One of the many reasons I love being married is that I’ve been adopted, wholly, into Ryan’s family. This means I’ve gained something I’d never had before: a sister! Before we’d set off on our travels Tiff had decided she’d join us, and we couldn’t wait to see her. Her visit, in early July, coincided with a time when Ryan and I had been travelling alone together for two months, and felt the need for someone to tell all our stories to and share some new memories with. Barely a day goes by when we don’t exclaim to each other ‘Oh I wish so-and-so could see this, they’d love it!!’ and so our chance to see a new country with Tiff was greatly anticipated.
With Tiff having a pretty stingy annual leave allowance, she could only come and see us for two weeks. We were determined to see as much of Cambodia as possible in that time and managed it very well. Here’s our guide to having an amazing time in Cambodia even if you’ve only got two weeks to see it.
Day 1: Arrive in Phnom Penh
Arrival days always takes their toll, so concentrate on surviving the tuk tuk journey to your hotel and rest for the afternoon. Push past the jet lag with a sundowner overlooking the Mekong at the palatial Foreign Correspondents’ Club before making your way to the night market for al fresco dining and street food favourites.
Day 2: Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng
Although sure to drain you of any fuzzy holiday feelings, understanding Cambodia’s devastating recent history is both important and necessary – make sure you make time for it. Dress respectfully, act appropriately and listen to the audio guides at both sites to fully understand the impact of the Khmer Rouge’s regime. Hiring a tuk tuk driver for the whole day is the most time and cost effective way to go.
You’ll be emotionally and physically weary so treat yourself to Friends the Restaurant for dinner. This place is pricey if you’re on a budget but worth every penny – especially as all profits are invested into training young and vulnerable Cambodians. The Malaysian laksa and Myanmar curry are notable mentions.
Day 3: Phnom Penh: See the sights
Backyard Café is the one for an absolutely delicious vegan breakfast, after which visit the Royal Palace complex before the heat gets overwhelming. You’ll have to cover your knees and shoulders whether you’re male or female and pay an entrance fee, but once inside there are plenty of ceremonial halls, theatres and temples to make it worthwhile, including the silver pagoda. In the afternoon, wander around the National Museum, admiring the traditional terracotta architecture of the museum itself and learning all about Angkor history ahead of your trip to Siem Reap. A massage from Seeing Hands – a socially responsible training enterprise for the blind – will work out any kinks from your long haul flight afterwards. A trip to Cambodia isn’t complete without trying Khmer barbeque, so for dinner head to Sovanna for the tastiest roasts at unbelievably cheap prices.
Day 4: Journey to Sihanoukville… but don’t stay there for long
Catch the early morning bus to Sihanoukville – a short 5-hour journey. Once there, beware of the tuk tuk drivers who ambush you before you’ve got off the bus as they belong to a local mafia who fix prices. Bargain hard but be prepared to get ripped off anyway. Sihanoukville is a seedy, soulless place and Serendipity beach is pretty awful, but with just a short ride out of town you can stay in a bungalow near the lovely Otres beach. That being said, there’s still no reason to stay more than one night.
Day 5: Take the boat to Koh Rong
Wake up early to catch the first boats to Koh Rong. There are two fast services: one is a catamaran and thus more expensive, but they still both take 45 minutes to reach the island. If you don’t mind pumping bass keeping you up past the point, stay in one of the guesthouses on the main drag of Koh Rong. If you fancy more of a paradise retreat that still allows you to enjoy the fun, stay in a beach cabana on Long Set beach. During our three days on the island, we saw two other people, two restaurants and two bars along this 5km stretch of pristine white sand, and you can catch a local boat a few times a day back to where the party is at.
Day 6: Koh Rong: sunbathe, swim and snorkel
Sunbathe and swim in the morning before hiring a kayak to paddle along the beach. Convince a local restaurant owner to take you out to a nearby islet and spend the afternoon snorkelling in crystal clear waters. Enjoy inventive cocktails and fresh food at the Nest in the evening. Generally, have a perfect day.
Day 7: Koh Rong: trek through jungle, zipline through the forest
Discover the many hidden coves around Koh Rong by trekking the less trodden paths that cross the island, carefully avoiding giant furry caterpillars and 10 cm long centipedes. For the adventurous, High Point is the adrenaline-filled antidote to all that lazing around – ziplining, high ropes challenges, and spectacular views. A ticket is valid for 24 hours so you can go and come back as often as you like.
Day 8: Fly to Siem Reap
Take a boat back to Sihanoukville and hop on a tuk tuk for an hour to reach Sihanoukville Airport. Angkor Air’s monopoly on the route to Siem Reap means fares aren’t cheap, but it’s absolutely the most time effective way to get around if you only have two weeks.
Once you’ve arrived and settled in, take a wander around Siem Reap town. Visit the night market for dinner on the cheap or try an Amok curry from every region at the aptly named Amok Restaurant.
Day 9: Angkor Wat: DIY
Hire bicycles from your hotel and spend your first day visiting the temples of Angkor that deserve a little longer to wander around – I’d recommend Angkor Wat and Bayon. The bicycle journey isn’t a short one, and includes a long and unnecessary detour to the new and over-engineered ticket office (nothing like a bit of foreign investment, eh?), but is worth it to see the temples on your own terms.
Day 10: Angkor Wat: Tuk-tuk to the temples
On your second day, hire a tuk tuk (make sure you barter on the price) and get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. It is as beautiful as it is touristy, but breath-taking all the same. The rest of the day is for visiting the wider Angkor complex with your tuk tuk driver. Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, and Pre Rup, which offers panoramic views of the area, are both musts. Enjoy dinner at the ever-busy Genevieve’s after a long day.
Day 11: Take the slow boat to Battambang… or don’t
On our last night in Siem Reap we decided on a whim to spend some time in Battambang rather than go back to Phnom Penh early. Excited by the prospect of seeing a new town, we decided to take the scenic route to get there: the slow boat. The journey takes you across the gargantuan Tonle Sap lake and passes through floating villages and farms, but also takes 8 HOURS. The boat will not be as nice as the picture on the ticket and don’t believe any seller who tells you it takes half that time. The choice is yours, but be prepared for a very sore bum and stiff back if you opt for the water route. We wouldn’t do it again.
Day 12: Battambang: Bamboo train, killing caves and bats
For such a small town, Battambang has a lot to offer. Your first stop has to be the bamboo train. Built in the French colonial era and kept running since then with next-to-no maintenance, the bamboo train is still used by Cambodians to get around. Essentially a bamboo mat balanced between four wheels and a small motor, you travel at dizzying speeds of 15km/h. As there is only one track, the ‘train’ with the fewest passengers on board has to disassemble itself to allow the oncoming train through – be prepared to get your hands dirty!
In the evening, visit the killing caves for another chilling reminder of the pain endured by a people who have overcome and remained so kind, big-hearted and welcoming. Stay around because as the sun sets, over one million bats will leave a nearby cave for their night hunt. Watching as they undulate in perfect formation is mesmerising.
Day 13: Battambang: Visit a crocodile farm and go to the circus
Spend the morning at a local crocodile farm and experience what happens when there are absolutely zero health and safety regulations…
Head back into town to spend the afternoon wandering around the galleries and independent shops on 2 ½ street, Battambang’s arts quarter. In the evening, buy a ticket for the local circus to see performances of traditional music, dance, and gravity defying stunts.
Day 14: Party in Phnom Penh
Take the bus back to Phnom Penh and make sure you specify that you don’t want to sit on the back row, otherwise put up with 4 people being squished into 3 people’s space for several hours. Check into one of the many hotels in Phnom Penh that has a pool, or buy just one drink in a 5-star hotel and bag yourself all day access to their pool for next to nothing.
Spend your last night in Cambodia listening to decent live music at Sharky’s bar (word of advice: the later you stay, the sleazier the crowd). Move on to Heart of Darkness, where the music is so good and so loud you’ll be dancing until it’s light outside without even noticing.
Day 15: Departure day
You won’t want to leave but needs must. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading our two week itinerary for seeing the highlights of Cambodia. Think we missed something or found this helpful? Let us know in the comments!