Making our way through Southeast Asia, we entered Cambodia with the only expectation to visit the famous Angkor temples. And if this long awaited visit did not disappoint us at all, Cambodia knew how to reserve us many other surprises, good and bad, unforeseen events and memorable encounters. Between beauty and horror, fascination and frustration, Cambodia did not leave us indifferent!
Visa and border crossing
At the border
What to see in Cambodia?
Find about History of Cambodia
To not miss a thing of your day, we have written a little guide for a one-day visit by bicycle. You can find it on our blog, by clicking on the link!
Koh Ker temple
Koh Ker is like a forgotten Angkor temple: a site lost in the middle of a forest, dominated by a huge pyramid temple (Prasat Thom), and former seat of the Khmer empire (10th century AD). A much less popular site, but just as spectacular on paper. Koh Ker was the second point on our list of historical sites to see in Cambodia, despite a somewhat dissuasive entrance fee (10$/person)… A must-see that we had to cross off, with a touch of regret, because of corrupt guards posted at the entrance.
The former S-21 prison
Warning, sensitive souls: the visit of the former jail S21, located in the capital Phnom Penh, and the displays of Polpot’s regime massacres, may not be for you… Painful, heartbreaking, moving: these are the words that would be used to describe this museum. For those who are interested in history and have a strong heart, the Genocide Museum is probably a necessary step to learn more about the Khmer Rouge and to realize what the human race is capable of. The audio guide, which is available at an additional cost (you can rent one for two), is very well done and makes you discovering history at your own pace, through touching testimonies of former prisoners and survivors.
Marvel at the Cambodian nature
Luck often comes when hitchhiking: that day, a group of Cambodian tourists took us with their pick-up car, allowing us to enter for free to the Mekong waterfalls lookout, few steps away from the Laos border. An opportunity seized with joy, without any regret!
Phnom Kulen national park
While traveling nearby, we heard about the Phnom Kulen National Park – a protected park, around a small mountain range, where we can admire a large waterfall and an intriguing sculpture of a reclining Buddha. But the joy of admiring these curiosities vanished when we saw the price of the entrance fee: at 20$/person, we have preferred to go away.
Visiting a different Cambodia
The floating village of Kampong Khleang
Whatever the season, there is always a good reason to visit the floating village of Kampong Khleang:
– during the dry season, when the houses on stilts seem huge, it’s easy to walk around and buy rice from the locals who dry it on the roadside;
– during the rainy season, when the water rises several meters, completely covering the wooden pillars of these traditional houses and a boat is necessary to get there!
Flight of bats in Battambang
How many bats can fly out of a small cavity, one after the other, during 30 minutes straight? Probably millions, according to our calculations! To see this highly improbable spectacle, go to the BatCave at dawn near Battambang.
Dolphins of the Mekong River (not seen)
Were we too late, out of season? Or were we too far from where they live? Still, we did not see a single pink dolphin come out of the water, while several signs announced the presence of dolphins between Kampi and Kratie. Despite not being able to see the dolphins, we have seen there a magnificent sunset on the banks of the Mekong!
Did you know?…
Cambodia has not always had an area equal to a third of mainland France: between the 9th and 13th century, the Khmer empire extended from southern Thailand to northern Laos, including provinces of present-day Vietnam… Quite a great empire whose headquarters were, quite naturally, in Angkor!
Have you heard about Khmer Rouge? These indoctrinated soldiers, led by PolPot, who decimated from 1975 to 1979 (the period during which the regime ruled Cambodia) and in general indifference, not far from 2 million people? Well, we did not: we discovered this horrible part of history when we visited Cambodia and especially the S21 prison in Phnom Penh…
A Pride Named Angkor
One can tell that Angkor is well anchored in Cambodian culture! The most visited temples in the world and popular thanks to the Tomb Raider movies have always adorned the Cambodia flag, as a symbol of Justice and representation of Cultural Heritage. A true national pride!
Traveling alternatively in Cambodia
Our daily budget
€4.20 / person
Bank with no extra fees (foreign card)
US DOLLAR and RIEL (US$ 1 = 4,000 Riels)
Visiting Cambodia is quite a budget, especially if you plan to visit Angkor temples (37$/person for a day). Without the paid visits (S21 prison and Angkor temples), our daily budget would be €2/day/person – including all our vegetarian meals, several coconuts drank and a few beers!
2500 riels inside a market
5000 riels in street restaurant
2000 riels for 0.5L of beer (can)
Although there were long waiting times on the side of the road, and the fact that hitchhiking is not an usual thing in this country, we still managed to cross Cambodia by stopping curious locals who were happy to help us!
In big cities, it’s quite possible to find a host via CouchSurfing or other hospitality networks. In small towns and countryside villages, it’s a different story: some people may ask you for money, others may offer to sleep on a wooden platform without any conditions!
In any case, we’ve always been welcome in Buddhist temples, greeted by friendly, smiling monks offering hot tea and most importantly, access to the temple’s basic toilet-shower facilities!
As in Laos, wild camping is tolerated, but strongly discouraged in the most remote areas because of the buried bombs which have not exploded yet… Our advice: ask the locals, with the help of a translator or a Pictionary, if you can pitch your tent in their yard or nearby in a safe place. In many cases you will also be given access to water!
Our tops (and flops)
No big surprises in our top list of Cambodia! Thrilled by nature and cultural heritage, our favorite places reflect our taste:
- The must-see Angkor temples
- Moving testimonies and the history of the S21 prison in Phnom Penh
- The spectacular flight of the bats in Battambang
Even if we were expecting it, we were severely confronted with corruption in Cambodia: first at the border, then at the entrance of Koh Ker temple (which we finally decided not to visit), and finally quite regularly on the markets where sellers inflate the price when they see us coming… Each time, we had to negotiate hard to pay the right price!
Another disappointment is the high entrance fees. While we understand the need to limit, by imposing a high price, tourists to the Angkor temples to better preserve them, it seems more difficult to justify a $20 ticket to see a waterfall…
More about Cambodia:
* Post written according to our personal experience *