A recent survey of backpackers showed that almost all of them would recommend backpacking in Cambodia and well more than 80% of them would gladly return. The awesome Angkor ruins are a big draw factor; the ticket prices are a detraction.
A 3-day pass is $40, a guide with transport might add another $12, throw in accommodation and food for 4 days at $4 a day and the total ramps up to nearly $70. Is that it? There is the cost of leaving Siem Reap which is around $23 on the express boat to Phnom Penh or $13 to Battambang. The total is now nearly $100, an amount that a backpacker can live on for a month in India. But is it worth it? The answer is universally yes.
Angkor and Siem Reap
This is the heart and soul of Cambodia. You can get in the main sites within a 5-hour day but a 2-3 day visit is good for a full immersion. Siem Reap is a backpacker hangout as it is a good place to re-establish bearings, exchange tips with other travelers and generally a place to re-fuel. Take advantage of it because aside from Phnom Penh, there are not many other places like it in Cambodia.
Backpacker wisdom is to allocate a week to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and another 2-3 weeks for the rest of the country. With new border crossings and visas on arrival available at all of them, it is getting easy to travel overland. Official hours vary from place to place but arriving between 7 am-5pm should ensure that you get to go across and not have to find a place to stay overnight. At points with Thailand, the land borders are opened to 8pm.
Backpacking in Sihanoukville
For the intrepid backpacker, Cambodia does not have a set backpacker trail running through it. That is surely good news as it gives freedom for a more varied journey. South on the shores of the Gulf of Thailand is the backpacker hotspot of Sihanoukville. Here be all night beach parties, great seafood and clear water.
Sihanoukville is changing with the moving in of developers determined to cash in on the tourist boom. However, good beaches still remain. Serendipity Beach is close to the town’s best restaurants and pubs, and in ramshackle shacks, a full Khmer meal can be had for between US$2-US$4. The prettiest beach is the Sokha Beach and on off peak days, non-guests can use the resort’s swimming pool for between US$4-6 a day.
Some backpackers give the thumbs up to Northern Cambodia, particularly Kratie. This little charming village is off the beaten track but is along the Mekong and offers a more authentic perspective of traditional Khmer life. This is also the place to see the rare Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins which live in the Mekong in ever shrinking numbers. Be aware of swimming in the water as the risk of water-borne bilharzia should keep you well out of it and it is highly unlikely the dolphins will dare to come close. Kratie is also a good base from which to explore the surrounding countryside, which was one of the first few areas to fall to the Khmer Rouge and be liberated later by the Vietnamese. Check out the spectacular Mekong sunsets and the intact French era buildings.
Kampot is a sleepy Mekong rivertown which is a backpacker favorite. There are colorful Cham villages to explore by foot, locals to chat with, nicely aged French colonial architecture and an abundance of natural attractions. Easy intra-regional transport gets you to such highlights as the abandoned hill station inside the Bokor National Park and the spectacular cave temple around Kampong Trach.
No visit is complete without a trip to the rundown, atmospheric seaside town of Kep. For the culinary treasure hunter, Kampot is home to the famed Kampot pepper, which used to grace tables in French restaurants before production stopped in mid 1970s.. To the relief of foodies everywhere, pepper is now cultivated in the manganese rich soils which give it its distinctive taste. Do not be surprised to catch the unmistakable scent of the thouren (durian) – Kampot is the main grower of this fruit in Cambodia.
While some backpackers are wanting to give Phnom Penh a wide berth, there is something to be said about a city steeped in colonial charm, a Mekong riverside front full of bars and trendy restaurants, Khmer glory and magnificent Buddhas in the Silver Pagoda, and a National Museum which boasts the world’s best collection of Khmer sculpture.