Around the World Trip: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

*By Whitney*

Cambodia was the 10th country on our trip!

If you haven’t already, check out my posts on our adventures at the other stops: 

Timeline for Cambodia: November 4th-13th

Initially, I was a little nervous about traveling to Cambodia. But we had heard good things from other travelers throughout our trip that put me more at ease. As it turns out, we ended up loving Cambodia and had no problems at all! Of course that’s not to say that everywhere in Cambodia is safe. I have heard that there is some lawlessness and corruption, especially at the land border crossings. But as far as our experiences at the airports and in the tourist areas of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, everything was fine!

Trip Planning

We flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia after leaving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This was the very last part of our trip that we had to finalize. When we were planning, we initially booked all of the first 2 months (including Europe, Morocco, and our first month in Chiang Mai, Thailand). Then, we booked the last part of our trip working backwards from our flight home (Hong Kong to the US), Bangkok before that, and Southern Thailand before that. We had all that booked before we left the States. Then, while in Chiang Mai, we booked Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia. We knew the dates for our travel to Cambodia, but what really had us hung up was how to get between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. I had heard unnerving things about long bus rides in Southeast Asia, and developing countries in general. So I was not too keen on a long bus ride. So we figured out that you could in fact fly between the two cities. But, after multiple failed attempts to book the flight online due to difficulties with the Cambodian airline website, we put this on hold for later. While we were in Kuala Lumpur, we still didn’t have it booked. Coincidentally, the day we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, we found out there had just been a plane crash in Indonesia with an Indonesian airline. In light of this tragedy, I began getting a bit nervous about flying on the Cambodian local airline… whose website didn’t even work. I spoke to our friends we met from the UK who said that they took a bus between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh which went smoothly. So in the end, we decided to book the bus. Once we knew our bus travel date, we were able to fill in the gaps and book our accommodations for the two cities. This was the first time we had waited until just a couple days before the destination to book accommodations, so the Airbnb options were a little more scarce. But it worked out and we still ended up staying in pretty good places. And the bus ride was actually quite pleasant!

Siem Reap

We arrived at the airport from Malaysia, and our hotel arranged for a tuk tuk driver to pick us up for free. We soon found out that this was an opportunity for the driver to gain us as customers for the rest of our stay, because he gave us his sales pitch on taking us for a 1-3 day tour around the city and to the temples. We declined because we have heard that you often won’t get as good of a deal by using the hotel provided tours, and we hadn’t done any research yet on the best prices.

We booked our hotel on Airbnb as I said earlier (last minute) and it was pretty nice. This was the first time we ever stayed somewhere that didn’t have any reviews on Airbnb because it was a new listing, but I was able to find it listed on booking.com with good reviews. We had to go with this one because we were booking last minute, but they were also offering a nightly discount for the first few people who booked, and we ended up getting it for only $15/night! It was a little run down but had lots of good amenities including a big room with TV, mini fridge, water kettle, private bathroom, plenty of space to put our belongings (I hate when there’s no place to put your bags!), a pool, and free breakfast! Can’t really be that for the price. It was on a side street about a 15 min walk from the main tourist part of town.

Siem Reap reminded us a little of being in Thailand. It was less developed than some other places we’ve been, with many of the side streets being dusty, unpaved or poorly paved. But parts of town were quite Westernized due to all the tourists coming there to see Angkor Wat. Everyone spoke English, and you could find everything in English writing. There were tons and tons of convenience stores, grocery stores, shops, restaurants, bars, pharmacies, etc. Everything you need. Where we stayed in town near the night market is really designed around tourists, and they even have a bustling street called “Pub Street” with 20+ Western bars and night clubs.

We also found the food to be really good and cheap too! It was kind of like a mix between Thai and Vietnamese food. The places close to Pub Street/the night market were a little overpriced, but just a couple blocks away was much cheaper. Jared said he had some of the best soup he’s ever had there, even better than all the delicious Pho we had in Vietnam!

While there, we also went to a local gym which was open-air like many of the others we’ve seen in SouthEast Asia. Jared also got his first haircut out of the country, which was much needed after almost 4 months since the last cut! It turned out really well despite his anxiety over the whole situation! And it was only about $3!

The main attraction and reason for us being there, just like everyone else of course, was Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. There are a few options for touring the temples. You have to buy a government-run ticket to visit which gives you access to Angkor Wat and all the other temples as well. You can do a 1 day, 3 day, or 7 day pass. 1 day was $37, 3 day $62, and 7 day $72. We were only there about 5 days so we were choosing between 1 and 3 days. We decided that doing 1 long day would be enough for us. The best option for getting around is hiring a tuk tuk driver for a set price for the entire day. We decided to hire a tuk tuk driver we talked to off the street by ourselves. We haggled with him and arranged for $20 for the full day from 5am (sunrise) to about 2pm. He said that would be enough time to see the main temples (and he was right!). Because he was very nice and helpful we also tipped him a few dollars extra at the end of the day. (And yes it was actual dollars, because they surprisingly use the US dollar in Cambodia!)

We learned that you can go the evening before and get your ticket for the next day to avoid having to wait in line at 4:30am and make it to sunrise. If you go at 5pm the day before then they’ll sell you a ticket for the following day, and you can use your ticket that evening to see the sunset at Pre Rup temple. We used the same driver we hired for the next day to give him some more work and paid him about $5 for the trip to get the ticket, to the sunset, and back. This was nice to get a sneak preview of the ancient temples and break up our visiting a little, because Temple Fatigue is a real thing!

We were absolutely amazed at Angkor Wat and all of the other temples we saw. We couldn’t believe those structures are almost 1000 years old! 1000 years! The fact that many of them are still standing is astonishing. And they are both physically impressive, being so large and with such heavy stones, and intricately detailed! Everyone needs to see them!

The temples we saw were: Pre Rup at sunset; Angkor Wat at sunrise; then the “main” temples on the “short loop” that a lot of people do: Angkor Thom (which is an ancient city and within it you see the South Gate, Bayon, Baphoun, Phimeanakas), Ta Keo, and Ta Phrom. There were even a couple smaller temples and structures we could have seen along this route, and our driver would’ve gladly taken us, but by about 1pm we were physically exhausted and didn’t want to carry on! It was a lot to take in in one day; it was hot and humid; there were so many ancient steep stairs to climb; and we had such an early wake up call! Ha! But we still had an amazing experience. I think next time I would probably opt for paying the extra money and do the 3 day pass to break it up a little more, because there were even more temples on the “long route” to see, and we could’ve spent a whole second day just on the short loop to really appreciate it all!

Phnom Penh

After our awesome time in Siem Reap, we took the aforementioned bus from Siem

Reap to the capital city of Phnom Penh. There we stayed in another Airbnb we booked last minute, which was a brand new “boutique hotel” that was a new listing on Airbnb with no reviews, but it ended up being a pretty great place. It was right by the Mekong River and near most of the tourist action. And it was only $12/night! We had a small room with bathroom, water kettle, mini fridge, and free breakfast provided at the adjacent restaurant owned by the hotel (which was one of the best hotel breakfasts we’ve had!). The only downside was some construction going on next door that woke us up early (plus not much space to put our belongings, which you know I hate!).

Tuk tuks were also the big business in Phnom Penh, and we got constantly bombarded by tuk tuk drivers there! As soon as we got off the bus we were trying to use the taxi booking App for Cambodia, PassApp, but we found out it was not as advanced as the Grab App. We booked a driver, but he never showed up and we think he picked up some other people instead. So we just went with another driver who was waiting outside the bus station and solicited us. He charged “a little” more, but it was still only about $2. He also tried to get us as customers for the rest of our stay there, but he really rubbed us the wrong way with his sales tactics so we declined.

As with many of our stops, we weren’t really sure what we were going to do in Phnom Penh, just figured we should go since it was the capital. Once we got there, we learned from other travelers that there were a couple key places to go to learn about the Cambodian history in the city, specifically about the Cambodian genocide that happened during the 1970’s. We didn’t know a lot about it prior to visiting, but we were really glad we got to learn more while we were there. We used the PassApp to book a quick tuk tuk over to the “S-21 Prison” Genocide museum right in the city, where the Khmer Rouge turned a high school into a prison for thousands of innocent people and committed acts of torture and murder. This was a heartbreaking experience.

The next day, we found a very nice tuk tuk driver on the street and arranged for him to take us to the “killing fields” genocide memorial center a little outside of town, wait for us there, and take us back. I think we negotiated about $15 for this. The Killing Fields were where they took people by truckloads and murdered them, then buried them in mass graves. We learned that this was one of hundreds like them in the country. It was so heartbreaking visiting these sites, but I’m glad we were able to learn about it and reflect upon those atrocities of the past.

Besides learning about the history, we were also there during the Cambodian independence day and got to see fireworks and celebrations near the Royal Palace. We went to the night market a couple times and found some good souvenirs. We also did a “sunset” boat tour, where the boat didn’t actually leave until after sunset haha. Overall it was a good stop on our trip where we did a mix of activities, cultural, historical and modern!

Traveling from Cambodia back to Thailand

So to this point we had been to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Morocco, Thailand twice, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia! The next stop was heading back to Thailand for a third time to spend a whole month in the south!

When we left Phnom Penh, we used our same tuk tuk driver to take us to the airport really early in the morning. The night before, I slept terribly and had severe body aches and chills all through the night. I woke up feeling very ill to my stomach and had some flu-like symptoms too. I wasn’t sure what I had, malaria? dengue fever? the flu? stomach bug? ha. The night before we ate at the night market, so I’m not sure if that was the culprit. The food handling practices weren’t much different than everywhere else in SE Asia, but you never know when you could encounter some bad bacteria. (Side Note: in Phnom Penh, I saw a street food stand that had a dog’s head on display in the glass case to indicate the type of meat being served, so that was interesting!!! – Didn’t eat there though!!!)

So, neededless to say, since I was feeling terrible, that day of travel from Cambodia back to Bangkok was not fun for me. We had an early morning tuk tuk ride, flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, then a local bus ride to the main bus terminal, then a long minibus (van) ride to our next destination in Hua Hin! Thank goodness I had some medication to help me through (motion sickness meds, ibuprofen, pepto bismol, and cold/flu meds, haha—-I loaded up on it all!!!!) The good news: I did in fact survive!

Next Stop: Hua Hin, Thailand!

Insider Tips for Cambodia:

  • US citizens visiting Cambodia need a tourist visa which will be valid for 30 days. You can get a visa on arrival at the airport or border crossings. Be prepared with $30 cash. Everyone needs US dollars to pay this fee, even non-US citizens. They probably have ATMs at the airport you can use which dispense US dollars, but best to come prepared. I don’t believe they will accept any other currency. They also are very picky about the bills, so make sure the bills are in good condition or they will not take them. We’ve also heard that at the border crossings there can have corruption or harassment, and sometimes they will try to rip you off and charge you more. Be on your best behavior, have all of your documents, US dollars, and passport photo ready or they may not have any sympathy for you and may take advantage of you.
  • The local currency is the Cambodian Riel (4,000 to 1 USD), but everyone uses dollars. Google it.
    • For the most part, they use dollars for even numbers $1 or more. They will give change in the Riel if it’s less than $1 because they don’t use the US coins, only the paper bills.
    • You can ask what the merchant is using as the exchange rate, and if it’s less than the actual rate then use Riel, if it’s more, then use Dollars.
    • But in reality for most purchases over $1 there’s not much difference using the Dollar.
  • Most everyone speaks English in the tourist areas. A little less in Phnom Penh than Siem Reap. Their local language is Khmer. We barely learned any words in Khmer because everyone spoke English.
  • In Cambodia, they drive on the right side of road.
  • The outlet types used in Cambodia are A (used in USA), C (used in Europe) and G (used in UK).
  • Avoid eating at the night market or pub street in Siem Reap. Most places are marked up and just a couple blocks away the same food will be less.
  • In contrast, the cheapest food can be found at the night market in Phnom Penh. But sanitation is a bit questionable.
  • Food tended to be more expensive in Phnom Penh overall.
  • Just learn to smile and wave the Tuk Tuk drivers off. You’ll get several offers on every block, all the time.
  • You can hire a tuk tuk driver for the Temples in Siem Reap for the whole day for about $20.
  • To get the most use out of a day pass to Angkor Wat and other temples, go the evening before around 5pm and get your ticket for the next day. Then have your tuk tuk driver take you to Pre Rup temple to see the sunset. You can see one temple the day before without worrying about your ticket being for the next day.
  • If you get up early to do the sunrise at Angkor Wat and plan to do a full day, make sure to get a lot of sleep the night before and drink lots of water. We could’ve seen so many more temples during our day pass, but after a 5am start we were so exhausted by 1pm we couldn’t continue on. Definite temple fatigue!
  • Be prepared to climb LOTS of steep stairs at all the temples! Wear comfortable shoes! Also don’t forget to dress modestly for all the temples including covering below the knees and the shoulders.
  • You need to visit the genocide museum (S21 Prison) and memorial (killing fields) in Phnom Penh. Be respectful, take your time to absorb everything, and be prepared to be impacted and maybe cry.
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