a great country to visit and the perfect introduction to backpacking in SEAsia.

However Cambodia is the Asia I envisioned when I first thought about travel in this part of the world – and for numerous reasons.

 

The Pace

From the moment I stepped foot into Cambodia on the Thai border my pace of life slowed down. The border crossing was pretty relaxed and the walk to the bus station – despite being shattered, sweaty and pretty irritable – was actually pretty pleasant.

People milled around minding their own business and I didn’t find myself being rushed around.

This pace continued throughout my trip. Siem Reap – despite it’s bustling tourism industry was a joy to wander around. It felt peaceful and above all safe.

Alot of countries I’ve visited had me immediately on edge, I felt fine walking around any part of Cambodia with my SLR slung over my shoulder or simply walking back from a bar at night on my own – there’s a heap of places in SEAsia that I would never do either.

Even the capital of Phnom Pehn had this vibe. Yes it was busier (it’s a major city so that’s to be expected) but you weren’t barged down the street along with everyone else.

I guess alot of this is down to the height of the place too – in Siem Reap especially there are very few tall buildings, so there’s heaps of sky and open space the enjoy! You don’t feel cramped and enclosed.

 

Postcard Perfect

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Rice Paddies and Palm Trees…A Photographers Dream!

Cambodia also kicked me back into gear photography wise – it’s a photographers dream.

Even the 5 hour bus journey to Siem Reap from the border was a joy as we dove amongst rich green rice paddies and open farmland.

In a weird way it was like an Asian version of the African plains…open, flat and gorgeous.

And the Cambodian Islands – well they oozed the exotic beach vibe I needed. Bamboo bungalows along a perfect stretch of sand, broken up only by palm trees, wooden piers and backpackers chilling out in hammocks – all nestled against a shoreline of clear blue waters.

Angkor Wat needs to be mentioned of course – this huge network of ancient temples is a great place to take your camera and get lost in the history and romance of Asia. If walking amongst the stone ruins slowly being reclaimed by the trees and nature doesn’t inspire you to take some amazing shots then nothing will – here’s some of my top shots from Angkor Wat.

 

The Cost

As a backpacker Asia is a joy to explore as you’re money goes heaps further than alot of places in the world.

cambodia fave 1 of 3 199x300 Why Cambodia Was My Backpacking Highlight of Asia

$7.50 Each – BARGAIN!

Cambodia is another ball game though – it’s one of the cheapest places I’ve visited – which made backpacking there alot more stress free and enjoyable.

Even compared to it’s neighbours it’s cheap as!

For example you can easily grab a pint of beer for 50cents US. Vodka redbull? You can get a bucket for about $2!

When it comes to food it depends how flash you want to be. Street food is the cheapest option but even if you want to spoil yourself you can grab an amazing steak dinner for about $5!

And accommodation? I decided to spoil myself a bit and spent most of my stay sharing twin, ensuite, air con rooms with my buddy – for about $6 each per night! Even a twin beach bungalow on Koh Rong with an ocean view only set us back $15 between us for a night!

If you really want to cut costs though one backpacker I met hadn’t spent more than $3 a night on dorm rooms, and was regularly paying $1!

It goes one of two ways though – you can either save some serious cash, or continue spending the same and see your standard of living improve ALOT!

 

Stuff to Do

As with anywhere you travel too having stuff to see and do can make or break your experience, especially if you’re a backpacking culture vulture! Cambodia has alot on that front so here’s some of my faves;

 

  • Angkor Wat (goes without saying really!)
  • Koh Rong and the Cambodian Islands
  • S20 and the Killing Fields
  • Hippie Living in Kampot
  • Yoga/Meditation Retreats in Siem Reap
  • The Bamboo Train
  • Dolphin Watching
  • Night Markets

 

If you’re stuck for time Siem Reap, Phnom Pen and Koh Rong would be my top spots (and unfortunately that’s all I managed to squeeze in) but many of my travel buddies got off the beaten path a bit more and said it was well worth it.

 

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Cambodian Family

The People

For me though one of the best parts of Cambodia are the people who call it home.

Cambodians are some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels around the world. From my experience they are genuine in this too.

My buddies push bike broke on a cycle ride in the arse end of nowhere. After noticing us walking it and our rubbish attempts to fix it a Cambodian man came out and offered to help us out.

Over the next hour and a half we were joined by various members of his family who wanted to chat with us about our travels, welcoming us to their country and giving us a list of places to visit.

The kids were keen to check out who we were and seemed super excited to be able to practice their English with us.

This vibe extended into day to day life for a backpacker in Cambodia. You can walk through the markets without being hassled constantly. Tuk Tuk drivers actually take no for an answer and if you need help or directions you simply need to ask.

I think this is one of the main reasons I felt so relaxed and safe during my time there.

If you need some more info on Cambodia I suggest checking out the Lonely Planet Cambodia Guide Why Cambodia Was My Backpacking Highlight of Asia too.

 

Anyone else agree that Cambodia was their highlight of Asia?!

74 Responses to “Why Cambodia Was My Backpacking Highlight of Asia

  • A great read. I am spending a week there in March and this post is pretty typical of what I’ve read/people tell me about the country so far.

    Expectations = heightened!
    Rich recently posted..Do Not Eat Papaya in MexicoMy Profile

    • don’t worry Rich it’ll meet your expectations! Only a week though – you’ll be gutted with that!

  • Couldn’t agree more mate, much better than Thailand, a lot less money grabbing. The beer isn’t bad either and cheap enough to not make the headache too expensive, especially if you get one of the hawkers to set you up a mat in front of the palace then the beer less than 50c.
    Been there 3 times in the last year! :-)
    IAmAGrownUp recently posted..Fugee town.My Profile

    • 3 times Alex?! where did you visit?
      I’m stoked to get back there when I revisit Asia – going to spend alot longer there next time around though, especially lazing around on Koh Rong!

      • Oh I’ve been all over, although I do make a point of not going to Siem Reap anymore now Ive done Anchor Wat a couple of times (it was a dusty village first time i went in 1998).
        I love Kep and Sihanoukville, but my favourite time was when i went on a work trip a few years ago and travelled through some of the more out of the way places.

        I go so often because it’s dirt cheap to get to from where I live, the visa system is also dead simple if you do online (much better than the 2 hr wait in Vietnam).

        • wow it must be pretty interesting seeing how its changed! I’d love to get more off the beaten track there (geez that sounded heaps cliched!) but I simply didn’t have enough time!
          Didn’t realise you could do the visa online! I’ll have to take that option on my next trip because that border crossing was EVIL!

  • The people of Cambodia are absolutely sweet and wonderful. They were one of the main reasons I enjoyed my two weeks there!
    La Viajera Morena recently posted..Product Review: Deuter Spectro AC 32 BackpackMy Profile

  • I have about 2-3 weeks there at the end of my next trip. Could be extended! I’ve heard great things of Cambodia as well! How long did you spend there?
    Simon recently posted..2013 Travel Part I : India & Nepal – What I’m looking forward toMy Profile

    • I spent about 3 weeks there also Simon – wish I’d had longer though as I would’ve spent more time on Koh Rong, exploring the other islands and getting to places like Kep which I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about!

  • Wciked, mate – Cambodia is my favourite country in SE Asia, too! Earlier this year I did Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – and had the best time in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. I don’t know why exactly but it’s just the country I really fell in love with.
    Simon recently posted..What is time to a backpacker?My Profile

    • I think it’s just a good all rounder…you can’t really fault anything!haha!

  • Glad you enjoyed Cambodia :) Definitely my favorite country too but I may be biased since I grew up there. Can’t wait to go back and visit!
    NananaTravels recently posted..Travel Tips: How to budget for travelMy Profile

  • Amazing country indeed! I was there two weeks ago, but I still want to go back as soon as possible.. cool post!
    Albena recently posted..Baby Steps Into BackpackingMy Profile

    • yeah I can’t wait to get back either…really wish I’d had longer there! Where was your favourite spot?

  • Thanks for the night insight Chris. My friends and I are planning to visit Cambodia via Saigon this coming June / July.
    Joselle Badilla recently posted..How to beat a typhoonMy Profile

  • i think i have become slightly addicted to your blog. I have been looking for a good backpacker blog for ages and either I’m stupid or they’re just hard to find but i finally found you yesterday and i can’t stop reading. I’m packing up and leaving home in 6 weeks to visit America, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. I really want to do Asia but I’m travelling alone and figured if i started with places that are english speaking and similar in some ways to the uk that by the time i decide to go to asia, I’m hoping i will leave oz for a bit to go to Asia, that i will feel more confident and used to travelling. Cambodia was an idea i had but now you’ve convinced me its a must do!

    your blog is also really helpful finically wise and review wise. its a blood good blog! go you! hope your having fun wherever you are. who knows i might meet you along the way!

    don’t mind me, continuing to stalk :P

    • cheers Emily – glad I can help you out!
      Sound like you have an epic adventure on the cards there – good skills! Personally I found Asia heaps easy to travel as most people speak English and due to the fact it’s well backpacked these days. Good idea on gaining your confidence elsewhere though if that’s how you were feeling!
      Enjoy the site!

  • sounds amazing! i’m headed over at the beginning of december with a friend for around 7weeks and was wondering what you thought on spending this whole time in cambodia and laos were usually fast paced travellers and have spent lots of time backpacking but think its time to slow it down any thoughts?

    • hey jess – you’ll love that part of the world.
      Personally though for me Laos was a bit of a let down and was far from my favourite place in Asia. If I was you I’d do a month in Cambodia and then a couple weeks relaxing down on the Thai islands around Phi Phi and Koh Tao! I wouldn’t worry about the pace of your travels as that’s a solid chunk of time.

  • Fantastic blog. Cannot wait to head to Cambodia in October

  • Couldn’t agree more, Cambodia was definitely my favourite country in Asia, and Koh Rong probably my favourite place from the whole of my travels, absolute paradise!

  • Hey, as a lone female backpacker, do you think I’d be safe in Cambodia? You make it sounds so lovely

    • Hey Jesse – glad you’re thinking about heading to Cambodia! I met quite a few lone female backpackers there and they said they didn’t have any issues. As with any country its a case of being sensible and safe.
      I know Backpacker Beckie (http://www.backpackerbecki.com) has travelled there on her own…might be worth dropping her an email for some more female orientated advice!

      Enjoy your trip – and let me know how you get on!

  • Brill blog post! Looking to travel round SE Asia and Australia starting next May and getting so many ideas/tips from this blog. Cambodia is now definitely on my ‘to do’ list’. Quick question – any recommendations in SE Asia/Australia to learn to surf? Never done it before so would need to be somewhere suitable for beginners and preferably cheap
    Thanks :)

    • Hey Hannah, stoked the site is helping you out!
      Asia wise you’d have to head Bali/Indonesia way for learning to surf – but to be honest Australia is probably the better location to learn. Head to Byron Bay in northern NSW (I have a massive love for it!) not only is it a great place to surf but the town is just a great place to enjoy for a while!
      See you in the waves!

  • Hey Chris and friends,

    I am very delighted by your positive impressions of Cambodia.
    Me and my friends want to go on a backpacking tour from Thailand along the Cambodian coast (national parks, islands) to Ho Chi Min.

    My big question is:
    Are the cities, nationalparks (and islands like Koh Rong) well accessible with Busses or other kinds of public transportations?

    I mean that you can go from place to place not too far away from the coast and wasting too much time on indirect routes. Two of my friends only have limited time.

    Would be happy about a quick answer :)
    Best regards

    • Hey Dan,

      Good choice on Thailand and Cambodia for a trip!

      I found it very easy to bounce around. My route was Bangkok-Siem Reap-Sihnoukville-Koh Rong-Kampot-Phnom Pehn and it was all done with mini buses, sleeper buses, ferries and a couple tuk tusk all booked on the ground whilst I was there.

      I hope that helps?

      • Hey Chris,

        yeah, it helps a lot! Good to know, that most stuff can be booked on the ground and the country is somehow infrastructured by vans and busses and so on…

        Thanks a lot for your quick response!

        Looking forward to Cambodia :)

        • I can’t see you’ll have any real issues getting around there Dan – most hostels will be able to book onward travel and if not you’re never too far from travel shop. Enjoy your time there – let me know how you get on!

  • Great post! I just got here from Vietnam, which was kind of a nightmare. Can’t wait to get to Koh Rong, looks gorgeous!
    The Roaming Coconuts recently posted..Kunming, China to Vietnam: Visas and TransportationMy Profile

  • Great read. I also thought cambodia was class and the pace of life was definitely more relaxed than Thailand. But I thought the people made the country and is why I would like to return.
    Ross recently posted..What to do in Milan – AttractionsMy Profile

    • totally Ross – the people were one of my major highlights too, just genuinely friendly and positive about life.

  • Cheers, Chris!!! Super excited to head to Southeast Asia for a couple of months after my teaching contract in Korea is up in March!! Reading your blog has me chomping at the bit. Time to hit the road!!!!
    Allison recently posted..Three Terrible Things to Say to a TravelerMy Profile

  • Hi Chris…thinking about Cambodia this year. We only have three weeks…do you think we can see enough in this time? Also thinking about September. Any recommendations on seasons/ time of year to travel.

  • Chris,

    Decided I would send a note since you have been so kind as to reply to most people who comment on here. I plan on taking my younger brother to explore SE Asia this summer, hopefully for about 6 weeks (June/July). Neither of us have been and from what I read beginning in Thailand and making our way east sounds like a good approach. Since time is of the essence and we want to get all the best places in during this trip, what are your thoughts on backpacking Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam?
    After reading all the positive feedback on Cambodia, that’s definitely a lock. But what are your thoughts on maybe skipping Vietnam and going to the Philippines instead? Or even Malaysia? Basically want to chill out, explore the beautiful beaches, scenery, and wildlife and experience the beautiful culture that is in abundance in these areas. For a six week trip, given your experience traveling this area, what would you recommend for timing and places to make sure to visit. Not really worried about budget.
    Thanks in advance for your reply!

    • Actually, 4 weeks. So the entire month of June.

    • Hey Spencer – yeah no worries happy to reply to those who ping me some questions!
      Hmmm….to be honest my personal approach is to explore a place a bit more slowly rather than simply just tick places off for the sake of it, it makes for a much more relaxed and enjoyable holiday!
      Thailand and Cambodia you could easily spend a month in each! here’s a link to my Thailand mini guide;

      http://www.backpackerbanter.com/blog/my-thailand-mini-guide

      I think if you try and squish in a flight to the Philippines (which I haven’t done yet but I have plans to later this year) you’ll waste too much time travelling that would be better spent on the ground exploring.

      Personally if I had 4 weeks I’d do the following;

      Fly into Bangkok.
      Couple night there.
      Mini bus overland to Siem Reap, Cambodia
      Few days there exploring Angkor Wat.
      Down to Sihanoukiville before jumping over to Koh Rong
      4 days on Koh Rong
      Back to Sihanoukville (but maybe stay at Otres Beach instead)
      Bus to Kep/Kampot
      Couple days there
      Up to Phnom Pehn
      Couple nights there.
      Fly back to Bangkok (air asia have great deals)
      Drop down to the Thai islands (either Koh Tao/Phangan or Phi Phi depending on pref)
      Finish your holiday chilling by the beach before flying back from either Koh Samui or Phuket

      …depends what you want to see or do though! Let me know what you go with!

      • Chris,
        Thanks for your reply and info provided. I am definitely going to use your advice as a template for our trip. Also, I have heard some incredible things about Vietnam recently. Would it be worth it to fly over for a couple days and check it out? If so, any recommendations for must-see places/cities/beaches to check out?
        Best regards,
        Spencer

  • Most people that visit South East Asia only think about Thailand because of what they see in the media. They don’t know the truth that Cambodia have way better beaches than Thailand’s yellow sand beaches. They only go visit Angkor Wat for a couple days and head off to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc! They are missing out a lot. The Islands like Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Tang, Koh Kong all have beaches that rivals any other beaches in the world. Also they miss the Eastern parts of Cambodia where one can find amazing landscapes similar to Western countries. It’s too much to name hhahahahah! I’m happy that you are not one of the many that just visits the tourist area and then leave.

    • totally agree Tee – Cambodia is totally under rated and overlooked by many backpackers – I’ve visited twice now and there’s still so much character, landscape to explore!

  • I’m going there in Oct this year. Glad that i read this and now i’m excited for my trip ! Spending a full week there. My flight will reach Siem reap and going back from Phnom Penh.

    Any tips to share ?

    • Hey Susan – you’ll looooooove it there! Main tips? Definitely pencil in some time on Koh Rong Island if you can – loved that place. Also the backstage tour and Phnom Penh Wildlife Alliance was incredible – totally worth the $150 price tag.

  • Hey there Chris, Just came across your blog. Its a really good one. I’ve got 2 & a half weeks off in October and I was looking to go to Cambodia.
    My question is, How much stuff do you actually book before you leave your home country? Or do you just do everything in the spur of the moment? And also, how do you go about booking accommodation on the fly? More so with the quieter areas off the beaten track? I’ve tried googling and finding accommodation in rural areas, and its impossible to find. Also, last time I’ve travelled to Asia, I’ve always brought a trolley bag as well as a backpack. Might just bring a backpack next time !

    • Hey Justin – stoked you’re finding the site useful!
      To be honest in Cambodia I book almost everything on the ground as I went. If you’re flying into and out of the country though (I went overland from Thailand) I’d maybe look at sorting your first 2 and last nights accommodation, that way there’s little stress when you arrive! In 2 weeks I’d suggest Siem Reap, Koh Rong, Kep/Kampot and Phnom Pehn – it’s enough to keep you busy without rushing around too much.
      …and yeah I’d go with the backpack option!

  • Great! Truly Asia is one of the best place worth visiting.=D

  • Hi Chris, reading your blog makes me wanna backpack to Cambodia even more!
    I’ll be travelling with 2 other girls, so it’ll be only 3 of us girls going on our first backpacking adventure!

    However, I’m curious to know whether you’ve taken any sort of precautions from getting ill, and if you’ve taken any vaccinations prior to backpacking in Cambodia?

    • Hey Adelyn, you won’t be disappointed with Cambodia! Jabs wise have a speak to your doctor as they’ll know if you need any boosters etc. I’d also recommend taking some rehydration sachets and immodium just incase!hahaha!

  • Hey Mate, just wanted to say your website is a total bible!

    Im off to Cambodia in 2 weeks time for a 3 week backpacking trip & spending my 20th over there! Its my first solo backpacker trip and i’m that excited!!

    My trip plans are as follows: Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kratie, Kampot/Kep then finishing along Sihanoukville/ Koh Rong before heading back to Phnom Penh to fly out! Totally pumped!

    Tight budget. living light and laid back plans, the only real high end expenses iv got planned is definately the Wildlife Alliance tour and my Advanced PADI course, the rest is whatever!! Did you do any other cool activities though? Or head to Battambang at all?

    I think its wicked the way you travel!

    Cheers :)

    • Hey Hannah,
      Stoked that you’re finding the site so useful! Sounds like you have a pretty awesome trip for your birthday! Say hi to Tori at the Wildlife Alliance from me, that team are awesome!
      Hmmm to be honest looks like you have most things covered – obviously Angkor Wat is a must, do a tour of the pepper farms and crab markets in Kampot/Kep. Nah didn’t manage to hit up Battambang actually – let me know how you get on.
      Safe travels!

  • Hi Chris, just booked a holdiay for a month to Thailand with my mate for June (cheaper flights so done it early), we’re debating how to spend our time but we have sort of narrowed it done to 2 weeks in Thailand a week in Cambodia and a week in Vietnam. Will we have enough time? I think that we’ll be coming to Thailand first, spending 2 weeks here exploring a fair bit (full moon party a must) and then either travelling to Vietnam through Cambodia for the remainder and getting a flight to Bangkok to catch our return flight or flying out to Vietnam then making our way back? Would just like to know how much we can squeeze in and which things you think are a must

    Cheers :)

    • Hmmmm that’s a tough one Aaron! The advice I usually give is to explore a place well rather than rush it to simply tick it off. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam could all easily take up a month each! Personally I’d split it 2 week Thailand, 2 weeks Cambodia or Vietnam as you’ll have more time to enjoy it and of course relax!

  • It’s a great post! Nice and very informative!
    I am planning to do backpacking by next year and this is another helpful information!
    Tks!

  • I totally agree with you, I loved Cambodia so much, in fact I started falling in love with this country almost as soon as I crossed the border. The people, the beautiful, undeveloped countryside, the food, the beaches, the amazing temples and the unbelievably cheap prices are just some the reasons why I loved Cambodia so much. I can’t wait to return, I just hope it will be as good as I remember.

    • Stoked you enjoyed it too Anna – I’ve been back a couple of times now and it never fails to leave a smile on my face!

  • Hi Chris,

    First off, fantastic clear blog. Top man :)

    I’m off to SEAsia in the beginning of December for a little under 7 weeks. Originally I had planned to soend most of my time in Thailand (first time backpacking at the tender age of 33 so thought this was best) and then head off to Cambodia and Vietnam for maybe a week each. I’m now thinking maybe I should spend more time in Cambodia. I wanted a ‘true’ experience of SE Asia and I think you may have just nailed it and sold Cambodia even more to me.

    I’d really appreciate if you could offer a bit of advice on Visas (I can’t find any definitive advice online) Would I be ok flying over and sorting Visas whilst I’m there? I’m flying in and out of Bangkok and as for getting to Cambodia and Vietnam I was planning to go by bus/train. Any advice gratefully received.

    Cheers buddy,
    Jon

    • Hey Jon, Yeah a week in each would be pretty rushed, you can easily use a full month visa in each of the Asian countries I’ve visited and still want to come back for more!
      Visa wise it’s best to confirm everything with the embassy sites (as things change all the time) but for Thailand and Cambodia as a Brit I went in on a visa on entry (30 days) however double check incase this has now changed!
      Buses and trains and minibuses are the easiest way to get around, however if you want to bounce large distances in Asia check out the low cost airline Air Asia as they have some great deals!

  • Thanks Chris for this great page and the many infos.

  • This is a brilliant article. Cannot wait to visit myself in a few months. And that bungalow on the beach looks just what i am looking for!!!
    Michael recently posted..Indonesia Added To Our Route!!!!!My Profile

    • Hey Michael, stoked you’re heading that way, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it heaps! I can also highly recommend heading over to the Philippines too…I’d go as far as saying it’s even better!

  • Hey! What spots are a must to visit if heading to Cambodia/Philippines. In Philippines I am heading to Boracay for 10 nights.

    • Hey Chia,
      In Cambodia I’d say Koh Rong Island and Siem Reap are the two major spots I’d recommend. In the Philippines I haven’t explored heaps yet but Siargao was a greta place (now wet season though) but I’ve heard heaps of good things about Palawan too – in fact I’m heading there next month!

  • It’s definitely something I want to do next year.. :)

  • Hey Quennie. To be honest there’s not many places that will break your budget in Cambodia! I’d definitely pay a visit to Monkey Island on Koh Rong. Budget wise I always recommend around £1k per month of travel but you’ll spend about half that in Cambodia if you’re budget conscious.

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