Comprehensive Cambodia Travel Guide for First Timers

I have written this Cambodia Travel Guide for first-timers to be able to navigate this beautiful Kingdom.

I spent a period of two weeks in Cambodia. During that period I split my time between the beaches and islands down south, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap with its ruins and temples. This Cambodia Travel Guide is based on all of my research and experiences traveling through the country.

Cambodia is a Kingdom rich in culture and biodiversity. Sometimes, you may find yourself in pristine white beaches and quaint coastal towns. You may also find yourself threading through old desecrated ruins in forests. Alternatively, you can also party in one of its thriving tourist-centered cities.

Cambodia also has an incredibly harrowing history, the weight of which you can feel in all your interactions. A mass genocide lead by the Khmer Rouge regime wiped away one-third of the country’s population between 1975 and 1979. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the country is still burdened by the weight of that recent trauma.

In this Cambodia Travel Guide, I’ll take you through the basics of where to stay, what to do, the tourist visa process, etc.

I hope this Cambodia Travel Guide for first timers proves to be comprehensive enough. However, please know that it’s coming from personal experiences and I encourage you to forge your own path as well.

Cambodia Travel Tip #1: Visa Process

I entered Cambodia from the Phnom Penh International Airport via a Visa on Arrival.

The Visa on Arrival is quite simple to obtain and it made me eligible to stay in the country for 1 month. However, not all countries are eligible for the Visa on Arrival. Before you go, you should make sure if you’re from one of the eligible countries.

The Visa on Arrival fee is only US$30.

cambodia visa
The Cambodia Visa-on-Arrival Stamp

Documents to Carry

1. Your passport with at least 6 months of validity left in it.

2. A Visa-on-Arrival application form which you’ll find in the application counter.

3. Carry several passport size pictures along.

4. You’ll have to fill out an Arrival and Departure card which you’ll be given in the flight. If you’ve got something to declare, this is where it happens.

5. They may randomly ask you to provide proof that you have enough funds to sustain yourself in the country.

6. Finally, a Visa on Arrival fee of US$30, as mentioned earlier.

Cambodia Travel Tip #2: Currency

Cambodia largely uses USD for all of its transactions. As such, you’ll have to get yourself some US dollars at the airport or from any ATM machine in the country.

The local currency is called Riel (KHR). It’s denoted with the symbol ៛. However, Riel is largely used as short change. Even the tuk-tuk drivers and street sellers largely charge in US dollars.

US$1 equals ៛4000 in value. As such, making the conversions is quite simple.

cambodia currency
Riel and Dollars are both accepted currency in Cambodia | Image Source: About Asia Travel

Why does Cambodia primarily use US Dollars as currency?

I was often confounded by the fact that US dollars were treated as the primary currency in the country. Upon asking locals about the reason for it, I never received a proper answer. I figured that’s because this isn’t anything worthy of curiosity for most of the locals. While I was understandably confounded by it, most locals simply see this as the norm.

However, upon some research, I could begin to understand the reason for the mass popularity of US Dollars in Cambodia. It’s inextricably tied — like most things in the country — to its traumatic past.

The Khmer Rouge Regime, in their ultra-Maoist paranoia, wanted complete control. As a result, they banned the free market, they banned money altogether, and they blew up the national bank. Cambodian Riel was introduced in the 1980s. In the 90s, Cambodia was controlled entirely by the UN forces, and they brought US Dollars into circulation. Eventually, dollars became the primary currency in the country.

This is, of course, a gross simplification, but I hope it’s enough to whet your curiosity.

Cambodia Travel Tip #3: Internet Connectivity

Cambodia is well connected and you can find WiFi anywhere at all. However, that’s only accessible when you’re in hotels, hostels, restaurants, etc.

I need to be connected to the grid regardless of where I am, even if I’m exploring old ruins. The purists out there might well judge me for that statement, but I ain’t ashamed.

As such, I always get local sims while traveling as they’re reliable and quite cheap. I personally got the “Smart” SIM with an 8.5 GB data pack. It cost me only $10, and it was valid for 30 days, enough for the length of my Visa-on-Arrival.

You can find out about all the other Prepaid Tourist SIM packs in Finder.

Cambodia Travel Tip #4: Places to Visit in Cambodia

In this part of my Cambodia Travel Guide, I’ll take you through a brief overview of the places that I visited during my 2-week trip. You should know that Cambodia is a very diverse country and it has a LOT to offer. I have barely scratched the surface and I’ll surely return to probe deeper as well.

However, this Cambodia Travel Guide is meant for first-timers. As such, these are the places you HAVE to visit on your first trip to the country. These are the places that define the kingdom. Once you’re there, if you want to explore deeper, you can gather great recommendations talking to people in person. That’s what I always do.

Having said that, these are some of the places you have to visit in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh

To be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t love this city. It’s the Capital city, and as such it’s “important” I guess. But I found it dirty, dusty, and extremely inconvenient. All the attractions in the city are far apart from each other, and you always need to use the overpriced tuk-tuks to get around. I enjoy exploring cities on foot, and Phnom Penh doesn’t have much scope for that.

However, you must go to Phnom Penh for at least a day or two in order to explore the primary “Killing Fields” in the country. This is the location where the highest number of Cambodians were brutally murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime in the late 70s. If you’re visiting this beautiful kingdom, you can’t neglect walking amongst the Killing Fields and learning about it. No matter how harrowing the experience may be.

After exploring the fields, also explore the prison where the Cambodians were tortured, which is now a museum.

The entrance to the Killing Fields is only $3. However, the transportation to and from will cost between $15 to $20.

You can find affordable Phnom Penh hotels in Booking.com.

Read: Things to do in Phnom Penh

killing fields phnom penh cambodia
Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is perhaps the most popular destination in Cambodia. This is because it’s in the vicinity of one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders — Angkor Wat. The temple compound stretches out for several miles in all directions and it would take you at least a week to explore all of them.

You can get either a single day pass for $37, or a 3-day pass for $62, or even a 5-day pass for $72. I got myself a single day pass because I expected to find just another set of temples, the kind I’ve seen plenty of. But this was truly different and I regret not having gotten a 3 or 5-day pass.

One important Cambodia Travel Tip I have for exploring the ruins and temples is to take your time and be patient. Go off the beaten path and trek deeper into the woods. As you go further and deeper, the crowd starts thinning, until you find yourself in complete isolation with nothing but old tumbledown ruins to keep you company. It’s helpful to arrange your own transportation, like a bike or something.

Read: Exploring Angkor Wat and the Neighboring Ruins

After you’re done exploring, Siem Reap has a fascinating nightlife as well. You can spend your evenings at the famed Pub Street, home to the most diverse set of bars, street stalls, clubs, massage parlors, etc. Pub Street is actually a fitting counterpart to Bangkok’s backpacker district — Khao San Road. They’re both equally heady experiences.

If you’re looking for some queer adventure, you can check out the Siem Reap gay bars and hotels.

I personally recommend staying at DOM Siem Reap Hotel. Alternatively, you can find affordable Siem Reap hotels in Booking.com.

Read: Things to do in Siem Reap

angkor wat siem reap
The Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap.

Sihanoukville District

The southern coast of Cambodia is lined with a lot of different beaches. Sihanoukville is the primary beach which has been turned into a backpacker’s haven, complete with cafes, loud bars, restaurants, nightlife, etc.

There are plenty of diving and snorkeling spots as well. Furthermore, you can also arrange trips to the neighboring islands.

However, the true gems of Sihanoukville District lie in the neighboring beaches, which aren’t as densely populated.

If you love the feeling of quiet sleepy coastal towns, you’ll love Otres 2, which became my private haunt while I was there.

You can find affordable Sihanoukville hotels in Booking.com.

Read: Things to do in Sihanoukville Province, Cambodia

sihanoukville cambodia
Slate grey skies in the coastal town of Otres 2 in Sihanoukville District.

Southern Islands — Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Samui

There are two primary southern islands in Cambodia — Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Samui.

I intended to visit both of the islands. However, my trip had to be cut short because I got bit by a dog. As a result, I had to take the ferry back to the mainland the next day for a vaccine.

Koh Rong is generally understood to be the party island. That impression totally holds because I didn’t get a moment of peace while I was there. The beach area is lined with restaurants, shacks, and make-shift hostels. Parties rage on all night long.

Koh Rong Samui is a peaceful and quiet island. It’s ideal to relax, enjoy the white sand beaches, and simply indulge one’s aversion to social interactions. Or at least that’s what I heard, you know, before I got attacked.

You can find affordable Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samui hotels in Booking.com.

Read: The 5 Best Cambodian Islands to Explore

koh rong cambodia
The pier at Koh Rong Island.

If you want a detailed rundown of these locations, you can read my article Top 5 Places to Visit in Cambodia.

Cambodia Travel Tip #5: When to Visit

Cambodia is pretty sunny and warm all year round so you can literally go whenever. However, the seasons are distinguished based on the amount of rainfall.

The “Wet Season” lasts from May to October. This includes a slight downpour in the afternoons, accompanied with sunshine. The prices of hotels are lower around this time.

The “Dry Season” lasts from November to March. This is peak tourist season, and the prices also shoot up, compared to the Wet Season.

koh rong island
Caught in a storm on Koh Rong island. As you can see, I didn’t do my weather research before traveling to Cambodia.

Cambodia Travel Tip #6: Accommodations

Accommodation costs in Cambodia depend on the location you’re staying at. However, you can get stuff that’s both extremely cheap or ridiculously expensive.

You can find hostel dorm beds for as low as $3. However, the location and quality of such a hostel would be understandably shitty, sometimes literally. I stayed in a hostel in Phnom Penh in which 20 people shared a single toilet with plumbing issues. Later that night, I awoke to the sound of a fellow backpacker screaming because she found a giant rat perched atop her chest. I made haste and left the premises of the hostel immediately upon daybreak.

You can find clean and well-located hostels for $5 to $6. Guesthouses and cheap hotels are available for $15 to $30.

I stayed in an amazing gay-friendly hotel called DOM Siem Reap. You should definitely check it out when you’re in the city. It offers luxury accomodation at backpacker rates.

If you don’t mind being a freeloader, you can also pay in the currency of your personality by looking for Couchsurfing opportunities. Sometimes, I use hook-up apps such as Grindr to find locals willing to let me crash at their place. However, when I do that, I make my intentions regarding sex (or lack thereof) very clear.


Booking.com

Cambodia Travel Tip #7: Transportation

Cambodia doesn’t have a metro system, however, it has an effective public transportation system besides that.

Forms of Transportation

1. Buses and Mini-Buses: You can find a bus to take you to virtually any part of the country for $8 to $15.

2. Taxis: Getting yourself a taxi for the day might set you back about $20.

3. Tuk-Tuk: The tuk-tuks in Cambodia are pretty expensive. They charge $2 to $4 even to carry you to relatively short distances within a city. This is far more expensive than the rates in other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand.

4. An Uber-Alternative: Uber isn’t available in Cambodia. However, through my interactions with some of the locals, I found that a lot of them favor a local app transportation service similar to Uber. They find it to be one of the cheapest means of transportation, even more so than taxis or tuk-tuks. However, the app is written completely in Cambodian, and as such, you can only benefit from it if you’re traveling with a local.

Cambodia Travel Tip #8: Food

Food is extremely cheap in Cambodia. If you go to the local markets or buy from street vendors, you’ll end up paying just $1 to $2 for an entire meal. You can go to Phnom Penh’s Night Market for some deliciously cheap food options.

If street food isn’t your thing, you can also go to local restaurants where you’ll have to pay a little more, around $3 to $6 for a whole meal, including drinks.

However, if you’re eating at your hostel’s restaurant, or at a western food joint, you’ll have to pay a minimum of $4 for a single dish.

night market phnom penh
A lot of food choices in this Night Market in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia Travel Tip #9: What you need to know

There are a lot of DOs and DONTs you should generally follow while traveling in Southeast Asia to avoid becoming an Obnoxious Tourist. Some of them are obvious and some of them are not so obvious.

In this section of my Cambodia Travel Guide, I’ll focus on things you must understand about Cambodia before visiting. These are things that I hadn’t done much research about, but I wish I had.

Cambodia’s Harrowing History

Cambodia was under the control of the Khmer Rouge Regime in the late 70s. Pol Pot, the leader, led to one of the worst genocides in modern history in which one-third of the country’s population was wiped away.

These events occurred a mere 4 decades ago. As such, the effects of those tortuous years are still felt by the survivors and descendants of that event. Before you go to the country, you should learn about the Cambodian Genocide.

History has always been largely Euro-centric. As such, a lot of people don’t even know about this very recent genocide. After I learned about it, I was quite astonished and ashamed for not having been aware of it before I actually went to the Killing Fields.

A lot of the tuk-tuk drivers I met asked me if I’d let them take me to the Killing Fields. Some of them even said that they would take me there for free. One of the drivers I spoke to hoped that if more tourists visited the Killing Fields and learned of its history, the world would soon become more sympathetic to the plights of people in Cambodia.

To learn about it in detail you can read my article on the necessity of Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

killing fields phnom penh
Exploring the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Angkor Wat isn’t just an Architectural Landmark 

Angkor Wat and the surrounding ruins have become immensely popular in the past decades since Angelina Jolie went traipsing around on her adventures in “Tomb Raider.” Ever since then, these ruins are a tourist hotspot.

However, they’re more than just impressive architectural landmarks. They’re also religious monuments. And you should treat them as such.

Lara Croft might wander around in a sleeveless outfit with short shorts. However, tourists aren’t allowed to explore the region with a lot of uncovered skin.

Yet a lot of people flout those rules anyway. A lot of people take off their shirts and start exploring the ruins in vests or sleeveless clothes. That’s a dick move. It may be hot, but not hot enough that you gotta’ be disrespectful.

tomb raider cambodia
Miss Jolie flouting them clothing rules in Ta Prohm. Dick move Angie! | Image Source: NomadHead

These are two important things you should know about Cambodia before going there. However, it doesn’t hurt to also get oneself acquainted with the etiquettes to follow in Cambodia. So you can avoid offending someone unwittingly.

Conclusion

That’s it for my Cambodia Travel Guide for first timers! I hope you found this Cambodia Travel Guide to be useful. If you have any other questions, queries, or comments feel free to let me know about it down in the comments section!

How Much Did I Spend In Cambodia (Approximately)

Days in Cambodia: 14 days

Total Money Spent: ₹50,000 | $750

cambodia travel guide