Cambodia on a Budget (Travel Guide 2020)

Man kisses out of window at Angkor Wat for post: Planning a trip to Cambodia on a budget

When you say you want to go to Cambodia, most of your friends and family may look at you like you said, “I want to be a ladybug.” I know, Cambodia isn’t always top of mind when people think of a vacation. However, Cambodia has a lot of amazing things to offer travellers. Consider me your guide to Cambodia. If you are planning a trip to Cambodia, I’ve got your back and got you covered!

PLAN A TRIP TO CAMBODIA ON A BUDGET

Cambodia shares borders with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and has a nice long bit of coastline in the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand is known for being super cheap, very easy to travel around, and for having great beaches and island life. If you want to do Cambodia on a budget, it’s as easy as pie. It’s easy to pinch pennies when everything is so inexpensive!

It’s best to take a little trip to the travel doctor before heading to Cambodia; you might need a shot of typhoid fever prevention, or you might want to stock up on some anti-malaria pills. It’s all up to you and your comfort level, as well as what season you’re planning to head to Cambodia in.

Also, as a heads up, it’s no problem if you want to arrive in Cambodia with only a loose plan of what you’re going to do and when. Buses and vans run all over the country practically every hour of the day. It’s quite easy to move around the country, so don’t worry too much about pre-planning your route.

What You Need to Know About Travel to Cambodia

Language – The language in Cambodia is Khmer, but English is readily spoken in tourist areas. You shouldn’t have too many issues with encountering a situation in which you can’t find someone near you who speaks English.

That being said, Khmer is a pretty easy language to memorize a few words and phrases in. It doesn’t have complicated sounds or syllables. I’ll share a few handy Cambodian words and phrases below for you!

Visa – You can get a visa on arrival at either the Phnom Penh or Siem Reap international airports. Make sure you have an extra passport photo with you! If you don’t, you could face problems and fines coming in.

The tourist visas are valid for 30 days. And just as a heads up, if you overstay your visa, it is a $10 USD per day fine.

If you want to get a Cambodia visa online (commonly referred to as an e-visa) before you travel to Cambodia, here is the link.

Currency – Fun fact about Cambodia: they use US dollars! Practically nobody uses the Cambodian currency notes, which are called Cambodian riel. I found it pretty challenging to find riel notes when travelling around. All the ATMs I encountered gave out USD, and that’s all you really need.

ATMS – As I mentioned above, the ATMs in Cambodia give out USD. There is almost always a charge when you withdraw from an ATM, but it’s usually only around $4 to $6 to withdraw. Canadia Bank and Mekong Bank are both $5 per withdrawal, and ABA, ACLEDA, and Vattanak are all $4 per withdrawal.

I’ve heard whispers that Maybank has free withdrawals for US and European Visa cards, but I can’t confirm or deny this – I never actually used a Maybank ATM!

Safety – All things kind of go in Cambodia. The government and police don’t really enforce much, so the mainland in Cambodia is a place to play it safe.

Phnom Penh has a big prostitution scene, and it can be a little, well, scary out at night in the dark. Phnom Penh just isn’t my favourite city anyways. That being said, Siem Riep has an epic night party scene with its famous Pub Street. All is good wandering around there in the evening.

Is Cambodia safe? Generally, yes, but it depends on where you are in the country. There’s pretty much no worries when the sun is out, though! Nothing happened to me, and I doubt anything will happen to you either. Just keep your wits about you, yes?

LGBT Rights – Phnom Penh and Siem Riep have a thriving LGBT scene. Lots of bars and clubs are specific to the LGBT community, and there are vibrant pride parades! If you’re a member of the LGBT community travelling to Cambodia, you shouldn’t face any discrimination or judgment.

However, LGBT Cambodians do report some discrimination at work and school. Same-sex sexual activity is legal in Cambodia, but there are some other legal challenges for LGBT individuals. Same-sex marriage isn’t legal; neither is adoption for same-sex couples. LGBT rights have a long way to go, but it looks like it’s heading in the right direction!

Electricity – The Cambodian plugs and outlets used in Cambodia are A, C, and G. This means they use North-American standard A outlets, European standard C outlets, and British G outlets.

All sockets provide a standard voltage of 230V and a frequency of 50Hz. This means that when you travel to Cambodia, the Cambodian power plugs will vary. I recommend bringing a travel adapter just in case, since you never know which one your hotel will have.

Transportation in Cambodia

As I’ve already hinted at, transport in Cambodia is beyond easy. Tourist buses or tourist vans are definitely the best way to go. Any guest house or hostel can organize transport for you.

It’s usually less than $10 to go a few hours in any direction, and buses and tourist vans run regularly. If you’re going far though, nothing beats the Giant Ibis overnight buses. I took one from Sihanoukville to Siem Riep, which is about 10 hours. It was easy, breezy sailing!

USEFUL PHRASES IN CAMBODIA

Cambodia is an extremely English-friendly country with most people being able to understand key words in English. However, if you would like to delight and ‘wow’ people with some Khmer phrases, memorise a few of the following common words.

Hello: Soo sdai
How are you? Suok suobai?
Goodbye: Lee hai
Please: Suom
Thank you: Aw kuon
Thank you very much: Aw kuon cheh-rran

Yes (for males): Baat or Baa
Yes (for females): Chaa
No: Aw dteh
Sorry/Excuse me: Suom dtoh
Water: Tuk

BEST BOOKING RESOURCES FOR CAMBODIA TRAVEL

The following is a list of the best booking agencies for Cambodia travel planning. I use these companies over and over again when I travel to Cambodia and I have found they consistently have the best prices and great services. Most even have their own apps which make the booking process even easier.

Booking Flights to Cambodia

Skyscanner – I love the ability on their website to search by month. You can then get an overview of the cheapest flights within the whole month on a calendar layout so you don’t have to manually look at each day separately. I always use Skyscanner to plan my flights.

Google Flights – Another good flight search option. If you hit the grid button during your search you can see a layout similar to Skyscanner with a whole month view. I always check Google Flights to see if they have different or cheaper options to Skyscanner.

Booking Accommodation in Cambodia

Booking.com – Are always my first option when searching for accommodation. They consistently have the best prices, a lot of the time their prices are even lower than walking in off the street! Plus they have great loyalty discounts, so after you have used them a few times you will see those amazing discounts pop up. If you aren’t already signed up to Booking, here’s $25 off your first stay.

Airbnb – If you prefer the comfort of staying in a home when you travel or like the idea of living with local people, Airbnb is a great alternative. I use them a lot when I travel, especially for long stays where I would like access to a kitchen. If you are not already signed up to Airbnb, here’s $30+ off your first stay.

Hostelworld – The best booking website for hostels out there. They have a huge number of hostels listed with a great interface. They are easy to use and cheap.

Couchsurfing – This is a website that puts you in contact with local people at your destination and you can stay in their home (couch or spare room) for free. The intention is that you then offer your couch to other surfers once you are able to. The idea of it can be scary for some but I have surfed all over the world and have made very strong positive connections with local people that I would not have otherwise met.

Booking Tours in Cambodia

Get Your Guide – This website a search interface for a large range of local tours offered in your destination. Whether you want to hire a guide to take you to off-beat places or show you around some ancient temples, Get Your Guide is the best place to look.

Viator – Viator is the tour booking company associated with TripAdvisor. If you prefer using TripAdvisor while planning a trip to Cambodia, Viator can help you book those experiences.

Travel Insurance

World Nomads – The best travel insurance for long term travel which covers medical and property. They are also great because you can insure yourself once you are already overseas, which most companies do not offer.

SafetyWing – Another backpacker favorite and are often cheaper than World Nomads. However, they only offer travel medical insurance at this time.

Clements – This is more expat insurance than traveler insurance as you need an overseas address. They offer really good coverage for personal property, especially for items that aren’t fully covered by your general travel insurance.

SEASONS IN CAMBODIA

It’s Cambodia! If you’ve glanced at a map, you could probably expect that it has a tropical climate with pleasant, warm temperatures.

There are two seasons in Cambodia to be aware of – dry and rainy. The rainy season hits Cambodia from July to September. It’s a very heavy monsoon, so expect daily heavy rain. There might even be a little flooding going on if you’re visiting Cambodia during monsoon season.

The dry season lasts from November until April and is definitely the best time to tour around this tropical country. April is the hottest month of the year, with temperatures hitting 36 °C.

BEST THINGS TO DO IN CAMBODIA

Visit Angkor Wat

The best time of day to visit Angkor Wat is sunrise. It’s absolutely magnificent and worth the early wake-up! There is a lovely little lake in front of the temple, and it creates a gorgeous reflection as the sun rises.

Expect huge crowds though; you are likely to be surrounded by hundreds of people, so getting there early to stake out your spot in front of the lake is a must!

Do a Pepper Farm Tour

One of my favourite and most unique experiences in Cambodia was visiting a Pepper Farm Plantation in Kampot. It was a beautiful scooter ride out to the farm and involved a free walking tour, where I got to learn how pepper is grown.

For clarification, I’m talking about the kind of pepper you usually find on your table at every restaurant— not bell peppers or chilli peppers. Expect to have a lovely walk among the pepper plants, and even do pepper sampling right off the vines! I went to La Plantation, and they also have a charming restaurant that serves yummy, reasonably priced foods!

Chill on the Islands

Cambodia has some lovely islands to visit and relax on. My favourite Island was Koh Rong Samloem off the coast of Sihanoukville. At around nine km long and four km wide, it’s a pretty small island, but there’s so much fun to be had there!

You can go stand up paddling boarding, kayaking, or just lounge around in a hammock all day. More on this island to come later, so stay tuned…

Walking to Long Set Beach on Koh Rong for Backpacking Cambodia Itinerary

Check out Pub Street!

Siem Riep is a blast of a city! It’s vibrant and lively and offers tourists a rip-roaring good time. Pub Street is synonymous with loud music, cheap beer, and lots of fellow tourists to mingle with.

If you’re looking to socialize and let loose, Pub Street is the place to go. Even if you’re not a big partier, it can be really fun to walk around at night taking in the energy there.

Scuba Diving

You’d be hard pressed to find a cheaper place to explore the underwater world by scuba diving than Cambodia. While Cambodia isn’t known for being home to the Great Barrier Reef or anything totally insane, there are plenty of fish and other sea creatures to spot under the sea.

It’s a great place to do “Discover Scuba Diving” for a day, where you don’t have to get certified but you can go diving and test out wether you like it.

Cambodia is also a phenomenal spot to get certified on a budget. If you’re on the fence about what to do in Cambodia, my advice is to learn to scuba dive and spot some little octopus and cute sea slugs.

See The Artisans at Work

Siem Riep is home to Artisans Angkor, a social business which provides job opportunities to local and traditional arts and craftsmen.

Artisans Angkor is located just off the Old Market, a mere few minutes walking distance. It’s free to visit and tour around for the day. It is incredible to see the artisans at work doing wood carving, painting, or masonry.

Truly, it’s worth a visit to get up close and personal with these artisans in their workshops. The location is lovely too, with many workshops surrounding a beautiful garden. Bring a book, order a tea, and make a day of it!

See the Glowing Plankton

I didn’t believe that those photos where the whole ocean looks to be filled with glowing tiny Christmas lights were real. I completely thought the images were photoshop magic, or maybe a manipulated image of the stars in the sky reflected in the water.

Here’s the thing, though, phosphorescent plankton really does exist! In the waters of Cambodia – especially off the islands and further away from the city – it’s possible to swim with these glowing plankton that set the ocean alight! It’s magical, do it!

Eat A … Scorpion?

Okay, it’s totally not my thing, but it is a lot of other people’s thing… on the streets of Siem Riep, you can buy scorpions on a stick. You can also eat a snake, a beetle, or a spider. There’s even a “Bug Bar” in Siem Reap where you can try the fancy versions of these totally unappetizing fear-factor type delicacies.

I don’t think it’s really a tradition in Cambodia to eat scorpions, it’s more for the thrill and to just say you did it.

Get A Massage… Or Twenty!

Who doesn’t love getting a massage? And for under $5?! All over the big cities in Cambodia, you’ll find massage shops offering ridiculously cheap massages. Sometimes you get what you pay for, so definitely read some reviews and ask your hostel to give you recommendations.

However, when I was in Siem Reap, I got a massage almost every day. Most days, I would just bring a book and get a one-hour foot massage for $3. It was something to pass the time and beat the heat!

Visit A Silk Farm

I know I mentioned the pepper farm in Kampot, but another must do “farm experience” in Cambodia is visiting a silk farm. Cambodia is known for gorgeous textiles; it’s hard to leave the country without stuffing your backpack with as many scarves as possible, right?

Visiting the silk farm, which is located about a 20-minute drive out of Siem Reap, is a unique experience. Artisans Angkor, which I mentioned above, offers free shuttle service every day of the week to the silk farm, along with free guided tours. Free and free and free? Yes, please!

HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN CAMBODIA

Guess what? Cambodia has more public holidays than any other country in the world! Their calendar is filled with 28 Cambodia holidays. Here are some of my favourite festivals in Cambodia.

Meak Bochea Day

This is a Buddhist festival that is celebrated during the full moon of the third Khmer lunar Month (Meak). The date does vary, since it’s based on the full moon, but it generally falls in January or February each year. Another name for the festival is ‘Buddha’s Preachment Commemoration Ceremony.’ It celebrates the Buddha’s final teaching.

This Buddhist festival is marked by ceremonies and rituals, so it’s best to stop by a temple to witness their special traditions.

Khmer New Year

The Khmer New Year falls each year on April 13 or 14 and lasts for three days. It’s a day where it is Cambodian tradition to spend time with family, eat lots of food, and perform rituals at family shrines. This is one of my favourite holidays, because if you’re lucky enough to get invited to someone’s home, you’ll witness something truly magical: the intimacy of wonderfully close family relationships and an unbelievable amount of laughter.

Pchum Ben

Another name for Pchum Ben is Ancestors’ Day. It reminds me a lot of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. It is local belief that the last seven generations of dead relatives can come back to earth and visit on Pchum Ben. It’s a very cool day to visit a temple or pagoda, where you can watch people make offerings and perform rituals to honour their ancestors. The holiday falls at the beginning of October each year. 

TRADITIONS IN CAMBODIA

Healers and Alternative Medicine

In Cambodia, some people – especially those living in rural Cambodia – still believe that going to a local healer instead of a doctor is the way to go. Herbal medicine is very popular. So is a kind of superstitious healing in which healers use necklaces and other small blessed objects to ward off evil.

Coin Massages

One of the most interesting healing techniques I’ve seen in my travels is the coin massage of Cambodia. If you’re feeling ill, a family member or friend will rub tiger balm on the afflicted area of your body and rub a coin very aggressively on the area. Usually, the coin massage takes place on the back or the chest for colds and flu. They believe this will release toxins and evil from the body. Mind you, this is quite painful; it will create a bruise. But if you’re feeling under the weather and adventurous, it’s quite a local tradition to experience!

WHAT TO EAT IN CAMBODIA

Banana Flower Salad

Did you know that on a banana tree, underneath the huge bunch of bananas, grows a giant reddish-purple flower? This flower is edible and made into salads. It’s chewy and thick in texture, but I find it quite tasty. Usually served with garlic, chillies, lemongrass, and various shredded or diced vegetables, it’s a super unique food to try when you travel to Cambodia!

Beef Loc Lac

Beef Loc Lac is one of the most popular dishes in Cambodia. It’s strips of beef served with tomatoes and cucumbers—the top two most popular vegetables of Cambodia! There’s often a fried egg on top and a yummy sauce of lime juice and pepper. It’s often Kampot pepper that it’s topped with, served in their green, strip-like pea-pods.

Chive Cakes

Chive cakes – also called kachay – are oil fried cakes made out of glutinous rice flour and chives. They are a nearly omnipresent Cambodia street food perfect to grab on the go from market stalls.

WHERE TO GO IN CAMBODIA

Koh Rong Samloem

My favourite island in Cambodia is Koh Rong Samloem. I’ve already mentioned it, and I’m so excited to tell you more about this magical island. It’s small, easy to traverse, and broken up into special little beach communities. There is Saracen Bay, M’Pai Bay, Lazy Beach, and Sunset Beach. These four areas of the island all offer tourists different vibes and experiences.

Saracen Bay is the biggest and most popular and offers party vibes. M’Pai Bay is perhaps the most authentically Cambodian area with lots of fishermen. Lazy Beach is the smallest and most quaint. And lastly, my favourite, Sunset Beach— the only part of the island that gets the sunsets every single day! It’s a small beach, with just a handful of bungalows and guesthouses. They have a dive shop, a few restaurants, and lots of great snorkel spots. It has to be one of the absolute best Cambodia beaches! 

Siem Reap

Super lively, Siem Reap has a lot to offer travellers besides the glory of Angkor Wat. There are all the fun activities I’ve already mentioned, from Pub Street and Artisans Angkor to silk farm tours. There’s also a thriving cultural scene so you can catch traditional dance shows and even circus performances! I love exploring the markets, getting massages, sampling local street food dishes, and stumbling into gem and jewellery stores.

The Angkor Wat Temples for Backpacking Cambodia Itinerary

Phnom Penh

Even though Phnom Penh isn’t my city, it might be yours. So I’ll let you know there are a few culturally important things to do there. There are the historically significant Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to visit. Personally, my favourite things to do in Phnom Penh were touring the Royal Palace and walking along the Mekong River with a fresh coconut in hand.

Phnom Penh streets for Backpacking Cambodia Itinerary

Kampot

One of the most underrated and totally delightful places to visit in Cambodia is Kampot. It lies just a few hours east of the coastal city of Sihanoukville, where the port is to get to Koh Rong Samloem. Kampot is a charming city that has some of my favourite scooter ride day-trips! The pepper farm is a must, as is cruising through the salt fields. The land has lots of little rolling hills, so it’s perfect for scooter riding. There are so many darling boutique hostels in Kampot, offering travellers peaceful, bohemian vibes. 

The backstreets of Kampot for Backpacking Cambodia Itinerary

Kep

Kep is accessible from Kampot via a short scooter ride; it’s only about 30 km away. Kep is famous for blue crabs, so if you’re a seafood lover, Kep is the place for you! It’s a small town, very easily walkable, and has nothing but flat terrain. It’s perfect for the budget traveller as there are cheap hostels and cheap food. My favourite was the night market barbecues.

Kampot pepper mud crab for Backpacking Cambodia Itinerary

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