As with all travel in Cambodia, there’s a fair amount of bus or boat travel involved, but with a month there’s also enough down time to rest your sore bum between journeys. We’ve designed this trip as a circuit that loops around the country so you can start it in any number of locations and it also fits in well with those who are planning on continuing on to Laos, Thailand or Vietnam through one of the overland crossings.
Both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have international airports, so some will be starting the trip in one of those two spots, though those entering Cambodia overland will have a range of options to choose from.
Cambodia has two distinct seasons: hot and wet and hot and dry. The least hot dry part of the year, between November and January, is the most popular time to visit. Dry season runs from November to April on the back of the northeast monsoon and the wet season runs from May to October courtesy of the southwest monsoon, bringing with it some three-quarters of Cambodia’s annual rainfall. July to September are the wettest months, characterised by some transport difficulties, especially in rural areas where roads can be damaged, and flooding—we’re looking at you Phnom Penh. April can be unpleasantly hot.
As November to January is the most popular time to visit, it is also the most crowded; risking a bit of rain can pay off with slightly reduced crowds. Wet season does bring with it some minor advantages—Angkor Wat for one can be spectacular after a monsoon thunderstorm—just pack an umbrella. Cambodia’s islands are not recommended in the height of wet season.
The suggested minimum time for a trip like this is four weeks, though more time would obviously allow for a far more comfortable pace of travel. If you have less than three weeks, we’d suggest considering a slow version of the two week itinerary rather than trying to cram all the following in.
Day 1–4: Siem Reap
Set in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap is best known for being the gateway to the Angkor ruins, a sprawling World Heritage-listed complex of more than 400 ancient temples, with magnificent Angkor Wat as its focal point. You’ll use Siem Reap both as a base for visiting the ruins and other attractions including floating villages on Tonle Sap. Over the last decade, Siem Reap has developed into a destination in its own right and has a wealth of excellent shopping, eating and boozing options available.
We allow an extra day in Siem Reap (compared to the two week itinerary) which will allow you to explore some of the further flung ruins, or perhaps do an overnight trip to Banteay Chhmar, or just, you know, hang out for another day in Siem Reap itself.
When you’re finished with Siem Reap and Angkor you need to head across to Battambang—a trip that can be done by bus, share-taxi or boat. We like the boat, but they have sunk in the past (at least the lake is fairly shallow).
Day 5-7: Battambang
With a rich architectural heritage, an increasingly confident art scene providing a cradle for many of Cambodia’s top talents, and stunning surrounding countryside, Battambang is a tranquil respite from the boom and hustle of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. A trip to Battambang is not complete without a trip to the evening circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak. It’s enormous fun, and you can find flyers with the monthly schedule in most restaurants in town. Before the circus there was the nori and Battambang is best known for this special bamboo train—a fun way to see parts of the countryside you otherwise wouldn’t reach—while the original nori has been shut down there is a new one up and running, though it is primarily set up for tourists. Aside from the bamboo train, a day spent exploring the surrounds of Battambang can be very rewarding, visit hill top temples with their own killing fields, and 11th century monuments along with plenty of pleasant rural scenery.
Day 8-10: Chi Phat
Tucked into the southeastern front of the Cardamom Mountain range, Chi Phat is a pretty, prosperous two-street village which is home to a thriving community-based ecotourism (CBET) operation. The village is home to almost 40 homestays and guesthouses, there is a handful of restaurants in the village and just a few kilometres up the road, a winding tributary to the Preak Piphot River runs into rapids and waterfalls as it wends its way down the mountain.
Whether you’re seeking relaxation, adventure, or a chance to come into closer contact with Cambodian culture, Chi Phat has something for you. Hiking and cycling trips into the mountains can be done at your level while real adventurers can trek for several days into the forests, camping beside rivers, crossing wild elephant trails and hopefully catching a glimpse of some of the beautiful birds and animals that call this part of the Cardamoms home.
Day 11: Sihanoukville
A peninsula ringed by pretty beaches and surrounded by a smattering of very attractive islands, Sihanoukville was Cambodia’s premier mainland beach location, but it is rapidly transforming into an ugly casino town. We suggest just an overnight stay before continuing on to one of the islands, where the beaches are better, the water clearer and the scene less seedy. Decide on an island and catch the ferry the following morning.
Day 12-15: Koh Rong or Ko Rong Samloem
Off the coast of Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, picture-perfect islands attract travellers seeking long dreamy beaches, diving and natural environments. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are a short speedboat ride away from the mainland, where soft yellow sand and brilliant white beaches appeal to both party-goers and serenity seekers alike. With just two days, this is a pick one or the other situation. If you want to see both, you’ll be needing, at a minimum, an extra two days. Bear in mind that in peak wet season, travel out to the islands is not so pleasant.
When your island time runs out, get a boat back to Sihanoukville and then a bus or share-taxi east to Kampot.
Day 16-18: Kampot
If a sundowner by the river or a cruise along a sleepy river is your kind of thing, then you’ll really appreciate Kampot. Long described as “sleepy”, the Kampot of today is transforming into a lively tourist destination, with plenty of good restaurants, bars and music to be found. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the hardcore riverside lounging that the city has built its name on. Not by a long shot. It’s also an excellent base from which to explore Bokor National Park.
Day 19-21: Kep
Once the playground of Cambodia’s elites, whose crumbling mansions now provide a forlorn record of the country’s cultural zenith in the 1960s, Kep these days is a relatively sleepy seaside town renowned for its seafood and those spooky remains of that decadent past. Spend a couple of days here lounging by the seaside, perhaps hiking up to the National Park viewpoint, doing a daytrip (or an overnight trip) to nearby Koh Tonsay or picking up your own peck of the best pepper in the world, straight from the source.
Day 22-24: Phnom Penh
A heaving crossroads of cultures, times, peoples and worlds, Phnom Penh is a city on the edge of everything. With one foot still rooted in the past, which you can find in the temples, markets and buzzing back streets, and another striding boldly into the future, which is pretty much all around you, this thriving, turbulent city brings together Cambodian, Chinese and French influences in a congested, grimy, shiny, vibrant and thrilling mash that somehow seems to work—except when it rains.
Spend your two days here visiting the National Museum, the Royal Palace and, of course, Tuol Sleng. Spend the afternoon shopping, relaxing in a cafe overlooking the river or get out on the river itself for a sunset cruise. If you’re looking for a splurge, Phnom Penh has some lovely hotels.
Day 25-26: Kompong Cham
A surprisingly pretty province, with several interesting Angkorian and pre-Angkorian sites, Kompong Cham is commonly viewed as a simple layover en route to the northeast, but also makes for a pleasant, restful diversion if you have a day or two to spare. The city is large, though the central area hugging the Mekong is where you’ll likely spend most of your time.
Explorers will be rewarded with an array of architecture styles from early French colonial buildings, typical Chinese shophouses, and buildings influenced by the New Khmer Architectural style developed during Cambodia’s “golden” years in the 1960s. Locals are also quick to point out the city’s other attractions, such as Wat Nokor and the pagoda at Han Chey.
Day 27-28: Kratie
A charming, cheerful little town on the Mekong, Kratie is best known for its dolphins, in particular the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. But Kratie also makes an excellent base for exploring the river and surrounding areas, including the enviably pretty Koh Trong, a three-kilometre long island facing the town’s riverfront. Kratie itself too has enough colonial architecture to reward wanderers, as well as a good handful of welcoming guesthouses, and a smattering of decent restaurants that have grown up to meet the steadily growing number of tourists.
From Kratie, you could continue north to Stung Treng and cross into southern Laos, or, head east to either Sen Monorom or northeast to Banlung for still more exploring of Cambodia. There are also a few overland crossings to Vietnam approachable from this part of Cambodia. If you’re not heading elsewhere, then just return on the bus to Phnom Penh for your flight out of the country.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.