Thoughts On: Cambodia

The "Thoughts On" post is to reflect on the experience in each country I visited, and to provide some useful information for readers. The format for each "Thoughts On:" be the following:

  • Where did we go and where did we stay?
  • Was it any good?
  • What did we eat and where?
  • And General Travel Advice.

Lets start with Cambodia.

Siem Reap and Angkor

We spent three nights at the FCC Angkor. Hotel options in Siem Reap abound - something like 2 million tourists come through every year - there are hotels dedicated to the Chinese tourist, the French tourist and any other national variation of tourist, most if not all speak decent English.

We liked the FCC Angkor a lot. It's a great mid-market hotel, with a good location just half a km from the center of town. I'm still craving their coconut and lime lassis and their pool is fabulous. It's a little bit tired on the edges, but fine when you consider location, staff and cost. [Other hotels ($$$) options: Les Nuit's d'Angkor and Shinta Mani.]

FCC Angkor had good food options and we ate there twice. Downtown is a tourist mecca - bright lights, 'massage' therapists for miles, crowded, etc. A bit like a Cambodian Place St. Michel. That said, they've tried to make it user friendly and not to down and out. The bones of the old town peak out amongst the fluorescent lights, and you can glimpse some lovely old Chinese shop houses and colonial architecture. Much and in high season I imagine overwhelmed with people. We ate downtown once, and I'll just skip on even recommending a place. Too hard.

Oh right, and what about Angkor? Amazing, truly amazing. You will not be alone though. You can spend a day, or a week, discovering the temple complex. Rent a bike or a tuk tuk - your choice though the tuk tuk is easier in the heat. They have plenty of official guides for you if that is what interests you. Go.

Ratank Kiri and Jungle trekking

We stayed at the Terres Rouge Inn, and I wouldn't exactly recommend it. I'm not sure what other options there are in Ratank Kiri at this level, the majority are dodgy looking guesthouses, so if you want to go this is probably your only option. Clearly management knew that was the case and let things slip. However, we arrived shortly after a new manager had started and a planned refresh of the place. Maybe in a few months it will be better.

The biggest weakness was the questionable quality of the trekking guides and the cost. Poor and high, respectively.

Since you aren't in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, the food is not very sophisticated. Unless you eat at Terres Rouge (where the food was tourist friendly if not at all good), you are eating what the locals eat. If that floats your boat, great, if not be prepared to crunch through a lot of tiny chicken bones.

Phnom Penh

We stayed at the Kabiki Hotel, the sister hotel to the Pavilion Hotel where we really wanted to stay. It's a great little oasis in a big buzzy city and I recommend it. The pool area is lovely, the little restaurant is good and makes a great breakfast. If you go, book the bigger deluxe twin room. The smaller room is very small and you will feel cramped with more than one person. The bathrooms are not great because there isn't enough air circulation but they are absolutely passable.

Food was much better in the capital and we had some yummy Khmer food. My favorite dish was the (choice of meat) and ginger. A stir fry of meat and grated ginger that was flavorful and filling. We also had a lovely drink at a French run bar on Samdach Preah Theamak Lethet Ouk, a street that runs north of the palace and ends at the river , listened to live music here at Equinox and danced away the night here the Banana Leaf hostel.

I liked Phnom Penh a lot. It has charm, culture, its easy to get around and you can spend a great few days to few weeks there. Some of my favorite things where: the architectural tour (link), the central market, walking along the river's edge, shopping, riding a cyclo and going out a night. It's an expats' city - full of well meaning people spending their governments donor dollars, for better or for worse.

Politically, its depressing. I won't go on about it here except to say don't expect a functioning democracy, or high literacy rates. If you want to read more about the country, some of the books we read there and before are "Cambodia's Curse" and "First they killed my father". Cheery stuff.

General Travel Advice

Cambodia is still a heavily dollarized economy, especially for tourists. Expect to be asked of pay in USD. Unlike Myanmar they aren't too overly concerned with the crispness and newness of your bills, though they will turn down ripped ones.

Outside of the main cities, when ordering food, expect service to be a bit, if not downright, surly. Chicken dishes are not your clean cut little pieces of chicken, they are a part of the chicken chopped up into little pieces, bones and cartilage and all. Food is not terribly spicy, so don't worry too much about that, but it tends towards greasy. Buy and wear a lot of bug repellent (See favorite Travel Buys).

The country isn't very clean. It's a sad thing to note and keep in mind I'm saying this within the context of SE Asia. You get used to it, but be prepared for some unpleasant smells.

Cambodians are used to tourists and they will negotiate. They tend to price everything at $1 up for tourists, though I suspect locals often get a similar service for much less. It's the foreigner tax - just accept it. We often ended up somewhere between 60% and 70% of the original proposed price for goods and services we negotiated. I don't go to 50% because those two or three dollars means a lot more to them than it does to me. It is still a very cheap country.

The roads are in terrible shape. They seem to be in a constant state of construction, but I suspect a healthy dose of graft means they aren't being built very well. As soon as you get outside of the Siem Reap- Phnom Penh route (which itself, I've heard, isn't great) expect very bumpy, broken down, asphalt-if-your-lucky-but-probably-mud roads. Renting a car and driver to go long distances can be expensive as cars are still a novelty. Most are old or second hand.

And finally here is a blog I like to read about Cambodia. It's written by Brit who moved there recently.