Backpacking the Cambodian Delta

Cambodia Floating Village

A 25 cent beer in hand, my one-eyed tuk-tuk driver blasts through the rainy streets of Phnom Penh.

Before I visited Cambodia, I was told that it was much like backpacking Thailand in the eighties or nineties. I wasn't backpacking then, but I think it's an accurate assessment.

Cambodia is the sort of place you meet long-term travelers, those who don’t just pop over to Thailand for a week of cheap massages and pad thai. Half the foreigners you meet are tanned Germans in the middle of a year-long round the world trip. The other half are backpackers who don’t shower, talk about the earth being alive, and have temporarily changed their names to Kiva.

It’s a little harder to get to Cambodia (few people fly into the country itself…most fly into Bangkok and take a train or bus) and this creates a small barrier of entry. Seldom will you find someone specifically in Cambodia for a particular reason…most are just on the Southeast Asia circuit and find themselves here.

My Itinerary In Cambodia

The first half of my week in Cambodia was unfortunately affected by a week-long food-poisoning episode contracted in Morocco. Following a week of trying to counter my sickness with lighter meds, I found a pharmacy and bought some antibiotics. After the nuclear option, I felt much better and was able to get out more.

I spent the first six days in Siem Reap, the sleepy little town just south of Angkor Wat. It’s the perfect place for recovery: small, relatively quiet, and very cheap. If you do your research, you can find a bed for $5 and a good meal for $1.50. Any drink (beer, fruit smoothie, water, coffee) can be had for around $0.50.

I spent an entire day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. Some people buy the three-day pass, but honestly, after an entire day of looking at ancient stonework, I couldn’t really see any benefit to spending more time there. I’ve heard of people going back, consistently, for months. Why, I have no idea: the real Cambodia is out there ready to be seen, heard and tasted for free. Once you’ve seen five or six temples, you’ve pretty much covered the gamut.

Another day was spent taking a tuk-tuk out towards Tonle Sap lake, the largest lake in southeast Asia. There, by successfully avoiding the “official” tour operators, which operate fixed-price tourist cruises, buying a boat ride from a local is both far cheaper and far more fulfilling.

I had intended to take the day-long speedboat ride to Phnom Penh, but it was canceled because of a lack of passengers. Instead, I took an $8 bus, which took around six hours and was actually a quite relaxing experience.

I flew out of Phnom Penh the next morning. It’s actually quite the modern Asian city, with some impressive skyscrapers, a nice airport, and other amenities.

Angkor Wat - Ta Som

The crumbling Ta Som temple, part of the Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat

Siem Reap is a pretty small, sleepy town. At night it can get pretty lively thanks to the numerous expats, but for a southeast Asian town, it’s small, clean, and relatively quiet. It’s a good base for small day excursions: Angkor Wat around 20km north, fishing villages 30-40km to the south, and a few scattered waterfalls and various attractions.

Angkor Wat itself suffers from entirely too many tourists. At times it felt more like Disneyland than an ancient temple complex. As huge as it is (hundreds of acres) it’s rare to find a temple site that isn’t overrun by camera-toting moms. It’s worth creating an itinerary of smaller temples on the outskirts for your tuk-tuk driver to follow, otherwise, you’ll likely be taken to all of the most popular temples. One of the best decisions I made was, with a little research beforehand, deciding I wanted to see Ta Som. There was almost no one at this particular temple, which is smaller and still mostly overgrown with jungle. The lack of restoration and development at the smaller temples adds to their legitimacy and charm: unfortunately things like guard rails and warning signs are all over the biggest temples like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. But, regardless of which route you take, Angkor Wat itself is a must. It’s truly a massive construction, and should be appreciated for its size alone.

Tonle Sap - Cambodia

This little Khmer dude kept posing for me and flipping his hat backwards.

Tips On Backpacking Cambodia

Avoid as much interaction with the government and anything that looks “official”, because chances are it’s going to cost you. Corruption is the norm rather than the exception. Take for example the boat tours of Tonle Sap lake. The government has restricted the ability of the locals to give tourists boat rides or rent them vehicles, keeping the select few “licensed” in power. You’re forced to pay a minimum of $20 for a touristy boat manned by official staff. Or, you can pop across the road and disappear into the Khmer village, and wander the shore until you find someone with a fishing boat. Some of them will bow kindly and shake their heads and mention something about the “policemen”, but you’ll always find someone who is interested in giving you a tour. Hannah, the German backpacker who joined me for a few excursions, found a lovely old Cambodian woman who put us in the middle of her old wooden boat and paddled around the floating village. She couldn’t speak a lick of English, and the $10 I gave her was probably ten times what makes it back into the local economy from the government operation.

Although not in my direct experience, I’ve had several people tell me Phnom Penh is dangerous for non-Asian travelers. Unless you have a specific reason to be there (like to fly out!) it’s probably best to avoid it for long periods. I met three people who lost things while there: one girl lost her purse and $250, another girl lost her phone, and one guy had his phone snatched directly out of his hands from a guy on a motorcycle as he was riding in the back of a tuk-tuk. It was interesting to find out that the smartphone thieves only get around 10% commission from selling your device to the electronics store, after giving the cops a 4% commission. I find it incredible that such specific numbers have been developed: but it tells you how extensive and habitual this has become in Phnom Penh.

After over three weeks of traveling in four different cultures, I’ve really come to appreciate the relative relaxation, ease, and hospitality that Cambodian culture offers. Even though westerners will get their fair share of streetside marketing, it doesn’t even compare to the aggressive touts of, say, Morocco. Shake your head and that’s usually enough.

The food is amazing. A meal might cost $2-3. You’ll be amazed. It’s a sort of mix between Thai and Vietnamese. I wasn’t let down. Especially try the fruit shakes, which you can dependably get for 75 cents. They’re made fresh on the spot, and you won’t be disappointed. During my extended week-long food poisoning recovery, these shakes were about the only thing I could manage. I’m really going to miss massive freshly-pulped passion fruit goblets for a dollar.

Cambodia uses the dollar for almost all transactions, with riel notes used instead of coin change (a thousand riels is around $0.25, so you end up with a lot of 100-riel and 500-riel notes which really aren’t worth anything). This works in an American’s favor. Also, few places will accept credit cards, even hotels, so be sure to carry a lot of cash. ATMs are everywhere, however.

As referenced earlier, Cambodia is the sort of place that you meet the very best and the very worst of the backpacker crowd. For every adventurous, daring traveler who’s looking for a truly local experience, you’ve got the dreadlocked 40-year-old, a little too absorbed in finding his spiritual self, really just here because he can get by on $6 a day (most of that for beer). Pick your associates according to what you want to do: if you’re about drinking like it’s Friday for a week straight, that’s your guy. But if you’re about finding cheap tuk-tuk rides into the countryside just to see what you can find, you’ll also find plenty of friends.

Backpacking Cambodia in Summary

Cambodia surprised me in several ways. I wasn’t expecting it to be as clean as it was. Since I went in the middle of monsoon season, I also expected the weather to be much worse than it was: but in the entire week I was there, it only rained twice (the first time an intense storm that made me glad to be indoors, and the second time a long slow drizzle that made me glad to be on a long bus ride).

In general, the people are extremely kind and helpful, and unless they’re acting in some sort of official capacity (ticket counters or state officials) they don’t really try to upsell you or cheat you like in many other developing countries. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every interaction. A tuk-tuk driver never once gave me incorrect change or tried to milk extra cash out of me, unlike other countries I’ve been to such as India.

Phnom Penh is much like other massive Asian cities: a little too big for my taste, a little crazy, congested, polluted, and filled with neon signs and brown drizzle and puddles like something out of Blade Runner. The real Cambodia is out in the country, in the rice paddies and roadside stands and tuk-tuk drivers.

Although Iceland still takes the cake for my favorite country so far in this RTW trip, Cambodia has taken a firm second. I recommend it to anyone!

previous: Dubai Is Twice As Nice: Backpacking The World’s Richest City

next: Traveling to Bali, Vacation Island of the World