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 don’t know much about this country, check these interesting facts to know about Cambodia.
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 though 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 straightforward 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 have had a real bed, a shower, and sleep as long as we wanted, if only there was a guesthouse there…
CouchSurfing and Warmshowers? 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 warmshowers 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 does your money end up, moreover, this article is about budget travel so I assume you don’t want to pay to volunteer.
Read our posts about
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 boasts 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 news, 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 come 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.
Bicycle Touring in Cambodia
an off-the-beaten-path cycling itinerary
part2: from Kampot to Phnom Penh
part3: from Phnom Penh to Lao border, through Kampong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng.
Thailand/Cambodia border (Koh Khong) to Batum Sokor – 108km
This is a very beautiful ride on road 48, going East you’ll have the Cardamon mountains (“Krâvanh” in khmer) on your left and Botum Sakor national park on your right. This is probably the longest stretch of untouched jungle we ever saw in more than ten months around South East Asia.
Crossing from the southernmost border with Thailand makes immediately clear you entered in a less developed country. The road is not so well sealed as it was in Thailand and there are almost no crops or plantation, this is indeed an area where landmines are still a problem.
5 km outside Koh Khong heading east there’s a very easy climb up to 200msl, and then slightly downhill to the tiny village of Tatai, which has a guest house, two food stall (very bad in my opinion) and a big waterfall if you’re up for an off road detour. Just left the village there’s a steeper but short climb up to 400msl and than downhill, 40km to the next village, Trapeang Rung (this is actually the name of the river, on some maps the village is called Phumi Chrang Khpos), where there is a community-based tourism association.
stage 2: cycling Cambodian flatlands – Sre Ambel
Botum Sokor to Kampot – 147km
Here comes the flat and the real Cambodian feeling, rice paddies, water buffaloes and wooden houses on pillars. 36 super-easy kilometers of quiet paved road lead us to Srae Ambel. There are houses here and, though not many, some feeding and water options. Food is mostly crap but hey, this is Cambodia.
Srae Ambel is indeed a nice town, set on a small hill overlooking the Sre Ambel River. Two guesthouses are in the center of the village, atop the hill, and few more a little bit further out of town. There’s an interesting Buddhist temple, the usual market, the usual fried rice and noodle soup.
Even though road stays flat the traffic gets pretty heavy, with lots of trucks in a row to share the narrow road with. There are about 45km like this, maybe the worst road we cycled in Cambodia.
Luckily, this ugly stretch terminates near the village of Prey Nob, where, despite what google says, there are quite a few guesthouses and finally a decent restaurant inside the gas station before the crossroad.
And indeed the road splits here, the Highway 4 leading south-west to busy Sihanoukville, the new resort town of Cambodia. As you may guess we skip that and head East instead, following National Highway 3, to Kampot.
The traffic lightens noticeably, finally, on the left, the Bokor cliffs emerge in their majesty. Although the road runs along the coast, there are very few spots from where the sea is visible, through this 58km of flat road there are basically no places to get drinks or food.
But Kampot is not that far and there will be all the western comfort you would like there.
Cycling Cambodia pt.2 – From Kampot to Phnom Penh
The second part of a detailed description of our Cambodia bike tour, the description of the 172km, from Kampot to Phnom Penh. Some people ride this in one day, we rode in 4, taking our time to explore the rural areas around.
For the first part of the itinerary, from the Thai border near Koh Khong to Kampot, click here.
For part3: from Phnom Penh to Lao border, through Kampong Cham, Kreatie and Stung Treng, here.
At the bottom of the article is the map of the whole Cambodian tour, click on the track to get the elevation profile.
For general hints and tricks to keep your budget extremely low when traveling Cambodia, here’s another article.
Kampot to Takeo – 92 km
There are several ways to reach Phnom Penh from Kampot (check our Kampot article here), the longest one being heading to Kep along route 33 and then joining National Highway 2 to Takeo; the shortest ones are instead national road 41 or Highway 3.
We chose a mix of Highway 3 and 2, with some detours on dirt tracks when possible, which meant when the road where marked on OpenStreetMap.
This stretch is not the most beautiful, whatever road you chose, being mostly plains with monotonous rice paddies and ugly little towns. The more you can detour from the highway the nicer it can become.
However National Highway 3, despite its name, is not busy at all, with good pavement and usually a wide enough side roadway where to stick not to be bored by the few trucks.
As usual along Cambodian main roads there are accommodation more-less every 40/50km, we overnight at Chhuk, where there’s a beautiful and cheap (7USD) guesthouse just at the beginning of the unpaved road 133A, going south-east. Take the room on the pond with a huge terrace, one of the best ever seen in Cambodia.
33 more km along Highway 3, before taking the cut the brings us to the provincial capital of Takeo on Highway 2, after 12km. Takeo is big for Cambodian standards, and we found it pretty ugly and giving a sensation of unsafety (just a sensation), it’s sadly famous for prostitution, indeed we found some fake eyelashes in our hotel room.
Most of the guesthouses are on the road coming into town from west, the city canter really has nothing to offer but a night market where we eat and got sick, so we advise to get a room before coming downtown in order to have more choice.
Takeo to Phnom Penh – 80km
There are several Angkorian temples near Takeo area, most require an entry fee and all are off the main roads, for a full list with location visit this page.
We decide to visit Phnom Chisor, which is not far from Highway 2 on the way to Phnom Penh. We found a side road to get there from Takeo and this made one of the best cycling days of our Cambodian bicycle tour. Head north from the city center, across the shallow lake full of lotus flowers, then follow the track on the map below.
A beautiful 32 unpaved kilometers, crossing traditional Khmer villages and rice paddies (literally inside the fields). A marvelous glance into Cambodian traditional life, beautiful houses on pillars, some even 5m from the ground, this area is certainly not the poorest in Cambodia, but the lifestyle is tied to the old times.
Phnom Chisor (or Phnom Chiso) is an 11th-century Angkorian temple set on a hilltop with a cool view. It used to be a pretty big temple but now lays in ruin, being bombed by the American Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Back on Highway 2, the road gets more and more busy and less and less interesting. Maybe Highway 3 could’ve been slightly better, but due to the proximity with Phnom Penh I won’t bet on this.
Leaving Highway 2 for Choeung Ek road at Krang Svay, we pass beside the biggest and most infamous of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, 10km before Phnom Penh.
Cycling in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, one of the worst cities in South East Asia and thus in the whole world. Drivers are crazy, rules non-existent, temperatures near the boiling point and roads narrow and full of potholes. Luckily is a small city, so you won’t have to suffer for so long. We’ll spend a few days here and decide if to go up north into Laos or cross the border with Vietnam.
Cycling Cambodia pt.3 – Phnom Penh to Lao Border
Click here for part1: from Koh Khong Thai border to Kampot
Click here for part2: from Kampot to Phnom Penh
At the bottom of the article is the map of the whole Cambodian tour, click on the track to get the elevation profile.
from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham – 112km
Leaving Phnom Penh northward is no big deal compared to getting in from South. Get to the Mekong and follow it, there’s the main road, Highway 6, not beautiful but wide, with plenty of overpriced accommodations. For a big stretch it has a much nicer side road that runs parallel, on the very shores of the Mekong, follow that as far as you can. Many villages and restaurants.
At KM40 there’s the first bridge across the Mekong, that leads to the town of Khsach Kandal (ខ្សាច់កណ្ដាល), where there’s a love-motel-style guesthouse with no WiFi.
So from here begun a 43km unpaved leg, the road was a little tricky sometimes but still rideable, even though it rained the night before, keep in mind however that taking unpaved roads in Cambodia is always a gamble, and don’t blame us if you find yourself in a river of mud.
Cham is the name of the Cambodian ethnic minority, mostly following Islam, which indeed concentrates the most of the 217,000 individuals around this province. The area also played a key role during the Khmer Rouge uprise and seize of power: from here the Cambodian communist launched their assault to Phnom Penh.
The city was for a long while a stronghold of Pol Pot’s army and the local Muslim community suffered even more than the rest of the Cambodian, not because of some racial issue but mainly because the reluctance of the Chams to abandon their traditions and rites.
Kampong Cham is nowadays one of the most beautiful Cambodian cities, it ranks 6th for population in Cambodia, with just 118.000 inhabitants. The town is a model to follow for neatness and decorum, with a splendid riverside lined with restaurant and guesthouses it aims to become a major tourist center in the next decade.
Beside the laid-back riverside atmosphere, there are a few things to see around the area, the best being probably the famous bamboo bridge to Koh Paen, an island inside the Mekong.
This is in the south part of town not far from the main bridge. However, we missed that, since it’s washed away during the wet season and rebuilt every year.
What we really enjoyed is Nokor Wat (coordinates 12°00’00.3″N 105°26’20.6″E, less than 5km from the city center), an 11th century Angkorian temple lying in disrepair but completely tourist free.
In the same site, there’s an NGO, named BSDA who trains disadvantaged kids in Apsara Traditional Dances, performances are on request so maybe contact them before. When we’ve been here the kids had just finished their daily training, we booked a performance for the day after (just for us! Based on donation) but unfortunately, there was a biblical downpour and since the place is open air…
Kampong Cham to Kratie – 124km
Cycling (or riding or walking or whatever you like) along national road 222, past the real Cham villages, is a very interesting ride, a good chance to cast a glimpse at this minority’s lifestyle. A mosque on stilts above the water is sure a unique sight.
An easy 36km lead to Phumi Prek Kak (or Stueng Trang or Stung Trong), a sleepy village with a muddy riverside boardwalk, a crappy guesthouse and nothing more, from here there’s a car ferry to cross the river, road 222 takes a turn west so to keep following the river one must cross to the east bank and hit road 308.
From there is a very nice 53km to the next guesthouse in Chhlong and 35km more to the slightly touristic town of Kratie. This part is beautiful, very tranquil, mostly with the Mekong on view. Traditional stilted Khmer houses as usual, tall and made of wood.
Kratie (Krong Kracheh) is mostly famous for being one of the few places in the world where the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins live. The view spot itself is actually in the village of Kampi, around 20 nice kilometers northward, on a mixed concrete/dirt road.
The town of Kratie itself is basically all about guesthouses and tourist restaurant, serving some mixed Western/Cambodian favorites. Cute colonial architecture, nice for a stroll on the riverside and a hamburger or tofu-burger, for the greenies.
Apparently, the small island facing the town is lovely and with a cycling path that goes around it, but since either this and the dolphin view requires a fee, needless to say, we didn’t do it, cash shortage being a classic for the poor cycloscopicos.
Kratie to Stung Treng – 140km
Past Kampi the last settlement for miles and miles is Sangkum, after which we find ourselves in one of the poorest areas of the world we’ve ever been. Houses are rotten, some miss walls, some miss roofs, some are made out of scrap metal sheet, kids clothes are torn apart, people look lazier than ever and sometimes even desperate. Many landmines left from the khmer rouge era make rice growing a deadly business here.
Just 19km and the road joins highway 7, from now on there’s nothing, I mean really nothing, until Stung Treng, 120km past Sangkum. Small signs warn of the presence of mines, few bomb craters are visible. No food, no water, no accommodation, no houses, nothing, at all (18-01-2017 Update: it seems we’re wrong about that, check the comments).
A wide flat road with few cars heading to Lao, that’s it.
Here’s when we found shelter in a Buddhist temple, we asked to the oldest monk and he agreed. In exchange for a 4USD compulsory donation, we could sleep inside the praying hall, which was not a great idea, since we have been woke up one hour before down by the prayer’s preparation, before the deafening drum begun shaking the wooden structure, few meters from our ears.
Stung Treng could be beautiful but is not. A quite big town for Cambodian standards has a rundown decadent atmosphere and a lazy way of being itself. Being mainly a stopover for tourist traveling from Laos to Siem Reap or other destination in Cambodia seem it doesn’t aim at being much more, a pity.
Guesthouses are plenty, just don’t go where all the backpackers go, the one in the muddy minibus parking lot with the restaurant inside, that really is the worst. Can make use of the restaurant though, since there are only two serving few western style stuff (the other one being in front of the ATM, slightly better IMHO).
The highlight of Stung Treng is no doubt the big market, plenty of fruit, clothes and dubious food stalls (visit them in the morning, when the food was just being cooked). This is the only place where we saw wild animals illegally sold as meat: turtles, monitor lizards, monkeys, a weird rodent and some more stuff whose identity was hard to figure out.
From Stung Treng to Lao border crossing – 63km
From Stung Treng to the Lao border is 63 more lazy kilometers of nothingness, the only small settlement being less than 10km from Laos, where the road takes a bend west and follows the border until the frontier checkpoint.
Being the only crossing between Cambodia and Lao, the border is surprisingly quiet, if you’re unlucky you could meet one of the few big busses that could slow the thing down.
Anyway, visa on arrival procedure is smooth, pay the fee, depending on your country, 30 or 35USD for most countries, plus 2$ for the stamp fee, plus 1 or 2 dollars bribe… yes bribe, but this time there really was no choice, pay or stay in Cambodia. Anyway if they ask more try to bargain, though I don’t see much chance here.
There are also some more shady but official fees if you cross after 4 p.m. or on the weekends. The chance to be scammed are greater for tourists in groups than they are for bicycle tourers, as always.
facebook, twitter, instagram and youtube
If you have more information, please feel free to contribute in the comments!