I’ll admit, apart from exploring the ancient complex of Angkor Wat, Cole and I had formed no other real expectations for backpacking throughout the rest of the country.
We have found though that anytime we enter a new place with this kind of mindset, we are bound to be amazed, time and time again.
And, that we were.
As with all the other countries we visited while backpacking Southeast Asia, we could have spent months in one place and still never scratched the surface of what the country has to offer — Cambodia was no different.
From Siem Reap to Battambang, Phnom Penh to Mondulkiri we dove headfirst into history, cruised up and down the countryside, drank ice-cold Angkor beers with strangers, and trekked through the jungle in search of elephants.
Stop 1: Siem Reap
We chose to begin our 10-day Cambodian backpacking trip in Siem Reap – a place we wished we would have had weeks to adventure around rather than just a couple of days.
One Stop Hostel was a perfect launching point for our exploring. In true Hendrickson fashion we chose to bike the temples rather than experience them solely on foot. Our awesome tour with Grasshopper Adventures took us the scenic, backroad way to the complex’s main attractions, such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
Regardless of how you choose to see Angkor Wat, we highly suggest going with a guide on at least one of your days (definitely allot more than one day to the complex if you can!), so that you can learn more about the history of the temples, the significance of the architecture, and the meanings embedded in the bas-reliefs.
Also, morning person or not, seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a must. Expect crowds when you go but don’t worry, you’ll have an incredible view no matter where you’re standing.
We suggest renting your own scooter – wear a helmet! – to explore around Siem Reap. You’ll love the freedom it awards you, especially when exploring Angkor Wat. As a bonus, we also found it to be one of the safest Southeast Asian countries to cruise around – take that statement with a grain of salt.
Before heading out of Siem Reap, don’t miss a chance to catch a sunset over Phnom Krom, explore the night markets, purchase some handmade goods, and – if you’re really brave – try one of the local delicacies: crickets.
Stop 2: Battambang
If off-the-beaten path adventures are your thing (let’s be friends!), you won’t want to skip a quick detour to Battambang. While you can bus to Battambang from Siem Reap, we suggest taking the boat – if you’re up for a long (6-8 hours) and hot – but don’t forget scenic! – ride.
The boat slowly, very slowly, weaves its way up the river and past several small, floating fishing villages. From the boat, you’ll get a glimpse of rural Cambodia, far away from the country’s crowded tourist attractions.
You’ll need a scooter to explore around Battambang as many of the attractions are spread out around the area — did I mention wear a helmet?!
A 30 minute cruise will get you to beautiful Wat Banan, a well preserved temple set at the top of 300 stairs.
Along this route you can also access the Killing Caves (note: this attraction was incredibly touristy and took away from the experience — we do not necessarily recommend) and the surreal phenomenon of the Bat Caves (which we definitely recommend)!
Watching five million bat form an endless line as they exit the cave at sunset is definitely an event worth watching. Find a seat among the crowd, pop open a cold beer of Angkor, and wait.
Stop 3: Phnom Penh
While cities usually don’t make our list when traveling, we made it a point to stop through Phnom Penh for one day in order to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
Choeung Ek is the most well known of sites collectively referred to as the Killing Fields.
During the Khmer Rouge, over one million people were killed at these sites. Today these sites remain intact and serve as mass gravesites. As expected, walking through the fields and listening to the recording, was a deeply moving, tragic and hollowing experience.
Visiting at least one of these sites is imperative to understanding the recent history and culture of the country. The mass killings took place between 1975 and 1979 — a sadness is still palpable throughout the country.
While we did not spend much time in Phnom Penh, our short experience in the city definitely colored our traveler’s lens for the remainder of the trip.
We did not document this experience out of respect for the many lives lost.
Stop 4: Mondulkiri
We had heard of the Mondulkiri Project from fellow travelers via word of mouth – and, man, were we glad we did!
By far the most adventurous thing we did while in Cambodia was trek through the jungle in search of elephants, sleep in open-air hammocks, and cliff jump from the tops of waterfalls.
The two day, one night (2D1N) tour is an incredible way to experience the Cambodian countryside. You’ll learn about the NGO’s mission, ethically interact with the rescued elephants, eat delicious traditional hill tribe meals, and trek through the jungle while stopping to play in the many waterfalls and caves.
Had there been a longer tour option we definitely would have signed up for it. It was a refreshing experience to get away from the traveler scene for a bit and, in its place, experience a local one.
Unfortunately, after our adventure in Mondulkiri came to an end, it was time for us to pack out and head for Vietnam to continue on our backpacking venture.
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Time seems to move slower in Cambodia, compared to its more frequented neighbors, but, before you’ve even realize, your days in Cambodia will be over and you’ll be wishing you’d had more time.
For us, more time in Cambodia would have warranted a trip or two to the coast — we’ve heard great things! — but having spent the last two years in the Philippines we had to make the hard choice to skip the ocean views.
Do you have a favorite place in Cambodia? A coastal town we should go back and visit? We’d love to hear your input in the comments!
Until next time, keep adventuring x
KEEP BELIEVING. KEEP EXPLORING. AND, KEEP RELENTLESSLY TELLING THE UNIVERSE ALL IT IS YOU PLAN TO DO.