Updated on November 9th, 2020
This First Timer’s Guide to Cambodia gives you insight into what you need to know before visiting this fascinating country. The guide includes details on Siem Reap for the temples, Sihanoukville for the beaches & Phnom Penh for the city. Overall, Cambodia is an essential travel destination if you are looking for interesting, tragic history & the inspiration of human spirit”
I visited Cambodia in 2017 as a 2-week stopover on my return to the UK from Australia. It was a country I had been keen to discover for many years. My main purpose was to see Angkor Wat & tick it off my Life List but I was also interested to learn more about the tragic history. What I discovered was so much more than all this. I decided to get a good flavour of the country by stopping at Siem Reap for the temples, Sihanoukville for the beaches & Phnom Penh for the city. Overall, I was blown away by this beautiful country but most of all the inspirational human spirit of its people. If you find this useful then please check out my other First Timer’s Guides for Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba & the Greek Islands.
What do you need to know as a first-timer?
If you are planning to visit Cambodia for the first time, here is what I believe is everything you need to know.
I found this confusing before I went. We were told to bring US dollars & I assumed this would then be changed up into Cambodian Riel (KHR). I went against all my instincts & changed money into Riel before leaving the airport – my advice is don’t bother.
- You pay for everything in dollars until you get to under US$1.
- In June 2020 US$1 = 4000KHR.
- Riel is useful for tipping but beyond that, you are safer with US$.
Make sure you have as many smaller notes as you can. The bigger notes you will really only be able to change in hotels or restaurants so they can be restrictive if this is all you have.”
Cocktails in most bars were US$3.50 & local beer (Angkor) US$1.50. Most places have happy hours so you can look out for those if you want to save some cash. In Phnom Penh, during happy hour I was actually drinking large beers for US$0.75 each!
Meals out were around US$15-20 per person for 2 courses with drinks. You won’t go hungry or thirsty!
Visa & Immigration
Most nationalities will need a 1-month tourist visa which you can apply for online before you travel. Check with Cambodia Immigration before you leave for all the latest information HERE.
Although we could have opted for a bus between Sihanoukville & Phnom Penh, we decided to take a private car (organised through our hotel) which took 4 hours & was a pretty hair-raising experience. The driver reinforced all my theories about the driving rules in Asia, namely, he who honks his horn the loudest or most has right of way.
We overtook a lot, the most scary being when our car created a 5th lane – overtaking a car, van, tanker & a moped on a single carriageway road & then flashed his lights at the truck coming towards us to tell him to slow down. My advice is look out of the side windows, the landscape is lovely & its a lot more relaxing. Ignorance is bliss!”
Tuk-tuk is the main mode of transport between your accommodation & attractions but it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially in Phnom Penh. You can opt for the even scarier option of riding on the back of a moped, most also seemed to ride without helmets. Definitely not anything I would ever recommend.
Always agree on the price before you get in & you can barter with them for a bit of fun before the journey. You’ll know when you’ve gone too far.
In Phnom Penh, most places are around US$3 & the most we paid for a single journey was US$4. They will always try & charge you more.
Around Sihanoukville we paid US$5 to get from town to Otres 1. Make sure you check if where you are going is Otres 1 or 2. Otres 2 is a bit further & US$6 from town.
Siem Reap & the Temples
The best way to tour the temples is again via tuk-tuk. The going rate was US$25 & our driver took us wherever we wanted to go & made suggestions.
Be prepared for a lot of people. To avoid the crowds make the most of the early mornings after you see the sunrise, or go early. A 7am start means it will be cooler & with fewer people. You can go back to the hotel in the middle of the day to avoid crowds & the heat of the sun. We did this & our driver returned for the sunset trip later. The tour groups start to arrive around 9.30a.m.”
We bought a 3-day pass when we went for sunrise on our first day (we left the hotel at 4.30am). This gives you access to all the main temples. A top tip is to do sunrise on your first day as at this time the queue will be much shorter at the ticket desk. Also, make sure to get in the correct queue depending on the duration of the ticket you want to buy. We didn’t, got to the front & found out we had to join the back of another queue. As we were very early there weren’t a lot of people so it wasn’t a problem but with long queues, it could be a painful mistake.
Angkor Wat has to be obligatory for sunrise but don’t expect to be alone! Do take a torch. We didn’t & were very grateful that everyone else did. On the way out in daylight, we realised how uneven the ancient path was & were amazed that we didn’t twist ankles or anything worse. Definitely more by luck than judgement!
Bayon is a must-see & well worth a visit. You will probably arrive through the South Gate but I recommend you leave via the much quieter but no less spectacular East Gate. When we went it was late morning & getting very busy.
We spent the time avoiding flying selfie sticks which stopped it being quite so much fun. Beware of the monkeys outside, they are very bold & if you are carrying food put it inside your bag unless you are willing to fight them for it! I speak from experience & nearly losing my trousers while wrestling for my breakfast!”
Ta Prohm without a doubt. We left our hotel at 7am & for much of it we were walking around on our own. I found this to be the most atmospheric, photogenic & haunting of all the temples where ancient man & nature collide. With huge trees growing out of & among the temples its impossible not to be awestruck.
Bo Rep was recommended by our driver for sunset as there are far fewer people than other viewing temples. Here you are offered a great view of the sunset from the top of the temple but not so good if you are looking for the sunset behind a temple shot.
Genocide Museums in Phnom Penh
Not an uplifting experience but visiting these is a must for any visitor to Cambodia to understand what the people of this country have been through.
The audio guides come with the ticket (US$6 for entry to each museum) & are really good, available in several languages & invaluable.
A lot of what you hear is sickening so be prepared. This is a very tough day.”
We paid US$27 for a 3 site visit from our hotel by tuk-tuk which started with the Killing Fields as this was the furthest point. We were planning to take in the Russian market as well but spent so long listening to everything that we ran out of time.
What else can you expect?
Beggars – you will see a lot
We were told numerous times by local people not to give money to beggars –, especially children, as they will often be begging under the supervision of an adult. Giving money to the children stops them from being encouraged into education. Heartbreaking though it is, we were assured by everyone that help is available to anyone if they need it. I very much hope this is true.
Where I stayed
The following were all located just a walking short distance from the main area of town
Villa Langka in Phnom Penh. This was an oasis in the centre of the madness of the city with a beautiful pool area, lovely restaurant & just near the Golden St Area.
Soria Moria in Siem Reap – Very friendly, helpful staff with a small bar on the roof which is a great place to watch the sunset over a happy hour.
Ropanha Boutique Hotel in Sihanoukville – Not a pretty area, or quiet but the pool area is an oasis & its an easy walk to the beach.
For more options in any of these locations, please search with the map below:
Where next time?
I really enjoyed my time in Sihanoukville & it is a good option as accommodation is more reasonably priced. But it’s not pretty. If I wanted a beach experience next time I would stay at the beach in Koh Rong Samloen for a couple of nights for the island experience and Otres 1 or 2 on the mainland.
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