Finally! A post where I give you the lowdown on how I did Cambodia -- the good, the bad and the ugly (ugly = using band-aids to fix a mosquito net, come on!).
Where I went
Lonely Planet said anything less than 3 days with the temples of Angor is a travesty, and boy were they wrong. Unless you are a scholar of Hindu carvings or a masochist who loves spending extraneous amounts of time in excruciating heat, you'll be fine with one. The tuk tuk drivers have a pretty solid circuit that took me a morning to bang out. Sure, if you walk slow and are the kind of person who needs to stand in front of a carving for 30 minutes to bask in its glory, you might need more time. Given your tolerance for oppressive humidity and competing with all of China and Korea to see the sights, you probably will finish before noon (I started at 7 am and was passed out in a state of exhaustion/heat stroke by 12:30 back at the hotel). If you really truly believe you will need more time (you're a bonafide photographer or just love being in heavily touristed environments), go ahead, plan for three days.
If I was going to do this, however, I'd find a really excellent group tour that has an air conditioned minivan and tour guide who can really explain everything in detail, or go really off season (like during the rainy time of year), in the hopes you can have a more intimate experience. The 3-day pass costs $40 and a 1-day pass costs $20 -- my advice would be to go for 1 day, and if you really feel like you want to check out more, spring for a second day. Bear in mind it's $15 for a tuk tuk to take you around to the temples, so you should factor this in to the price. There aren't a lot of other ways of getting there and back, minus renting an e-bike ($10 per day) or a bicycle (sounds fine but seriously, the heat is intense, as is the road there). I met guys in my hostel who walked, but they might be legitimately crazy. You'll want the shade of the tuk tuk, trust me.
Since I'd bought a 3-day pass, I used it the second day to check out the Roluos temples, a set of three other temples from the same era that are outside the city of Siem Reap. It costs $15 to hire a tuk tuk to take you there. Personally, I found this more interesting than visiting the main Angor temples, mostly because I was one of just a few other tourists there, which meant I finally got to have that Indiana Jones moment I was hoping for (you know, you're whacking your way through the jungle and come across an ancient, forgotten temple that might hold secret treasures... it's just me that pretends I'm Indiana Jones?). I asked my driver to take me to see a stilted village for an extra $5, which turned out to be a $10 entrance fee, plus it's dry season so I don't really know what you get to look at except some houses on stilts. Still, it was interesting to bounce around some unpaved roads in the countryside and see some "real" Cambodia, as opposed to very touristy Siem Reap.
Which brings me to the topic of the town of Siem Reap -- it's quite ready for tourists now. I'm sure if you visited back in the early 2000s, it was a sleepy little backwater Cambodian town bereft of much to do or see. That has definitely changed. There are numerous hotels of every star rating, packed with Chinese and Korean tour buses, plus a five block 'downtown' geared solely for tourists and backpackers, brimming with nice restaurants and loud bars and some interesting shopping. While I did enjoy seeing the market there (most of it locally-made crafts and textiles), I found the rest of it kind of unappealing, especially since the nightlife seemed to consist of bad cover bands singing American pop tunes or nightclubs packed with kids wearing matching shirts about whatever pub crawl they were on. The tourist vibe of Siem Reap didn't exactly entice me into staying longer -- in fact, I left a day early.
I stumbled on to Otres Village basically by accident -- I'd heard that there was a good beach area in southern Cambodia called SIhanoukville, which I wanted to check out. But after doing a bunch of research, Sihanoukville sounded less and less promising, just like another backpacker destination of getting wasted on the cheap. I poked around on the Internet and learned that the beaches in Otres had more of a chilled out, mellow vibe and were still relatively undeveloped. From there, I decided on a guesthouse in the village nearby called Mama Clare's, which turned out to be a very fun place to stay (I went for 2 nights and ended up staying a combined 7!).
There's not much to Otres Village, just a little bunch of local shops selling basic food and drink, then a collection of various guesthouses catering to a pretty funky, bohemian crowd. But every day I borrowed a bicycle and biked out to the beaches: Otres 1 is a little more developed, with a slightly longer strip of beach clubs and bungalow hotels, whereas Otres 2 is even more laidback, although slated to become geared at a more up-market crowd, judging by the six-story hotel currently being built.
Anyway what can I say except I loved it here. I am not a huge beachgoer usually, but this was one of the first times in my life I've given myself permission to literally lay at the beach all day while on vacation. Usually whenever I've used precious vacation days, I've been determined to see and do as much as I can in a foreign country, I never just want to "waste" them by lounging around all day. Between the clear, warm water and the relaxed vibe of the beach clubs, I had an excellent several days. (To hang out at a beach club, at least for now, all you have to do is buy something like a beer or bottle of water -- this isn't even a stated rule, just done out of courtesy.)
In Otres, I definitely enjoyed getting a glimpse into the expat community that's gravitated to the area -- a cool mix of people from the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and other countries doing everything from teaching English to selling delicious cakes and jewelry.
There's one main section of Koh Rong which I saw by accident (thanks tuk tuk driver taking me to the wrong boat!) and then there are a few others on other sides of the island. I stayed at a tiny fishing village called Damskal, at a new establishment there called Inn the Village, which is a guesthouse that offers you the chance to see village life up close and personal. Koh Rong itself is huge (the same size as Hong Kong) but it's almost completely undeveloped save from the backpacker strip and a few villages here and there. Seeing the random island village was interesting, and I definitely enjoyed nearby Coconut Beach, which is probably the most beautiful beach I've ever been to: warm, clear water, an extremely gentle surf, totally fine white sand and hardly anyone else around for miles. I had the beach to myself for two days!
I'd heard Kampot was very sleepy and relaxed, which is just what I wanted. And I found it to be probably my favorite place so far on my trip. Some neat old French colonial architecture (some of which has been restored and painted), a few blocks filled with a nice mix of expat and locally-run shops, restaurants and bars, and a beautiful river providing some much-needed relief from the heat for the town. I didn't like where I stayed the first night, but once I managed to be in Kampot, I really did succumb to its charms.
I did a tour of Bokor National Park, which I thought was OK, but if you know how to ride a motorbike, you'd be way better off doing it that way. You could do it in half the time and probably save some money (the tour I paid for was $13, which included a boat tour you could do separately for $6). I've visited during the dry season, which means the waterfall you see during the tour is completely dried up ... nothing like eating your lunch on a pile of rocks with a bunch of Cambodians throwing their trash around.
I'd heard Kep was even sleepier than Kampot -- and I loved it. I stayed in an absolutely beautiful place, and hired a tuk tuk driver for $12 to take me out to a pepper farm to see where Kampot pepper was grown and then to the crab market. While I ended up not loving the famous Kampot pepper crab (the sauce was way too salty-sweet and overpowering for the flavour of the crab, in my humble opinion), taking a drive through the country was cool, as was getting glimpses of the concrete shells of French Colonial mansions from another era. Again, if you can ride a motorbike, you could probably explore even more efficiently, although bumping along in a tuk tuk has its charms, too.
I really loved Phnom Penh; only complaint is it is hard to walk around without sidewalks and heavy traffic. But I hired tuktuks to take me wherever I wanted to go (usually $3 a trip). I did a tour for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, which was nice because the guide provided a ton of info and I enjoyed going around in an air conditioned mini van. I also checked out Wat Phnom, the old Hotel Le Royal and the Foreign Correspondent Club (I tried to go to the Royal Palace the day I arrived but it had already closed for the day). I would love to go back to Phnom Penh with another person just because it seems like a good city for eating and drinking rather than just sightseeing.
Where I stayed
Siem Reap: European Guesthouse While the staff at this place are beyond lovely, the actual facilities were a little lacking, mainly in the a/c department (which my room was supposed to have -- and it technically did, it was just not strong enough to contend with the 100+ temperatures while I was there!). Otherwise it was pretty clean and basic, and I guess pretty good value for the $11 I was paying per night for my own room. It is a bit far outside the center of the action in Siem Reap, which is a good or bad thing, depending on how much you want to go out while you're there. I ended up leaving a day early because the a/c issue made it hard to be in the room (seriously, I would have preferred an open window and a fan) and the location felt far away from things to do.
Otres Village: Mama Clare's Like I said, I stumbled on to this place at random via the Internet -- but I'm so glad I did! Clare has a few super cute treehouse-like bungalows with a view of the river. A very peaceful and tranquil place, with a lot of Western details like high quality sheets and pristine mosquito nets. Clare is a very hospitable host and makes delicious vegetarian food at a great price, including some of the best fried potatoes I've ever had. She went out of her way to make sure I was sorted out with plans to visit Koh Rong and deal with the Khmer New Year (the entire country shuts down) and I enjoyed getting to know the various friends who stop by her place to say hi everyday.
Koh Rong: Inn the Village This place had just opened as a guesthouse four weeks before I visited and gives you the unique opportunity to get a close-up look at life in a fishing village. The actual guesthouse has hosted many interns who come through to help with the organization's conservation project, which includes diving efforts to build an artificial reef and clean up ocean pollution, educating the village people about the consequences of pollution (and encourage them to STOP!) as well as provide facilities for teachers for the local school. I stayed in the dorms ($6/night) and got to experience the joys of bucket showers and electricity running from 6-11pm each night (so no fans). Nearby Coconut Beach offers beautiful warm water and gorgeous sand, plus a great restaurant at Coconut Beach Bungalows serving Western and Khmer food.
Kampot: Samon's Village The lowlight of my time in Cambodia. Maybe I was just sick of staying in bungalows (I had just spent another 3 nights at Mama Clare's), or maybe I just got a really bad bungalow, but I just couldn't deal with this place. Maybe if you were coming from Phnom Penh with a few friends to 'rough it' for a few days and jump in the river together, dealing with the squalid conditions would be part of the fun, but I just wanted to feel clean for a night. The mosquito net over my bed was riddled with holes, a few of which were "fixed" with old bandaids... I mean, come on. A new mosquito net is what, $5? Or a needle and thread?! There were chunks of bamboo missing from the side of the bungalow (I know bungalows have some open space but this was literally missing sections of wall three or four inches wide). The final straw was hearing and smelling other guests peeing below their bungalows at night (mine was on the ground floor whereas theirs were up on stilts). I booked a new place in Kampot for the following night, and the folks at Samon's Village at least refunded me for the night I didn't stay. ($10/night)
Kampot: NAKRU Guesthouse I found this online late night when I was miserably in my hot, smelly bungalow listening to someone pee outside. There wasn't a ton of availability, but it sounded OK. And it was mostly perfect! It's a brand new hotel and definitely seemed locally run and operated. The girl at the front desk was super nice and spoke pretty good English, and I found the room to be everything I needed: clean, cold (hooray for a night of air conditioning) and comfortable. I enjoyed the hard Asian mattress and clean white sheets and towels. The only drawback with this place is while it's in Kampot (unlike Samon's Village which is located about 10 minutes north of the city via tuk tuk), when I was coming back around 10pm, almost all the lights on the street were turned off! Definitely makes for a pretty freaky return home (you're thinking, "I hope I'm not going to be attacked and mugged in the unlit street"). Then the hotel had turned off all the lights leading up to my room on the fourth floor... hello guys, you should probably leave those on not just for me to get into my room but in case there's, like, an emergency!? Anyway. File that under #howyouknowyoureinaforeigncountry. ($20/night)
Kep: Q Bungalows I absolutely loved this place. It's nestled at the base of a mountain covered with green jungle and looks out at the sea. There's a beautiful blue pool and a sense of serenity throughout the whole place, from the neatly trimmed bushes and plants sporting bright tropical flowers to the tidy restaurant replete with outside pool table. I read somewhere that one of the owners is French, and it shows. After I got back from the pepper farm and crab excursion, I jumped in the pool and swam around for two hours -- I had it all to myself! The bungalow I stayed in was clean and nice -- at least the mosquito net was free from holes (or bandaids!) -- and it had a cute little porch out front with a pappasam chair for reading/lounging/sunset watching which I definitely took advantage of. I'm going to put Q Bungalows on the "highly recommend" list for anyone visiting Cambodia, especially if they are looking for a place to relax and chill out for a day or two en route from Sihanoukville/Otres/Kampot back to Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh: Teahouse Asian Urban BY FAR the nicest place I stayed my entire time in Cambodia. I got a great deal ($26/night) and thought the place was just outstanding; excellent bed and sheets, super nice staff, great restaurant and a lovely swimming pool. Wish I could have stayed longer! Plus now I'm spoiled and will have a hard time staying anywhere else.
Notable places to eat or drink
Shanti Shanti, Otres Beach I had a delicious very fresh pad thai here and enjoyed the atmosphere -- I think it is run by French people. You can stay in super cool bungalows that are almost completely open looking out at the sea, or just relax in pappasam chairs right on the beach. Magnifique.
Papa Pippo, Otres Beach An Italian-run place with a great menu including pizza, wine and amazing gelato. Right on the beach as well with ample places to lounge around.
The Secret Garden, Otres Beach Another nice beach spot in Otres 2, can't remember if I ate anything here but I definitely hung out twice here enjoying the sun and shade.
Rusty Keyhole, Kampot "The best ribs in Cambodia"... Um, OK, random. But true! It was delicious, and I got a ton of good food at a great price ($6 for huge ribs, fries and coleslaw).
baraca, Kampot A Spanish-run tapas bar that also offers rooms (i tried to stay here but it was booked). Super cute décor in the café that reminded me of the quirky charm of the bars in Madrid and Barcelona, plus a delicious menu of Spanish/European tapas with hints of Khmer local flavour. Oh, and great wines at great prices, too ($3 for a glass of good prosecco? Sí, por favor).