With its tragic history and centuries old culture, Cambodia is a country that is sure to move your feelings. It may not be the best in South East Asia regarding landscapes, but a laid back atmosphere, the eagerness to rise again after so much struggle and the dramatic Mekong shores really made it one of our favorite destinations, probably the most interesting in continental SEA.
While Cambodia truly is still a cheap country you may find some of the hints here useful if your budget is really tight.
If you’re interested in an alternative itinerary, here’s the detailed description of our bicycle tour in Cambodia, complete with map and elevation profile:
part1: from Koh Khong Thai border to Kampot
part2: from Kampot to Phnom Penh
part3: from Phnom Penh to the Lao Border. Kampong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng
camping in Cambodia
Well, not the most camping friendly country this one. Not that there aren’t spots but, especially during the rainy, season is quite hard to find a dry one. But most important there are still tons and tons of unexploded landmines, which makes stealth camping not the best and of the ideas. The better option is for sure to ask some locals, you could easily pitch your portable house under one of those stilted homes, even tough may be wet even there in the wet season. Leaving a couple of bucks to the family may be polite.
Even tough google and Open Street Map don’t know that, there’s usually at least one guesthouse in any settlement that looks like one (I mean not just four or five houses together, but something that at least comprises a market). That means more less accommodation every 40 or 50km.
Prices are pretty even, ranging from 5USD to 12USD for a double room with fan and usually 5/7 dollars more for A/C. If you have any choice ask to see the room first, check the pillows, the mattress and, most important, the fan. Bargaining is worth a try, mostly works in tourist areas.
Since drinkable water is not the easiest nor the cheaper thing to get, if the place has a water dispenser may be worth a couple bucks more, if you have bottles to fill.
Especially in not touristic areas guesthouses are usually love-motel style, ground floor, which is nice if you have heavy baggage and bicycles.
Some rooms have water kettle but if there isn’t any just ask the owner to provide some boiled water if you need it.
Many guesthouses, even the one you wouldn’t say, have free WiFi.
Guesthouses are normally announced by signs, sometimes very small, keep your eyes wide open, if in a un-touristy area missing one could mean having no other one for a long while!
sleeping in Buddhist temples
Here’s another option, but don’t think it will be as straight forward as in Thailand. First of all, Buddhist temples in Cambodia don’t receive any aid from the government and survive on the donation of people that are amongst the poorest in the world. No fancy stuff here, toilets are usually very basics, even for monk’s standards. Monks may ask you for a donation, if they don’t consider leaving it anyway.
Worst of all, at least in our experience, is being woke up one hour before dawn by the preparation for the morning prayer, if you are a heavy sleeper you may not notice, but no chance you’ll oversleep the huge drum being played at dawn. So if you’re up for an early rise and want to try the experience, well do it, at least once. But if a good night of sleep is what you’re after my advice is to stick to guesthouses and resort to temples only if you have no other choice.
When we did it we left a 4USD donation (the elder monk asked for it), just two more dollars and we could had had a real bed, a shower, and sleep as long as we wanted, if only there was a guesthouse there…
couchsurfing and warmshower? or workaway, helpx and woofing?
Phnom Penh, Siem Raep and maybe Kampot and Sihanoukville are the only places where you could have a chance to find couchsurfers or warmshower hosts. Volunteering instead is pretty easy, with a lot of associations, some a little shady, some with plenty of good feedback, to whom you can lend your skills and time in exchange for shelter, food, and experience.
Some of this ask you a fee to volunteer, I feel I wouldn’t trust them, unless you really know where do your money end up, moreover, this article is about budget travel so I assume you don’t want to pay to volunteer.
eateries and restaurants
Food is definitively not the first reason to come to Cambodia, apart from the nice seafood in the coastal towns (Kep being the best) the average Cambodian eatery boast a menu of basically two dishes, fried rice and noodle soup, especially in the countryside and poorer areas.
Some better ones may have boiled rice with stuff, beef, pork, chicken and vegetables. But here is the bad new, food ain’t any cheap in Cambodia.
Beside noodles and rice, that you can find for 1.50/2USD (in tourist areas even more expensive), all the other dishes comes at around 3 to 5USD for meat and even more for fish, sometimes really not worth it. Sometimes, but not very often, it’s possible to find that kind of eateries with pots on display that are so common in the Philippines, here at least you can jump beyond the language barrier, but don’t expect this to be a great meal, usually soups made with coconut milk and some boiled bony meat.
Western food can be found in every touristic town, usually in guesthouses, being a mix of fake Italian spaghetti and American style stuff such as hamburgers, tacos, and ribs. Prices are not cheap, from 4 to 6USD for a burger that may not fulfill your needs.
Try the crabs in Kep, that is cheap and very tasty, and the Italian food stall in Kampot.
shops, markets, and supermarkets
Forget about western style supermarket outside Phnom Penh, period. Shops are the most chaotic I’ve ever seen, hard to find anything, for the lack of order but also because they basically have nothing there. Shelves display a hundred pieces of the same product (usually instant noodles or diapers) to make the shop look full, even biscuits are not easy to find.
Markets are the right places to buy fruit, bargain hard. They also have some food stalls, better off in the morning when the food is freshly cooked, than in the afternoon, when it has been already some hours in the unforgiving heat.
If you just came here from a developed country beware of food poisoning, your stomach may not be equipped to handle the germs on the lady’s hand. I got poisoned to in a market, even though I was coming from 8 months in SEA, and felt I could stand the bad hygiene. Sometimes we resorted to instant noodles, but be careful, once we saw the lady of the shop taking the water for the noodles from a rusty barrel collecting rain from an asbestos roof.
Oh, I almost forgot the most important of the hints! Almost all Cambodian beers can give a prize, look under the tab of the can when opening it, if there’s the symbol of a can you won one free beer! It’s surprisingly common to win free beers, almost one on three or four cans is a lucky one!
baguette and bakeries
Here’s the lifesaver, God bless the French (well not really, they did the worst kind of colonial shit here, but…). When we first saw a Baguette, after being so long in Asia, so far from any kind of bread worth the name, that felt like a dream, we wanted to cry.
Sad part: baguettes are hard to find in the remote areas. Happy part: where there’s a market, there’s a baguette. For 1/1.20USD they fill it with some sort of meat, vegetables, and sauce. Big and cheap, will fill your belly.
Bakeries are rare, better on sweets than salty pastry. However, when we saw one we usually stock a few pieces. Not bad overall, considering the average quality of Cambodian food.
Unlike the Philippines, water refill stations are not common in Cambodia, if not almost nonexistent. We relied on guesthouses with water dispenser, filling four 1.5l plastic bottles every morning usually made our day until the next GH. Bottled water is quite expensive, almost 1USD for 1.5l, so as said before, may be worth paying a couple dollars more for a guesthouse with free water.
Unlike Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese, Khmer language is not tonal, meaning that is easier to grab a few words and be understood when you try to repeat them. Alphabet tough is a big barrier in restaurant’s menu and more less everything else.
English is almost completely unknown outside of touristic areas and google doesn’t have a downloadable Khmer language package for translate. Rely on gestures and simple phrasebook, order food by pointing at somebody’s else dish, or just cope with whatever they might bring you, which would probably be a noodle soup anyway.
This being a generalization, Cambodian people are mostly friendly but not very helpful, don’t rely on their direction so much and don’t expect them to help to drag your bike out of the mud.
Cambodian roads have improved enormously during the last ten years, all the major roads are sealed, may not be as smooth as in Thailand but usually they are ok. Some of them may have heavy traffic, while some may be almost desert. Not so rarely there’s no side lane to ride in, so if the road is busy with trucks, it may feel (and actually be) quite dangerous. Check our bicycle touring itinerary in Cambodia (part1, part2, part3) for detailed information about this.
When leaving the main road hunting for alternative routes, the whole story takes a U-turn. It’s here that the real Cambodia reveals itself, the slow rhythms of a country which somehow still lives in the middle ages. Hand-pulled wooden looms, ritual horse carts, run down temples and people wearing traditional clothes.
This all comes at a price, which is basically clouds of red dust in dry season and pools of mud during the wet one. While dust may not be nice but still bearable with a bit of cover up, mud can make some road completely unrideable, a hell on earth sometimes.
Think twice when trying one of those, check if you’ll have any chance to get back to the pavement and avoid the risk if there was a recent downpour longer than a few hours, try asking the locals but don’t trust them 100%, sometimes they will say it’s ok when really it is not, maybe ask more people.
Our perception of Cambodia is one of an overall safe country. Still apply some caution, this is not Japan or South Korea. The bulk of the “criminal activity” (theft and scams mostly) is of course where the bulk of the tourist is, bus stations and major touristic attraction.
Respect the basic rules: money on you, passport on you, do not leave nothing valuable or important in your backpack (or whatever your baggage is) if this is loaded in the trunk of a bus or taxi, don’t pay stuff in advance, trust your instinct, don’t make rushed choices, don’t be drunk or high if you have valuable stuff with you.
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