Millionaire or backpacker, a guide to the best of Cambodia - from helitours to tuk tuks
Once a backpackers’ haven, Cambodia is shaking off its image as a cheap holiday destination to dive into the realms of luxury. Here’s how to enjoy it whatever your budget
Once awash with cheap guest houses, and a place where meals could be had for a couple of US dollars and beers for 50 cents, Cambodia ticked all the boxes for budget travellers.
In recent years, however, it has started to shed its reputation as a backpackers’ paradise with a steady rise in luxury offerings. And this trend looks set to boom in 2017 with the opening of some top-class hotels that will take the country back to its heyday. These include a Rosewood hotel in Phnom Penh, Six Senses Krabey Island and Alila on Koh Russey – both private island resorts off the coast of Sihanoukville.
“It didn’t used to be known as a budget destination,” says Andy Booth, CEO and founder of luxury tour operator AboutAsia Travel. Charlie Chaplin visited the Angkor Wat temple in the late 1930s, when travel was expensive and reserved for the wealthy, and coastal Kep was French Indochina’s premier seaside resort in the 1950s and ’60s.
Decades of war wrecked the country, and it only began opening up to tourism again in the early 1990s. The backpacker rush started a few years later, and a tourism boom began around 2005 , when high-end hotels opened in Siem Reap, gateway to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Angkor temples complex.
“The demand in Siem Reap has led to this demand for luxury being extended across Cambodia,” says Andrew Carroll, global head of marketing and sales at Exotic Voyages.
As well as contributing to the local economy, high-end tourism also raises hospitality training and education levels, leading to elevated services and standards – an area where Cambodia lags.
With change on the horizon, we’ve taken a look at how to splash or save in Cambodia.
Splash: US$540 (HK$4,188) per person
Angkor Archaeological Park is top of most tourists’ agendas. Those with cash to splurge can avoid the jostling crowds and see it in style with Helistar Cambodia. A 48-minute helicopter ride above Angkor’s temples and further afield to Phnom Bok and the Roluos Group also takes in Tonle Sap Floating Village, Siem Reap town and hilltop temple Phnom Krom, which is rarely seen by visitors.
Cambodia is awash with tuk tuks and if your bartering skills are good then it’s time to test them out. A day is ample to explore the main temples of Angkor, Bayan, Ta Prohm and the surrounding area. Costing about US$30 and with space to comfortably fit four, tuk tuks are the most popular way to explore the ancient archaeological park. Bicycles start at US$2 a day.
Tours by companies such as AboutAsia offer guests curated local experiences, and cost up to US$20,000. For this price you can choose the services of expert guides who will steer you away from the temples’ chaotic crowds, take ox-cart rides through remote villages and enjoy fine dining by candlelight amid rice paddies and pristine countryside in Siem Reap, as well as an intimate city tour of Phnom Penh and a stay at top-notch Song Saa private island.
Budget travellers can easily tour the country themselves at rock bottom prices, thanks to the abundance of small travel shops that dot Cambodia’s tourist hubs. Offering tickets for everything from day trips and events to buses, flights, cabs and accommodation, for all price ranges, they can help you plan a 10-day trip for less than US$500.
Splash: US$2,000 per night
Having opened in 2012 off Cambodia’s southern coast, Song Saa is the country’s first private island resort. The epitome of the tropical island paradise, it boasts 27 villas sensitively dotted throughout lush jungle surrounded by shimmering turquoise waters.
The Song Saa Foundation works with a world-class team to carry out marine conservation, and the resort’s success is paving the way for two more to come this year.
Save: US$4 per night
It may sit a short boat ride from Song Saa but the island of Koh Rong is a million miles away from its superior sister. While it’s still possible to find small pockets of peace away from the madding crowd, the main areas of Koh Toch village and beach are packed with cheap guest houses, bars and restaurants promising bargain beds and beers. Dorms start at US$4 and private rooms from US$8 at no-frills TyTy Family Guesthouse.
As traffic mounts in the increasingly congested capital, sitting in the back of a tuk tuk amid the fumes becomes increasingly unappealing. If you’ve got the cash, Royal Cambodian Limousine offers a range of packages across the country: a 10-hour hire tour of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap in a 2012 BMW 7 Series costs US$500, with a professional driver.
Motodops are almost as common as tuk tuks and, while the motorbike taxis are the cheapest form of transport (about US$10 a day), Cambodia’s roads are notorious, especially after dark, so jumping on one without a helmet is not advisable. Tuk tuks are a safer way to get about, and metered taxis are becoming increasingly common in Phnom Penh, with fares only slightly higher than many tuk tuks.
Follow in the footsteps of celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and former French president Charles de Gaulle and check in to the exclusive Amansara in Siem Reap.
Once dubbed the “little hotel of luxury” by King Father Norodom Sihanouk after he commissioned the complex’s creation in the early 1960s, the resort has 24 sumptuous open-plan suites – half boast private plunge pools – two swimming pools, a spa, restaurant and stunning architecture. Prices for a double pool suite in high season peak at US$2,130.
Picking up a bed Siem Reap for a few bucks isn’t hard. Hostel Salakamreuk is a top choice for its low prices, cleanliness, comfy beds, free bikes, spacious terraces and friendly staff. Dorm rooms start at US$2.50, with private rooms from US$12.
Funky Flashpacker opened its doors in 2016 and has proved popular with the hip travelling crowd. Dorms start at US$8 and private rooms at US$20. It also boasts a swimming pool, two bars and a nightclub.