Why you should go to Cambodia
First published 21st October, 2012
Of all the mainland Southeast Asian nations, Cambodia is perhaps the most neglected from a tourist's point of view. The country is arguably known worldwide for two things: the magnificent Angkor Wat complex and two of the legacies of the Khmer Rouge -- land mines and security issues.
Together these facets have worked historically to both attract and repel foreign tourists, resulting in a highly developed tourist infrastructure surrounding Siem Reap, the closest town to the Angkor Wat complex, while the rest of the country, from a tourism point of view, has developed at a far slower pace -- if at all.
The end result of this is that many visitors to Cambodia come primarily to see Angkor Wat and leave without seeing anything else. This is a missed opportunity as Cambodia offers a wealth of destinations aside from Angkor Wat.
The capital, Phnom Penh, located roughly midway between Angkor Wat and the Vietnamese border, is beautiful in a dilapidated kind of way and has developed into a decidedly cosmopolitan city with excellent eating and drinking available along with some great value and very unique places to stay.
You packed an umbrella right?
Some historically important places to visit should be on your itinerary in Phnom Penh, such as Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields and the National Museum, but it's not all genocide tourism here. Boat cruises, cooking schools, an animal refuge, wet markets and the ever-scenic riverside boardwalk are all easy crowd-pleasers.
Another bustling city that attracts a fraction of the visitors it deserves, Battambang in the west of the country is both an attractive riverside city in its own right but also a convenient hub for exploring the hinterland with its temples, Khmer ruins and the bamboo train. Easily reached by bus or share taxi, you can also approach it by boat from Siem Reap, crossing the Tonle Sap, in what can be an incredibly beautiful and memorable trip.
Bamboo train outside Battambang.
While nearby Thailand may be better known for its island scene, the half-dozen or so islands off the Cambodian south coast are where it is at when it comes to the "new" islands of the region. Pristine beaches and crystal clear waters really deliver the goods. The coastal and riverside towns of Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep meanwhile provide a relaxing small town vibe that may enthral those looking for a lower-key Cambodia.
Off the coast, Cambodia has a developing eco-ish sustainable tourism scene, most famously centred around the Chipat area midway between Phnom Penh and Battambang. Here you can experience village life and grow to better appreciate what remains of Cambodia's once-vast forests.
No Photoshop required.
Heading north from the capital towards the border with Laos, the riverside towns of Kratie and Stung Treng each offer small town charm and the opportunity (should you be in luck) to see the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Further east again takes you to romantically named Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri provinces. Once considered Cambodia's "Wild East" these areas have been (and continue to be) ravaged environmentally, but there are highlights that remain; Banlung in the north can be used as a base for trekking in Virachey National Park and visiting nearby waterfalls, while Sen Monorom, in a similar fashion to Chipat, has a developing sustainable tourism scene.
A waterfall all of your own.
Then of course there is Angkor Wat. Yes, it is something you must see during your lifetime; but do bear in mind that there are actually dozens upon dozens of monuments scattered not just around Siem Reap but across much of the country. Siem Reap town, with its ever-growing supply of hotels, fabulous eating and plentiful drinking has developed into a destination in its own right.
The crown jewel of Cambodian tourism.
So with so much to see, why do people see so little?
Cambodia is a very poor country and the poverty and persistent begging, especially by children, can be distressing to some. Crime, especially snatch and grabs, are a stubborn problem; scams also continue to be a problem. But we'd say we've always felt relatively safe in Phnom Penh and its reputation among some as a sleazy destination is not at all deserved -- it's no worse than Bangkok or Saigon.
Kids working the crowd on the Neak Long ferry.
Cambodian food has its own distinct appeal, but for now it simply isn't on the same page when compared to the cuisines of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand. That's not to say you shouldn't try to get a handle on it though, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
While Cambodia is generally slightly cheaper than both Vietnam and Thailand but more expensive than Laos, it remains excellent value for money.
How long does Cambodia deserve?
The standard tourist visa for Cambodia is 30 days. So we'd say that is a good starting point.
In a month you could visit Angkor, Battambang, a couple of islands via Sihanoukville and then dash along the coast to Kep and Kampot before striking north to Phnom Penh, and continuing north to Laos via Kratie and Stung Treng.
With two weeks you could easily see Siem Reap, an island, a bit of coast and the capital before moving on.
One week, Angkor plus Phnom Penh or an island.
Just another Stung Treng sunset.
Cambodia has land border crossings with all three of its neighbours (Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) and the main trunk routes are mostly sealed, of a reasonable standard and trafficked by frequent public transport. This makes it ideal for those planning an overland loop through Southeast Asia so if you're planning extensive travel, Cambodia should absolutely be a part of it -- just don't make the mistake of hightailing it straight to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
This is an edited extract of Southeast Asia unwrapped: A travel planner for the first time traveller. The book, available in PDF, for the Kindle and iPad is due for release in December 2012.
Related readingBattambang weekend
The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
Read 5 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (7)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (72)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (20)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.