The Ultimate Jetset Travel Guide to Cambodia
Cambodia is such a fascinating country. Despite neighboring tourist hot-spots Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia remains so much less discovered and less visited than the countries it borders. It’s home to thousands of unbelievably-preserved ancient temples, a gorgeous countryside, a warm, tropical climate, and *let me let you in on a little secret* a coast that rivals any of the best beaches in the world… and is even called “the Thailand of 20 years ago”.
So what gives? Why has it taken the world so long to figure out that this is South East Asia’s next destination hot-spot??
Well, unfortunately, Cambodia is a country marked by tragedy. Up until 1998, Cambodia was involved in a brutal, barbaric, 30-year civil war led by a communist dictator named Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge.
I don’t mean to start this blog post on such a depressing historical note, because my trip to Cambodia was anything but depressing. On the contrary, it was full of luxurious hotels, white-sand beaches, and beautiful Khmer cultural experiences that I can’t wait to tell you all about. But, I think it’s important that anyone coming to Cambodia have at least some background on what has occurred in the Kingdom’s history, so you can truly appreciate how the strides of progress and the resilience that exist in this country that make it the beautiful culture to visit that it is today.
A Quick Cambodian History
At least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population — were killed by execution, disease, starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge’s heartless rule from 1975 to 1979, making the Pul Pot regime one of the most barbaric and murderous in history.
Pol Pot began his power by declaring, “This is Year Zero,” and dictated that Cambodian society was to be “purified.” Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favor of an extremely radical form of peasant Communism that he largely learned from Mao Zedong’s China and The Great Leap Forward.
The Khmer Rouge communist forces took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders, anyone they deemed could be seen by society as superior was killed.
All foreigners were expelled from the country, embassies closed, and any foreign economic, military or medical assistance was refused (the US had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam in 1975, and Cambodia’s corrupt government also lost its American military support). The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage diminished. Money was absolutely forbidden. All businesses were closed, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated. Cambodia was completely sealed off from the outside world.
Millions of talented Cambodians accustomed to city life were forced into slave labor in Pol Pot’s “killing fields” where, if they weren’t killed, they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease, on a diet of one tin of rice per person every two days.
If this sounds like a nightmare, it’s because it absolutely was.
Turning a dark past into a bright future
However, civil war in Cambodia finally ended almost 20 years ago, and the beauty of visiting a country with a history like Cambodia is you are literally watching a country rebuild itself. Out of tragedy, comes triumph.
Cambodia has a very promising future, and the rapid growth of tourism has played a vital part in the impressive development of this country. The time to visit Cambodia is now, so, pack your bags, and get ready to explore one of the best-kept-secrets in South East Asia.
Cambodia has so much to offer in terms of tourism.
Siem Reap‘s ruins of Angkor Wat are an anchor of Cambodian tourism (the temples bring in more than 2 million visitors per year, and watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat tends to top most traveler’s bucket lists). On the coast, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province borders the aqua-blue Gulf of Thailand, and is a gateway to many beautiful tropical islands that easily rival any of the Thai islands, but are still largely unexplored. And, inland, the Cambodian countryside is home to beautiful rice fields, temples, and local villages, that make for a great cultural experience for any tourist coming to the country.
When you visit Cambodia today, you won’t see remnants of civil war or feel any devastation in the locals, you’ll see an incredibly bright, beautiful, blooming Southeast Asian country. You’ll meet the happiest of Cambodians (Seriously, they are all so, so happy.. I adore them), who want to tell you everything about their wonderful culture, and hear all about yours. Their English is fabulous (since tourism is such an important part of their culture), so they’re very friendly. The younger generation of Cambodians doesn’t personally know the genocide that existed, they just know the progress that has happened since it ended. And that single-minded focus on the future is absolutely inspiring.
One of the ways this focus on building a brighter future is seen throughout Cambodia is in the emphasis on social responsibility that exists congruently with the development of the Kingdom’s tourism industry, through efforts led by expats like Christian De Boer, the GM of Jaya House River Park hotel, who’s taken it upon himself to develop numerous impactful programs that educate and give back to the developing community of Siem Reap. He also started the Made In Cambodia Market (a must stop on your trip to Siem Reap), with the goal to help create Khmer jobs; from the villagers producing the handicrafts, to the sellers interacting with tourists. The market is free and open to the public from 12pm-10pm every night.
Similarly, the resort I stayed in the islands, Song Saa, has a huge, internationally recognized foundation dedicated to humanitarian and conservation efforts in Cambodia. It definitely seems that there is a large emphasis on tourism playing a big part in making Cambodia a better place; not just to visit, but to live. And that’s something you can feel great about on your trip to this wonderful country.
My 9-Day Cambodia Itinerary
When deciding where to go and what to do in Cambodia, I was overwhelmed with options! There is so much to see, and I wanted to do it all. We ended up deciding on kicking the trip off with 3 nights in Siem Reap, followed by 2 nights on the island of Koh Rong, and 3 nights at Song Saa Island.
Getting blessed by Cambodian monks on Song Saa island (which you can read more about here)
To me, this was the perfect mix of culture, luxury, and relaxation.
The first 3 days in Siem Reap were full of climbing temples, exploring eat street and pub street on tuk tuks, and soaking in the culture of Cambodian markets. The next 2 days in Koh Rong were an incredible relaxing change of pace –full of coconuts, white-sand beaches and feeling like Tom Hanks in Castaway. And the last leg of the trip at Song Saa was the perfect ultra-luxurious climax to an amazing time in Cambodia.
3 Days in Siem Reap
Siem Reap, a resort town in northwestern Cambodia, is the gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor — temples that were constructed in the 9th century by the Khmer Kingdom and still stand today.
As of 1990, much of these temples were relatively undiscovered, and in the nineties, only around 7500 people visited the temple per year. Today, more than 2 million per year come to visit Angkor Wat, and that number is growing every day. (To put things into perspective, 1 million people visit Machu Pichu, 4 million people visit the Roman coliseum, and 7 million visit the Eiffel Tower every year)
Angkor Wat was deemed the World’s Best Tourist Attraction by Lonely Planet, and is ranked on many “Seven Modern Wonders of the World” lists, so naturally it’s a must-do on any trip to Cambodia, and was a huge highlight of my trip.
Visiting the Temples
Angkor Wat is only one temple among more than 1000 angkor temples, and although it’s the biggest and most visited one, you’re going to want to make sure you explore some of the others as well! My favorites were the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm.
The Bayon Temple is full of awesome buddha faces carved into the stone, and is often much, much less crowded than Angkor Wat. Ta Prohm temple is stunning and has these incredible rooted trees that have overgrown over the temple ruins. It feels very Indiana Jones, and is also famous for being the set of Lara Croft Tomb Raider.
These three temples together can make up a whole day of touring, but you can add more temples to your day as well, just ask your tour guide if you’re interested.
JETSET TIP: Start your day at Ta Prohm (which the majority of tours end with) in the morning, then go to Bayon Temple, then break for a later lunch and end your day at Angkor Wat. This will avoid the crowds from the masses of tours that are doing the Angkor Wat – Lunch – Bayon – Ta Prohm schedule.
Seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat
Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a world traveler rite of passage. The sun rising over the ancient temples is so stunning, and a great thing to do if you have multiple days and time to spare exploring the temples. After all, you’re likely only going to be at Angkor Wat once in your lifetime- you’re going to want to be able to cross watching the sunrise there off your bucket list. That being said, I wouldn’t push it by doing the sunrise and a ton of temple-exploring all in one day. That would be way too exhausting!
For us, it was perfect to spend the first day exploring the three main temples (Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple & Ta Prohm), then, after re-grouping with a relaxing night at the hotel, do the sunrise the next morning. Since we had already gotten all the information and history on the temples from our tour guide the day before, we didn’t need a guide for this day, and were driven in a Tuk Tuk (organized through the hotel) to the temple around 4:45am, dropped off for a couple hours, and spent the morning soaking in the beauty that is the Angkor Kingdom.
You’ll want to get to the ticket gates while it’s still dark out (around 5am), but the sun doesn’t fully rise until about 6:30am, so be prepared to grab a good seat (it’s crowded at sunrise!!!!, especially by the reflecting pool, where the best view is), get your camera ready, and soak in the spiritual calm of the sun rising over the sacred temples.
You’re going to want somewhere relaxing to be based during your time temple-exploring in Siem Reap. Being the tourist-driven town it is, there are hundreds of hotel options (literally) and many of them are cookie-cutter copies of each other. Which is why I loved Jaya House River Park. Tucked in the jungle, this luxurious 36-room hideaway is an absolute jungle oasis on the Siem Reap River.
You’ll come for the glamorous, art-deco vibes, the 2 beautiful pools, the lush and luxe decor, and the decadent breakfast buffet (featuring mimosas made from various fresh tropical juices every morning), but you’ll be swept off your feet by Jaya House’s passion, heart, one-of-a-kind service and its home-away-from-home charm.
Rooms run for around $200-$300/night, depending on the time of year. Check them out Jaya House River Park.
Exploring Siem Reap’s “Eat Street” and “Pub Street”
There are two main streets that make up the downtown of Siem Reap, fittingly called “Eat Street” and “Pub Street”. There are a ton of restaurants on eat street, including a local street food market for the more adventurous eaters, and there are a lot of fun bars on pub street, that will offer you tons of free drinks and other incentives to come to their bar. Nights in Siem Reap are lively (everyones here on vacation, after all!) and walking the streets at night is a must!
2 Nights on Koh Rong
After exploring Siem Reap, we flew to Sihanoukville (about an hour flight) on the coast of Cambodia. From there, we got a taxi ($20 per taxi) to Sihanoukville port (which is where you buy your ferry tickets to Koh Rong).
JETSET TIP: Ask around the airport to see if another group is going to the ferry port/ticket offices. Most likely, a lot of people are. We were able to split our cab with a nice couple from Poland, saving $10 (or as I like to think of it, 5 glasses of wine in Cambodia)
The cab driver will know where to drop you and you can look for a ticket agency that will sell ferry tickets. It’s important to know ahead of time which company you want to use and their time tables – this was easy for us as our hotel on Koh Rong, Longset Resort, had sent through the times and company options.
If you have time to kill before your boat, Sihanoukville is a darling little fishing village town with lots of street food, tuk tuks, and markets.
We used GTVC ferry (a nicer, fastboat that costs around $30 round trip and makes one stop at Koh Rong Samloem and one at Koh Rong Island) that got us to Koh Rong Island in about 45 minutes. Be prepared that the channel between Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Island can be pretty rough (not always), but it’s something that made us very happy that we were on the speedier, nicer and newer boat with GTVC. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the ferry ride for those who tend to get motion sick.
Once we got to Koh Rong, the hotel’s speedboat picked us up to take us from the main Koh Rong Island village to Longset Beach, a mile-long stretch of the finest white sand and crystal-clear blue water I had seen anywhere in Asia. The beach was dotted with little bungalows, some hammocks, and noticeably VERY few people. Seriously, you’re going to be amazed at how few people know about these islands still. It feels like a deserted island, and I immediately loved it.
Where to Stay on Koh Rong
We stayed 2 nights at the Long Set Resort on Koh Rong and loved it. At only around $90 a night, it is by far the nicest hotel option on the strip of Long Set Beach (which is the most beautiful beach on all of Koh Rong) and it’s a perfect place to be based while on the island. They have a private white-sand-beach filled with hammocks and comfy lounges, their food is good, breakfast is included, and ice-cold coconuts are delivered to you on the beach. Can you ask for more?
You can also walk about 50 feet down to the nextdoor Reef On the Beach guest house to rent paddleboards, kayaks, and other water activities to fill your Koh Rong days. (Reef on the beach is less luxurious than Long Set but rooms run only around $30/night).
We loved walking down to Reef after sunset because they have a movie playing every night – anything from Anchorman to Austin Powers, making for a great lazy island night activity after a day of soaking up the sunshine.
3 Nights at Song Saa Private Island Resort
Koh Rong is so wonderful in that it feels so far off the map and disconnected from civilization, so we figured, why not go even further off the map to an island off of Koh Rong. Enter Song Saa, a surreal private island resort unlike anything else you’ll find in Cambodia (or all of Southeast Asia for that matter). With overwater bungalows, five-star all-inclusive food and drinks, dreamy infinity pools and villas that are dripping in luxury, Song Saa is the perfect choice for those looking for less Castaway vibes and more Bora Bora vibes.
This hotel has earned such honors as a Top 20 Resort in Asia by CondeNast, The Top Resort for a honeymoon in Asia, Australia, or New Zealand by Brides Magazine, a top 10 Resort in The World award by Traveller’s World Awards in 2016, and a Top 100 Best Hotels in the World by Town & Country. It is one of the very best in the world, and deserves every accolade. I adored every part of this resort and you can read more about it in my post Song Saa: The Luxury Private Island Resort You Can’t Miss In Cambodia.
Song Saa was the perfect way to end our busy trip in Cambodia with three amazing days with a little R&R&R (Rest, Romance, Relaxation).
What to know before visiting Cambodia
Cambodians use the US Dollar!
You don’t need to exchange your currency from US Dollars! Everywhere accepts USD, and all the prices are listed in US Dollars, so there’s no need to worry about exchanging currency for a trip to Cambodia.
Visas in Cambodia
You can do an e-visa ahead of time online, or carry $32 cash for arrival if you wish to do your visa on arrival. I did my visa on arrival and it was a quick and easy process. Also note that if you bring a passport sized photo with you, it’s only $30.
Dress appropriately in the temples
The Angkor Wat complex is a religious site, and is sacred to Cambodians. As of 2017, you will not be allowed to enter the temples with anything showing your knees or your shoulders. It used to be strictly just shoulders, and for women wearing dresses/rompers it was a little more relaxed, but now there is a very strict dress code enforcing everyone to completely cover up. Men don’t necessarily have to wear pants, but their shorts should reach their knees if they choose to wear shorts. Please note that it is VERY hot in Cambodia, so think ahead of some lightweight layers you can wear if you are planning on going to the temples. Silk scarves work great for women to cover shoulders, as do these pants from Planet Blue that I’m wearing here!
Safety in Cambodia
Cambodia is one of the safer countries in the world. You definitely won’t worry about safety while you’re here. But, that being said, it’s always a good idea to be on the watch for petty crimes. I’ve been warned about these happening in the bigger city Phnom Penh, where travelers have had experiences with thieves on bikes snatching bags from tuk tuks. Like anywhere, stay cautious and aware, and you’ll have a great time.
The Best Time to Visit Cambodia
The hottest season in Cambodia is from March-May, where temperatures average above 95 degrees. The wet season runs from April through the end of October, and the most temperate (and high season for tourists) is from December through the end of January. Although Cambodia isn’t quite as humid or sticky as some of its tropical counterparts, it still has very, very warm weather. Keep in mind climbing around temples in the Cambodian heat (especially in full pants and long sleeves) gets HOT, HOT, HOT! You’re going to want to dress lightly, and definitely drink a lot of water. I visited Cambodia right at the end of October (the very beginning of dry season) and I’d highly recommend going around then – the weather was just perfect. Not too hot or muggy, but warm and beautiful. And because it’s not yet high season, it’s not overly crowded.
All in all, I had a fabulous 9 days exploring this wonderful, fascinating Kingdom. I am already ready to go back!
Have you ever been to Cambodia? Let me know your tips in the comments!