Cambodia and Vietnam are similar in both geographic location and in the fact that both countries suffered terribly during the 20th century from war and violence. However, whereas in Vietnam we found people aggressively and self-righteously clawing as much money out of foreigners as possible whilst on their path to catching back up with the rest of the world, in Cambodia we had a much more pleasant experience of people who pursue their goals for financial survival and wealth with much more dignity but just as much enthusiasm.
The tourist industry is of course centred around the Temple of Angkor, which draw millions of visitors every year and have spurred the development of Siem Reap into a tourist city, packed with accommodation from hostels and 1-star guesthouses to 5-star hotels. Value-for-money wise, I think Cambodia is the best place we’ve visited so far (and beats Vietnam, as there you must factor in quite a large “rip-off” factor). We stayed in a nice guesthouse called “Tanei”, which offered large, modern air-conditioned rooms similar in standard to what you would expect from a 3-star hotel in UK for $20-$24 per night, it had a restaurant and a small pool and offered free pick-up and drop-off from/to the airport. Our 6 nights/5 days was disrupted by a cold we had on arrival from Singapore (I had a fever of 102F the first night), so two of our 5 days we basically just rested. The other 3 days we hired our own tuk-tuk & driver for the day (arranged via our hotel, $15 per day base rate for local temples at Angkor) which was overall the most cost-effective way of seeing many different temples (probably the only cheaper way would have been hiring pedal bikes, but the distances involved are quite large and it is HOT – 35C when we were there).
Our days templing took us to:
Day 1) – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Gate, Elephant Terrace, Bayon), Thommanon, Chao Say Tevoda, Ta Prohm
Day 2) – Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Poan, Preah Khan
Day 3) – Angkor Wat at Sunrise, Beng Melea, Lolei, Bakong
The highlights for us in ascending order were Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Beng Melea. These were the more overgrown, less restored, less manicured temples (usually with fewer visitors). They just had a so much better atmosphere about them – more Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider feel than Disney World! Beng Melea is a long way to travel by Tuk Tuk – normally two hours, but we got lost (our driver had never been there before) and it took us 3 hours to get there, including some use of unsurfaced dirt roads.. but it was worth it.. we took a guide (paid him $5 at the end) and he took us the non-boardwalk route of scrambling around over the rocks, only to roofs, through the tunnels, pictures on hanging tree-roots.. it was a great temple exploration!
When in town we ate either on the main “pub street” strip, where you could get 50 cent beers (proper beer, not fresh brew like the Bia Hoi in Vietnam.. I think Cambodia has the cheapest proper beer of our trip so far), and buy western and Khmer food (we ate some pizza, which was expensive relative to other options at around 8 USD for a big pizza to share).. or we ate at “Fathers Restaurant” by the central market – which served excellent Khmer food at very good prices (around $3 for main meals such as Khmer curry with rice, plus great fruit smoothies for $1).
Whilst some other countries in Asia use US Dollars as a back-up currency, in Cambodia it is like their main currency. When you go to an ATM, it gives you USD – on my first visit a single fresh, new 100 USD bill. I checked with my fee-free MetroBank mastercard, that it costs me exactly the same to draw USD in Cambodia as it does in the US! – no local ATM fees like you get in Thailand or Vietnam – a nice perk. So they seem to just use their own currency – Cambodian Riel – for small change if something is not priced as a multiple of 1 USD. The riel are all notes, so it’s nice not to have to deal with coins at all.