When Kevin and I visited Cambodia, it was the perfect mixture of adventure and relaxation.
For the adventure part, the country is definitely still developing, so there are plenty of (literal and metaphorical) bumps in the road while traveling here. Flights in half full airplanes to teensy three-gate airports. Tuk tuk cartels conspiring with local boat drivers to mix up drop off locations. And every once in awhile, you’ll have to trade your speed ferry for the local long boat, which is much slower and smells much more like fish.
But that should by no means dissuade anyone from going. Because if you didnt, you might never learn about the heartbreaking, yet powerful history of Cambodia’s people. You might never lay hands on the ancient stones that form Angkor Wat. You might never do Joss shots with the Dutch girls you meet at your island hostel or compete in a lip sync battle against your new friend from New Zealand (even though he wins). And you might never see the sky light up with lighting as you watch a fire show on the beach under a full moon.
For what Cambodia lacked in comfortable forms of cross-country transportation and an efficient trash disposal system, it made up for it with incredible displays of nature, culture, and human kindness.
Why Travel To Cambodia?
Why is one of the first questions I’m asked when I tell people I recently came back from Cambodia. Before traveling there, my answer was simply, “Flights were cheap!” And they were. $500 round trip to SE Asia is no joke.
But after I returned, my answer changed a bit. Having experienced the country for nine full days, here’s why I think Cambodia is worth more than a passing consideration on the way to Thailand or Vietnam:
People: Cambodians are warm, big-hearted people and a joy to meet
History: The history of Cambodia is so important, both understanding the Khmer Empire in its glory and the Khmer Rouge in its destruction
Social Good: Not only is Cambodia affordable for traveling, but much of the restaurant, hospitality, and entertainment industries are focused on helping rebuild the nation through various youth and disability programs. You really feel like your tourist dollar is helping accomplish something good and necessary for the country.
Authenticity: Cambodia is quickly becoming more of a tourist destination, but still remains very local at this point.
Traveling To Cambodia: How To Get There
Getting to Cambodia was pretty simple for us. From SFO, we connected through Incheon (Shanghai was another connection option). It took us 12 hours to fly to Incheon and then another 5 hours to fly to Phnom Penh.
What was super cool about this trip was that we got to take advantage of a long layover in Incheon. If you remember from my Shanghai Visa Free Transit post last year, a ten hour layover in Asia can mean the opportunity to get outside of the airport (without a visa!) to explore the city for a bit.
South Korea has this awesome program called the Korean Transit Tours that are fully funded by the Korean government to get more external exposure to the country. All you have to do when you land at Incheon is find a Transit Tour desk (they’re everywhere) and inquire about one of their free tours!
They have tours of varying lengths, from one to six hours long. Keep in mind that only the longest ones (5-6 hours) will take you all the way to Seoul. Our tour was only four hours, so we just went to downtown Incheon. Still very cool though, it being the third largest city in South Korea.
If you don't have enough time to leave the airport on your layover, or just dont want to, the Incheon Airport has plenty to keep you entertained. Think a bazillion lounges, indoor gardens, a bunch of nice restaurants, live classical music, massive teddy bears, an indoor ice skating rink (?), and even a Korean Museum of Culture!
Where To Go In Cambodia In 9 Days
Now for the fun part - where to go and what to do when you get there! Below I’ve compiled everything we did and loved in Cambodia, as well as some of the recommendations we got but didn’t get around to.
Which Cities & What To Do In Each
Phnom Pehn (2-3 days): We spent three days here, and that felt right. You could probably get away with just two, but there is so much fascinating history in Cambodia’s capital that I would recommend the extra day. Here are some of the must-do’s:
Walk around and oggle the Royal Palace (make sure to cover knees & shoulders)
Learn about the 1970’s war at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also called S-21)
Walk the somber Killing Fields at Choeung Ek
Barter at The Central Market
Go out in the Brassac Lane neighborhood
Eat and drink on the river in the Sisowath Qauy
Support the rehabilitation of former sex-trade victims at Daughters of Cambodia
Get a massage at Khmer Aloe Vera Spa
Siem Reap (2-3 days): We also spent three days here, and that felt like enough time. You’ll want at least one full day to explore Angkor Wat; many people want two. Here’s everything worth doing in three days:
Tour the Angkor Wat temples (short or long loop)
Get rowdy on Pub Street
Take a cooking class a Cambodian Village Cooking
Purchase higher end souvenirs & home goods at the Artisan Market
Support disabled artists at Genevieve's Fair Trade Village
Other recommendations we didn’t get around to:
Watch a lively performance at The Circus
Take an ATV ride through the countryside
Hike to a waterfall in Phnom Kulen National Park
Koh Rong Samloem (3 days): We spent our last three days here, which rounded out our adventures with some much-needed relaxation. There’s quite a bit of travel time involved with getting to the islands, so make sure to build that into the itinerary. Main activities on the island included:
Swimming in the ocean
Drinking beers in hammocks
Meeting other travelers
Enjoying the lack of wifi with books & card games
Watching a fire show at night
Participating in a lip sync battle at the hostel
Kampot (1-2 days): We didn’t make it to Kampot and were pretty bummed about it. A lot of people recommend it as one of their favorite cities in Cambodia. Plus, it’s home to the famous Kampot pepper crab! Consider staying a night or two and biking up Bokor Mountain.
For more on what to do in Cambodia, check out this awesome 11-day itinerary from Becksplore.
Accommodations to Consider
We stayed at the below hotels/hostel and were pleased with all three. Split between two people (on a quick 9-day trip) made the cost super reasonable, especially for the value you get with all three.
Phnom Penh: Secret Villa
$37/night for a huge room
Super spacious & very central location
Siem Reap: The White Terrace
$38/night for a pool-view room
Beautiful ambiance & pool
Far from downtown
Massive free breakfast!
Koh Rong Samloem: Mad Monkey Hostel
$40/night for a private cabin
Minimal, but fun
The bathroom situation is a little yuck
Worth it either way because you’ll meet so many people & have so much fun
Pro Tip: Find the best hotels in SE Asia on Agoda.com and the best hostels on Hostelworld.com!
Food In Cambodia
Khmer food is said to be the oldest out of the region, including Thai and Vietnamese. You likely aren’t as familiar with it due to the fact that a lot of historical knowledge & recipes were lost when a quarter of the population perished in the 1970’s genocide. But it’s very similar to that which you’ll find in its neighboring countries: noodle soups, meat, rice, and surprisingly a bunch of veggies.
One small thing to note: Portions here are quite small compared to what you might expect in the West or, say, Bali. They’re also a bit spendier by a few dollars per meal. You can likely expect to pay about $8 per meal or $25 per day in Cambodia, with our meals ranging anywhere from $3-20 each.
Where to Eat In Phnom Penh
Romdeng: Super delicious, albeit a little pricey. Helps employ disadvantaged youth.
One Eleven Kitchen BKK: A total gem we stumbled upon! Very reasonably priced, cute, & tasty.
Cousins Burgers and Coffee: Incredible French-themed burgers!
Kabbas: $10 for two decent meals and six beers
Where to Eat (& Drink) In Siem Reap
Genevieve’s: Best meal in Siem Reap, also has a social good angle
Crane: Cute little cafe
The Little Red Fox: Another good cafe
Marum: Sister restaurant to Romdeng
Common Grounds Coffee: Non-profit coffee shop with Western breakfast
Try Me Restaurant: Good, cheap food. Nice for dinner.
Pub Street: Siem Reap’s main “going out” drag. Think Cabo in Cambodia.
Angkor What? Bar
Where to Eat In Koh Rong Samloem
To be honest, you’ll have to TripAdvisor this one. If you choose to stay at the Mad Monkey on KRS, that is the only place you will be eating! I imagine the situation is similar on other properties, given the relative seclusion of the island.
Happy Travel Tips For Cambodia
Honestly, I kind of nailed it with the happiness habits on this trip, and I’m really excited to share the things that made this trip especially rewarding:
Eat veggies: It’s so easy to do here! Everyone knows that vegetables are good for the body, but what most don’t realize is how important they are to optimal brain health, as well. Happy body + happy mind = happy traveler!
Drink tons of water: This can be a challenge when traveling because a) the water quality is sketch and chance of bacterial poisoning is high and b) you never know where your next bathroom will be. But in Cambodia, most of ice you’ll find (except in rural parts) is safe to drink. Quickest way to make sure is to check if it has nice, smooth holes through the middle. There are also – surprisingly - plenty of decent public restrooms. So fear not and drink up.
Breathe easy: Delete your social media apps for the trip. Nothing crazy - just remove the apps from your phone. Use your phone to take photos (for you, not Insta). Better yet, put it down and soak in the pleasure of vacation.
Read “First They Killed My Father:” This is a first-hand account of the 1970s Cambodian genocide, told through the eyes of a 5-year old girl. It’s a really tough read, and you’ll likely cry a little, but it’s very compelling and well worth your time. Having the lens of history when you travel adds so much depth to your experience of a culture and place.
Move daily with an exercise goal: Kevin suggested this to me before our trip and I immediately agreed, knowing conscious movement would help boost our mood for the entire trip. We made a goal to do a short resistance band workout, ten minutes of yoga, ten minutes of mediation, and walk 12K steps every day. We actually followed through with this most days (at least until we got to our hut in the islands), and the feeling was so rewarding.
Travel with packing cubes: You’ve probably read this before, and, like I, thought - what’s the big deal? You can’t understand until you’ve done a trip like this with a 40L backpack and no packing cubes vs. a trip with packing cubes. They just make everything so damn easy to organize and quickly pull in and out of your bag. An extremely worthwhile investment you can make for less than $25 on Amazon.
Pro Tip: Do not put your packing cubes in the dryer. You can wash them when you get home, which is super convenient. If dried, they shrivel like prunes and become near useless. Again, trial and error over here so you don’t have to!
Ah, I’m sad to be done writing this. There’s more I could say, but some things are important to experience for yourself. At least with this itinerary, you’ve got everything you need to have a kick ass 9-day experience in Cambodia. I hope my time there has piqued your interest in visiting this country with so much fascinating and worthwhile history.
For more on Cambodia, check out my comprehensive Cambodia packing list and what to wear guide.