Making one of the most spontaneous decisions I’ve made in a long time turned out to be one of the best!
My quest for a destination offering a visa on arrival (from India) and friendly to the budget led me to Southeast Asia. While Thailand’s island hopping and party scene didn’t quite fit the bill for me, backpacking in Cambodia emerged as the perfect choice.
Although Cambodia is primarily renowned for the awe-inspiring ruins of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest Hindu temple complex, this country has so much more to offer intrepid travelers. Whether it’s the warm-hearted locals, the delectable cuisine, the vibrant nightlife, the rich history, the pristine beaches, or the mesmerizing temples, Cambodia captivated me with its multifaceted beauty.
So, if you’re contemplating a journey to this enchanting land, I’ve put together an itinerary that will guide you through an unforgettable adventure for backpacking in Cambodia!
Backpacking in Cambodia: 10 day itinerary
Here’s our itinerary for backpacking in Cambodia for 10 days.
Day 1: Arrival in Siem Reap
My adventure began in Siem Reap, often referred to as the cultural heart of Cambodia. I chose to stay in an Airbnb, which, in my opinion, was the best way to fully immerse myself in the authentic Khmer way of life. To my surprise, my Airbnb host went above and beyond by arranging for a tuk-tuk to pick me up from the airport. Little did I know that this tuk-tuk driver would soon become my most exceptional guide for the next three days, leaving an indelible mark on my heart through his boundless generosity.
Day 2: Exploring Angkor Wat
It was time for me to embark on a journey back in time, strolling through the enchanting pathways of Angkor Wat, nestled on the outskirts of Siem Reap.
Pro-Tip: I opted for the 3-Day Ticket, a smart choice that ensured I had ample time to thoroughly explore all the temples without feeling rushed. Check out this Angkor Wat 3-day itinerary.
On my first day, I dedicated my time to a leisurely exploration of the primary temple, Angkor Wat, as well as some of the smaller gems like Banteay Kdei and Sa Srang.
In the evening, I ventured out to discover the Night Market and Pub Street, an altogether unique experience! The atmosphere was electric, with street food vendors dishing up a diverse array of delights, from succulent steaks to sizzling grills, and even insect roasts! Countless shops offered quirky activities like ‘fish pedicures’ among other intriguing offerings. It was truly an experience not to be missed.
See also: Guide to Microlighting Over Angkor Wat
Day 3: Witnessing the beauty of Bayon and the popular Ta Phrom
While Angkor Wat may steal the spotlight for many, I personally found the Bayon Temple even more captivating. The mesmerizing stone-carved faces took on an almost surreal quality from a distance, and the closer I got, the more their magnificence unfolded. I couldn’t help but ponder on the immense skill and dedication of the sculptors who created this masterpiece over 1,000 years ago.
As for Ta Phrom, it’s undoubtedly one of the most famous temples after Angkor Wat, partly because it served as the backdrop for the Hollywood movie Tomb Raider. Yet, its architectural grandeur goes far beyond its cinematic fame. Here, I witnessed the remarkable spectacle of nature triumphing over man’s endeavors, as trees gracefully intertwined with and grew over the temple’s ancient structures.
Day 4: Trip to Banteay Srei and visit the Kbal Spean
I found myself at a considerable distance from Siem Reap, standing before Banteay Srei, also known as the Citadel of Women, and it was a temple that left me utterly spellbound. Constructed primarily from red sandstone, this medium provided the perfect canvas for the intricate and beautifully preserved wall carvings that still graced the temple today. The structures themselves were remarkably petite, a stark contrast to the typical grandeur of Angkorian architecture.
Continuing on my journey, I made my way to Kbal Spean, renowned as the ‘River of 1000 Lingas.’ Nestled on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills, this site featured a remarkable series of stone rock relief carvings within the sandstone formations of the riverbed and its banks. The sight was almost surreal at first glance!
Note: A bit of hiking was required to reach this spot, so I made sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Upon returning to Siem Reap in the evening, I couldn’t resist indulging in a Khmer barbecue – an absolute must on my list! You simply cannot miss this experience. Siem Reap’s local market is home to some genuinely authentic Khmer restaurants that serve up unlimited meat for your barbecue delight. Brace yourself because you’ll have the opportunity to cook and savor one of the most exceptional meals ever!
Day 5: Boarding a bus for Phnom Penh, the capital city
It was time for me to bid farewell to Siem Reap! I hopped on the local intercity bus, which departed from the city center in Siem Reap, with the promise of reaching Phnom Penh in approximately 4 hours (though it did take about 5 and a half hours, factoring in a lunch stop).
Phnom Penh, being the bustling capital city, had a livelier vibe. That evening, I immersed myself in the local market scene, strolled along the riverside, and enjoyed a delightful dinner. Since the Independence Monument was close to my accommodation, I couldn’t resist catching a glimpse of it as well.
Day 6: Exploring The Killing Fields & S-21 Museum
You can go about visiting the Killing Fields & S-21 Tour in a few different ways: book tickets online, ask your Airbnb or hotel staff to arrange it for you, or do what I did – negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver for a day’s ride, which turned out to be the most budget-friendly option! (For the entire day, my tuk-tuk driver charged me about 15 USD).
Both of these sites will transport you back in time and shed light on the dark days that Cambodians endured during the Khmer Rouge era. The Killing Fields are solemn places where over a million people lost their lives and were buried by the Khmer regime under Pol Pot’s leadership. This tragic chapter unfolded during his rule from 1975 to 1979, immediately following the conclusion of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). The mass killings are widely recognized as part of a broader state-sponsored genocide.
As I walked through the site, I couldn’t help but shiver while listening to the audio guide (available at the entrance for a minimal fee and offered in various languages). It vividly recounted the brutal assaults and killings that took place there. There’s also a museum tower that houses numerous skulls, serving as a haunting reminder of the lives lost at that very spot.
S21, also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was originally a school but has now transformed into a harrowing witness to brutal killings. From 1976 to 1979, approximately 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (though the exact number remains unknown). Inside the classrooms, you’ll encounter photographs of the prisoners who endured torture and met their tragic end, along with the instruments used for their horrifying demise. As you traverse the corridors, you’ll hear chilling stories that serve as a grim reminder of the atrocities that occurred here. (I must emphasize that this place is not for the faint of heart, and believe me when I say this, I witnessed people breaking down in tears.)
It had been an exhausting day, so I decided to return to my lodgings and get some much-needed rest. In the evening, I ventured out for a leisurely stroll along the riverside, a place that was close to my heart.
Day 7: Exploring the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and the Silver Pagoda, before boarding the night bus to Sihanoukville
The Royal Palace, as the name suggests, is a complex of buildings that serve as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. It’s a remarkable example of Khmer architecture with a subtle French influence evident in its layout, featuring a defensive wall, throne hall, Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Preah Keo Morakot), stupas, towering spires, and mural paintings. The unique architecture and pristine beauty of this place will truly leave you in awe.
My next stop was the National Museum, Cambodia’s largest museum of cultural history and the leading historical and archaeological museum in the country.
The museum boasts one of the world’s most extensive collections of Khmer art, including sculptures, Khmer ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. Its collection comprises over 14,000 items, spanning from prehistoric times to periods before, during, and after the Khmer Empire’s height, which once extended from Thailand, across present-day Cambodia, to southern Vietnam.
In the evening, I boarded the bus bound for Sihanoukville and arrived there late at night. My plan was to head to the nearby island the next day, so I secured ferry tickets for an early morning departure from the bus station.
Day 8: Journey to Koh Rong Sanleom – Cambodia’s beach paradise!
I caught the 7:30 a.m. ferry the next day and journeyed to Koh Rong Sanloem! (If you’ve always been enthralled by Thai islands, let me tell you – Cambodian islands are equally stunning, and you’ll encounter fewer crowds here!)
This island is truly one of the more secluded ones, with only a handful of resorts that can make your stay quite expensive. However, since I had been diligently managing my expenses by staying at Airbnbs for most of my trip, I decided to treat myself a bit and booked a stay at The One (now closed) – one of the fanciest resorts on the island, complete with private boats, a secluded beach, and an infinity pool! (It was high time for a little staycation after all that backpacking!)
Day 9: Exploring Koh Rong, before heading back to the mainland!
My morning began with the soothing sound of waves and a delightful breakfast at The One’s restaurant, followed by some leisurely beach time!
While there were tempting options for snorkeling and kayaking, I decided to fully unwind and remained at the resort, soaking in the breathtaking views and calming my senses.
As I had mentioned earlier, Koh Rong isn’t as frequented by tourists, which became evident during my stay at the resort when a waiter mistook me for someone from Sri Lanka. He excitedly showed me a currency note and said, “Someone from your country gave me this!” I corrected him, mentioning that I was from India, and he responded that they rarely received Indian visitors; instead, they mostly welcomed Australians and Japanese.
Without a doubt, Koh Rong stands out as one of the most incredible places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit in my 27 years of life!
In the late afternoon, I caught the 4 PM ferry to return to Sihanoukville, and from there, I embarked on a night bus journey back to Phnom Penh!
Day 10: A journey back home
They say that you’re never quite the same after witnessing the sunset in another corner of the world. As I boarded the flight back to India, I couldn’t help but reflect on what an incredibly beautiful journey it had been. While my initial intention was to explore the oldest temple complex in the world, my trip to Cambodia unfolded as a profound experience, introducing me to a unique culture and revealing a history that tugged at my heartstrings.
My adventure in Cambodia taught me that no amount of reading can truly capture the essence of a place; you have to be there, immerse yourself, and experience it firsthand. Whether you’re drawn to backpacking amidst ancient ruins, participating in volunteer work to contribute meaningfully to Cambodian society, or delving deep into the rich history of the land, a trip to Cambodia has the power to transform you into a more compassionate and understanding human being.