Backpacking Cambodia on a Budget – The Complete First-Timer Guide to Cambodia
That was our first impression, when still flying over Cambodia.
Rows of yellow and brown fields cover a large area with barely any tree in sight. The accumulation of some houses and streets here and there indicates a town.
Cambodia – a rural desolate country
Soon, after being here for nearly 1 month, this country will leave us behind with an awkward feeling, questioning us:
That was it?
That was Cambodia?
The first impression didn’t deceive us.
Cambodia is a barren wasteland. Apart from that, it’s shaken by a history of bloodshed. Today it’s mainly driven by agriculture and tourism.
Our challenge was to travel the country for 1 month in the most inexpensive and frugal way, visiting Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kep, Battambang and Siem Reap.
While researching budget tips for Cambodia, so many times we came across the following kind of blogpost titles “How to travel Cambodia for under $25 per day” or even worse: “How to travel Cambodia for $50 per day”.
After breaking down all expenses on accommodation, food, transport and activities, we couldn’t believe that we managed to live on less than $15 per day – far less than all the other blogs we came across our research.
We want to encourage all those people who read the same budget blog posts about Cambodia, which make it hard to believe that they were written by real budget travelers.
How can $25 or $50 be a budget range if you don’t even have this much to spend?
For us everything over $15, or sometimes $10 is already considered as way too much. Especially in a country where many people have to live on $1 per day.
Everyone who claims that there is no way to spend less than those $25 per day, is either not a budget traveler or just doesn’t know how to keep the budget tight.
In this Cambodia Budget Guide we want to give you an overview where to stay, eat and rent a bike for as less as possible.
We travel as a couple, so we are able to save a lot of money by sharing a room, a motorbike and food.
➳ First impression of Khmer people
➳ Learning about Khmer history
➳ Sampling food at the street market
Visa on arrival: $30 (only US dollars are accepted)
Tuktuk to Phnom Penh city: $7
Look out for other travelers to share the costs as the amount of passengers sharing a tuktuk doesn’t influence price you initially agreed on.
Where to stay?
Hostels $3-5 per day
19 Happy House/The Happy House Zone: $3
The White Rabbit: $4
Natural Inn Backpacker Hostel: $5
Budget rooms $5-10 per day
Grand View Guesthouse: $5
Kriss Guesthouse: $7
Okay Guesthouse: $10
Where to eat?
fresh juice, water, vegetarian dish, side dish for $2.50
Russian Market street food:
iced coffee: $0.50
rice cake snack with sweet-sour sauce: $0.25
baguette with grilled meat: $0.75
veggie spring rolls: 3 for $1
veggie samosas: 3 for $1
beer: $0.50 (happy hour), normal price $0.75
bottle of water: $0.50
noodles with veggies: $2
The guesthouse area where you’re staying at is not Phnom Penh. This is not where you’ll meet locals or where you’ll find cheap street food.
This is not more than an artificially created zone for tourists who are willing to pay Western prices because they’re afraid of food prepared, cooked and served on the streets.
If you’re on a budget, you have no other option than to take a step out of this zone. Indeed, there are sometimes barriers, especially when you can’t understand the poor English of the locals. For vegetarians the question “Is there meat in it” often remains unanswered.
In this case, let your meat-eating friends try the food first or walk to a stall with other tourists eating.
We visited Cambodia during February/March, which are supposed to be two of the hottest months of the season.
Cambodians are night creatures
Cambodians live for the nights. Throughout the day, it’s too hot and exhausting for any kind of work.
A lot of food stalls are closed in the time between 12 pm and 4 pm when the sun is at its highest.
When the sun sets, people become alive.
Night Markets open up their stalls for visitors.
Iced coffee and juices are great to cool down.
Street food is inexpensive and the perfect dish after a hot day.
Beer is cheaper during the Happy Hour (between 4 and 8 pm). So far Cambodian beer (Angkor) is the most reconcilable beer I tried. Even after a couple of beers it causes a nice laid-back feeling without turning the mood upside down.
Phnom Penh: Street food sampling
Buy a cold beer from one of the vendors on Sisowath Quay and take a walk along the Mekong riverside.
Locals gather at the riverfront park for a family picknick.
The best place to catch the sunset is at the National Museum when the sun sets right behind the temple building.
Try Khmer street food at the Russian Market.
Try sugar cane juice. The sugar cane was passed through a special machine to squeeze the sugar cane. The juice flows into a separate bowl.
sugar cane juice: $0.25
Playing cards and paper money can be found in great numbers, scattered around the streets. Cambodians like to play cards and sometimes they play for (paper) money.
Phnom Penh: Moments of contemplation
➳ Killing Fields
➳ S-21 prison
Entrance killing fields: $3 (or $6 with audio guide)
Entrance genocide museum: $3 (or $6 with audio guide)
Tuktuk round-trip: $16
The Khmer people are traumatized by what happened from 1975-1979 under Pol Pot’s dictatorship and the Khmer Rouge regime.
In order to establish and keep up a communist system in which all private belongings were declared as common property, all those who were against this system, had to die in the most unscrupulous way.
It was mainly the higher educated people like doctors, artists, monks, teachers and engineers that were imprisoned and killed straight away.
Throwing Cambodia back into the Medieval Age
Pol Pot’s sick idea was to throw Cambodia back in time. Technical development and industrialization were abolished completely. Even religion and culture was exterminated to the fullest, leaving the people behind without any identity or history.
Over one million Cambodians were horribly tortured and then killed in the Killing Fields.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Enslavement, imprisonment, torture, execution
A former Cambodian school was transformed into the notorious S-21 prison.
Victims were accused of spying for the American CIA or Russian KGB although they were innocent. They were deported to the S-21 prison and tortured barbarically until they confessed.
During the grotesque torture methods that prisoners had to undergo, often for several hours every day, many of them already gave up, knowing they would never return home.
To end the cruelties, the victims had no other choice than to make a false testimony.
The poor souls had no chance to escape the death sentence.
Everybody who ended up in the prison was meant to die. There were no exceptions. Innocence was no reason to escape. Far from it!
In the late evenings, trucks were loaded with blindfolded and handcuffed Cambodian citizens. They were brought to the Killing Fields and executed. Not only the accused ones were killed, but also their partners and children.
First they took away their property, then their families and last their dignity
Those who could escape imprisonment, had to work hard on the fields without getting any food. They were treated like cattle, even worse. The food was rationed drastically and those who were brave enough to steal a piece of corn or some rice were punished violently and most often killed.
Old people and children died from hunger and the inhumane working conditions.
Those who were imprisoned, had to undergo the horrible hours between the drive to the Killing fields and the moment when they had to kneel down, trembling in contemplation of their last breath.
They were separated from their wives, husbands and children.
Families struggled day by day with the uncertainty whether their beloved ones are still alive or already dead.
Last resort: save your life by using your skills and talents
Only a few victims with special talents that were needed by the Khmer Rouge like painters, drawers, mechanics and translators could escape their faiths.
For example one day the prison attendant was walking from cell to cell announcing that artists were needed to paint a portrait of Pol Pot.
A brave, though already half broken man rose up his hand, strongly believing that this was the sky-given opportunity he was waiting for.
In the last days of the Khmer Rouge, after the liberation of the Cambodian people, he was one of the few prisoners of the famous S-21 prison that survived the genocide.
Today you can visit and talk to Mr Bou Meng, the most famous survivor of the Khmer Rouge tyranny. His story is told in an exhibition, tracking his life back from the imprisonment to the moment he could save his life by using his skill as an artist.
A 360-degree glass shrine (stupa) with 8000 skulls was established as the most important memorial of the genocide.
You can walk around the stupa and pray for all the lost souls who never get an appropriate burial ceremony.
All skulls show evidence of gruesome killing by use of instruments reminiscent of barbaric ages.
Each skull was matched to the killing tool that was used as the shape of the hole or crack marked the forensic proof. Stickers with different colors are added to the skulls. The colors are matched to the correspondent killing tool.
The Killing Fields are a horrible sight but we have to see, in order to never forget. This important statement can be also found in several reports written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge.
The genocide is still present in the heads of the Cambodians. Almost everybody has a relative that died during the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh has only a few old people. The youth is the new hope of the Cambodians. That’s why there are so many children and young families everywhere. The country has to repopulate and find a way to deal with this dark chapter of history. For us and the young Cambodians, the Khmer history is hard to grasp as we grew up in a time when peace and human rights mark the highest values in a society.
Kampot & Kep
➳ Rent a motorbike
➳ Slow down and follow the course of the river
➳ Abandoned colonial houses on the peak of a mountain
➳ Mystic caves with Elephant shapes
How to get there from Phnom Penh?
The Happy House bus service: $6 minivan
The ride takes 3 hours.
Where to stay?
Hostels $3-5 per day
Naga House: $3
Blissful Guesthouse: $3
Captain Chim’s: $5
Budget rooms $5-10 per day
Jacks’s House: $5
Blissful Guesthouse: $6
Captain Chim’s: $8
Where to eat?
noodles with vegetables or Khmer curry: $1.50
fruit shake: $0.75
fruit shake: $0.50
spring rolls: 10 for $1 plus cucumber slices
noodles with vegetables: $1.25
baguette with meat: $0.50
steamed bun: $0.25
Where to rent a motor bike?
Nearly every guesthouse rents out bikes, however it’s hard to find something under $5.
cheapest we found at the Daily Meat shop: $4 per day
Location: Old Market, Street 724, Store number 16A.
Drive, stop, look, enjoy, repeat
Get out of Kampot and put your wheels on the highway.
Wasteland left and right.
No trees. Thousands of hectares of desert between you and the mountains.
Cows crossing the highway.
Always carry some water with you. The sun is merciless, especially as there is no shade. No trees anywhere, you remember?
Wooden houses built on poles. Reminds me of Western movies. Just the saloon doors and cowboys riding horses are missing.
Mangrove tree houses built over the water. Little fishing boats are docked to piers. Ducks swim past. The water doesn’t look clean. Trash is surfacing. Shrieking chickens. There are no other farm animals apart from cows and chickens.
Buffalo taking a bath in a pond.
Driving on a motorbike is great. The side wind cools. Cover your face. Dust and dirt is blowing up.
The yellow colonial style house makes a perfect background. A statue of a mermaid-like goddess is overlooking the pond.
The river might not look inviting for a swim, however it’s a popular promenade to walk, rest and watch the sunset. Especially in the evening the Old Bridge shines in thousands of colors.
Bars along the Riverside sell draft beer for $0.50.
Family Guesthouse: $0.50 draft beer with longest Happy Hour (4-8pm, elsewhere until 7pm)
White Elephant caves and Bat cave
Walk up the stairs, decorated with winding snakes. Snakes with many heads. On top of the hill there is a beautiful pagoda overgrown by branches.
Here are 3 caves. The shapes of the limestone resemble the shapes of an elephant. There are some meditation mats and Buddha statues. It’s dark, only some little light is coming from the opening. Bats are sleeping in the deeper, darker parts.
Bokor mountain abandoned colonial hill station
During the 1920s Cambodia was a French colony ruled by French authorities. The idea was to create a weekend getaway to escape the tropical heat in the cities. Indeed a trip to Bokor mountain is refreshing and sometimes the wind can be very freezing.
The most impressive sight, impossible to miss is the Lok Yeay Mao Monument. It’s impossible to miss as it’s a skyscraper of a statue showing a woman sitting in meditation position and facing the coast. She is the protector spirit of fishermen and hunters, the ones who nourish the folk.
Nature has taken over. There are 3 houses opposite the Big Statue, symbolizing the remnants of time. The composition of the interior architecture is still visible, expressing the elegance of the French upper society.
The view from the terrace is amazing, overlooking the whole coast.
A window to another world.
A painting of a jungle on the wall or a jungle behind the window?
Visitors reported that they saw tigers and wild elephants. I guess for that experience you’ve got to take a hike deep into the woods. However, we also saw some exotic wildlife. We surprisingly spotted a toucan. That was on our way back from the mountain. As we never saw a toucan before, this was a unique moment.
➳ South Coast with beach
➳ Kep market
➳ White Lady statue
On your way to the most Southern point, stop at the market for a snack and a fresh juice. The souvenirs are also slightly cheaper than in Kampot.
2 wristbands: $1
Kep awaits with a strip of sandy beach. Monks like the sea as well.
A sculpture of a Lady in sitting position, staring at the sea with a melancholic expression is the landmark of Kep. This mermaid on two legs is better known to the Khmer people as the ‘woman who waits for her man’. Originally naked, conservative locals cover the lady’s intimate parts with garments.
For the laid-back traveller, Kampot is one hammock away from paradise.
Fo the curious historian Kampot is one century away from a rich French colonial past.
For expats Kampot is million miles away from home but so close to a peaceful village life.
For us Kampot was an adventure on two wheels with a lot of delicious and affordable street food.
➳ Boring, more boring, Battambang
➳ Killing caves in the countryside
➳ Bamboo train hype?
How to get there from Kampot?
Sorya (red) bus: $6
We were not aware of this but bear in mind that the ride takes 12 hours!
There will be a few breaks on the way with tourist traps selling soft drinks for $1 and overpriced snacks, so bring your own snacks and water.
Where to stay?
Hostels $2-$3 per day
Tomato Guesthouse: $2
Here Be Dragons: $3
Chhaya Hotel: $3
Budget rooms $3-$8 per day
Tomato Guesthouse: $3 or $4
Chhaya Hotel: $5
333 Guesthouse: $5
Here Be Dragons: $8
Where to eat?
All guesthouses provide a restaurant, so just walk around and compare the prices on the menus. For us, as frugal travelers, $1.50 for a plate of noodles with veggies can already be called excessive if we compare it to other cities. That’s why we avoided restaurants and tested the waters of local street food.
What a surprise! Battambang has excellent and quite affordable street food.
fruit shake: $0.75
passion fruit with soda: $0.50
Chinese pancake: $0.30
spring rolls: 10 for $1
noodles with veggies and chicken: $1.25
corn cob: $0.25
sweet pastry: $0.25
canned beer: $0.50 at market stalls, $0.75 elsewhere
Where to rent a motorbike?
Prices for motorbikes are comparatively overpriced with prices around $7-8. So far, only in Kampot we could find motorbike rentals for under $5.
Tomato Guesthouse: $7 per day
Madison Corner: $7 per day
Forget Battambang city, rent a bike and explore the outskirts…all the things we didn’t do
…instead, we kept our budget tight and took our time to recover.
There are quite a few activities in the countryside awaiting you if you’re willing to rent a bike or hire a tuktuk.
One major sight in Battambang are the Killing Caves.
As we visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh some weeks before, we were able to learn about the dark chapter of Cambodian history and show our compassion to all the innocent souls who were in agony in the course of Khmer Rouge atrocities. We decided to avoid the Killing Caves as there was no need to go through this horror scenario again.
Apart from the Killing Caves, the Angkorial temple Phnom Banan seem to be the other tourist attraction. If you have done the tour to the marvelous temples of Angkor, you won’t miss anything if you skip this temple.
The hype about the Bamboo train
Last but not least, let’s have a look on the over hyped bamboo train.
There were several things that deterred us from making the bamboo train experience.
$5 per person for a ride on a piece of wood?
The bamboo train is just a tourist trap and locals make probably fun of those giving it so much attention.
When we first heard about the bamboo train, we assumed it would be a real train, taking us to different regions. However, it’s just wood on rails passing some villages. At the end of the drive, vendors await for the usual bothering.
We decided to make a stop in Battambang on our way to Siem Reap. As absolute Lonely Planet deniers, we rather like to exchange our travel experiences with other travelers. That’s how we got the tip to visit Battambang as it has the reputation of being less touristy and representing the real Cambodian life.
This might be true. We could catch a glimpse of Cambodian school yards, local food places and the typical local nightlife.
Cambodians live for the nights as mentioned in the beginning of this article. Women gather on main squares for night aerobics guided by a lead member. Children play soccer. Older kids drink beer. Food stalls are scattered around everywhere, supplying the people with hot snacks, sweet pastry, fresh fruit shakes and cool drinks.
According to the Cambodians, we followed their rhythm, which meant resting during the humid daytime and getting alive for the late hours. We tried loads of street food and boosted ourselves with fruit shakes.
We skipped sightseeing this time (Killing Caves, temples) and the bamboo train, which we don’t count as a major thing to do. Instead we kept our budget tight and splurged in good food and enjoying the evenings outdoors.
➳ Angkor Wat = the first and sometimes the only reason to come to Cambodia
➳ Absolutely touristy
➳ Most expensive place to stay
How to get there from Battambang
Mini-bus (Mekong Express): $6
Bus Capitol Tours: $4.50
Where to stay?
Hostels $3-$6 per day
Garden Village Guesthouse: $4.50
Reggae Guesthouse: $5
European Guesthouse: $6
Budget rooms $8-$10 per day
Mommy Guesthouse: $8
Same Same Hostel: $8
Smiley Guesthouse: $8
Topsky Hostel: $10
Where to eat?
Moul Cheng Heang Restaurant:
fruit shake: $0.75
noodles with veggies: $1
spring rolls: $1.50
draft beer: $0.50
$1-menus (rice with veggies, french fries, spring rolls, omelette)
Old Market Kitchen Restaurant:
fruit shake: $0.75
noodles with veggies: $1.50
small pizza with tomato and cheese: $2
small pizza (ham, spaccanapoli, vegetarian): $3.50
medium pizzas (different toppings): $6
large pizzas: $10
Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant:
draft beer: $0.38
milk tea: $0.75
plain Naan: $0.75
different vegetarian dishes: $2.50-$4.50
big vegetarian plate (rice, veg. masala, vegetables, sauces): $5
big mixed plate (rice, chicken, masala, vegetables, sauces): $6
Nom Ka Chai: vegetarian steamed chive with sauce: 2 for $1
pancake with banana/chocolate: $1
noodles with veggies: $1
sweet coconut balls: 10 for $1
Döner kebab: $1-$2
Be part of the sunrise at Angkor Wat and observe the spectacle with your eyes and not your camera
Don’t panic. Even if it was your lifetime dream to see Angkor Wat and maybe the only reason why you came to Cambodia, the trip doesn’t require much planning.
Hire a tuktuk. It doesn’t have to be a special driver, any driver knows the sacred sites and the major temples. Just agree on a Small or a Big Tour.
The small tour is the standard tour for a 1-day pass. The big tour encircles remote temples and requires a 3-day-pass.
1-day pass: $20
3-day pass: $40
The tour starts at Angkor Wat and crosses the following sites within the Angkor Park:
Angkot Thom, Bayon, Baphoun, Elephant Terrace, Ta Keo, Ta Phrom and Bantei Kdei.
Every temple has its own character and fascination. Some are less, others more preserved. Some are less, some more famous. Some applies for the individual degree of interest. Some people like the bewildered ruins more, others admire the timeless architecture more.
It’s up to you! Take your time, wander around, have a rest and contemplate about how it might felt to be part of this ancient empire.
How was life back then? How did the kings dine? What were they doing most of the time? Celebrating? Worshipping their gods? Planning their expansion?
If you stay in a hostel, find other travelers who are looking forward to do the tour as well. Share a tuktuk and split the costs.
We shared a tuktuk with 2 other travelers we met in Battambang.
Each had to pay $3.50. Sharing a ride can make the difference!
Unfortunately, we saw the opposite more often. Two persons or, even worse, just one person sitting alone in a tuktuk.
Talk to each other, take one tuktuk together and save up to ¾ of the full price if you’re 4 passengers.
Small Tour: $15
Big Tour: $25
We came in expectation of sunrise magic but ended up between hoards of people clicking and flashing
Once you enter Angkor Wat, someone from the surrounding stalls will lead you to the West side of the site. First we thought it’s some sort of staff doing organizational work, later we met that person, who advised us again. She seemed to have remembered our faces and asked us if we want to buy something from her stall.
That’s the story how we ended up sitting around the pond, with a bunch of other excited early birds. The lady, who advised us, said that the pond is the best spot to take a picture, assuming that this is the only thing people care about.
Bit by bit the sun illuminated the ruins of the majestic temple, mirrored by the pond.
Everybody was waiting patiently or less patiently for the sun painting the sky with warm colors.
Smartphones, tablets or super high definition cameras equipped with the most expensive gear.
Release sounds everywhere. Nobody came solely with its imagination.
Big disappointment loomed their faces. The sky was cloudy and grey.
The illumination of Angkor Wat wasn’t as spectacular as they all had in their minds, blinded by the pictures they saw on internet.
The reality can sometimes destroy the magic.
The tourist masses, the ‘Chinese syndrome’ to take a picture of every single detail and the sunrise hype left us behind with a bitter aftertaste.
Hello dear temple fatigue – the moment when every temple begins to look like the previous one
It’s absolutely understandable if your attitude towards the temples gets more passive the more hours you spend in the Angkor Park.
The burning heat. Climbing stairs. A temple overload.
Temple fatigue can be reduced by taking breaks between the temple stops and staying hydrated.
There are a few motifs that you’ll cross over and over again. They can be found in the majority of the temple carvings, sculptures and gate entrances.
Apsara: bare-breasted mythical female temple dancers
Kala: gate guardian
Naga: many-headed mythical serpent
Beyond the temples: join the monkey parade
Outside of Angkor Wat, on the West side next to the lilly pond, there is a monkey forest. They’re usually hunting for food. The little ones are playing with tourist leftovers, like in our photo with a napkin.
Watching monkeys is a welcoming change if you suffer from temple fatigue.
Siem Reap: a city that becomes alive in the night
Don’t make Angkor Wat the only reason for your stay in Siem Reap.
Get out in the evenings for the absolute Cambodian flair.
Walk around the Night Market.
Spoil yourself with street food and fruit shakes.
Haggle for souvenirs and clothes.
Grab a drink and enjoy the light decoration.
Siem Reap got famous through Angkor Wat and its former key position as the largest city in the world in the time between the 9th and the 15th century.
Imagining how many years and how much effort it took to build up all those gigantic temples, left us stunned.
Touching the ancient walls and pillars threw us back in time, reflecting how the Khmer royals and priests lived and worshipped their gods in those buildings.
Today the jungle took over most of the temples. Trees winding up the ruins, embracing each other like they belong together. Nature and architecture.
Then there is the other side of Angkor.
The dark side.
No peace and quiet although a sacred site.
For some Angkor Wat is the only reason to come to Cambodia.
For us it’s one reason, maybe also a crucial reason but not the only one.
We’re thankful for the experience and can cross it off from our bucket list.
Would we return to Angkor Wat?
It wouldn’t be the same anymore.
The first-time magic would be gone and all what would be left are the resolutions to do it better.
We saw Angkor Wat with the sun rise, illuminating the majestic remnants of the Angkor Empire. That was a unique moment. Especially the excitement during the ride to the marvellous temples is something that cannot be repeated. A mix of tension and fascination. Feelings, when approaching the New. The mystical.
Coming back to Angkor in 5 or even 10 years will never bring those feelings back again.
For us Angkor Wat is now revealed and we’ll keep the memories of all the feelings that came up while wandering around and inside the temple complex, in our travel hearts.
Also read our detailed budget for Cambodia: Traveling Cambodia on $13 per Day.