Cambodia travel guide

Cambodia travel guide

2 minute summary

Cambodia is painted as a one-trick pony, home to the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and little else. Tourists whizz through between Thailand and Vietnam, ignoring the fact that beyond the crumbling temples there is an entire country waiting to be discovered. Ironically, Cambodia’s number one calling card could be its downfall, as thousands pour into Siem Reap and drain its resources, neglecting the rest of the country and contributing little to support its resilient, warm-hearted people. And while Cambodia’s coast and countryside may not match up to its heavyweight neighbours, these smiling Khmer people are really what universally astounds and delights travelers, especially given Cambodia’s dark – and very recent – past. They welcome young travelers with open arms, cook the most extraordinary dishes and beam for tourists.
Delving into Cambodia – by boat, ox cart, tuk tuk or on foot – reveals hidden pre-Angkor temples, floating villages, pepper and rice fields; strange river dolphins and faded French architecture.

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Kep Khmer culture Phnom Penh Ratanakiri


A Cambodia vacation can’t really compete when it comes to Southeast Asian beaches – but Kep is a rare exception. This little fishing town is slowly being rediscovered after it was largely destroyed during the war, and its white-sand beach and idyllic islands are a perfect retreat. Visit the ruined colonial villas, as well as the surprising Art Deco buildings – designed by fans of Le Corbusier in the 1960s.

Khmer culture

Cambodia has one dominant ethnic group and no long-necked women or nomadic hunter gatherers to fulfil any cultural clichés. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discover. Khmer festivals – including New Year - are exciting events, and the growing number of homestays and community tourism projects reveal the little-known world of a warm, welcoming people

Phnom Penh

The gateway to Cambodia is often just seen as a departure point for the wonders of Siem Reap. But Phnom Penh offers a unique chance to discover real Cambodian life, with its hectic markets, crazy tuk tuks and gorgeous French colonial architecture – as well as its museums and palaces. Siem Reap is a town for tourists – but this is a town for locals, and people-watchers will be in heaven.


Sparsely populated, this far-flung province borders Vietnam and Laos, and the flat Cambodian landscape gives way to the rolling hills, waterfalls, mountains and dense jungle characteristic of the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s a dream for hikers and kayakers. You can also visit some of the local hill tribes for an alternative cultural experience; each tribe retains its own language and traditions.


Angkor Wat sunrises Travelling by boat French architecture Genocidal tributes

Angkor Wat sunrises

It’s a testament to the temple’s ancient architects that no matter how many thousands of tourists pour into this UNESCO World Heritage Site each day, the sight of the sun rising over the stone towers never fails to excite and amaze. Visit during rainy season or cruise around by boat for an alternative view of these wild, jungle-clad ruins – and escape the crowds by doing so

Traveling by boat

Whether you sail here up the Mekong River from Saigon, cruise between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap or paddle through the floating villages of the Sangker, Cambodia’s rivers offer an offbeat view of both its culture and landscape. They’re also a tranquil alternative to the notoriously bumpy roads – and local ferries give the chance to natter to your fellow Khmer passengers.

French architecture

The French left behind their bread, coffee and colonial architecture. The abandoned hill stations, faded casinos, rococo palaces and former hotels make for eerie yet photogenic stop off points as you travel through Cambodia’s countryside and small towns. Grander, restored examples are dotted throughout Phnom Penh, including the National Library and Hotel Le Royal.

Genocidal tributes

Visiting mass-graves and sites of torture may not be on your average vacation wish list, but Cambodia’s past is still very present and the memorials are a sensitive tribute to the millions who were killed. Tuol Sleng – a former execution centre – and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields monument are distressing yet highly educational, and essential for those who wish to understand modern Cambodia and its people.


Skimpy clothing Orphanage volunteering Ticking off sites Seedy Sihanoukville

Skimpy clothing

Yes, it’s hot in Cambodia, and of course you want a tan – but save stripping off for the beach or hotel pool. Cambodia is a conservative, Buddhist country – much of it without mass tourism – and scantily clad visitors will cause offence. Cover shoulders and never wear short shorts; in fact, ankles should be covered where possible too, especially when visiting temples on your Cambodian vacation.

Orphanage volunteering

With poverty and landmines contributing to fill orphanages, helping out seems like the right thing to do. However, in most cases, the opposite is true. A boom in volunteers has seen the number of orphanages increase as people realise there is money to be made in cute, grubby children – and a revolving door of volunteers means the child is abandoned again, and again. Read more here.

Ticking off sites

Angkor Wat is just one in a vast complex of ancient monasteries, stretching over 400 square km through the forest. The layout of the site and its complex water networks reveal that this was in fact a whole civilisation. Don’t just see the temple and leave – venturing further reveals ever more ruins, and you’ll be able to follow in explorers’ footsteps and rediscover your own hidden jungle temples.

Seedy Sihanoukville

Cambodia’s biggest beach resort is a mess of high-rise hotels, half-built plots, the commotion of construction and street hawkers trying to cash in on the tourism boom. This is not your dream Asian beach destination; head out to one of the unspoiled nearby islands, such as Koh Rong, for true rustic luxury on your Cambodian vacation: a hut, a hammock and a cocktail in hand.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local with our Cambodia travel guide

Eating & drinking

Khmer cuisine shares much with its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours – including coconut, fish sauce, kaffir lime and jasmine rice.
Popular dishes include Amok Trey, a fish and coconut curry often served in a coconut shell, and Bok L’hong, a savoury salad made with unripe, green papaya.
In Phnom Penh, have lunch at the Lotus Blanc Restaurant, managed by a charity that works with street children.
Alternatively, try the famous deep-fried tarantulas in Skuon.

Shadow puppetry is a traditional Khmer art and the puppets are wonderfully intricate. The custom is dying out, though – go and support the performers who keep it alive.

People & culture

Unlike much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has just one main ethnic group – the Khmer. Khmer is the official language of the country, and 95 percent of the people are Buddhist. Khmers traditionally wear a checked krama scarf – as a headscarf, sarong, towel or for carrying babies.
Cambodians greet each other using the Sampeah – a slight bow with palms placed together.
Thank a Khmer: “aw-koon”
"Wat" means monastery temple

Gifts & shopping

The abundance of NGOs here means not only great support for its artisans – but also a guarantee that the money you spend during your Cambodia vacation ends up in the right hands. Leave plenty of room in your suitcase!
Artisans Angkor employs over 1,000 people in rural Siem Reap province, and is a champion of traditional Khmer crafts including silk weaving, stone carving, lacquer ware and silver plating. Visit their shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Look out for sought-after Kampot peppercorns; said to be the tastiest pepper in the world. You can buy them from markets – but taste them to ensure authenticity!

Fast facts

Heads are the “highest” part of the body – never touch a Cambodian’s head or hair. The feet are the lowest – never show anyone the soles of your feet as it’s highly offensive.

How much does it cost?

Tuk tuk ride around town: 60p
Meal in a market: 90p
Large bottle of Angkor beer: 75p
Entry to Angkor Wat: £11.90 per day
Tuk tuk hire to travel
around Angkor:
£7.70 for one day

A brief history

Cambodia’s history is messier than most, having been the unfortunate piggy-in-the-middle for centuries between the Thais and Vietnamese, the French and Japanese, Communism and America. The Kingdom of Cambodia became an independent country in 1952, following nearly a century of French rule – still visible in its elegant architecture – and a brief period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War. But the Vietnam War edged ever closer and in 1965, forced off the fence, Cambodia allowed North Vietnamese guerrillas into the country to help them in their fight against the US. In 1969 the US began the secret carpet bombing of the guerrillas, and Cambodia’s bloodiest period began as many thousands of civilians were killed in the conflict. The head of state, Sihanouk, was overthrown in a coup, and the new Prime Minister of the now “Khmer Republic” began fighting the North Vietnamese in Cambodia, sparking a civil war which killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Top box - Angkor Wat: Davidlohr Bueso] [Kep: fabulousfabs] [Khmer culture: Sam Sith] [Phnom Penh: Jorges Cancela] [Ratanakiri: Lukas Bergstrom] [Angkor Wat sunrises: Mike Behnken] [Traveling by boat: ND Strupler] [French architecture: shankar s.] [Genocidal tributes: Christian Haugen] [Skimpy clothing: Chris Feser] [Orphanage volunteering: Beth Kanter] [Ticking off sites: Scott Oves] [Seedy Sihanoukville: Damien @ Flickr] [Eating & drinking box: Kent MacElwee] [People & culture box: Thomas Schoch] [Gifts & shopping: Jean-Pierre Dalbera] [How much box: shankar s.]
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