Cambodia is a captivating country, rich in culture, history and architecture. When backpacking Cambodia you’ll stumble across breathtaking beaches, visit incredible temples, beautiful islands and eat delicious Khmer food. It’s a magical land where you can buy a beer for 25 cents, a bed for a dollar and a tasty restaurant meal for just a couple of bucks.
Many people backpack Cambodia to see the miraculous Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. But Cambodia is more than just temples, beaches, cheap food, parties & alcohol. The country has a dark past, with 1.5 – 3 million people killed in the Khmer Rouge, led by tyrant Pol Pot. It happened only 35 – 40 years ago and is still very fresh & raw to the Cambodian people.
Despite the tragic history, the local Khmer people are some of the kindest humans in the world. The country is still recuperating, rebuilding & moving forward, however, corruption is hindering its rehabilitation. It’s one of my favourite South East Asian destinations; I loved it so much that I ended up overstaying my visa. Cambodia seriously has it all, see it for yourself & you’ll fall in love too.
Table of Contents
- Arriving into Cambodia
- Entry Requirements for Travelling Cambodia
- Getting Around Whilst Backpacking Cambodia
- Accommodation in Cambodia
- Hostels in Cambodia
- Money in Cambodia
- Off the Beaten Path in Cambodia
- Where to Go Backpacking in Cambodia?
- Trekking whilst Backpacking Cambodia
- Motorcycling Cambodia
- Khmer Food in Cambodia
- Budget for Backpacking Cambodia
- What to pack for Cambodia
- Top Tips for Broke Backpacker’s
- Volunteer In Cambodia
- Internet in Cambodia
- Dating in Cambodia
- Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Cambodia
- Best Time to Travel to Cambodia
- A Brief History of Cambodia
- Political Issues to be aware of in Cambodia
- Useful apps to download before backpacking in Cambodia
- Books to read on Cambodia
- Live in Cambodia
- How to stay safe in Cambodia
Arriving into Cambodia
Travel to Cambodia from Laos
Veun Kham/ Dom Kralor is the only option to travel to Cambodia from Laos. Evidently, it’s also quite a popular border crossing for backpackers who travel to Cambodia. There’s signs & people to direct you where to go, so crossing into Cambodia is super simple.
Travel to Cambodia from Vietnam
Bavet/ Moc Bai is undeniably the most frequently used crossing to travel to Cambodia from Vietnam via land. It was the first crossing to open up for foreign travellers & is popular when travelling from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Phnom Penh. The border gate is open from 8 am to 8 pm every day & is easy to navigate.
If you’re going to travel to Cambodia from Vietnam via the Mekong River, then Kaam Samnor/ Ving Xuong is your only option. I took the slow boat from Chau Doc to the boarder, then a mini van to Phnom Penh. You can also get a fast boat along the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, however, it’s much more expensive.
You arrive at the border by boat, they collect your passport/visa, money & then they head to the immigration office to do all the paperwork for you. If you really want, you can go with them, but it’s not necessary. The only part you have to be present for, is when they stamp your passport & cross check your identity. This crossing seems kind of dodgy as there are no signs and only dirt roads, however, we managed to get across just fine, it’s all part of the experience when you’re backpacking Cambodia.
Travel to Cambodia from Thailand
Aranyaprathet/ Poipet is definitely the craziest border crossing when you travel to Cambodia from Thailand, as it’s the closest border crossing to Siem Reap & Bangkok. In peak periods crossing times can be in excess of 3 hours, depending on popularity. If you want to avoid the long lines & wait times, you can opt for an e-visa online, however, it’s a tad more expensive than on arrival.
Hat Lek/ Ko Kong is the most convenient crossing if you’re heading to Sihanoukville in Cambodia from the Kho Chang region in Thailand but (but last I checked) you can’t enter using an e-visa at this boarder. Be wary of scams at this crossing and Poipet, there have been numerous reports of Cambodian officials asking for absurd amounts of money for visa’s on arrival. Look into getting a Cambodian e-visa if you want to avoid the risk of getting ripped off, but remember to check valid entry points. These problems do not generally exist with arrival into airports. To get a tuk tuk from the Cambodian boarder to Kho Khong should cost between 92,000- 120,00 Cambodian Riel.
Entry Requirements for Travelling Cambodia
To backpack Cambodia, you need a passport that’s valid for at least six months. Over one hundred and fifty nationalities can apply for their Cambodia e-visa online through this website. If you like to plan ahead and not deal with the stress of getting a visa on arrival at the border, then an e-visa is perfect for you. Note tho, it can take at least 3 days to process the application so applying the night before entry is not an option, also the e-visa can only be used at certain ports of entry.
Your e-visa will give you 3 months (starting from the date of issue) to enter Cambodia and allows you to stay for up to 30 days, with the option of extending your visa. It’s slightly more expensive than a visa on arrival costing you $37 USD opposed to $35 USD. However we have recent reports (May 2017) that officials are charging $37 USD for Visa on Arrival as well, so be prepared for that. If you are crossing from Thailand the situation is similar as with crossing into Laos, you will pay more if you buy your Visa on Arrival in Thai Baht (rate seems to be about 1600 Baht, approx. $48USD) rather than US dollars. Usually, you can find someone running a side business exchanging USD, competition generally dictates the exchange rate. You’re allowed one 30-day visa extension without leaving Cambodia which sets you back $45 USD.
If you do plan to get your visa on arrival when you travel to Cambodia, make sure you bring 2x passport sized photos. You can get your passport-sized photos taken at the border, however, you leave yourself open to paying what ever price is set by officials. Be sure to bring US dollars with you when entering Cambodia, the exchange rates for other currencies are vastly undervalued and you end up paying more than the actual conversion rate.
If you’re pressed for time or need a visa in advance check out iVisa , Ive used them on multiple occasions for sorting my visas.
It isn’t big deal to overstay your visa in Cambodia, however it does get expensive quickly. The fine for overstaying is $20 USD per day. So for instance, if you overstay 5 days you will be required to pay $100 USD upon exiting.
Passport holders from Asean member countries do not require a visa to visit Cambodia.
Getting Around Whilst Backpacking Cambodia
Backpacking Cambodia is one crazy adventure, getting around is surprisingly easy and inexpensive. There has been a massive improvement in regards to roads and infrastructure, with the refurbishment of the National Highway. Unfortunately, not all roads have had the same improvements, as there are still many narrow, bumpy & dirt roads around.
The best way to explore whilst travelling Cambodia is undoubtedly by motorbike. If you’re coming by motorbike from Vietnam into Cambodia, you can enter and drive in the country without needing any special permits. Just be sure to have your blue card to prove ownership of the motorbike, drivers license & preferably an international drivers license also.
Mini Buses are an easy and inexpensive way to backpack Cambodia if you’re travelling less than 5 hours. I took a 2 hour mini bus from Kampot to Sihanoukville which was $7 (USD).
Sleeper buses are a great option to go long distances when you’re travelling Cambodia, pre book your tickets with 12go to snag the best seat. It’s always worthwhile paying the extra couple of dollars for your sleeper bus. The cheaper buses do get you from A to B, however, they stop multiple times along the way and are not always the cleanest nor comfiest. I opted to stinge out on paying more and ended up sharing my seat with cockroaches… If you’re willing to pay extra you will have your own bed, curtain, power point and Wi-Fi on your sleeper bus.
Hitchhiking is another option to travel Cambodia! You can have both good and bad experiences. I was picked up hitchhiking by a local, who just wanted to show me around. He gave me a mini tour of his hometown on the way to our destination and genuinely just wanted me to enjoy my time in Cambodia. Whereas, I had a different experience hitchhiking from Phnom Penh to Kampot. One guy wanted to charge me twice the price of a bus and thankfully another kind human took me the whole way without asking for anything. If you want to hitchhike whilst backpacking Cambodia, make sure you have a sign (preferably in Khmer and English), are standing next to the main road and there’s plenty of space for a car to pull over.
Choose your bus or mini van carefully whilst backpacking Cambodia, as accidents are not unusual. The Mekong Express was the only bus company in 2011 that did not get into an accident, although the safety of bus companies has improved dramatically since then.
Accommodation in Cambodia
Cambodia is home to some of the best hostels in South East Asia and has a wicked backpacking scene. You’ll have little trouble finding affordable accommodation when backpacking Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Siem Reap has a huge variety of hostels, home stays and guest houses at an affordable price. Hostels in Cambodia start from $3 per night and you can snag a private fan room from just $8 for 2 people. If you want to splash out and stay in a hotel room with TV, air con and attached bathroom; shop around and you can find a place for as little as $15.
Make sure you book ahead if you want to stay at the popular party hostels, especially in peak season. I don’t usually endorse booking ahead really far in advance, however, it is necessary to book a few days prior if you don’t want to be disappointed.
There are a few cool guesthouses around that are cheaper than some hostels in Cambodia. If you’re backpacking Cambodia as a couple, sometimes it’s cheaper to opt for a private room in a guest house opposed to two dorm beds. You can always hang out at the popular hostels during the day & retreat to your guesthouse at night, for a quiet sleep. Below are a few of my favourite hostels & budget accommodation options when backpacking Cambodia.
If you are backpacking Cambodia, AirBnB is a great way to find a quality apartment or house for a cheap price. It’s especially handy if you are travelling as a couple and need a bit of chill time away from noisy dorms. AirBnB’s are great alternative to hotels and hostels, check out everything you need to know about AirBnB’s here. Use this AirBnB coupon code for $35 off your first stay!
Hostels in Cambodia
|Dorm bed from $7||It’s known for its parties and awesome backpacker scene. Located away from the red light district.|
|Phnom Penh||The Happy House||Dorm bed from $4||I loved their rooftop bar, free drink coupon and happy balloons. Great vibes at this hostel!|
|Kampot||Mad Monkey Hostel||Dorm bed from $||I loved their rooftop bar, free drink coupon and happy balloons. Great vibes at this hostel!|
|Kampot||Arcadia Backpackers||Dorm bed from $7||I loved their rooftop bar, free drink coupon and happy balloons. Great vibes at this hostel!|
|Sihanoukvill||Monkey Maya||Dorm bed from $7||This hostel has chilled vibes and boasts panoramic views of the ocean. It’s a secluded natures paradise located 45 min from Sihanoukville|
|Sihanoukville||Monkey Republic||Dorm bed from $5||You know a hostel is doing it right when they give you a free beer as you check in. The food here is great and it has a pool. If you’re heading to the islands the ferry port is only a 5 min walk away.|
|Koh Rong |
|Suns of Beaches |
|Dorm bed from $4 |
tent from $7 (2 people)
|It’s got a great chilled out backpacker vibe in a really remote area on the island. It’s a great place to relax and escape the party.|
|Koh Rong||Bong’s Guesthouse||Dorm bed from $5||Rustic accommodation on the beach right among the party. The all day happy hour is great and it’s got a great view from the terrace.|
|Koh Rong Samloem||Mad Monkey Hoste||Dorm bed from $7||This is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at! You have your own private beach, hammocks & swings over crystal clear water. There’s no WiFi so the social atmosphere is great. At night everyone party’s and watches the fire show on the beach.|
|Koh Rong Samloem||Driftwood Hostel||Dorm bed from $4||Lovely little place in a quiet part of the island. Great atmosphere with their family dinners. If you don’t pre book you can also pitch your tent or stay in a hammock for super cheap!|
|Siem Reap||Onederz Hostel||Dorm bed from $8||The pool at this hostel is great and it’s located right next to the night market. It’s clean, comfortable and has a good social backpacker vibe.|
|Siem Reap||Mad Monkey||Dorm bed from $7||This is the ultimate party hostel with a rooftop beach bar. You can relax by the pool or in the awesome sun day beds. It’s centrally located close to the nightlife, temples and town.|
Money in Cambodia
Although it is relatively easy to find ATMs around Cambodia, some remote islands like Koh Rong Samloem and small towns do not have cash machines. Try to get the maximum of cash out allowed in one transaction at the ATM, as fees can be as much as $9 a pop – just make sure you hide it well. If you need to transfer money internationally, use Transferwise, it’s the fastest and cheapest way to move money around when travelling.
If you want to avoid the ATM fees then I recommend bringing cash instead. US Dollars are commonly used throughout Cambodia and that’s what comes out of the ATM too. If you need change less than $1 they will give it to you in the Cambodian currency: Riel. It’s always handy to have a small amount of Riel on you, especially if you want to pay your tuk tuk driver. As of April 2017, the current exchange rate is between 4020- 4030 Riel per USD, check here for the current value, but in reality, the Riel is pegged to the US dollar at 4000 Riel to $1USD. When changing currency the value of your bill often determines the currency exchange rate you will receive. (e.g. A 50gbp bill is valued higher than 10gbp bill)
You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and I’ve written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
Off the Beaten Path in Cambodia
I could have easily spent months backpacking Cambodia, there many things to explore and discover here. Hence why I over-stayed my visa by a week, I just didn’t want to leave. The longest period of time you can stay in Cambodia is 90 days, (120 days for some countries) with a 30-day visa extension. If you have the time to thoroughly backpack Cambodia, I’d definitely explore more of the islands and backpack around the northwest region of Cambodia.
Koh Rong Samloem was by far my highlight of Cambodia. I’ve never seen an island like it! There are no roads anywhere on the island; everything is accessible either by boat or hiking. Only a few places on the island have Wi-Fi, power is limited and it truly feels like you’re living off grid. Sure there are a few fancy resorts, but majority of the island is undeveloped and it boasts some of the best beaches in Cambodia.
The water is crystal clear, turquoise blue, the sand is powdery and white! Koh Rong Samloem is well known for it’s incredible diving sites and nature. Watch the sun set over the ocean from Sunset Beach and the ocean come alive at night with the bioluminescent plankton. There are no ATM’s at all on the island, so be sure to visit an ATM prior to getting stuck here in paradise.
Kulien Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest protected area in Cambodia & is home to many critically endangered animals. If you truly want to explore off the beaten path and be among nature then you’ll love this area.
Near the region is one of Cambodia’s best-kept secrets, Bantey Chhmar. It’s comparable to Angkor Wat but without the million tourists, this hidden yet massive temple complex is located just two hours from Siem Reap. Bantey Chhmar is Cambodia’s 4th largest Angkorian temple, but due to its remote location tourism has hardly affected the region.
The map below depicts some of the best spots that you can explore whilst backpacking Cambodia. If you want to save on time and accommodation we’d recommend getting a night bus if you’re travelling long distances, like Sihanoukville to Siem Reap. There are a lot of backpacker routes, which typically include: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Kampot. However there are many more awesome places to check out when backpacking Cambodia, follow our Cambodia travel guide to find these secret hidden gems.
Where to Go Backpacking in Cambodia?
Backpacking Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a busy, happening city, home to the spectacular Royal Palace and nestled right on the Mekong River. The city is wonderfully affordable; you can find the cheapest accommodation in the southern and central parts of the city.
The city has risen from the ashes of the Khmer Rouge, led by tyrant Pol Pot. It’s important to visit S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields while you’re in Phnom Penh, to get a proper understanding of the country you are travelling through. For those of you who glimpse the evidence of genocide and mutter “this would never happen back home” it is important to note that both the US and UK governments supported the Khmer Rouge with weapons and supplies in an effort to destabilize neighboring Vietnam.
Both S-21 Prison & the Killing Fields have a somber feel, be prepared for a unique, heavy and heartbreaking experience and please remember to be respectful! A tuk tuk to the S-21 prison, killing fields and back to the city should cost around $8, which can be split between 4 people.
It is also worth visiting the National Museum, Independence monument and the Silver Pagoda if you’re in Phnom Penh whilst backpacking Cambodia. For shopping head to the Central Market to browse (not to buy, prices here are inflated!) and the Russian Market for pirated DVDs, CDs and fake designer clothes.
Whilst in Phnom Penh you can also visit one of the many firing ranges to shoot an AK47, M16, RPG or anything else that takes your fancy. You can shoot heavy machine guns, throw a grenade or blow a target away with a desert eagle; all for a price.
If you’re backpacking Cambodia in November, try to tie in visiting Phnom Penh with the Water Festival. It’s one of the largest festivals in Cambodia and the city comes alive with a carnival atmosphere during this period.
Backpacking Kampot & Kep
Kampot is a quaint riverside town located at the base of the Elephant Mountains. You can explore the town by bicycle, check out the French colonial architecture and indulge in delicious food. If you love Italian food you need to visit the rustic street food restaurant ‘Ciao’. It’s cheap, authentic and made from scratch!
The sunset cruise is a great way to spend the evening, cruising along the river with the fireflies & watching the sunset. Nearby is the Arcadia waterpark, where you can spend the day getting drunk, sliding into the river, jumping off inflatables and kayaking. Entry is $5 each or free if you stay at Arcadia Hostel.
Drive past and stop at the pepper plantations and salt fields before reaching Kep. It’s a 35-minute drive and you can have a dip in the ocean as soon as you arrive! Kep is home to a beautiful national park with a trek known as the “Stairway to heaven”. The trail leads to an incredible view and pagoda at the top of the hill.
Backpacking Sihanoukville & Otres Beach
Sihanoukville is a party town and gateway to explore the breathtaking islands when backpacking Cambodia. The coastline is dominated by long stretches of beach and nearby is a stunning waterfall. Otres Beach is far south of town and is the main hangout for backpackers who want to relax on the beach during the day and party at night.
There’s a mixture of cheap bungalows, cool guesthouses and fancy resorts within the Sihanoukville/Otres area. Otres has a great backpacker vibe, so if you’re sticking around for a few days either before or after visiting the islands, I’d recommend staying around the Otres 2 area.
Backpacking Koh Rong
If you’re looking to find the best parties in Cambodia, then Koh Rong is the place for you. Development of the island has negatively impacted the charm and chilled out vibe of Koh Rong, particularly around the Koh Touch area. Although some parts of the island are extremely touristic, a large area is still covered by dense forest and you can still find secluded laid back spots on the island.
Koh Rong is home to the best parties in Cambodia, particularly around Koh Touch. Here you’ll find DJs, live music, BBQ’s and one hell of a party. Nights tend to escalate here, next minute you’re 3 buckets deep, skinny dipping in the ocean and have to run back to your hostel half naked because someone stole your clothes… That’s a normal night out, so you can only imagine the craziness during the full moon parties. This is a great party area when backpacking Cambodia, however it’s not the best place on the island to chill during the day.
You shouldn’t swim at some beaches, as it’s not safe due to the wastewater being pumped out into the ocean. If you go to the bathroom at a restaurant on some beaches, you can literally see the pipes that run from the restaurant into the ocean. Although more and more guesthouses, hostels, bars and restaurants continue to pop up, they’ve yet to solve the islands waste management.
You can still find laid back and somewhat secluded area’s on Koh Rong, like Sok San Beach, Coconut Beach and Palm Beach. The beaches here are absolutely breathtaking, filled with coral reefs, marine life and the fluorescent plankton at night. It’s a great place to relax, sunbake, snorkel and a poplar dive spot too.
Ferries to Koh Rong run regularly from Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Samloem daily. Make sure you visit an ATM prior to arriving, as there’s no ATMs on the island. If you do get stuck & run out of money, you can borrow money against your passport from Bong’s bar, however you have to pay an extra 10% on top of what you borrowed.
Backpacking Koh Rong Samloem
Koh Rong Samleom is what Koh Rong was about 10 years ago, before the negative impact of tourism and development. This is the one place I’d recommend everyone go when they travel to Cambodia. The island is still fairly untouched, with only a few resort options on the island. Majority of the island is covered by dense jungle, so there are no roads and the only option to explore the island is by hiking. You can get a boat to other beaches around the island if you don’t feel like hiking.
Ferry’s frequently run to Koh Rong Samloem from Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. They drop you off at Saracen Bay, it’s the most touristic part of the island and so I’d recommend leaving there as soon as possible. However it’s one of the only parts of the island that has Wi-Fi.
Make sure you check out Lazy Beach and Sunset Beach while you’re on the island. They’re two of my favorite spots that make you feel like you’re living totally off the grid, in a tropical paradise. There isn’t much of a social backpacking scene on these parts of the island, so if you’re looking to relax, socialize and party at night, then visit Mad Monkey Hostel. They have a free boat, which coincides with the ferry dropping you off at Saracen Bay.
You can fish, swim, snorkel, island hop, and dive on Koh Rong Samloem. At night be mesmerised by the luminous trails the phytoplankton leave behind. This island is pure bliss and I’d come back in a heartbeat!
Battambang is an awesome place to visit whilst backpacking Cambodia. You get a true taste of genuine Cambodian life, by visiting the crumbling temples, caves, bamboo train and quaint little villages.
It’s a little bit more touristic than I imagined however the countryside is utterly beautiful. This is a great ‘off the beaten path’ destination and it makes sense to head here, hire a motorbike and then just explore.
The main attraction here is the bamboo train, which takes you along a railway to a small village. Be aware of the children from the village, you think they’re just being friendly when they tell you information about the place (without asking). Then will demand money from you when you leave, for their “service”.
Backpacking Siem Reap
If you’re backpacking Cambodia then you’ll most likely be stopping off in Siem Reap. It’s the main tourist destination and is visited by over one million people who’re travelling Cambodia every year.
Majority of people who travel to Cambodia come to visit the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat dubbed the most incredible man made piece of architecture. The ruins here are really impressive however I personally prefer the temples and atmosphere in Bagan, Myanmar and Hampi, India.
The entrance fee is very expensive itself and as you pay depending on how many days you want to spend on the site. The ticket price has doubled since the 1st of February 2017 as an effort to deter potential tourists from visiting. If you’re on a broke backpacker’s budget, I’d recommend skipping Angkor Wat & visit Banteay Chhmar. It’s comparable to Angkor Wat but without the million tourists, this hidden yet massive temple complex is located just two hours from Siem Reap.
If you have your heart set on visiting Angkor Wat, I’d hire a tuk tuk for the day to explore the massive temple complexes. If you have four people in a tuk tuk then the price is relatively cheap. You can either do the small loop that hit’s all the major sites, like Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm and four + more temples. The big loop includes the small loop + six other temples. I did the one day small loop tour of the Angkor complex, starting at sunrise over Angkor watt. By the end of the day I was all temple-d out! It’s absolutely incredible there, however there’s only so many temples you can see in one day.
I highly recommend visiting the Landmine Museum, which makes for a really interesting and rather poignant side trip while you’re in Siem Reap and backpacking Cambodia. There is also a floating village in Siem Reap, however I wouldn’t recommend it. The stilt huts over the river and crazy floating boat structures are cool, however there are a lot of scams within the area. A guy tried to con me into paying 80,000 kip to feed the “orphan” children. Instead of giving money, I actually bought them fruit which they threw on the floor in front of me… If you really want to make a difference, pick your battles.
Siem Riep has a truly crazy nightlife and is packed with backpackers looking for a good time, be sure to check out some of the best bars in Siem Riep whilst you’re there. Pub Street is the main place to go out and is packed with bars all in a close proximity.
Trekking whilst Backpacking Cambodia
Trekking is not typically popular in Cambodia, therefore they tend to be quite expensive. The are two main treks when backpacking Cambodia is Virachey and Phnom Samkos.
Virachey is a common trek when backpacking Cambodia. It’s an environmentally friendly 7-day Ecotour. You trek through remote villages, through the Yak Yeuk Grasslands up to Mera Mountain, finishing right near the Laos border.
Veal Thom Grasslands boats the most spectacular views of the wild, unexplored mountainous border of Laos and Vietnam. Throughout your trek you’ll be spotting gibbons, hornbills, exploring grasslands and swimming in rivers. It’ll be a truly authentic and incredible Cambodian experience.
If you’re looking for a trek that’s completely off the beaten path, then head to Phnom Samkos, Cambodia’s second highest peak. Instead of opting for a tour, arrange it yourself with rangers in Promouy town. It’ll be expensive but one hell of an adventure!
There are no defined trails, so you’ll have to use machetes to make your own trail up to the mountain peak. It’s quite a dangerous trek as it’s extremely remote and there are potential landmines. You’ll be exposed to everything the jungle offers including leeches and wild animals like elephants. My friend actually woke up to elephants congregating around their campsite whilst doing the Phnom Samkos trek. The national park insists on you taking two rangers armed with AK47’s on your 3 day trek to the summit. Sounds like a once in a lifetime experience right?
If you want to see what other travellers who backpack Cambodia don’t, then travel by motorcycle. It’s the best and cheapest way to explore Cambodia, just as long as you have a reliable motorbike.In recent years, the main roads and highways have drastically improved making your drive a lot easier. If you plan to head to Vietnam throughout your travels in South East Asia and Cambodia, I’d recommend buying a motorbike there.
If you buy your motorcycle in Vietnam, then you’re able to take it to Laos and Cambodia without needing a special permit. However, you can’t take your Cambodian bought motorbike into Vietnam. Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh has an abundance of motorbikes you can purchase anywhere from $150 USD.
Take note that you can’t transport your motorcycle to the islands, so you’ll need a safe place to store it whilst you enjoy island life.
Khmer Food in Cambodia
The Khmer food in Cambodia is absolutely delicious. Many Khmer dishes originate or are inspried by their neighbouring Asian countries. You will fall in love with the food whilst backpacking Cambodia.
Lok Lak– Is a delicious stir-fried beef dish, served on a bed of lettuce, red onion, cucumbers and tomatoes. The beef is cooked with garlic and tomato sauce. The dipping sauce consists of lime-juice, sea salt and black pepper.
Fish Amok– This is probably my all time favourite Khmer dish, whilst backpacking Cambodia. It’s a spicy fish coconut curry served in a banana leaf with a side of rice. Not only is this yellow curry cheap, but also absolutely delicious and a national culinary Cambodian tradition.
Bobo– Is a local rice soup dish with spring onions and garlic, commonly eaten for breakfast. It’s a basic yet delicious start to your day, served with garlic, beans, chilli and lime.
Lap Khmer– This is a delectable lime-marinated Khmer beef salad, may not be for everyone. The beef is either “cooked” ceviche style using lime juice, or seared quickly. It’s quite spicy and has a great flavour with lemongrass, garlic, basil, mint and fish sauce. If you’re eating at a western friendly place then your beef will be cooked properly, however if you’re eating locally you may be eating rare beef.
Khmer Red Curry– This dish is quite similar to a Thai red curry but without the overpowering chilli burn. It’s made with your choice of meat or fish, with eggplant, lemongrass, green beans, potatoes, coconut milk and kroeung (Cambodian spice). The Khmer red curry has a French influence and is typically served with bread.
Budget for Backpacking Cambodia
Your budget for backpacking Cambodia depends solely on what type of traveller you are. Are you a flash-packer who needs to stay in the best hostels with air-condition and a pool? Or are you a broke backpacker who eats, lives and travels like the locals, is always keen to find the cheapest option possible and doesn’t mind roughing it a little?
If you’re a broke backpacker like myself and will sleep in a hammock over a dorm because it’s cheaper, then you can easily travel with a budget of $20-$25 USD per day. Assuming that you stay in cheap accommodation, eat local food and travel cheaply. Rather than flying internally, take a night bus to your next destination, it saves you paying for a night’s accommodation.
Typically it can actually be cheaper backpacking Cambodia as a pair. Sometimes a private room in guesthouses can actually be cheaper than two dorm beds in a hostel. I try to stay in a cheap guesthouse close to a hostel and just hang out there for the social scene. I’ve found the portion sizes to be massive in Cambodia, so instead of paying for one meal and wasting food, I opt to share my meal & get a snack later if I’m still hungry.
Avoid the tourist traps! The fancy restaurants, VIP buses, air conditioning rooms and buying souvenirs, it all adds up and can blow out your budget big time, if you’re not careful. Hitchhiking is a great way to save money on travel expenses and you get a more authentic experience while backpacking Cambodia. If you eat like a local, hitchhike, catch local buses, camp or sleep in your camping hammock then it is possible to live off $10-$15 USD per day. Cambodia is relatively cheap compared to some South East Asian countries, however it can get really expensive if you’re not careful and fall into the tourist trap.
Cheapest dorm bed: $3 night
Most expensive dorm bed: $8 night
Camping on the beach or Couchsurfing: $ Free
On every adventure, there are five things I never go travelling without.
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2. Pocket Blanket: This lightweight, waterproof, super compact pocket blanket is a must for all adventures. Doubling up as an emergency poncho, this picnic blanket is worth it’s weight in gold when chilling, or camping, on the beach. It comes with a carabiner, a secret zipped pocket where you can hide stuff and pocket loops which you can weigh down using stones.
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if needs be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Top Tips for Broke Backpacker’s
This is a great way to get around and save a couple of dollars. The experience you get hitchhiking in incomparable to a tourist bus. I’ve been picked up hitchhiking by a local, who just wanted to show me around. He gave me a mini tour of his hometown the way to our destination and just genuinely wanted me to enjoy my time in Cambodia.
Camping on beaches will save you so much money, especially when you’re visiting the islands. Just make sure you don’t set up camp near any resorts or hostels, find a quiet spot and make sure you clean up after yourself. Check this article for the best tents out there and get yourself one!
- Hang Your Hammock
My camping hammock saved my backpacking funds big time. Wherever you can find two trees or poles, you can always have a comfortable night’s sleep. Some hostels even let you hang your hammock there (if there’s space) and charge you a quarter the price of a dorm bed
Couchsurfing is a great way to save money on accommodation and get local knowledge. It’s 100% free and you may even end up with a new friend at the end of your stay.
If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board. Cambodia has some awesome volunteering opportunities, however there are a few dodgy places around particularly to do with Orphanages.
- Eat Local Food
If you eat like a local, then you tend to pay local prices. Sometimes it could be 1,000 riel extra because you’re a foreigner, but it’s still far cheaper than eating at a tourist restaurant.
Volunteer In Cambodia
If you want to give back to the community while backpacking Cambodia, then why not volunteer? Volunteering around the world enables you to experience a country from a different perspective and travel on a broke backpackers budget. There are a ton of dodgy “volunteer” agencies around Cambodia, particularly involving volunteering in orphanages. Be sure to do research on the organisation you’re volunteering with.We hope to make volunteering organisation recommendations in the near future.
Volunteering whilst backpacking Cambodia is an awesome experience; you learn more about the country you’re travelling, make long-lasting friends from around the world and give back to those less fortunate at the same time. It’s also a great way to have a base for a little bit and to enjoy a bit of downtime in the evenings rather than preparing for another hectic journey! The only problem is finding a decent volunteering company that isn’t out to make a huge profit. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
Find out more about the ethics of volunteering abroad here.
Internet in Cambodia
The WiFi in some areas of Cambodia is okay, particularly in major cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. However the islands are horrible for Internet connection! You’ll be lucky to find a place on the islands with Wi-Fi and if you do, chances are the connection sucks. Even if you purchase a sim card, load data and hotspot your laptop, the reception is so bad on the islands, that it probably won’t work very well.
Dating in Cambodia
Cambodia is typically a very conservative society and will rarely show any public display of affection (PDA). Chatting up girls is not really a thing in Cambodian culture, however it’s normal to occur in major cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where there are a lot of bar girls looking to make friends with foreigners. Watch your wallet and remember that all humans deserve to be treated with respect – don’t get drunk and do anything you would be ashamed to tell your Mum.
The people in major cities are generally less conservative and are open to PDA. Although Cambodia is a conservative society, it’s ironically easy for a foreigner to score a “date”. You do need to be very careful though as sexually transmitted diseases, in particular HIV and AIDS are quite common.
Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Cambodia
The sex scene in Cambodia is on the rise, however it’s mainly in the Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville area. Some places are quite discreet, so discreet that my friend naively suggested we get a drink “Helicopter Bar” because she liked the name… little did she know that it was a go go bar filled with prostitues.
Drugs in Cambodia are readily available and effortless to find. Weed and opiates are quite easy to come across & are generally offered to you from tuk tukdrivers. “Happy” pizza places are sprawled all over Cambodia, selling “happy” lassies and “happy” pizzas at a really reasonable price. In general good marijuana is extremely easy to find and is also quite cheap compared to other South East Asian countries.
It’s surprisingly common to be offered opiates like heroin and pure opium whilst backpacking Cambodia. However they’re pretty dangerous and many tourists have died whilst taking heroin, mistaking it for cocaine. I’d avoid taking any form of cocaine, speed or ecstasy while travelling Cambodia, it’s not worth the risk and chances are you’re probably getting heroin.
Acid is quite easily available on the islands and Sihanoukville/Otres area. Quite often they drop the acid on an Oreo or strawberry and it’s typically sold in drops, rather than tabs. Magic mushrooms are also around, however they’re rather expensive to come across.
By far the most commonly used drugs for travellers backpacking Cambodia is pharmaceuticals. You can buy ketamine over the counter if you’re a local, however it’s illegal for foreigners. Valium is a cheap, common drug among travellers backpacking Cambodia. Travellers wanting a similar effect of speed purchase Ritalin over the counter from a dodgy pharmacies.
Be careful before diving into the pharmaceutical scene, it can be very dangerous and easy to turn your recreational use into an addiction, due to it’s ease of access. Don’t carry any form of drugs on you, otherwise you could end up broke trying to bribe your way out of prison. Check out Blazed Backpackers 101 for tips on how to stay safe whilst partying.
Best Time to Travel to Cambodia
The best time of the year to backpack Cambodia is in peak season (November-February), known as cool season. The temperature is warm enough to sunbake by the beach, but mild enough to explore Cambodia’s many temples without dying of heat stroke. The prices tends to increase during peak season, however it’s the most comfortable time of the year to backpack Cambodia.
If you’re planning to backpack Cambodia during wet season (May-September), be prepared for the challenges you face ahead. Cambodia has many dirt roads that quickly turn into mud during wet season. It can be rather dangerous driving your motorcycle through mud as it’s slippery & your bike will have less traction. It’s also not that fun trekking and doing day trips in the wet. You don’t want the weather to rain on your parade whilst travelling in Cambodia.
During hot season temperatures and humidity rise to an uncomfortable level. Some travellers find the heat unbearable, particularly those from Britain and Scandinavia. I’m quite used of the heat since I’m from Australia and some days even tested my tolerance to the heat. Especially since air conditioning is a luxury, when backpacking Cambodia.
A Brief History of Cambodia
Cambodia has a turbulent history with numerous invasions and battles throughout the years. If you’re backpacking Cambodia, It’s important to have knowledge of their history & how they’ve progressed to be the country they are today.
During the 18th century Cambodia found itself squeezed between two powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The Thais invaded Cambodia several times during this period. In the last years of the 18th century the Vietnamese also invaded Cambodia. The Cambodian king was forced to look to the Thais for protection; in return Thailand took north-west Cambodia.
Cambodia soon turned to France as a protectorate from both Thailand and Vietnam. They were under French rule for the next 90 years, where some economic development took place. They built roads, railways andd helped develop the rubber industry. Cambodian nationalism grew during the 1930’s as the French imposed heavy taxes on the Cambodian people.
During the early 1940’s (WW II) the Japanese invaded and occupied Cambodia until 1945 when the French returned as a protectorate. A new constitution was formed allowing Cambodia to have political parties, which led to communist guerrillas to campaign against the French. In 1949 Cambodia became semi independent and soon after King Sihanouk took personal control of the country. Cambodia became fully independent in 1953 and was renamed the Khmer Republic in 1970.
During 1969 the US began a secret bombing crusade against the North of Vietnam on Cambodian soil. Prime Minister Lon Nol then overthrew King Sihanouk in a coup to proclaim the Khmer Republic. Cambodian soldiers were sent to fight the North Vietnamese on home soil. However the guerrilla/communist movement slowly made progress, leading to the US commencing bombing campaigns against the communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
On the 17th of April 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, captured Phnom Penh and renamed the country Kampuchea. This was the beginning of the world’s worst mass killings of the 20th century. Pol Pot wanted to wipe history clean and start from ‘Year Zero’.
Everyone was forced to abandon their houses, jobs and possession, and move to the countryside to work in agriculture on collective farms. Pol Pot had a totally unrealistic target of double it’s agricultural output, to produce 3 tones of rice per hectare, which was literally impossible. Everyone had to work long hours of little food, which led to many falling ill or dying from exhaustion or malnutrition.
Everyone from the intellectuals to the uneducated were imprisoned, tortured, killed and dumped in mass graves. People, who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses or had any kind of higher education, were executed. Religion was banned, punishable by death and family relationships were forbidden. People were executed for the smallest infringements, foraging for food, being too lazy and complaining.
How many people were killed during the Khmer Rouge is unknown, but it’s estimated that between 1.5 – 3 million people perished.
The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 conquering to terminate the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge fled to the border of Thailand, to re-establish The People’s Republic of Kampuchea. They were welcomed with open arms by Thailand, who also feared a Vietnamese invasion. However the guerrilla war continued, the party was still officially internationally recognized, and retained their seat in the United Nations.
In 1989 Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia and communism was abandoned. A provisional government took power until the 1993 elections where they framed a constitution. In 1991 the Paris Peace Agreement was signed, reinstating Sihanouk to be head of state. The monarchy was soon restored, Buddhism was recognized as the national religion and Sihanouk became king once again. The country was renamed “Kingdom of Cambodia” and the Khmer Rouge obviously lost their seat in the UN.
Thousands of guerrillas involved in the Khmer Rouge surrendered to the government, in a bid for amnesty. Those involved in the Khmer Rouge were put on trial and Pol Pot was sentenced to life in prison due to his horrendous war crimes. Pol Pot died shortly after in 1998, returning peace to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Cambodia has progressed and developed considerably in a short amount of time. Although it’s still a relatively poor country, the economy is growing rapidly. The textiles and tourism industry are booming, oil was discovered off the Cambodian coastline, which assures Cambodia a prosperous future.
Political Issues to be aware of in Cambodia
Cambodia is still in the mist of political uncertainty as the government campaigns for a 2018 election. The government has misused the justice system to harass and punish civil society and silence critics. Human right advocates, public intellectuals, NGOs and the opposition have recently been targeted by this autocratic government. Although the political system is corrupt, it shouldn’t effect or impact your travels to Cambodia. Read more about the current political situation here.
Useful apps to download before backpacking in Cambodia
There’s a few apps which I absolutely swear by when travelling the world. Almost all backpackers these days have a phone and you can make your travels that little bit easier by installing the following adventure friendly apps…
Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking Cambodia.
XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Cambodia. It is a great help while calculating expenses and working out the exchange rate.
HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Books to read on Cambodia
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.
A Cambodian Prison Portrait– There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was at least one place where they all were real: Security Prison 21, the secret police’s killing machine. Of the 14,000 or so prisoners who were brought there for questioning, only a handful survived. One of them were the artist Vann Nath (1946-2011). In this thin little book, he describes his horrifying year behind the barbed wired walls of S-21.
The Lost Executioner– The head of S-21, Kang Kek Iew, AKA Comrade Duch, is central in this remarkable book. In 1997, the photographer and journalist Nic Dunlop more or less stumbled upon Duch, who had been hiding since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Phnom Penh: A Cultural History– This book provides a colourful account of the troubled history and appealing culture of Cambodia’s capital city. It sheds light on Phnom Penh’s early history, when first Iberian missionaries and freebooters and then French colonists held Cambodia’s fate in their hands.
Live in Cambodia
Cambodia is an ideal destination for digital nomads who work online and can live for cheap. The WiFi is okay throughout most of Cambodia, excluding the islands. Sihanoukville/Ottres Beach is a popular beach side place, for expats living in Cambodia and working online. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are more common areas to live whilst teaching English in Cambodia.
If you want to explore Cambodia on a long term basis, perhaps teaching English is your forte. All you have to do is take a foreign language course online, it’s supemr cheap and easy. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Cambodia (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Insurance for Cambodia backpacking adventures
Even if you are only going on a short trip or don’t want to fork out the cash for long term cover, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun whilst backpacking Cambodia, it’s one amazing country, but please make sure you’re covered – take it from someone with experience, travel insurance will save your ass! At least make sure you’re covered with medical insurance at minimum. If you have expensive items like a laptop, phone or camera you’re travelling with, make sure you’re get gear insurance to cover your stuff.
As my parents always say, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head overseas! Travelling without insurance is just downright idiotic. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, anywhere, there are tons of decent options online.
Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.
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