Cambodia is a paradise for Indian backpackers seeking a week-long sojourn. Searching for an off-season destination in September, 2017 led me to Cambodia. Catch my insights into the place, including pre-booking information and detailed itinerary of my travel.
This trip has been very special to me. As a personality trait, I like to plan in advance; it gives me comfort. I plan details to its minutest levels to be assured of not being stranded on a trip. However, I had always wondered what it would be like to push my boundaries a little. I find working out of character quite empowering. For me, planning Cambodia in little time and with little money was a small step towards pushing those boundaries.
So I planned this trip with just five days’ notice. I had one week to backpack towards the end of September, 2017 so some cuts in the itinerary were inevitable. At the outset, all props to Shu and Vag, two of my closest friends. Without them, I could not have been able to plan this vacation in such short time.
Mapping a trail for Indian backpackers:
Tip: Usually, the best beginning is from New Delhi to Siam Riep, where the famous Angkor Wat temple is situated. Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Vishnu temple. Later, it was converted into a Buddhist temple by the Khmer regime. Situated in the midst of a Cambodian jungle, it is one of the most pristine temples to see. However, the entry fee is a little steep and costs around 40$ per person to visit. We only eliminated it due to shortage of time and lack of interest in temples. For those who love architecture and history, don’t give it a miss!
Best time to go and weather:
The best time to visit is from November to March, as the temperature is relatively cooler after the rains. However, the place can get very crowded with backpackers, (especially from Australia). Inevitability, prices of accommodation and food can be higher during those months.
We went in September, which is considered to be the monsoon season in Cambodia. We hardly faced any rains, and the cloudy weather. There were lesser tourists and subsidised prices for food and accommodation. I would recommend end of September and October as the months to visit Cambodia, subject to the weather conditions. Hence, before heading there during monsoons, please check the weather apps for updates on storms, etc.
Cambodia’s official currency is Riel, but payments are usually accepted in dollars. The calculation is a little complicated: round figures from 1$ are accepted in dollars, and change is returned in Riels as Cambodians do not accept coin transactions. I recommend taking the cash (in dollars) from your home country, as ATM withdrawals can be relatively unsafe. There may also be transaction costs for withdrawals / swipes on international credit/debit cards. Moreover, most places in Cambodia do not accept cards for payment, so carrying cash beforehand is recommended.
Cambodia has visa on arrival for Indian passport holders. It is a single entry visa issued for one month for a fee of 30$ payable only by cash. So make sure you have the money before you land there. I recommend purchasing the currency from India, especially if you’re converting from INR, as the rate offered in Cambodia for INR to dollar currency exchange is not good.
Another note of caution on visas on arrival generally. I had a terrible experience of the same at Bangkok, so please read this before you opt for visa on arrival in any country.
There are several ways to access Cambodia from India. There are no direct flights from India to Phnom Penh, or Siam Riep. However, flights are relatively cheaper if you travel from Kolkata. Check out Skyscanner and Kayak for some great deals on flights.
Tip: While checking aggregator websites, make sure you calculate costs based on the offer provided. For example: Air Asia flights are relatively cheaper on these websites because they don’t include the check-in luggage amount within the price quoted. So when you go to the booking page, the hidden costs pop up. This can throw your financial planning into disarray.
Also check the veracity of the sites that these aggregators lead you to.
With one stop / layover, there are two options to book flights from India to Phnom Penh (I am not including Siam Riep because I did not go there):
- Booking tickets on the same airline;
- Booking tickets on two different airlines.
1. Booking tickets on the same airline:
You can stopover at any of the Southeast Asian countries like Bangkok or Singapore by booking tickets on the same airline. The advantage of this is direct check-in of your bags till the final destination.
However, while booking, I found the prices for this option to be more expensive. Hence, I opted for the option below. I candidly admit that given the circumstance, choosing the second option might have been a mistake
2. Booking tickets on two different airlines:
You can stopover at any of the Southeast Asian countries and take an onward flight from the stopover port to Phnom Penh. For instance, I took a Spice Jet flight from New Delhi to Bangkok, had a 10-hour layover, and then took an Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. The advantage of doing this is that the prices of tickets significantly reduce. The downside that I didn’t foresee was this:
- I landed in Bangkok at 03:00 and had another flight at 14:45, which is almost a 10-hour layover. I had to think of innovative ways to spend my time during the layover;
- My bags were not checked in till the final destination. So I had to pick them up and re-check them in with Air Asia;
- My flight from New Delhi to Bangkok landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport and my flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh took off from Don Mueang (DMK) Airport. Both airports are at two different ends of the city;
- Since I had to change airports, I was forced to take a visa on arrival in Bangkok;
- Visa on Arrival at Bangkok is only a single entry visa, so I had to take the visa twice: once on my way to Phnom Penh and once on my way back to New Delhi. The cost for the visa therefore, was double.
- Tuktuks are the best way to travel within a city/town. They typically cost between 3$-9$ depending on the distance. As an indicator, these are the prices we paid:
|Airport → Phnom Penh||
|Within Phnom Penh||
|Kampot bus station→ Greenhouse||
- Most towns I went to had a time period of 2-6 hours between them. For longer travels, there are two ways to get around. The first is by bus, which is usually cheaper. The second way is by a mini van, which is 1-2$ more expensive than a bus. The key is to pick the right company for the bus / minivan. Best to ask the concierge at the accommodation you’re staying at for good travel agencies. As an indicator, these are the prices we booked our transport for:
|Time taken (hr)
|Amount ($ per person)||
|Phnom Penh → Kampot||
Minivan. Very comfortable
Minivan. Not very comfortable
|Sihanoukville → Phnom Penh||
I’ve included this section particularly, as Cambodia was an aberration from my usual way of travelling. While I am a strong advocate of Airbnb and homestays, Cambodia is popular for its hotels and resorts. I’ll detail our accommodation in the next section (“Detailed Itinerary”).
Tip: The best way to scope out hotels and resorts is on aggregator websites like Booking.com or Hotels.com. The benefit of these sites is the reward points. The points you collect can reward you with free stays. I personally re-check their recommendations on trip advisor too. The reviews there are recent in time and very helpful.
Detailed Itinerary for Indian backpackers:
Day 1: New Delhi to Bangkok
We had a 10-hour layover at Bangkok. We landed at 3 a.m. at Suvarnabhumi airport, after a 4-hour exhausting flight. Being an early morning flight, we had fewer options before getting to DMK airport well in advance for our onward journey to Phnom Penh.
We considered three options for our early morning trails:
- Wait till 9 a.m. for local sightseeing options to open, like the Grand Palace;
- Go to Khao San Road. This road is famous for its street food and massage places. It also gives a glimpse of the local life there; or
- Visit the weekend floating market.
After considering our time limitation and costing, we chose a path to Khao San road.
Tip: For the cheapest way to get to the city from Suvarnambhumi airport, take the S1 bus from the airport. Ask the tourist information desk on how to access the bus stop. It costs 60 Baht only!
As typical Bangkok-going tourists, picked a local eatery on the street and had a hearty meal of rice and pork (just rice for me). We also had the local coffee there which has condensed milk instead of fresh milk. We then proceeded to a thai massage parlour for an hour-long foot massage. The massage is a fantastic way of relieving aches from a red-eye flight!
Day 2: Phnom Penh
We stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel called Blue Lime resort at the heart of the city. Owing to the off-season rates, we could get a room with a private pool for two days at a very reasonable price. If you stay close to the river front, or the national museum, then travelling within the city becomes cheap. Most tourist areas are quite close to each other, with the exception of the Tuol Sleng museum.
Here’s what I recommend doing at Phnom Penh:
- Tol Sleng Museum. Also known as the S21 museum. This spot depicts the horrors of genocide that the Cambodian people went through from 1975-1979, under the Khmer Rouge regime. It serves as a grim reminder of terrible times that the Cambodians have faced. To understand the recent history of Cambodia, I highly recommend visiting this place. If you have time, you can make an onward journey to the killing fields as well. The fields are a little away from the city. I also recommend opting for the audio tour of the museum.
- Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: Cambodia’s monarchic history is well depicted at the royal palace. The area is dotted with numerous Buddhist temples that have been preserved in their pristine glory. While visiting the palace, don’t miss out on walking till the silver pagoda. The layout of the grounds may be a bit confusing. The palace is situated in one section, whereas the silver pagoda in another. You can also hire a guide there for 10$ to get a deeper insight into the place.
- Riverfront: Situated adjacent to the palace is a long stretch of Phnom Penh’s boardwalk. It’s a great place to experience the city’s vibe. However, be very careful with your belongings there. Locals have warned tourists about several occasions of theft there.
- Independence Monument: the monument is another sight at a roundabout on Cambodia’s busy roads. The architecture of the monument is worthwhile to see.
- Central market: I call it the ‘palika bazaar’ of Cambodia! A great place for roadside shopping for clothes, watches, silver jewellery, purses, belts, etc. at a very cheap price.
- Russian market: Another market for cheap electronic items.
I couldn’t eat at all the places on my wishlist but here’s a list:
- Pho (noodle soup) at Lucky Pho. It’s a small blink-and-you-miss-it restaurant next to the riverfront. Very popular with expats;
- Tapas at Friends. The specialty of the place is that it hires street kids and trains them for the hospitality industry. Vegetarian options are plenty there. It is moderately price.
- Other recommendations by friends are:
- Mab 123 for the Kampot pepper crab;
- Romdeng restaurant for tarantulas, among other normal food!; and
- Malis for a great Cambodian set menu.
Tip: Don’t miss the cheap local beer in Cambodia. Prices can be as low as 50 cents per pint!
Tip: Bargain hard to bring down the price of tuktuk travel. Sometimes, they even agree to half the price quoted originally!
Day 3: Kampot
Kampot is a getaway town for the Phnom Penh residents. It is a quaint town by the side of the gushing Kampot river. We stayed at a resort called Greenhouse, which is 15 min away from the town. Greenhouse is a spectacular place for those who want a staycation. Click here and here to see videos I shot of the cottage we stayed in at Greenhouse.
Tip: Book the cottage next to the river for the best view.
We did not see much of Kampot, but popular places around include a hike to Bokor mountain, visit to the Rabbit island and the pepper fields. You can also take a sunset cruise on the Kampot river to spot fireflies in the trees.
At Greenhouse, guests can do paddleboarding and kayaking on the river Kampot. It’s a great place for water activities, since the river is very calm.
Food was taken care of at Greenhouse itself. Note that the food is not as cheap as other places in Cambodia, so budget well for it.
Day 4 and 5: Sihanoukville / Koh Rong Island
The southern tip of Cambodia has some beautiful beaches and islands. Head to Sihanoukville to access the islands around Cambodia. There are two main islands that travellers go to: Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. While the former is more commercial and is touted as the ‘party island’, the latter is a quieter island. Each island has different beaches to choose from. Accommodation at the islands is very pocket-friendly.
To access the islands, head to any of the ferry agencies at Sihanoukville, or book online. I strongly suggest making your travel arrangements with the resort you’re heading to. Sometimes, accessing the islands and specific beaches can get confusing.
After checking all reviews, we zeroed down on Coconutbeach Bungalows at Koh Rong island. This resort is located at the quiet Coconut beach, 20 min away from Koh Rong’s main ferry port. A motley family of locals, who are wonderful hosts, owns it.
Some activities at Coconutbeach include:
- They have a beautiful area demarcated for swimming in the ocean. You can enjoy a nice sunbath at their floating raft, or swing in the middle of the sea!
- You can snorkel! There are sparse coral reefs and some fish around to watch. The host keeps the snorkel masks in the common area for everyone’s use.
- Every second or third day, the hosts organize a bonfire with music and free beer. When we were around, they had called a fire thrower to perform for us.
- If you go into the ocean on a dark night, you will be able to swim with the glowing planktons! When I was swimming, my entire body was illuminated by the planktons. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.
- You can trek to the other beaches that only the locals access.
- It’s a great place to network with other backpackers.
- Food is subsidized and hosts are very helpful. You can read books from their library and play board games from their large collection.
That’s it from me folks! If you have any questions or comments, hit me up on social media (icons below) or leave your message on this page!