Backpacking in Cambodia might be a challenge to some, but it offers an economical way to see the countryside and even enjoy a beachside destination.
I don't know about you, but I'm kinda "Old School". To me, backpacking was one of those trips you took to some National Park involving hiking, cooking over an open fire, and braving the elements in a tent. And the latter--if you were lucky--some brave souls just use a sleeping bag for a night under the stars. Backpacking today has an entirely different meaning. It's where you take just the essentials (in a backpack, of course), but some make it a month or longer trek through some awesome European countries or exotic Asian destinations. Countries like Cambodia.
No, you don't have to do a sleeping bag on the Cambodian jungle floor, more likely to stay in very inexpensive hostels; and using the public transport to get around instead of booking cookie-cutter escorted tours. None of the "it's Tuesday, must be Belgium" kind of thing. Sorry, none of the "it's Tuesday, must be Battambang". What? This is Cambodia we're talking about.
Backpacking through Cambodia has its good points, and it also has its warnings. Either way it doesn't change the scenery, the friendliness of the people, nor does it change that the fact that you're able to see the real Cambodia.
Before you can backpack in Cambodia you need to know a few things first. You're not going to reach your backpacking destinations throughout Cambodia's 24 provinces if you don't listen to a few things.
The most popular time to backpack Cambodia is from December to February. Come April the temperatures can reach a scorching 40-degrees C, and the monsoons that come from May to October can cause flooding on some of the back roads making them impossible to traverse. If you've decided to hike some of these back-roads in the remote parts of the country, make sure you stay on them. It is believed that there are upwards of over six million unexploded mines in the country.
Also, don't drink the tap water. Dengue Fever is also a possibility, and make sure you've gotten a Malaria treatment before arriving. What else? Think a salad is a healthy option? No, it isn't; and neither is eating any kind of raw or undercooked food.
That said, what are some of the best places to see in Cambodia? And what's the best way to get around. Just because you're backpacking doesn't mean you have to walk your way through the country, and the Cambodian bus system is one of the best and most economical ways of getting around.
Train service really isn't an option, there's one train to Battambang, once a week--and the ride is a long, arduous journey. People even bring their own hammocks as there aren't any sleepers available on the former boxcars that now carry passengers instead of cargo.
Phnom Penh is a real hub-bub of activity to get to most places. And with the relatively cheap cost of bus travel in the country (Phnom Pehn to Sihanoukville, a 4-hour 230km trek will cost you less than 5 Dollars one-way), you can always come back here to to make your way somewhere else. Just remember that there isn't just one central bus station, each service has its own.
No need for an escorted tour here. Find a motodop, a local willing to take you around to the sites for just a few bucks on a motorcycle. Just make sure you go see the National Museum, the Royal Palace, the Genocide Museum, and the Independence Monument.
One of the best times to be in Phnom Penh is in November when the Tonlé Sap River changes direction. The Bon Om Thook Festival celebrates this bi-annual event with all sorts of festivities and fireworks.
From Phnom Pehn it's just over a 5-hour journey north to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. Good thing you've saved your money by taking the bus because Angkor Wat, the 12th century UNESCO World Heritage Site will cost you about $40 to see. It's worth every penny, and then some. But, one can't live by Angkor Wat alone in Siem Reap, so again find a motodop to take you to see the Buddhist Pagodas, the Cambodian Culture Village (a miniature of all the great buildings), and the Angkor National Museum.
Make sure you've left yourself time to shop a little at the Old Market for touristy souvenirs, or the Central Market for jewelry and local street food.
From here you got a choice (don't you just love when that happens?) You could either take the train to Battambang from Siem Reap, which'll only cost you like $4 OR you could pay $25 and take the ferry across the Tonle Sap. Mind you, the boats aren't up to the safety standards as in most Western countries--so travel at your own risk. If it's dry season, it could very well take almost 12 hours to cross by ferry; whereas by bus it'll only take you about 5 hours.
Take the bus back to Phnom Penh to make a connection to Sihanoukville, a true Cambodian beachside destination. Kick up your heels at one of its bars, get a tan on its beaches, and SCUBA dive your heart out. If you do anything at all, make it a seafood dinner delight. You don't get this close to the water without having some of the freshest seafood around.
Staying here might cost a pretty penny at one of its 5-star resort hotels, but if you've saved your pennies backpacking around you might want to splurge a little. No? Don't worry, there are economical guesthouses all over the place.
After your surf and turf the bus will take you to Kampot and/or Kep, a town located at the Elephant Mountains. It's not the mountains, nor the architecture you'll want to see here--it's the limestone caves that really steal the show. And the view of the countryside is simply divine--a perfect word to describe the cave at Phnom Sasear that has a shrine at its base--they knew Heaven on Earth when they saw it, I guess.
It's here in Kampot and Kep that you can continue your backpacking adventure right into Vietnam. And ain't that a whole other backpacking adventure.