Cambodia is an affordable and enchanting backpacking destination, but there’s no escaping its bloody past – or the current poverty. Cambodians seem to be incredibly resilient, however, and have bounced back from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime with admirable determination to enjoy their newly-found peace.
If you’re a sensitive soul you may need to develop a thicker skin to make the most of your time there, but you should find plenty of things to celebrate – from the world-famous temples of Angkor and the chaos on the streets of Phnom Penh to the lovely beaches in Sihanoukville and the superb trekking in Bokor National Park.
1. Siem Reap and nearby Angkor Wat
Siem Reap is not a typical Cambodian destination. It’s the base from which travellers visit the awesome temples of Angkor, and it is now home to a whole array of tourist establishments, from fun backpacking hostels and chilled-out pavement cafés to plush spas and fine dining restaurants. Set by a sleepy river, the French colonial shop-houses and leafy boulevards give the town a special atmosphere, and it’s a great place to hang out for a few days.
Nestled amongst paddy fields outside of the town, ancient Angkor Wat is a magnificent, mammoth temple that needs little introduction – while surrounding it there are scores of fascinating smaller temples, some almost reclaimed by the jungle. Exploring Angkor demands at least a few days, and you could easily while away a few more just enjoying Siem Reap itself.
2. Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, and the Killing Fields
The dusty Cambodian capital is a place of crumbling splendour, with a grand palace and riverside colonial architecture. Phsar Thom Thmei market is a good place to pick up souvenirs, and there are some great old temples to visit. The darker side relates to the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or ‘S-21’, is a high school that was converted into a concentration camp under the regime in the 1970s. Now open to visitors, it tells the story of the estimated 17,000 people who were imprisoned there. It’s not an easy place to visit, but it provides context for your visit to Cambodia. A tuk tuk ride out of town will take you to Choeung Ek, one of the biggest Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, a mass grave where many former Tuol Sleng inmates were buried.
3. Sihanoukville and Bokor National Park
The beaches in Sihanoukville have a laid-back atmosphere, with Victory Beach forming the main backpacking mecca and Occheuteal Beach offering some good night spots and small guesthouse rooms on the beach. It’s easy to go island-hopping, too, with plenty of pretty islands to choose from, some with overnight accommodation. Nearby, steamy Bokor National Park is full of wildlife (even a handful of endangered tigers) and is a popular spot for trekking.
Medical facilities are poor, and while private clinics are better-equipped they can be expensive. Take out comprehensive travel insurance so you’re properly covered.
Tourism has brought fresh opportunities for Cambodian people to earn a living, but the average wage is still unbelievably low: many earn salaries that amount to just a few hundred dollars a year,. This is worth remembering if you find yourself haggling over a few pence that really makes no difference to your day’s budget, but could decide whether they eat supper that evening.