A First timer’s guide to Cambodia

Ta Prohm Temple, Siem Reap.

“I found Ta Prohm 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.”

Where?

Cambodia

Why?

Siem Reap for the temples, Sihanoukville for the beaches, Phnom Penh for the city and the country itself for the terrifying history & the inspirational human spirit.

What do you need to know as a first timer?

Money

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 up before leaving the airport – my advice is don’t bother.

  • You pay for everything in dollars until you get to under US$1.
  • At the time of writing 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 – bigger ones you will really only be able to change in hotels or restaurants so they can be restrictive if this is all you have.”

SueWhereWhyWhat standing with her camera in the doorway of a Bayon Temple, CambodiaCambodia is relatively cheap to travel. We were staying in nice hotels for UK£30 per night – not international chains but good 3-star places all with pools (Phnom Penh was more expensive).

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!

Transport

Air

I flew to Cambodia on the way home from Australia via Singapore with Silk Air. Most nationalities will need a 1-month tourist visa which you get on arrival. You will need to bring a passport sized photo to enable the process. The visa is US$30. I then flew internally from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville with Cambodia Angkor Air.

Private Car

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 – 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 advise is look out of the side windows, the landscape is lovely & its a lot more relaxing – ignorance is bliss!”

SueWhereWhyWhat investigates the tree entwined ruins of Ta Prohmn, Temple, CambodiaTuk-tuk (apparently called Remorks in Cambodia but they will always be tuk-tuks to me!)

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 US$5 to get you 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 is 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 (7am when it is less hot & 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. 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.

Cambodian Temple. Angkor Wat – obligatory for sunrise but don’t expect to be alone! My pick of the Temples

For sunrise

Angkor Wat – 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 we didn’t twist something – more luck than judgement!

The amazing 'faces' of Bayon, Carved into the stone walls of the temples, CambodiaFor faces & monkeys

Bayon – 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!”

A magnificent ancient ruined Cambodian Temple at Ta Prohm sits moss clad amongst the treesMy favourite

Ta Prohm – 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 awestuck.

 For sunsetTa Prohm and Bo Rep Temple, Cambodia

Bo Rep – 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. Heart breaking 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 – 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 sun set 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

Where next time?

I really enjoyed my time in Sihanoukville & it is a good option as accommodation is more reasonably priced. But its 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 main land.

 

What do you think?

Where else in Cambodia would you recommend?

Where else would you recommend to stay / see?

What invaluable advise have I missed for first time visitors?

 

To see more of my photos from Cambodia please visit my Gallery page!

 

 

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