I expected Cambodia to be louder. Not with voices—that’s an American thing. Americans love to be heard, especially in places where people don’t look or sound like them. I expected—for no other reason except that past travelers had told me— that Cambodia would sound like India. India is is a combination of raucous rips from motorcycles and shrill Bollywood ringtones from rickshaw drivers trying to get your attention. But Cambodia wasn’t like that.
Cambodia wanted to get our attention, but not so vehemently. In Phnom Penh, our first stop, the city bustled like any other capital city. Cars hummed along to streets that wrap themselves around the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. Government buildings broke up the rows of residential homes adorned with colorful roofs. In theory, the colors would instantly call your eyes toward them, but when we looked, they were muted, silenced by thin layers of dust settled on top.
Siem Reap was where Cambodia really wanted us to pay attention. Tuk tuks patrolled the roads, ready at a moment’s notice to take us to Angor Wat. There was always some bargaining involved, but I do pride myself on being pretty good at this type of faux-negotiation and could always half prices.
And then there was Pub Street. Tawdry neon signs, not unlike those on the Las Vegas strip, yelled at us to venture inside. And if they didn’t convince us, the tongue-in-cheek bars definitely did (looking at you, Angkor What?! bar). The real éminence grise is Temple, a business that seemed to own literally everything in the city, from clubs to cooking classes to mini marts. I made a note to myself to figure out why they have such a monopoly on every tourist attraction that wasn’t a temple. Is that why they’re called Temple?
Behind the dust and neon, a much more raw Cambodia emerged. Through rides in the countryside, we met village kids who fashioned costumes out of lily pads as big as their torsos. Rapt and curious, they gave us a glimpse of the future where hopefully, the country will be able to live with equal parts creativity and camaraderie.
After years of genocide and ignorance from the rest of the world (The UN recognized the Khmer Rouge as the official Cambodian government until the 90s and gave them funding as the country suffered), Cambodia is ready to get our attention. Fueling their economy with tourism, textiles, and local crafts, they’re eager to tell us the real story of their country that many Western history books leave out. I came with my own expectations of what I’d hear and learn, only to realize that I really didn’t know anything at all until I got there and listened.
Getting around Cambodia:
- There is Uber in Cambodia and it’s cheap. That said, there are also tuk tuks everywhere that are just as cheap. Download the PassApp Taxi app, which is the local tuk tuk-hailing service to get the best prices.
- We split our time between Phnom Penh (2 days) and Siem Reap (3 days). While you can take a bus, we opted for a cheap flight for speed and it was worth it.
Things to know:
- Most places in Cambodia are cash only, so stock up before you go. You can pay for most things in dollars, to which you’ll get riel in change. It’s about 4,000 riel to 1 USD.
- Bargaining is life. For anything that isn’t government sanctioned (like the Angkor Wat ticket), you can and should bargain.
- Cambodians greet with a short bow and prayer hands. They don’t do handshakes and it will be awkward if you try and do it.
- There are a few markets to try insects if you’d like, but given Cambodia’s history, this is mostly a tourist attraction.
- Everyone is extremely nice! The genocide is an open topic to anyone you ask, and most locals are eager to talk about the experience and how they are helping to move the country forward.
- All temples and the Royal Palace follow dress codes. Pack appropriately or else you’ll have to buy pants when you arrive—this is why most tourists wear those gaudy elephant pants.
- Make sure your Airbnb/hotel comes with a pool. It’s hot in Cambodia, so you’ll most likely spend the morning and evening exploring and take a break in the afternoon to let the heat subside. Having a pool makes a huge difference. We loved Sun and Moon hotel in Phnom Penh and this Airbnb in Siem Reap.
- Get massages! They are mad cheap and very worth it; we got one almost everyday. If you can, try a four-hand massage—it will change your life.
- Most flights go into Phnom Penh, but you really only need 1-2 days there. The main attractions are at Siem Reap, where we spend a comfortable 3 days.
Where we ate:
- Our favorite food was in Siem Reap. There was Vibe for smoothies and clean eats, and Pou Restaurant for really delicious cocktails and food (recommended to us by a local). For bars, we went to Barcode, a gay bar that has drag shows most nights of the week.
- Things to try from the local cuisine: Fish amok, Kuy Teav (noodle soup), and Bai sach chrouk (pork and rice)
Things you should do:
- The main attraction at Phnom Penh is the Genocide Museum, a defunct school that was used as a prison during the genocide. The audio tour is haunting and very eye-opening over what happened during this time.
- We also did an ATV ride through the countryside. It’s a gorgeous ride that ends with watching the sunset. We befriended local children along the way who had a blast looking at our phones and letting us take photos.
- In Siem Reap: Pub Street is terrible and great and you will spend most nights here. It’s got lots of bars and dancing, especially at Temple Nightclub, which is happening every night of the week. We also got fish pedicures, which were….weird.
- We saw Angkor Wat via bicycle and it was a refreshing way to tour. Our guide was super knowledgeable in explaining the rich history of the temples, and we also got to cycle through the jungle, which was a little scary for me since I’m not a strong cyclist, but still worth doing.
- Siem Reap also features the local Phare circus, which is pretty entertaining and a nice way to spend an evening.
- By far our favorite thing from the trip was a knife-making class in Siem Reap. We arrived at a local blacksmith and spent the afternoon hammering piping hot metal into a knife of our choice. Admittedly, there were no waivers and we definitely weren’t dressed correctly, but the experience was incredible. We got to witness a slice of local life and learn about how the blacksmiths make their living. Backstreet Academy has other experiences too to choose from if knife-making isn’t your thing.
- For our last day in Siem Reap, we went to Kulen Mountain to swim in a waterfall! Also highly recommend.