Affordable Asia: The Many Charms and Must-See Sites of Cambodia
Aerial view of Angkor Wat temple at sunset, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images
Yes, it takes longer to get to Cambodia. But flights are really your only major expense. And if you avoid the high season (December to February), you can treat yourself to a fabulous adventure. Rich culture, delicious food, stunning beaches, vibrant cities, splendid nature excursions — all for pennies on the dollar. Linked by a comprehensive network of inexpensive daily flights, trains, boats and ferries, the trio of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam can be experienced individually. Or, if you have the time, a tour of all three is a bucket list Grand Voyage — that’s very affordable on the ground.
Which is a good thing. With costs soaring for everything from housing and groceries to telecom rates and car insurance, many Canadians are feeling a squeeze on their travel budgets. At the same time, airfare spikes have soared by 50 per cent and exchange rates in every Western nation devalue Canadian cash by a third or more — adding +27 per cent (U.S.), +33 per cent (EU), +42 per cent (U.K.) — to costs on the ground. And, with many island currencies pegged to the U.S. dollar or the Euro, most of the Caribbean is no bargain either: +33 per cent in the French West Indies, +27 per cent in Panama, Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, the Bahamas, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and +40 per cent in the Cayman Islands.
That’s truly dreadful math for Canadians, who really love to travel: 70 per cent of us have passports (as opposed to one-third of Americans). Still, you can travel well on a budget, even if it does take time and effort, mainly in online research. And the upside of exotic, far-flung locales like Southeast Asia is that — if you’re flexible with dates and clever about routes — you can ferret out flight deals. I found a February (high season!) $1,500 flight to Bangkok (not the standard $2,300 to $2,500 it standardly costs today) and from there, you can fan out on inexpensive domestic carriers to Cambodia and Vietnam for $120 or less.
The best approach is a mix of splurge-steal. Local food is very inexpensive at simple eateries and street carts, a few days of that and you can splurge on a dressy night somewhere higher end. Stay in cheap and charming lodging — $50/night is very easy to find in Asia — then treat yourself to a few nights somewhere fancier for $150 or blow the savings on more ($20/hr.) massages, more shopping, more excursions, swankier dining options and more. Here are some of our top must-see sites and stays in Cambodia.
Going to Town in Siem Reap
More of a very big town than a city, compared with the capital, Siem Reap has exploded since my first trip in 2006. Back then, it had a frontier town vibe, chickens dashing across dusty dirt roads, incongruous to the very glam Hôtel de la Paix that had just arisen in the midst of town. In the decade prior, a trio of luxe addresses had arrived — a classic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (1997) and mid-century modernist Amansara (2002) — both in heritage buildings on what was then the outskirts of town, on the road to Angkor Wat. In 2000, the Orient Express (now Belmond) added the discreetly posh La Residence d’Angkor overlooking the river with its Indochine design, lily ponds and pool enclosed in a lush garden. Siem Reap was fun, given a handful of bars that had cropped up along Pub Street, but the gilded, whitewashed, Deco-Moroccan design bravura of La Paix, heralded what was to come. Today, it’s a Park Hyatt.
We have Angelina Jolie — and what the internet has wrought — to blame for this. Much of the first Tomb Raider (2001) was shot at the stunning temples of Angkor Wat. The actress fell madly in love with Cambodia (“it changed my life”), bought a house and kicked off her international adoption spree. That attention was followed by the torrent of influencers who arrived with the 2010 launch of Instagram, ballooning into an interminable onslaught of ‘lifestyle experts’ who stormed the world’s most captivating cultures and destinations.
In 2022, Siem Reap received more than 2.27 million travellers, up 326 per cent year over year. This is why no one sane visits during high season. Why, in 2022 alone, Venice introduced a system to combat over-tourism, Peru did the same for Machu Picchu and India imposed visitor restrictions at the Taj Mahal.
In the off season, Siem Reap’s laid-back vibe and lack of crowds make it a great place to visit. It is small enough to be easily navigated on foot and by bicycle, taxi or tuk-tuk, and Old Town retains its French colonial buildings. The river that bisects the town is lined with trees, crossed by many old bridges, and, in some stretches, lit in the evenings by colonial-era lantern posts. Charming hotel rooms for as little as $52 or $68 are plentiful. If you’re happy to pay more, Rambutan Resort in a converted colonial villa with a pool courtyard has a cool bar and dining scene. The most charming, small high-end choices are certainly Maison Polanka, in town, and Sala Lodges, a green compound of antique wooden homes sourced from across the country, just outside of it. And design fans can treat themselves to lunch or dinner at either.
Formerly a sleepy residential district, the area around Wat Bo pagoda is one of Siem Reap’s oldest areas and now it’s most stylish. Crowned “Asia’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Time Out in 2022, the open-air dining room at Viroths, a trendy Wat Bo boutique hotel, offers good Khmer and loads of style for the price. So 26, owned by a charming Scottish expat, is a wonderfully designed little bohemian gem with a great vibe and good food, that’s open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks.
And do not miss Miss Wong. Siem Reap’s first high-end cocktail bar (outside of a hotel) opened in 2008 in what’s become the nightlife zone along Pub Street. Loved for its elegantly louche 1920s Shanghai ambiance, light Chinese menu, chic cocktails and cool music, its expat owner recently relocated to the more sophisticated riverside quarter of Wat Bo. Directly across the river, Kandal Village is another area that’s emerged in the last few years. A short, quiet street with small boutiques and café s selling refined homewares, artisanal goods and clothing
Balance the style addresses with great cheap eats. There are plenty. Book a street food tour with a local ($22) who can tell you everything about traditional Cambodian cuisine — as well as the best inexpensive local spots to find it.
The surrounding countryside is beautiful, full of rice paddies and magnificent ancient temples. A world heritage site built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument (four times the size of Vatican City) and graces Cambodia’s national flag. Do not visit between December and February, avoid weekends and don’t go between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. Lunchtime and sunset are less crowded. A private sunrise tour (for as little as $36 per person) treats you to a magical hour of Buddhist monks chanting in the dim light of the 5:00 to 6:00 pre-dawn, followed by an incredible sunrise over the temple. Definitely visit Angkor Thomas well. Once a great city, this 10 square-kilometre site is still home to many temples, including the amazing Bayon, where 216 huge, smiling faces are hand carved into 54 towers and the spectacular Ta Prohm — there’s a good reason it was chosen for Tomb Raider.
City Life in Phnom Penh
On your way to the coast, stop in Phnom Pehn for a couple of nights. Direct 50-min flights from Siem Reap run about $135. Hire a taxi ($100-ish), and you can break up the five-hour drive, stopping for lunch and anything interesting you see along the way. The speed boat (a small ferry) takes the same five hours, costs $55 and has the advantage of zipping you along the Mekong River past riverside and floating villages.
Founded in 1372, it was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ for its art deco and 18th century French colonial architecture. The Cambodian capital is also home to one of the world’s most fabled heritage hotels. Opened in 1929, Phnom Penh’s Raffles Hotel Le Royal has welcomed everyone from Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham to Charles de Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy, Joe Biden and the Obamas. Rooms are accordingly pricey, so anyone on a budget won’t be staying here — but drinks at the hotel’s legendary Elephant Bar are a must. Happily, this is a steal not a splurge if you know about the daily, 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. Happy Hour, where 50 per-cent-off drinks are served with free nibbles. The bar’s signature cocktail, the Femme Fatale, a fittingly elegant mix of Crème de Fraise des Bois (wild strawberry liqueur), cognac and champagne, topped with a lush tropical flower was created to honour Kennedy’s 1967 visit to Cambodia and stay at the hotel. They also named the former first lady’s room after her. Treating yourself to a cocktail at this legendary watering hole is a box to tick. The service is old-world, the selection is vast, just mind the dress code. No shorts or flip-flops, it’s smart casual to swish. After 6:00 p.m., the dinner crowd settles in before heading off to Phnom Pehn’s fine dining rooms.
For less expensive lodging, check into Pehn House ($120) where the rooftop pool and dining terrace look over the city’s nearby royal palace and monuments. In the same area, Hotel Emion offers 360-degree views over the entire city and waterfront from a rooftop lounge with pool ($130). TAO Riverside Residence ($76) also overlooks the Tonle Sap River from breezy water view balconies. Hotel Aquarius ($61) has a garden, a glass rooftop pool, funky design and full spa.
Once you’ve settled in, make a dinner reservation at Kravanh. You should actually book before you arrive, so you’re assured a table at the best spot for true Khmer cuisine in the capital. The chef-owner cooks traditional dishes with ingredients from small batch producers, local fisherman and her own organic garden. Grand gastronomy at affordable prices (appetizers from $8; mains from $9.50), the atmosphere is just as perfect: an elegantly restored colonial villa in a secluded garden — ask for an outdoor table under the mango trees.
Or, take a sunset cruise along the river on Crocodile Cruise. An hour-long glide along the waterfront with snacks, cold beverages and beer included in the price ($20), you’re also welcome to bring your own wine, no corkage fee. They even pick you up at your hotel in a tuk-tuk.
When you disembark, wander through the Night Market and Old Market, right next to the dock. Food stalls at the southern end serve steaming bowls of rice with tasty curries and stews that are super cheap and delicious. If you’re not quite as adventurous as was Anthony Bourdain with the dining, the riverfront in the Old French Quarter is lined with restaurants of all kinds. For local food at an actual restaurant, walk to the family-owned David’s Homemade Noodles for local Khmer dishes. Have a yen for foreign cuisine? Just around the corner, Kanazawa does excellent sushi. The Lebanese at Aroma, a 15-minute walk or quick tuk-tuk, is another good choice.
For a lively nightcap, head for Bassac, a once sleepy residential lane that’s now lined in bars and restaurants. At DIBS, the shaded lounge wrapped around a huge pool opens at 9:00 a.m. (great if your hotel doesn’t have a pool) offering chill brunch and lunch and gets livelier throughout the day. Late afternoon tropical vibes to Cuban fêtes and disco in the evening. Avoid weekends, unless you love a very busy scene. For cocktail bars, simple to sumptuous, here is a current (2023), well-edited list of choices.
On the Coast
The city of Sihanoukville is where you catch ferries to Koh Rong. Overrun by Chinese development, you don’t stop here, just pass through to get to the dock. There are direct, one-hour flights from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. From the latter, you can also take the train, which takes seven hours but is much more fun. Departing every morning at 7:00 a.m. from the city’s beautifully restored 1932 French colonial station, it winds through the scenic countryside from the capital in the centre of Cambodia to the seashore. On ten-minute stops in Takeo and Kampot, you can buy yummy snacks and refreshments.
Kampot & Kep
Kampot and Kep are neighbouring French colonial towns on the seashore. Kep, also known as Kep-sur-mer, was founded in 1908 as a coastal retreat for the French elite. Cambodia’s Saint-Tropez by the 1960s, it was deserted during the Khmer Rouge era. Its Le Corbusier and Bauhaus-inspired mansions — Cambodia modernism — were left abandoned and dilapidated. Many were torn down, instead of restored, to make way for new builds. Many French expats have settled here, opening guesthouses, shops and restaurants, and there is some dismay at the pace of development and lack of heritage preservation. Nonetheless, Kampot-Kep is a stop on the way to the coast, so you can easily hop off and spend a night or two. In Kep, check into The Beach House ($65) and hit the famous Crab Market, which sells fresh blue crab and all sort of seafood. The local fried coconut rice cakes are delicious, too. In Kampot, this is a nice little riverside stay ($50 to $180).
An hour by ferry from the mainland, 43 kilometres of Koh Rong’s 61-km coastline is beach and the interior is lush rainforest and waterfalls. The sea is bioluminescent , the snorkeling is terrific, there are dive shops on Koh Touch beach and Long Set Beach, and you can zipline through the jungle. There are four villages, mainly fishing communities, so it’s fresh seafood galore.
Koh Touch (also spelled Koh Toch) is where bars and restaurants are located, as well as the three Eftpos terminals on the island — which are the only way to get money. There are no ATMs; most food and drink venues don’t take cards. Bring cash with you. By far, the best designed hotel is Tamu, which runs around $200 and up, but drops to $140 if you book at the last minute. If $200/night is off budget, book a perfectly lovely place like The Secret Garden ($130) that offers free cancellation, then check a night or two before arriving to see if Tamu has dropped its rates.
Unfortunately, Koh Rong’s bohemian little sister, Koh Rong Sanloem, a 40-minute longtail boat away and always the second stop of this island tour, has been sold to resort developers who are starting to pave its sand roads, clearing swathes of jungle, and evicting its small hoteliers and business owners with startling brusqueness. A heartbreaking example of corruption and over-development, it’s also a prime example of why you want to visit some of the globe’s most beautiful places sooner rather than later.
If You Go
Exchange Rate: C$1.00 = KHR 3,050.3821 (Cambodian Riels)
Cold Beer (Domestic): $1.35
Inexpensive Delicious Meal (one dish): $3.00
Tuk-tuk or Taxi: 1- to 3-km routes cost $1.50 to $3.00
Lovely Budget-Friendly Hotel: from $50.00 per night
*All prices and exchange rates are accurate at the time of writing
When to Go
High Season is the dry season, which runs from December to February when weather cools to around 27 C. This means higher hotel rates and crowds at beaches and cultural sites, like Angkor Wat.
Hot Season, March to June, can spike to 35 C or higher.
Rainy/Monsoon Season, June to November, generally entails a mighty, hour-long afternoon downpour that’s much welcome in the 32 C heat — not days of rain. Shoulder season on either end, June or November, is a savvy time to visit. Fleeting, cooling storms, hotels are cheapest and you avoid the tourist hordes.