Claudiaexpat and Barbaraexpat recently visited Cambodia, though at different times. Here is a list of their favourite places and some tips and info to help you move around this beautiful country.
We have kept black for general remarks and for Claudiaexpat’s tips, while Barbaraexpat’s indications are in purple.
Cambodia is a fascinating country with a lot to offer. Even if you are on a tight schedule as we were, you can still enjoy the experience and discover a lot about the history and the present-day atmosphere of the place.
We reached Cambodia by plane, landing in the capital Phnom Penh. You need a tourist visa to enter Cambodia, and you can get one directly in the airport. It costs 30 USD, and you can only pay in cash (no credit cards nor other currencies are accepted). Don’t worry if you do not have dollars with you, because right before the immigration line you have three ATM machines where you can withdraw as many as you want.
You will need to fill in a form and give it to the visa counter alongside a photo (don’t forget to bring one) and your passport. When the visa is ready (it took me about 15 minutes), you will be called to another counter, to pay and pick up your passport and visa. You are now ready to proceed to immigration.
You can reach downtown by taxi, the cost is 12 USD, and it takes about 50 minutes.
If you are on a budget, a trip on a tuk-tuk is a fun and cheap option, if perhaps a little slower.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
Khmer Surin Boutique Guesthouse, https://khmersuringuesthouse.com/. This is a lovely hotel very close to the Royal Palace. It is situated in a lively area, with restaurants and shops close by. Rooms are nice, clean and comfortable. It is a bit noisy, but otherwise great and the hotel staff is super helpful. They also have a restaurant and the breakfast is great.
Foreign Correspondend’s Club (https://fcccambodia.com/hotels-resorts/), an institution in Phnom Penh, and full of historical charm. The rooms are quite dark and the furnishing is old but it has a lot of character. I loved sitting at my desk, imagining the stories that were written over the years. The bar is a fantastic place to sit, with a cocktail and a snack, overlooking the Mekong. There are lots of pictures and articles on the walls, an interesting insight into Cambodia’s history.
How to move around
The best way to move around in Phnom Penh is to use a tuk-tuk, it is fun and you can see everything that goes on around you. You find tuk-tuks everywhere, and you should always negotiate your fare before leaving. It is usually between one to five dollars, five just in case the destination is quite far.
Note: everything in Cambodia is paid in US dollars, but you can also use the local currency if you find an ATM machine that provides it (many only give dollars). In bars, restaurants, hotels and other public places (even at the markets!) prices are expressed in dollars.
Where to eat
You have plenty of gastronomic opportunities in Phnom Penh. We tried Friends Restaurant (https://tree-alliance.org/), which is part of a bigger project to train extremely poor Cambodian young into a profession. Besides the restaurant (always full, try to book in advance for the night) they have a shop with beautiful hand-made products whose sale supports the project.
Casablanca, https://www.casablanca-restaurant-phnompenh.com/, for a taste of Morocco in Phnom Penh. Beautiful mezze and tagines in a lovely setting. The area is very lively with bars and restaurants, mainly catering to expats’ taste.
For a more authentic experience I had breakfast at the Russian Market, a bustling undercover bazaar, where you can find wonderful noodle soups and iced tea for a few dollars, while discovering interesting products and immersing yourself in the local culture. If you, like me, love markets, you cannot miss it!
What we visited
The notorious Tuol Seng Genocide Museum (https://tuolsleng.gov.kh/). It used to be a school, and was taken by the Khmer Rouges and turned into a prison (S-21). You cannot really pass by Phnom Penh without visiting it, because it gives a thorough description of what happened at that terrible time. In 2009 UNESCO added the museum to its list of Memory of the World. Be prepared to the fact that this is an extremely tough and devastating tour. I highly recommend to get the audio tour, for a few dollars you can listen to a detailed account of the events told by the survivors or members of the victims family.
The National Museum, https://www.cambodiamuseum.info/, (their website is suspended at the time of publication) is relatively small but lovely, so make sure to have enough time to visit it. Some sculptures are really wonderful, and the Buddha room is superb.
The Royal Palace, even if – like Claudiaexpat – you are not fond of the Asia splendour, it is worth a visit. Most of its pavilions are usually inaccessible, but you can get a glimpse from the outside, and enjoy all the exteriors (some walls have amazing frescoes). Don’t miss the room with the silver tiles and a Buddha covered in diamonds.
In a city with very little green areas, Wat Phnom, on the hill from which Phnom Penh drew its name, is a welcome retreat from traffic and noise. No tourists but lots of local praying and walking, offering lotus flowers and burning incense.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
You can reach Siem Reap by plane or bus. We preferred the bus to be able to get a taste of the country. Your hotel will arrange everything for you. You just have to tell them with which company to travel (we chose Giant Ibis, https://giantibis.com/). If you prefer to organise the trip in advance you can do it through their very easy and efficient website.
Buses usually leave early in the morning and arrive in Siem Reap at around 3pm. A shuttle collects you at your hotel and takes you to the main bus. Once you arrive at the bus station in Siem Reap you can reach your hotel with a taxi.
Where to stay in Siem Reap
Sala Baï Hotel & Restaurant School, https://www.salabai.com/, is a great place to stay because it is totally run by poor young people who are trained to work in hotels and restaurants. You need to be patient because many of them have only recently started their practice, and don’t necessarily possess the professionalism you are probably used to and expect in a hotel. However, they are all lovely, and the place is just great. Rooms are spacious, clean and perfectly equipped. They have a restaurant but don’t serve dinner. On Wednesdays and Thursdays their beauty school is active, so you can have a massage, pedicure, manicure or reflexology for free, so that the students can practice. I did it and it was absolutely wonderful.
Green Leaf Boutique Hotel, https://greenleafboutiquehotel.com/ A non-profit hotel, with lovely clean rooms, a small pool and friendly staff. They organised my visit to Angkor Wat. Only minutes away from the main street and market, but in a quite street. At the time of my stay their kitchen wasn’t very well organised and the food wasn’t great, but there is plenty of food in the nearby streets.
Where to eat in Siem Reap
Restaurant Genevieve, https://www.facebook.com/GenevievesRestaurant/, is an absolutely lovely place, created and run by an Australian expat who lost his wife to cancer and named its restaurant in her memory. The food is delicious, the staff stunningly kind and the price absolutely reasonable
Malis Restaurant, https://www.malis-restaurant.com/. This is a chic restaurant, but prices are still very reasonable and the food is great.
I had a fantastic Khmer massage at Lemongrass Garden, www.lemongrassgarden.com, across the road from the market and Pub Street. Very reasonably priced and the masseuse was terrific.
Visit to the Angkor Complex
It can all seem a bit overwhelming at the beginning, but you can get plenty of advice from your hotel if you are not sure about something.
First thing to decide is which kind of ticket you want to buy for the complex. You can get a one-day or three-days ticket. The latter you can be used within ten days from the purchase date. We strongly recommend that you buy a three-days ticket because there are many beautiful temples to see within the complex, and some are not necessarily close to one another.
The best way to tour around is to hire a tuk-tuk for the day. You can organise your visit and tell your driver where to drop you first. He’ll be able to tell you where he will collect you at the end of the visit.
Like Claudia, I recommend the three days pass. Unlike Claudia, though, I took a different approach! On the first day I organised a guided tour through my hotel. The guide took me to the ticket office at opening time and then we started our tour, starting with the main part of the temple and then going to smaller ones. As I was travelling by myself I would have found the all complex a bit too daunting, and this option allowed me to explore and discover in a more relaxed way.
On the second day, feeling more confident and with a bit more knowledge, I organised to be picked up by my tuk-tuk at dawn (highly recommend it!) and enjoyed the temple on my own. A truly amazing experience!
Ankor Wat is the most famous and best-known temple, and the visit usually starts from there. We recommend you start at dawn because it is really magic to see the mass of the temple when it is still dark, and see it emerging slowly from darkness. There will probably tons of people, if you can, avoid following the crowd and you are likely to end up in much quieter and less crowded spaces. Most people will want to take the famous picture at the pond. If you also want to, try at least to stay at the less frequented one (it’s smaller but still fascinating) on the right facing the temple. After dawn, many will go for their breakfast, and that is a good time to pay a first visit to Angkor Wat, before it gets over crowded.
We will not go into detail about all the temples because you can find many information about them on travel guides, on the Internet and on the map that you’ll be provided at the ticket office. All temples are beautiful and unique in their way.
Cambodia has many beautiful tropical islands, still quite undeveloped compared to nearby Thailand. Because I was there for a relatively short time I decided to stay on the main land and headed for Sianoukville, a town on the southwestern coast, from where you can get the ferries to the islands. I stayed outside the city centre, on Otres Beach 2. A very quite but beautiful area, at Naia Resort. The resort was right on the beach, rooms were clean and spacious and the food was really good. To get there I took a mini bus (www.giantibis.com) from Phnom Penh but Sihanoukville has an airport.
Enjoy Cambodia, and do not hesitate to contact us if something is not clear!
Claudiaexpat and Barbaraexpat
Jakarta and Melbourne