Cambodia is one of those countries in Southeast Asia that usually isn’t on the top of most travelers’ lists.
But mark my words…
Cambodia is a country you do not want to miss.
They are still rebuilding from a tragic past—with pain from the brutal Khmer Rouge that still stings to this day.
Because of this, we almost skipped Cambodia altogether due to the mixed reviews we read online.
We’re glad we didn’t.
Cambodia, while less developed than its neighbors, is a country we will never forget.
That said, there are some things we wish we would’ve known before visiting. Here are 10 Cambodia tips that will help you have an awesome trip.
1. There is A LOT of outdated travel information about Cambodia
When researching our trip, we quickly realized there is a lack of reliable information about Cambodia.
See, Cambodia is developing FAST, especially in tourist hotspots. And blog posts or Tripadvisor reviews from just a couple years ago may no longer be accurate.
For example, we almost skipped the beautiful Koh Rong Samloem island due to some bad reviews we read online. Luckily, while watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, we bumped into another couple who convinced us otherwise.
After seeing how amazing it was for ourselves (and spending three months on the island), we felt compelled to write an updated Koh Rong Samloem island guide to help others make better-informed travel plans.
2. Some things are more expensive than you’d expect
Like most of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a relatively cheap country to travel in. That said, some things are surprisingly expensive.
Similar to most countries, you’ll always pay more in touristic zones and islands. Prices on Koh Rong Samloem can even triple during high season.
We also found medical care to be quite pricey.
I had to have a follow-up wrist surgery after a nasty motorcycle accident in Thailand (a pin they put in came loose). And let me tell you…
If you have an issue and want to be seen in a hospital that’s up to Western standards, it’ll cost you. You definitely won’t want to visit Cambodia without a reliable travel insurance plan.
Side Note: Speaking of healthcare, be careful about which pharmacies you buy medicine from. Some medicine in the open-air pharmacies has been sitting out in the scorching heat for a long time. This can damage the meds. Counterfeiting is also an issue, so be sure the pharmacy you use looks legit. A quick Google search for “best pharmacies in [CITY] for expats” should point you in the right direction.
3. Don’t expect blazing internet
While they have come a long way, you won’t find blazing fast internet speeds in most of Cambodia.
If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll have to choose your destinations carefully.
We roamed around the country for almost 4 months and managed to get our work done. Luckily, our travel jobs don’t usually require high-speed internet. If you do a lot of downloading/uploading, be prepared to exercise your patience muscles.
That said, it’s actually improved a ton over the past couple years. So if you read reviews saying otherwise, they are outdated.
Best of all, data plans are SUPER cheap. Well, at least they’re supposed to be—which brings us to our next point.
4. Watch out for scams
We found 99% of Cambodians to be very honest.
I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally paid with the wrong bill, only to have my overpayment graciously returned (hey, some of those bills look almost identical!).
That said, you still need to keep your wits about you. The first day we arrived in Cambodia, we had a little incident.
Our hotel in Siem Reap offered free pickup from the airport, and our tuk-tuk driver asked if I needed a SIM card. I did, so he conveniently brought us to a random third-party cell phone shop where I was sold a 30-day unlimited data plan for $20.
I had no idea what the going rate was for data, but it didn’t seem outrageous.
Three days later when my plan unexpectedly stopped working, I realized I’d been hustled.
I thought the tuk-tuk driver worked for the hotel, so I had trusted him. Turns out, it was just a random driver the hotel flagged off the street to pick us up.
I later found out that legit data plans only cost a couple bucks a week.
Moral of the story: Most people are trustworthy, but keep an eye out for anything that seems fishy.
The lady I bought the plan from had the prices scribbled on the back of a piece of scratch paper. In retrospect, that was fishy.
5. Plan your Angkor Wat itinerary strategically
Angkor Wat is incredible.
There are two main tour circuits—the Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit.
The Small Circuit hits all the most popular temples like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm (AKA the “Tomb Raider” temple. These temples are the most crowded.
The Grand Circuit goes to a bunch of smaller (but still beautiful) temples. These are a bit farther away and have slightly smaller crowds.
If you have time to do both tours, you’re in for a treat. But if you have time or budget constraints and can only do one (I’d recommend the small), don’t feel like you’re missing out.
While all the temples are cool and unique, by the end of our second tour, we were completely “templed out”. We were so hot and tired that we just chilled at the entrance of the last one we visited and didn’t even go inside to explore.
That said, if you have your heart set on doing both tours, here’s one of my best Cambodia tips:
Save the Small Circuit (of the main temples) for last. If you do it the other way around and see all the most impressive temples first, the rest of them might feel underwhelming.
If you can, add a rest day in between the two tours to avoid temple overload.
6. Choose your Angkor Wat transportation carefully
There are many options when it comes to Angkor Wat transportation. You can take a tour van, hire a tuk-tuk, or if you have your own wheels, do it yourself.
We did a tour van for the Grand Circuit and a tuk-tuk for the Small Circuit. They ended up costing about the same.
Hiring a tuk-tuk to take you around is a fun and flexible option. It’s easier to get photos without crowds of people because you can do the temples in whichever order you want.
The downside is most tuk-tuk drivers aren’t official tour guides, so while they can explain some things to you while driving (assuming you chose one with good English), they won’t be able to enter the temples with you and show you around.
The tour van isn’t a bad option either. We normally don’t like these types of group tours and prefer exploring solo. But a knowledgeable guide can really make or break the experience in this case. Without the fascinating stories and facts, you’ll leave with a lot of unanswered questions.
If you’re dead set on exploring by yourself, make sure to watch a documentary on Angkor Wat before heading to the temples. This will give you a good knowledge base and make it more enjoyable.
Something to keep in mind: Our hotel semi-tricked us into booking a tour with their van by telling us they had a special deal with the park where we could get a two-day pass for the price of one. Turns out, that was a promotion the park offered to anyone buying a ticket (during the dates we were visiting)—whether you were with a tour or not. Chances are your hotel will really want you to book your tour through them. Keep that in mind when listening to their sales pitch!
7. Cambodian food is the bomb
Cambodian food is amazing.
Thai food normally gets all the buzz, but my wife (who can’t handle most spicy Thai dishes) actually enjoyed Cambodia food even more.
Don’t miss the fish amok, mango chicken, curries…even the fried frog is delicious!
And if you head to the islands (which you totally should), be prepared for some mouth-watering barbecues on the beach!
There’s one catch.
In Cambodia, Cambodian food is good. If you’re looking for pizza, Mexican food, or other international dishes…you will almost certainly be disappointed.
We were craving burritos one day and were pleasantly surprised to find them on the menu. This “burrito” ended up being a tortilla with rice and a squirt of ketchup (I kid you not).
8. Skip Sihanoukville
Sihanoukville used to be a sleepy beach town popular among backpackers. Now it is a disaster zone.
The Chinese have taken over, investing billions of dollars and erecting (or at least partially erecting) over 100 casinos in a span of a few short years.
Things have gotten out of control, to say the least:
There are more cranes and unfinished building projects in Sihanoukville than I have seen in my entire life (combined).
Now, you will need to pass through Sihanoukville to take the boat to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. If you have the right expectations, you might actually find it fascinating (in a sad kind of way).
The entire city looks like it is one big, torn up construction zone—and that’s not something you get to see every day.
Just make sure not to stick around for too long. Nowadays, it’s not the safest place to be.
9. Cambodia uses a dual-currency system
Get ready to brush up on your math skills.
In Cambodia, you can use either US Dollars, Cambodian Riel, or a combination of both.
At the time of writing, $1 USD is roughly equal to 4000 Cambodian Riel. So if you pay for your $2.25 USD lunch with a $5 USD bill, your change might be $2 USD plus 3000 Riel.
Normally, it’s pretty straightforward. Just think of a 1000 Riel note like a U.S. quarter.
Where things start to get confusing is when your total comes to something like $7.62 and you get a stack of 50 and 100 Riel notes for your exact change.
At that point, we’re talking less than $0.25 USD. I’d just accept whatever change they give you as long as it’s in the ballpark.
You can avoid some of this math by using a credit card wherever it’s accepted. But many shops, restaurants, street vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, etc. only accept cash.
10. Learn the basics of the language.
Locals will be grateful (and impressed!) if you take the time to learn the basics of their national language, Khmer.
It’s really not that hard. Just keep notes in your phone (or if you’re old-school like me, a couple flashcards in your wallet). Pull them out to practice whenever you’re in transport or waiting for a meal.
Here’s some of the basics to get you started:
- Hello – Soos-die
- Goodbye – Lee-hi
- Thank you – Arkoon
- Restroom? – Bangkon?
- How much? – Bow-man
- Too expensive – T-lay
If you’re at the market, you’ll have a better chance at bartering if you know your numbers:
1 – Moi
2 – Pi
3 – Bai
4 – Boun
5 – Bram
6 – Bram moi (5 + 1)
7 – Bram pi (5 + 2)
8 – Bram bai (5 + 3)
9 – Bram boun (5 + 4)
10 – Dop
Bonus: You’ll appreciate Cambodia more if you understand its past
During the Pol Pot genocide in the late 70s, over 2 million Cambodians disappeared, died of starvation, or were brutally murdered.
The story is heartbreaking. But understanding it will enhance your entire trip.
There are several books and movies about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I read Survival in the Killing Fields during our trip, and it was fascinating to pass through all the places described in the book.
If you get a chance, you can also visit some of the prisons and mass grave sites. In Phnom Penh, we visited the S-21 prison and had the chance to meet Chum Mey, one of the prison’s handful of survivors.
I hope these Cambodia tips help you plan an unforgettable trip. It is truly a country like no other—you’re going to have a blast!
Other Asian travel tips
Comment: What other helpful things do you know about Cambodia? How has it changed for you? Share your tips, advice and funny stories below