Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap

Depending on your interests, you may have heard a variety of things about Cambodia, or perhaps none at all. The country draws all kinds of tourists: the history of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, a cheap backpacker’s destination, or, most famously, Angkor Wat, all perk an array of travelers’ interests. But there’s a lot that isn’t spoken about that makes the country so magnificent.

Geographic Overview of Cambodia

Cambodia is a coastal country in Southeast Asia, sitting between Thailand and Vietnam and south of Laos. Highways connect the country to its neighbors, allowing backpackers to easily hop from country to country if they’re looking for cheaper or more eco-friendly modes of transport. However, as shown on the map, there aren’t many built highways to get you around the country, so make sure you plan your trip accordingly!

Relatively cheap flights can land you in Phnom Penh from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hanoi. Other active airports are in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Taking the bus or train can easily get you around the country, with amazing landscape views to go with it. Cambodia is slightly more challenging for travel logistics compared to Thailand or Vietnam. Vietnam is one, long country with a relatively straightforward north-south route. Thailand is a bit more developed with its transportation infrastructure, and it is relatively easy to get from one place to the next. However, Cambodia, on the other hand, will need a bit more research.

Travel Routes

Regional

Bus routes connect Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Cambodia, with direct stops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. However, getting to Laos via bus is a bit more challenging. If you plan on traveling to Laos, you can travel from either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to Pakse, which then can lead on to Vientiane. There’s more direct routes to main cities in Cambodia from Vietnam and Thailand than Laos. Check out camboticket.com or 12go.asia for bus and train tickets. Costs will vary, but for the longest journey, be expected to pay a maximum of ~$60USD. However, keep in mind that your route might not appear online. If you need to travel a specific route, check for tickets at the bus or train station.

When in Southeast Asia, understand that plans may change in an instant. I had one route I was expecting to take early in the morning only to have the tickets sold out for the only train running that day. Fortunately, I didn’t book accommodation ahead of time and was able to quickly book another night in Phnom Penh. Try to be flexible, and if possible, do your best to go with the flow.

Map of Southeast Asia

Domestic

Domestic travel, as you might expect, is a bit cheaper and far simpler. Train routes, centered in Phnom Penh, connect the country to the west and the south. The southern route terminates in Sihanoukville and the western route terminates in Poipet at the Thai border. You can buy tickets online or at the station. Buses are the other common mode of transportation around Cambodia.

Unfortunately, there are no active train routes to Siem Reap. Home to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is a must-go stop in your time around Cambodia. You can get there from Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Pakse or Battambang. Check online at Rome2Rio, 12go.asia, or ask someone working at your hostel/hotel. Bus routes also exist in addition to every train route.

For a quick stop in Cambodia, travelers often choose the Bangkok – Siem Reap – Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City route, but there’s a lot more the country has to offer! Many backpackers hit the beautiful islands to the south – Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem, that can be accessed by ferry via Sihanoukville. Others look for more inland gems like Kampot, Battambang, or Kampong Cham.

My journey around Cambodia

While I didn’t get the opportunity to go everywhere, I did get to check out Kampot, Kep and Battambang, along with Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Kampot and Kep are quite close by, so make sure to take the opportunity to check out the Kep crab market for a day trip! While you can find an array of seafood, the crab is easily the best part. It’ll cost around $10USD to buy the crab and pay someone to cook it Khmer style right in front of you. The crab is flowing with unique spices and the portion is more than enough food to have extras for dinner or for a friend.

Kampot is known for La Plantation, its pepper farm, which was easily one of the highlights of my trip. The farm has around 20 different pepper kernels to try, each of them with varying flavors. Some get quite spicy, while others are surprisingly zesty and tangy. The tour around the farm was completely free, along with the tasting of all their different peppers and spices. This of course is to entice you to buy some pepper kernels or spice rubs at the end.

However, this was one of my biggest mistakes. Their spice rub was boasting with different aromas and added so much to every dish. I ended up only purchasing two different peppers and a spice rub and my parents were not too pleased that was all I brought back. For a 100g pack, it cost around $5USD in Kampot, but costs around $15-20 online. So, it’s your cup of tea, make sure to stock up!

Crab Market – Kep, Cambodia

Things to be aware of

Some things to keep in mind while in southern Cambodia: rainy season can make travel quite difficult. I really struggled getting to the pepper farm, as most of the route was on dirt roads, which quickly became soaked. That, combined with a motorbike, makes driving a bit challenging.

Aside from this- you’ll probably hear this a couple times, but Sihanoukville is easily the least tourist-friendly big city in Cambodia. While I never traveled there for that reason, I met numerous people that did (mostly because it’s the port city to get to the islands). Sihanoukville is home to high crime rates and environmental degradation as a result of “overtourism”. 5-10 years ago, the city was one of the top destinations for tourists, but now it’s struggling to bring anyone in.

Heading to Western Cambodia

On a more positive note, most of the country is relatively untouched and boasts far more unique Khmer spirit. After checking out the pepper farm and the crab market, I made my way back to Phnom Penh by train. Train routes only run once a day, so I had to spend a night back in the capital before heading out the next morning to Battambang. This city was easily my favorite in Cambodia, and one of my top spots in Southeast Asia. A huge hotspot for French-speaking tourists, be prepared to practice French or ask for a translation. I was shocked to meet so many French-speaking Khmer, Quebecois, Swiss, and French tourists in Battambang.

The city has loads to do. I’m usually not overly keen on tours, but the tour I took in Battambang saved me money compared to doing everything on my own. It was also a lot faster to do in a day, having the same Tuk Tuk driver to take us around. The Place is my favorite hostel I stayed at in the city and organizes great tour options. From the train station, it was an easy 10 minute walk to the hostel, or a 3 minute Tuk Tuk drive. If you don’t have service, look for Preah Vihea st and walk down until you hit the main road, and then the hostel will be on your right after another 2 minutes.

Siem Reap

From Battambang, I made my way to my final destination in Cambodia: Siem Reap. Most people I met in Phnom Penh or southern Cambodia chose to skip Battambang and took an overnight bus to Siem Reap, but I’m very glad to have taken the train first to Battambang. From there, it was only a three hour bus ride to get to Siem Reap.

Most people think Angkor Wat is the entire temple complex, but in fact, it’s just the most famous temple tourists clamor to see. You’ll need to buy an Angkor Pass online or in person, for one, three, or five days. Depending on how much you would like to see, I would recommend either one or three days inside the park. Given that Angkor Wat is the country’s most famous world heritage site, the price tag comes with it. Expect for Angkor Wat to be your biggest expense in Cambodia. A one day pass currently runs for $37USD. On top of this, you’ll need to be on a group tour or scope our specific sites with a hired Tuk Tuk driver. Expect to pay around ~$15-25USD for the day depending on how many temples you want to see.

While Angkor Wat is the main thing to see in Siem Reap, there’s still more to the city. As you might guess, Pub Street is the main spot for nightlife in town. However, there’s a bunch of cute cafés and restaurants that fly under the radar. Sister Srey is my top breakfast spot. There’s tons of amazing Khmer and international dinner options in Siem Reap as well. Just ask someone at your hostel or a fellow traveler!

Bamboo train - Battambang, Cambodia
Bamboo train – Battambang, Cambodia
Ek Phnom Temple - Battambang, Cambodia
Ek Phnom Temple – Battambang, Cambodia
Siem Reap

If you’re headed to Cambodia anytime soon, or find yourself there now, make sure to check out my arrival guide! I give my top recommendations on the things you need to enjoy the country.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew! Really loved the write-up and its focus on experiencing Cambodia at a grassroots level, while going with the flow of the local vibe. Top quality tips on traveling around the country, really liked the structure of the write-up, which offers the reader diverse possibilities. Battambang sounds like a gem. Backpacking is the way to go, cheers. Looking forward to more articles.

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