Cambodia is a country of stunning beauty and rich culture, offering some of the best destinations in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re planning a short trip or have more time to spare, there are plenty of amazing places to explore beyond the famous Angkor Wat. In this travel guide, I’ll share some valuable tips to help you plan an unforgettable trip to Cambodia.
Visit Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the biggest draw for visitors to Cambodia. This UNESCO World Heritage site is not to be missed, and the best way to experience it is at sunrise. It may be a little challenging to wake up early, but trust me, it’s worth it! As the sun emerges from behind the spires of the main temple, you’ll witness a breathtaking sight.
Arrive before the tour buses, and you’ll have the opportunity to explore the temples in relative peace. The early morning light casts a magical glow over the ruins, creating a truly enchanting atmosphere. While most people flock to the main temple for sunrise, there are lesser-known spots within the park that offer a more serene experience.
Explore the Outer Temples
Angkor Wat is vast, covering an area of 400 square kilometers. While the main temples are undoubtedly awe-inspiring, there are many hidden gems that are often overlooked by tourists. Take the time to explore the outer temples, which are less crowded and have a more mysterious feel. These temples are often overgrown by jungle, adding to their enchantment.
Rent a bicycle or hire a tuk-tuk to explore the larger area of Angkor Wat beyond the standard circuit. Venture off the beaten path and discover lesser-known temples that will leave you in awe. The journey to these outer temples may take a little longer, but it’s well worth the effort.
How Many Days to Spend at Angkor Wat
If you’re short on time, you can see the most important areas of Angkor Wat in just one day. However, I recommend spending at least two days to fully appreciate the history and grandeur of this ancient site. With two days, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the more remote temples and delve deeper into the fascinating story of Angkor Wat.
A one-day pass to Angkor Wat costs $37, while a three-day pass is priced at $62. Although there’s enough to see for three days, two days is often the ideal amount of time to explore Angkor Wat without feeling overwhelmed by temples. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, consider taking a hot air balloon ride to view Angkor Wat from the sky.
What to Do in Siem Reap
Siem Reap, the city nearest to Angkor Wat, is the perfect base for your temple exploration. Apart from its proximity to the magnificent temples, Siem Reap offers a wide range of activities to keep you entertained. From cooking classes and pottery workshops to quad bike tours and ziplining adventures, there’s something for everyone.
After a day of temple hopping, head to Pub Street for some cheap booze and lively entertainment. Siem Reap’s vibrant nightlife scene ensures that you’ll have a great time, whether you’re looking for a relaxing drink or a night of dancing.
Visit Tonle Sap Lake
If you have some extra time in Siem Reap, consider taking a day trip to Tonle Sap Lake. This vast freshwater lake is home to traditional floating villages, offering a unique insight into the local way of life. However, make sure you choose the right floating village to visit. Chong Kneas is often overcrowded and touristy, while Kompong Khleang offers a more authentic and responsible experience.
Traveling from Vietnam or Thailand
Many travelers combine their visit to Cambodia with a trip to Vietnam or Thailand. If you have a few days to spare, it’s definitely worth adding Cambodia to your itinerary. From Bangkok, you can take a bus to Siem Reap or opt for a direct flight with a local budget carrier. If you’re coming from Ho Chi Minh City, there are also bus and flight options available.
The journey from Vietnam can be quite long, so you might want to break it up by stopping in Phnom Penh. This capital city offers a chance to learn about Cambodia’s history, particularly the dark period of the Khmer Rouge regime. Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum S-21 and the Killing Fields will provide a profound understanding of the country’s past.
What to Skip in Cambodia
While Cambodia has many incredible destinations, there are a few places that you can skip if you’re short on time. Phnom Penh, the capital city, is not as vibrant as other capital cities in Southeast Asia. Although it’s worth a visit to learn about the country’s tragic history, it’s not a must-see compared to other attractions in Cambodia.
Sihanoukville, once a popular seaside resort, has lost its charm due to recent developments. The influx of Chinese casinos and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have left the city in a state of disarray. If you’re seeking beautiful beaches and a lively party scene, there are better options in Cambodia, such as Siem Reap or the islands.
Best Experiences Besides Angkor Wat
While Angkor Wat takes center stage in Cambodia, there are plenty of other experiences that shouldn’t be missed. If you’re looking for a more serene island experience, head to the Cambodian coast where you’ll find untouched islands like Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. These islands offer a true castaway feeling and are less developed than their Thai counterparts.
For nature lovers, the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest are a must-visit. Explore the protected rainforests and discover the abundant wildlife in this ecotourism hotspot. The village of Chi Pat inside the Cardamom Mountains offers community-based tourism, where you can embark on trekking and jungle boat tours that directly benefit the local community.
Kampot and Kep, located just 20 minutes apart, are two charming towns that offer a more relaxed and local experience. In Kampot, explore the pepper farms, salt fields, and surrounding countryside. In Kep, don’t miss the famous crab market and take the time to visit the abandoned French colonial villas.
Cost of Travel in Cambodia
Cambodia is a budget traveler’s paradise. With affordable accommodation options, cheap street food, and inexpensive transportation, you can get by on as little as $20 a day. Even if you’re looking for a more comfortable holiday experience, a budget of around $40 per person per day is sufficient.
While there are luxury options available in popular destinations like Siem Reap, you can still find charming bamboo bungalows and basic double rooms for around $20 a night. Cambodia mainly uses US dollars, and most ATMs dispense US currency.
Getting Around in Cambodia
Getting around in Cambodia is relatively straightforward, although road conditions can vary. There are coach services that connect major cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Battambang. For shorter distances, minivans are often the primary mode of transportation. Be prepared for crowded conditions and possible delays.
While Cambodia does have a train system, it’s not always the most reliable or efficient option. However, new train lines are being constructed, which may improve transportation in the future. To book buses or minivans, you can use local travel agencies or online platforms like 12go Asia.
Going Off the Beaten Track
If you have the time, consider exploring some lesser-known destinations in Cambodia. Kratie, a laidback town by the Mekong River, offers a glimpse into rural Cambodian life and the chance to see rare Irrawaddy dolphins. The temples of Beng Mealea, Koh Ker, and Preah Vihear are also worth a visit for those seeking more architectural wonders.
Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, offers an authentic and less commercialized experience compared to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It’s perfect for a day trip or a short stay. For those looking for untouched nature, Mondulkiri in the northwest is a remote province with beautiful landscapes and waterfalls.
Cambodia has so much to offer beyond Angkor Wat. By venturing off the beaten track, you’ll discover the country’s hidden gems and create memories that will last a lifetime. So, pack your bags and get ready for an extraordinary adventure in the Kingdom of Wonder.