I’ve found during my travels that instagram has been a really awesome way to connect with people and stay connected with friends back home. I had a good friend in college (named Helen), but after we graduated, she moved to a different state, and we didn’t keep up at all, besides following each other on instagram of course. And 9 years later, it turned out that both of us are on this same type of journey across the world. She was in Australia with plans to stop in SE Asia before going home, and I was already in SE Asia, so after nearly a decade of not talking, we decided to meet up in Cambodia! And it was wonderful!
Below is a summary of our trip with my real feelings about each place, and lots of practical tips. I entered Cambodia by bus, from Bangkok which cost $30. I got my visa ahead of time through this website, and it cost $36. It was very convenient.
Sixteen days in Cambodia cost me about $600. (This definitely does not include all the money I lost when my purse was stolen)
Siem Reap (3 Days)
Helen and I met up in Siem Reap. After getting over the shock of seeing each other after 9 years, we went out on the town! We both found Siem Reap to be a really fun city. Pub street is a really fun area with tons of cute bars and restaurant. Somehow they all look like they came staring out of a West Elm magazine! There’s a large market nearby with the usual tourist items, but if you go a bit farther out, and cross the river, you can find some very nice more unique markets. We also checked out Artisans D’Angkor which does a nice free tour, and you can watch the artists making the products, which was really enlightening.
For food, Pub Street is very popular. All the restaurants sell the same type of food. One place we really liked (not on Pub Street) was Spoons Cafe, which also has a great mission. Excellent food, and very good, maybe even a bit over-the-top hospitality. We also ate at Temple Coffee n’ Bakery one night. They have a really cool rooftop bar at night, and we were the only tourists when we went. We also couldn’t stay away from Project Y. Another mission-driven spot near Pub Street. Honestly the best froyo I’ve ever had. And the people are SO nice, and love to talk about what they are doing and how it’s changing lives.
And of course, the reason people stop in Siem Reap, is for Angkor Wat! Although I enjoyed this, it wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, and I would do it differently if I had the chance. For one, it’s more expensive than I expected. One day passes are $37/person, and you need a tuk tuk driver to accompany you all day because the grounds are absolutely massive. Our tuk tuk driver cost $21 (plus tip) for 8 hours. We booked him through our hotel.
However, what we should have also done…and I highly recommend to you…is to hire a guide, or find some sort of audio guide before you go. You really need this or you have no idea what you are looking at. There’s almost 0 signage and no educational information. We walked around for 8 hours, and really had no idea what we were looking at.
The reason it’s not quite as spectacular as I though it would be is because the area is so huge, and you take a tuk tuk on normal roads from temple to temple. You don’t feel immersed in the experience. Maybe if you do the 2 day pass, and explore a bit more, you can feel more immersed…but I don’t know.
Also, the main area, and iconic photo you see of Angkor Wat is not nearly as beautiful as it seems. That beautiful body of water is actually a swampy and shallow bog with like 100 people standing at its edge all trying to get this picture. (Re: my tip about don’t plan your trip through instagram in this blog post)
But overall, I really enjoyed Siem Reap and it’s definitely worth 2-3 days on your trip to Cambodia!
Phnom Penh (2-3 Days, if any)
After Siem Reap, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh that cost $15. Honestly, I vote to skip this city entirely. I didn’t like the city from the moment we got there, and then my purse was stolen (detailed in this blog post), reconfirming my feelings. But besides that, there really wasn’t anything special to see in my opinion. The real reason to go there is to see the Killing Fields. So if you want to see those, then go to Phnom Penh. If you don’t, skip this city. And if you do go, I heard the area near the Russian Market is a nice place for accommodation.
San Monorom (3 Days)
We couldn’t wait to leave Phnom Penh, so we took a 6 hour minibus ride to San Monorom that cost $10. We went there to visit the Mondulkiri Project, which is an ethical elephant sanctuary. I’ve been searching high and low for one my whole time in Asia and finally felt like this one looked good enough to try.
We stayed at Tree Lodge, where the tours leave from. One cute and open-air double bungalow is $10/night. This place is really adorable and has great food as well.
We booked the 2 day tour with the Mondulkiri project and were quite happy with it. First day was trekking, and second day was the elephants. The first day, we got to ride in the back of a pick-up truck to the small village where our 18km trek began. We met our guides, and got some water and headed off.
On the way out, we saw a dead dog’s head on a stick which was quite alarming. We later learned, that most people in the village are animists, and this was an animal sacrifice that they made.
The 18km trek was quite nice. The landscapes were really beautiful and we hiked through the jungle as well. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall, and swam afterwards but it was very cold. I struggled a bit on the trek, as usual. It’s doable, but there are some uphill stretches that are a little tough. However, no one else seemed to have any problem with it. In the evening, we got a quick cold shower out of a hose in the wall, ate some pretty good dinner, family style on the floor, and drank some very interesting rice wine. We slept in hammocks, and let me say, they are not really comfortable for a full nights sleep! Plus they are a bit musty and you are using some old, and probably never washed blankets that everyone shares. But, I’ve basically gotten used to being a certain level of dirty or unsanitary at all times.
The next morning, we had some banana pancakes with Nutella, and then set off to meet the elephants! This was a pretty cool experience, and from what I could tell, I would give this an 8/10 on the ethics scale. The elephants had tons of land to roam, they each had their own mahout, they are given proper veterinary care, and they only buy elephants in an ethical way. All these elephants were already domesticated, and came from forced labor situations, so they are already accustomed to humans and being cared for. And they only had 5 elephants. The 5 elephants came to us because we had bananas, which they love, and then they left when they wanted to. We could walk around with them in the jungle.
I was shocked by what they look like up close. Firstly, Asian elephants are quite different looking than the gray African elephants I’m used to seeing depicted. They are smaller (though still huge animals) and have a brown color. I couldn’t believe how rough and wrinkly their skin was. They almost seemed prehistoric. Their eyes were more like a horses or a goats where you are kind of unsure what’s going on in their heads, not like a cat or dog where you feel connected instantly.
After this encounter, we had a rest…which we needed after the trek the day before. I fell asleep immediately. In the afternoon, we had the river encounter. Honestly, this felt wildly unsafe to me. I’m glad I did it, but I’m also glad it’s over, and I never need to do it again. We stood at a part in the river right next to a waterfall, and the current was strong. In areas, it was a little difficult even just to stand. Meanwhile, a giant multi-ton elephant is standing next to you vying for your bananas! This felt like a disaster waiting to happen. People brought their young children in the water, and it just felt like such a bad idea. We were supposed to “bathe” the elephants but they weren’t so interested in that, and like I said, it was difficult to stand, let alone scrub an elephant…
After that, we had to take another 30 minute hike just to get out of the park, and I was completely exhausted by then. We got back to the Tree lodge in the evening, and stayed one more night there which was really nice after all that hard work.
Overall, I think this was a good experience. I had a lot of fun, and I do feel like the elephants are treated well. In terms of safety, I would give this a lower rating. Safety standards are generally very different in Asia, but I felt like being in the river with the elephant was pushing my limit.
Sihanoukville (1 Day, if any)
The next morning, we took at 14 hour minibus ride that cost $18 to Sihanoukville. It was supposed to be less hours, but we hit a ton of traffic just before reaching the city. Sihanoukville was the worst city I’ve been to in all of SE Asia. I mean, the whole place is basically a dumpster. I feel bad saying that, but it’s true. The roads are completely torn up, walking around is a hazard, there are large groups of men loitering, insane traffic, and trash everywhere. Do NOT stay here unless you have to. You do have to come here in order to get a boat to Koh Rong. But if you can avoid staying the night, do so. We had to stay the night unfortunately, and stayed in this super overpriced and gross hotel near the water.
Koh Rong (6 Days)
Koh Rong is a really lovely and fun island off the coast of Cambodia. It’s very popular for the party crowd, and it’s main attraction is seeing the bioluminescent sea plankton at night. Sadly, we only had one good weather day, and the rest of the days it rained or was cloudy.
Helen and I spent an indulgent 5 nights drinking too much, eating too much, dancing, and playing pool and other bar games at a really fun place called Reef on the Beach, in one of their private bungalows. We had a great time, but after 5 days of this were completely exhausted, and ready for some more wholesome fun.
The plankton is quite easy to see. If you go to a dark spot on the beach at night, you can swim, not even too deep..and when you move the water around, it will light up like it has lots of little blue lightning bugs in it. I think you can take a boat out as well into deeper water, which I’m sure is really cool, but we didn’t do this.
Note, that there is NO ATM on this island so make sure you have enough cash when you arrive. There is a small and overpriced snack shop near Reef on the Beach. But the main town is about a 40 minute walk. So we spent the majority of our time at Reef on the Beach, napping, reading, and preparing for the night ahead…
If you want a quieter stay, you can try Koh Rong Sanloem which is a smaller island not too far away.
We left Cambodia by taking a sleeper bus to Bangkok that cost $30. Remember, these are beds!! So I really don’t recommend taking these buses unless you have a friend to take the spot in the bed next to you. Some are VERY cozy, and it would not be fun to share with a stranger, especially a strange man. It’s near impossible to sleep anyways as the roads are so curvy, and I was always almost hitting my forehead on this metal bar on the side of the bed. And Helen and I both had to get out multiple times on this bus to pee on the side of the road. Always an adventure!