A solo backpacker is silhouetted against the stunning sunrise over Angkor Wat, A solo backpacker is silhouetted against the stunning sunrise over Angkor Wat, and the buzzing streets of a Cambodian market.

Backpacking Cambodia

Cambodia. The very name conjures images of the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, a testament to a glorious civilization and a must-see for any backpacker. But Cambodia is so much more than just its temples, much like a beautifully carved lotus flower reveals layer upon layer of hidden beauty.

Sure, Angkor Wat will leave you breathless (it’s truly a wonder of the world for a reason!), but don’t let it overshadow the rest of Cambodia’s magic.

Imagine this: instead of jostling for the perfect photo amidst the crowds at Angkor Wat, you find yourself exploring the serenity of Banteay Srei, the “Citadel of Women,” its intricate pink sandstone carvings whispering tales of forgotten royalty. Picture yourself wandering through the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm, where the jungle has reclaimed the ancient stones, creating an atmosphere that feels like stepping into an Indiana Jones movie.

Backpacking through this Southeast Asian nation is an adventure that delves into the heart of its soul, a tapestry woven with ancient ruins, vibrant cultures, and the indomitable spirit of its people.

The Raw Beauty of Cambodia: A Backpacking Adventure Beyond the Temples

Backpacking through Cambodia is like embarking on a historical treasure hunt. Beyond the temples lies a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be unearthed. Think kayaking through the flooded forests of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, where traditional stilt houses rise from the water and local fishermen cast their nets in a timeless dance.

Imagine the thrill of exploring the jungle-clad ruins of Koh Ker, an ancient city shrouded in mystery, or the feeling of awe as you stand before the majestic Preah Vihear temple perched dramatically on a clifftop overlooking the plains below.

This isn’t a trip about following a rigid itinerary or ticking off landmarks on a list. It’s about immersing yourself in the vibrant culture. Stroll through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh, the capital city, and lose yourself in the cacophony of tuk-tuks and street vendors. Spend an afternoon learning the art of Cambodian silk weaving from a local artisan, their nimble fingers transforming raw threads into works of breathtaking beauty. In the evenings, savor the explosion of flavors in Khmer cuisine, a symphony of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy that will tantalize your taste buds.

But Cambodia’s heart lies in its people. They are a nation that has endured hardship yet continues to radiate warmth and resilience. Strike up a conversation with a local at a night market, their smiles as genuine as the handmade crafts they sell. Volunteer at a community project, giving back to a country that has given you so much. These experiences will stay with you long after your souvenirs have faded.

Here are some nuggets of wisdom gleaned from our own backpacking adventures in Cambodia:

  • Go beyond the temples: While Angkor Wat is undoubtedly awe-inspiring, Cambodia boasts a wealth of other historical and cultural treasures waiting to be explored. Do your research and create an itinerary that reflects your interests, whether it’s ancient ruins, vibrant cities, or serene landscapes.
  • Embrace the local culture: Cambodia is a land steeped in rich traditions. Take the time to learn a few basic Khmer phrases, sample the local cuisine, and experience cultural performances like Apsara dancing.
  • Travel slow and connect with the people: Cambodia rewards those who slow down and savor the moment. Spend a few days in each location, explore at your own pace, and engage with the locals. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the country and its people.

Backpacking through Cambodia isn’t just a vacation; it’s a transformative experience. It’s a chance to delve into a fascinating history, to connect with a resilient people, and to create memories that will enrich your soul. So, pack your bags, embrace the adventure, and get ready to discover the true magic of Cambodia.

Practical Tips for Everyday Backpacking

  • Visas: You’ll need a Tourist Visa (valid for 30 days with a single extension) upon arrival. For longer stays, consider an E-class visa beforehand.
  • Currency: The Cambodian Riel is the official currency, but US Dollars are widely accepted.
  • Bargaining: Haggling is a common practice, especially at markets. Do your research and be respectful while negotiating prices.
  • Accommodation: Cambodia offers a range of options from budget guesthouses to luxurious hotels. Hostels are a great way to meet fellow travelers.
  • Transportation:┬áBuses are the most common mode of transport, with varying levels of comfort. Consider overnight sleeper buses for longer journeys.

A Few Words of Caution

  • Mindful Tourism: Cambodia is still developing. Be prepared for limited infrastructure in some areas.
  • Respectful Exploration: Dress modestly when visiting temples and religious sites.
  • Personal Belongings: While petty theft is uncommon, stay vigilant in crowded areas like Angkor Wat.

Prepare for an Emotional Rollercoaster

Cambodia’s recent history is marked by hardship. Visiting places like the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum can be emotionally challenging. We recommend acknowledging this and allowing yourself to process these experiences. Cambodia is a nation rebuilding, and understanding its past is crucial to appreciating its present.

Embrace the Unexpected

This guide isn’t your average itinerary or “top 10 things to do” list. Cambodia is best explored with an open mind and a sense of adventure. While Angkor Wat is undoubtedly breathtaking, there’s so much more to discover. Imagine kayaking through the flooded forests of Tonle Sap, exploring the jungle-clad ruins of Koh Ker, or haggling for treasures at local markets.

Connecting with the Cambodian Spirit

The heart of Cambodia lies in its people. They are known for their warmth, resilience, and genuine smiles. Strike up conversations with locals at a night market, learn a few basic Khmer phrases, or volunteer your time at a community project. These interactions will create lasting memories and provide a deeper understanding of Cambodian culture.

Cambodia’s Hidden Gems: Activities, Transport, and Local Flavor

Backpacking through Cambodia is an adventure that goes beyond the temples. While Angkor Wat is a must-see (and yes, it does require an entrance fee and some planning to get there), the true magic lies in exploring off-the-beaten-path experiences.

A backpacker pictured alone in front of the Angkor Wat complex

Activities & Tours:

  • Temple Trove: Cambodia boasts a wealth of historical sites beyond Angkor Wat. Consider exploring the serene beauty of Banteay Srei, the “Citadel of Women,” or the atmospheric ruins of Ta Prohm, where nature has reclaimed the ancient stones.
  • Beyond Temples: Go kayaking through the flooded forests of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Explore the ruins of Koh Ker, a hidden city shrouded in mystery. Stand in awe before the majestic Preah Vihear temple perched dramatically on a clifftop.
  • Living Culture: Immerse yourself in Cambodian culture. Learn the art of Cambodian silk weaving from a local artisan. Savor the explosion of flavors in Khmer cuisine. Spend an evening enjoying traditional Apsara dance performances.
  • Organized vs. Independent: Tours can be a great way to explore, especially if you’re short on time. Reputable companies like Contiki and Intrepid Travel offer pre-booked tours and excursions. However, for a more local experience, consider haggling with local operators or using platforms like Get Your Guide to find specific trips.

Budget-Friendly Transport:

Getting around Cambodia is easy and affordable. Just be prepared for some bumpy roads!

  • Locally:
    • Walking: Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia is quite walker-friendly, especially in smaller towns.
    • Tuk-tuks: These iconic vehicles are a fun way to get around short distances. Negotiate fares beforehand.
    • Taxis: Hire a driver for the day for a more personalized experience.
    • Mopeds: For the adventurous, renting a moped offers flexibility, but be cautious of the roads.
  • Nationally:
    • Buses: The most common mode of transport, connecting major cities at affordable prices.
    • Minivans: A more comfortable option than buses, but slightly more expensive.

Finding Your Perfect Place to Stay:

Cambodia offers a range of accommodation options to suit every budget. Most backpacker hostels and guesthouses are simple but clean and social, often with travel agencies attached. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Hostels: The cheapest option, ideal for meeting fellow travelers.
  • Guesthouses: Similar to hostels, but with private rooms available.
  • Budget Hotels: Very affordable, but cleanliness can vary.
  • Workaways: Live with a local family and exchange work for accommodation.
  • Couchsurfing: Find a local host for a unique cultural experience.

My Backpacking Cambodia Journey:

Words can’t fully capture the emotional rollercoaster of backpacking through Cambodia. Learning about the country’s turbulent history at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum can be overwhelming. However, the resilience and kindness of the Cambodian people shine brightly. From witnessing their infectious happiness to experiencing the vibrant nightlife of Pub Street, Cambodia offers a unique blend of history, culture, and unforgettable experiences.

Siem Reap in May. Angkor Wat, cloudy day

A Few Regrets (and Recommendations for You!):

  • Southern Bliss: My biggest regret was missing the beautiful beaches of Cambodia’s southern coast. If you have the time, don’t miss out on this paradise!
  • Future Visions: Cambodia is a country on the rise. It will be fascinating to see how it evolves in the coming years.

Embrace the unexpected, explore hidden gems, and connect with the heart of Cambodia. This unforgettable adventure awaits!

Budgeting for an Unforgettable Adventure:

Cambodia is a haven for budget backpackers. You can find delicious local meals for a few dollars, and comfortable guesthouses are readily available. However, keep in mind that Western food and drinks will be more expensive.

Beyond Pub Street:

While Phnom Penh’s Pub Street offers a vibrant nightlife scene, Cambodia is more than just parties. Focus on exploring hidden temples, interacting with locals, and soaking up the unique atmosphere of this captivating country.

Remember, Cambodia is a journey for the soul, not just a vacation. Embrace the unexpected, connect with the people, and get ready to be transformed by the raw beauty of this unforgettable destination.