How I backpacked through Cambodia in 10 days and saw it all. Well, almost.
It’s taken months of procrastination. But it’s finally here. My first travel blog post.
The purpose of this post is to guide people with a penchant for experiential budget travel. This post deviates slightly from my exact trip itinerary but is a suggested plan for covering this enchanting and affordable country in a few days.
Siem Reap (Days 1 & 2)
Phnom Penh (Days 3 & 4)
Kampot, Kep, Sihanoukville (Days 5 & 6)
Koh Rong Samloem (Days 7 & 8)
Koh Rong (Day 9)
Return journey via Siem Reap (Day 10)
I consider myself quite a meticulous traveler. Some might even call me an over-planner. But I draw immense satisfaction from researching about my destinations, doing my homework about the places to visit, things to do and dishes to devour! Don’t get me wrong, “winging it” has its own merits and can be very rewarding too. But when I have a limited number of days in a new country, I like to make sure I’m doing them justice. It ensures you have less regrets, and you can always tweak the plan as you go along.
In October last year, my travel gene itched again. I had about 10 days and just enough money in the bank for a backpacking trip in South East Asia. I picked Cambodia — the allure of Angkor Wat was too hard to resist and the country’s compact geography meant I could travel between places easier and quicker.
To start with, let me get some important points out of the way:
Point of origin: Mumbai
Time of travel: 11 days (including 1 night in Bangkok) in late October
Weather: Hot with mild but predictable (which is a good thing when you are planning your daily itinerary) showers
Currency: Cambodian Reals OR US Dollar. The local currency is very weak — 4000 Reals to 1 USD. Both currencies are accepted everywhere.
Siem Reap (2 days)
Easy to get to with Air Asia flights from Bangkok and also heard there is the option of an overnight bus.
The enchanting Angkor Wat should be at the very top of your to-do list on this trip. The scale and grandeur of this ancient Buddhist-Hindu temple complex is unlike anything you‘ve seen and makes it worth the 4AM wake up call and the long hours in the scorching sun. Get here before sunrise to seize your spot for the perfect photo op. Angkor, Bayon and Ta Phrom (the Tomb Raider ruins) are the 3 main temples. If you have some juice left in the tank, hit a couple of the lesser known ones. Expect this to take you about 8 hours in total.
Other things worth exploring are the Old Market (Phsar Chas) area. Largely a regular central market (if you’re traveling from India or other parts of Asia), you can find cheap local fare and interesting displays of seafood and meat. From here, stroll to the nearby West Alley, an old walking street that has evolved from a spot for DVD and handicraft hawkers into an eccentric street with boutique outlets, designer stores and cafes.
Wat Preah Prom Rath is a Buddhist temple dedicated to a monk from the 1500s. It is centrally located and takes you just 10 minutes to cover. However, you’re not missing out on too much if you skip it.
For the nightlife seekers, look no further than Pub Street. A dedicated strip of pubs and clubs, its where revellers young and old, foreign and local, throng for a good night. Temple bar and Angkor What? are popular joints.
In true backpacker spirit, here’s a cheat code for when your budget is tight (when is it not?) — Khmer Idea Restaurant on Pub Street serves up chilled Angkor Draught beer for $0.25/mug. You’re welcome!
Phnom Penh (2 days)
The capital city is a 7 hour bus ride from Siem Reap and you have many operators plying this route at various times of the day.
The Killing Fields and the S21 prison offer an insight into Cambodia’s dark past. The detailed audio guides, which include accounts from victims and survivors, tell blood chilling tales of the brutalities suffered under the Pol Pot’s oppressive Khmer regime.
Also give yourself time to explore the Royal Palace complex, the official residence of the Cambodian King. Unfortunately I had to pass on this because we were short on time.
I would recommend a leisurely outing to the Russian Market too. Nothing strikingly Russian about it (and could not find anybody to explain the reason behind the name to me), but turned out to be a hotspot for local street food. Wander through the kiosks lining the outer periphery to sample delicious bite size portions. I managed to check off several items on my food list in a matter of minutes! Will cover Cambodian food in a separate blog post.
I enjoy the occasional game of poker and blackjack, so I visited the Nagaworld Casino in Phnom Penh. The casino is inside a large hotel, with tasteful interiors and is welcoming of tourists with no strict dress code. Believe me, I walked in wearing a tank top and shorts. Cheapest games you can find are $10 minimum bet though. A stretch if you are on a backpacker budget like I was so you will have to plan accordingly.
For drinks and story swapping with fellow travellers head over to the Mad Monkey hostel’s rooftop bar. I stayed at the Mad Monkey, but the bar is opened to outsiders and is a great place to begin your night and find drinking buddies. People then move on to nearby Love Bar which is the most popular club in the area.
Kampot (1 day)
Just a 3–4 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh is the small, sleepy riverside town of Kampot. Arriving from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, this offers a completely different side of Cambodia. Also serves as a good base to explore the neighbouring seaside town of Kep.
Rent a scooter for as little as $4 for 24 hours and ride around the wide empty streets. Keep an eye out for the crumbling colonial buildings that look frozen in time.
The Kompong Bay River provides a beautiful backdrop as you sip on a cocktail or grab a bite at one of the many establishments that line its bank. The region is famous for its pepper production, so be sure to have your food cooked in it. It was the first time I had stems of fresh green peppers in my plate but the flavour is truly delicious!
Also just so that you’re not as surprised as I was when you get there, Kampot feels like a ghost town post 10:30pm!
Kep (1/2 day)
This idyllic seaside town, a 30 minute bike ride from Kampot, was once a holiday retreat for wealthy Cambodians.
Several villa ruins remain, serving as a reminder of Kep’s hey day. Unfortunately, there is no well-documented guide directing you to these structures so I had to just ride around keeping my eyes peeled for what looked like dilapidated mansions.
My favourite part about Kep by far was the local Crab market. I come from a coastal land popular for seafood, but this was unlike anything I had seen. Along a section of the sea front, vendors come in from the waters with cane baskets filled with fresh live catch. The price you pay is dictated by the season as well as the day’s catch, but be prepared to bargain! We bought 1 kg of crabs for $4 and 1 kg of king prawns for $8 — WHAT A STEAL, right? And that’s not the best part. Buy your seafood and have it cooked right there with local fresh green peppercorns and chilli sauce.
If you crave some beach time (and can’t wait for the islands), ride over to Kep beach. Not the most impressive stretch of shore you will see, but it is lined with deck beds and hammocks so you can relax and digest your meal.
Sihanoukville (1 night before heading off to the islands)
There isn’t much to write home about this coastal town, but being the gateway to the dreamy southern islands has made it a happening and commercial destination. It is a 2 hour drive from Kampot, with local operators plying a few times each day, and ferries to the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem depart from here.
Sihanoukville has a busy, touristy feel to it with lots of pubs, restaurants and casinos. The Serendipity beach area (near the main pier) is a hotspot of hostels and nightspots, which many backpackers make their base for a few days before moving on with their travels.
Koh Rong Samloem (2 days)
The two southern islands, while located just a ferry ride from each other, offer very different experiences. This one, a sun-drenched paradise with white sands and clear blue waters, is my personal pick and a dream for any beach bums out there. A fast ferry takes you to the island in 45 mins for $5.
Most backpackers head to Koh Rong with its more vibrant nightlife allowing Koh Rong Samloem to stay more peaceful and untouched. Long may that continue!
Regrettably, my itinerary only allowed for one day on the island so I couldn’t explore too much. I stayed on the stretch of beach that flanked the main pier — still postcard worthy though — soaked up some sun along, knocked back some beer and swam in the beautiful waters. The island has many beach bungalow options and even a budget hostel, if you choose to stay the night. The restaurants here have a bit of a monopoly, so food and drink is on the expensive side.
Koh Rong (1 day)
A fast ferry gets you here from Samloem in an hour for $5.
Koh Rong is a buzzing party island and the atmosphere hits you right as you get off the ferry. The main pier is flanked by bars, restaurants and hostels so you don’t have to wander much to find what you are looking for. Recline in a hammock chair with a brew and people watch, jam with strangers on the street side, hit up a bar spinning out groovy tunes or just nibble on street food at the various kiosks — this place has got you covered!
Through writing about my travels, I want to encourage people to travel more. It is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your time and money, assuming you have those at your disposal. It will thrill you, challenge you, push you out of your comfort zone and widen your perspective. Plain to say its a passion very close to my heart. So if this piece goes some way in helping you plan your next trip, it would have served its purpose.