First of all, I would like to thank all of the people who post in this forum for their advice and trip reports that greatly helped me plan an unforgettable 14-day trip.
I flew into Siem Reap on Christmas Eve. This was my first solo adventure and my first trip to Southeast Asia. I was surprised by how small Siem Reap was. It is a cute town, very manageable to navigate. The hotel I stayed at in Siem Reap sent a wonderful tuk tuk driver to pick me up at the airport for free, so then I hired him to drive me the remainder of my stay there.
I did temples the next day, and stopped to see some spice and ornamental gardens along the way as well. I won’t say much about temples besides that they are well worth seeing and I saw basically all of the ones near Siem Reap that I wanted to in about 2.5 days total.
The second & third day, I hired a guide, Kheng Yon (Yon) with car and driver to go on a 2 day trip up to Preah Vihear Temple by the Thai border. My tuk tuk driver and I made friends my first day i Siem Reap and he had never been to Preah Vihear Temple and had always wanted to see it, so I invited him to come with me, which made the experience even more fun and I learned more about the culture through our conversations in the car. We stopped at Beng Mealea and the Koh Ker temples the first day on our way up North, stopping to eat in villages along the way. It was so great seeing the Koh Ker temples because I was often the only tourist there, so it felt much more relaxing than the crowded sites around Siem Reap. We stayed overnight near Preah Vihear and went there first thing in the morning. You have to take a 4 wheel drive truck up the VERY steep, nicely paved road to the temple. We were the first and only tourists there that morning, which was awesome. As many others have stated, bring lots of 1 dollar bills to tip the military men who are everywhere all over the site. They had cigarettes in the truck we could buy to toss to the army as we drove by. When we arrived at the temple, my guide Yon, was not allowed to speak to me, instead, a guide was assigned to me, but they had no English speaking guides. (Tourism has gone up by a remarkable 400% there this year, but clearly foreign tourism has not had all of the kinks worked out yet). It was fine though because the beauty of the mountaintop temple needs few words to enjoy it, and Yon filled me in on historical details after we descended. He was a fantastic guide. He was wonderful with the kids at the temples, was relaxed and incredibly knowledgeable and smart and had perfect English. He ordered me lots of interesting foods to try at restaurants along the way and taught me so much about the culture in general. I highly recommend Preah Vihear Temple. It is a very different experience than any other site because of the military presence and history of conflict with Thailand, along with its spectacular mountain top location.
Arriving back in Siem Reap, I did a half day of temples and then took a longer tuk tuk ride to Kbal Spean. The carved riverbed of lingas and waterfall aren’t as spectacular as I thought they might be, but the hike through the jungle, overlook, and tuk tuk ride through the countryside to and from make it well worth it. It is also a nice departure from the monotony of temples.
The next day I finished up temples, then went to a couple of the markets (markets are always my favorite places to go and I went to them in each town we went to throughout the trip) and then took a tuk tuk out to the stilted village, Kompong Phluk and flooded forest (a dusty ride on a tuk tuk. Be sure to buy surgical masks to protect your lungs, but I still personally prefer riding on tuk tuk or motorbike instead of in a car). I LOVED these fishing communities and wish I had allotted more time for exploring more of the villages of the Tonle Sap. There is a guest house in Kompong Phluk and if I ever go back, I would love to stay there and explore the village more. We ate at the floating restaurant, which was pretty good (more expensive than siem reap, but worth it to take time relaxing in the hammock, taking in the beauty of the flooded forest.)
That evening my driver, who had been initially trying to drop me off at touristy restaurants, finally gave in to my pleas to go to where the locals eat and took me across the river to the nightly street fair where local Cambodians relax, de-stress, eat, shop, and play. It was great fun riding the ferris wheel, playing darts to win beers, and eating as many unusual street foods as possible. I didn’t see any other Western tourists there. Everyone was friendly. We rented space (probably $1.) on a mat to eat our street food we bought for dinner. I highly recommend going to this street fair if you can get a driver to take you. I don't know the name of it, but if you are interested I will find out for you.
I hired my Siem Reap tuk tuk driver to come with me for the rest of my trip in Cambodia and act as a translator and guide because we had become friends and I could see this would allow me to see more out of the ordinary sites and experience the culture more in depth. Plus he was fun to hang out with and we had some great adventures together, and he had never gotten to see much of his own country, so this would allow him to see things he had only seen on TV.
We went down to Phnom Penh (via Giant Ibis Bus…nice, but probably nicer than what I really need) where his friend drove us on a motorbike around to see Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), The Central Market (very nice, clean, beautiful market), the waterfront where we went down to the riverbank and talked to some fisherman, and across the bridge to a quite spot for dinner by the river.
The next day we caught a Sorya Bus to Kampot. The bus was nice and although we made a few stops to pick up and drop off folks along the way, it didn’t lengthen the time much. It was nice that there was a mix of locals and tourists, unlike strictly tourists on the Giant Ibis. We were in Kampot for New Year’s eve. We took a boat out on the river at night which was lovely. We loved Kampot’s small town charm. The next morning, we joined a van tour up to Bokor National Park for New Year’s. Many Cambodians and some foreigners were traveling up to Bokor for the holiday and it was both beautiful and had a wonderful celebratory atmosphere that day. Up on the mountain at Bokor was one of my favorite days, wandering around the old French church and abandoned French casino were so fun, as well as picnic lunch and climbing around the rocks. After we came down from the mountain, we hired a boat to take us out on the river and out to sea, where he grilled us fresh seafood on board while we waded in a shallow area of water. Evening on the boat was magical and I highly recommend it.
We then took a van to Sihanoukville the next day. This was primarily because my guide had never seen the ocean and I thought he should, but post new years, the town was pretty dirty and both of us agreed we didn’t want to stay there any longer than a day since it just really wasn’t our style. We fed the monkeys and tipped a guy in order to hang out on a private beach that was much nicer than any of the public beaches. The water was pretty and it was fun to climb around on the rocks and find crabs in crevices. We scrapped our plan to go out to an Island the next day and decided to head back inland to the mountains.
So the next morning we got on another Sorya Bus headed toward Phnom Penh and told the bus driver we wanted off as close to Kirirom National Park as possible. He let us off in a little town and my guide secured motorbike drivers to take us up to Kirirom. We didn’t know what price it should cost, so we ended up paying 20./person to go up the mountain, which was at least 10./person too much we learned later. Kirirom was worth it, however. We were the only tourists we saw in this whole National Park. The ride up on the motorbike was a little fast and scary for me, but i survived. Kirirom was absolutely gorgeous. The first part of our hike was through pine forests and a pristine lake that reminded me more of Colorado than Cambodia. Eventually the plant life turned more to jungle until eventually we were hiking through dense jungle on barely visible paths, the only way to the waterfalls. Each wooden bridge we crossed was more rickety than the last. The last one had no hand rails and had boards that were spaced way out and not attached to the bridge frame. It took considerable hand holding and convincing to finally get me over. We hiked through the jungle along a stream for a while but because we feared it would get dark before we got back, we didn’t have time to get all the way to the waterfalls, which are supposed to be quite beautiful.
We caught a bus back to Phnom Penh that evening. All of the buses were full, but they allowed us to pay only a couple dollars for the two of us to sit in the isle for the hour and a half ride to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t so bad since my guide had the foresight to bring us a bit of Gin & Tonic for the ride.
In Phnom Penh the next day we went to the Killing Fields (a must see. It is more informative than S21 because of the audio tour. Very emotional place.) Afterwards we caught a ferry to Silk Island in the Mekong River. Our tuk tuk went on the ferry and then drove us around the island. I wish we had just walked around honestly, but we didn’t have a ton of time. I loved Silk Island. There is a lot of agriculture there—many fields of bananas, mangos, papayas, etc. and it really feels like a wonderful community and great place to live. A lot of homes have weaving looms on the ground level. The silk weavers salesmen pounce on any tourists, so we met a man on the ferry who offered to guide us around the island and then to his house to learn about how the weaving was done. I wanted some silk scarves for gifts, so this worked out fine, however wandering around the island on foot or renting bikes would have been my preference.
That evening we went to my guide’s sister’s house. She works in one of the many clothing factories in Phnom Penh and earns about 1.25/day. She went to the market and got ingredients to make a sour fish soup and fried vegetable & chicken dish. We cooked together and although she could not speak English, she and her friends taught me about cooking Khmer food. We had a lovely dinner and I gave my guide money to give to her for the food. (I wanted to bring her a gift, but my guide thought that was strange and not necessary, but he thought money for the food would be more appreciated, so I went with what he thought was appropriate). It was definitely eye opening to see the lives of the women that work in these factories that make our clothing. Her home was very small and modest and shared with a roommate. She is studying to work in the beauty industry as well as working fulltime.
The next day we decided to take a tuk tuk to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. They rescue animals from poachers and help injured or displaced animals. It was okay. You can feed and interact with the deer and monkeys, which is fun (not sure how good it is for the animals however). The facilities were nicer than I expected, but it really is just basically a zoo. We had a nice relaxing lunch lounging in hammocks, snacking on crispy fried crabs and stuffed frogs and drinking beers.
That evening, I wanted to eat at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club because the guidebook said it is a good thing to do. We should have skipped it. We ordered Khmer food there, which was a huge mistake because compared to the street food we’d been enjoying, this food was bland and the curry was more like soup. The views were nice, but after avoiding foreign tourists on purpose for much of my trip, it was a strange environment to be in.
My last day in Cambodia I spent shopping for gifts for people at home. I had resisted buying almost anything else my whole time there, so I went to the Russian Market and to some of the boutiques between Blue Lime and the river. I had fallen in love with the coffee in Cambodia (is it irish crème flavored or something?), so I bought some ground coffee from a restaurant we went to because I had trouble finding it in the markets and it was expensive in the boutiques.
We ate a last meal of wonderful Khmer soup and curry down by the river and went to the night market. Then we went to the area around the Royal Palace where mourners still gather and construction for the funeral for the King Father is going on day and night. We then went to the airport in Phnom Penh, said my goodbyes to my wonderful guide and flew home.
A few general tips:
for a hotel with a private room, 10./night seems like the price to aim for if you want a comfortable place with air conditioning and reasonably good location, but don’t spend a lot of time in your hotel and don’t care about luxury. Unlike my travels in South America, every hotel I stayed at had hot water, which was great. I booked Mandalay and Blue Lime ahead, but decided to wing it going out to the coast, so we called a day ahead to make reservations for the other hotels. Many places were booked, but we didn’t have too much trouble finding places to stay.
Siem Reap: Mandalay Inn, which I liked a lot. Rooms are basic, but clean and nice and secure and the staff speaks very good English.
Phnom Penh: Blue Lime, which was very nice, but really nicer than my taste, but it was a lovely and wonderful place. I just don’t stay in my room enough for the price to be worth it.
Phnom Penh: Capitol Guesthouse: basic and fine
Kampot: Ta Eng Guesthouse: not a lot of privacy or security, but friendly staff (who don’t speak much English) and friendly guests, too. Breakfast was only $1.
Sihanoukville: Makara Bungalow--This place was fine too. Good security and had nice motorbikes that we rented to get around.
Food: Fish Amok really is amazingly good. The sour soups and curries are all excellent. I told myself I would try everything that I could and I would try to eat everything I was served. I tried a lot of delicious things, and I also tried a lot of weird animal parts that I would not eat regularly: fermented fish paste is pretty good, intestines were pretty hard for me. Snake, crickets, chrysalises, chicken foot soup, stuffed frogs, wild boar, and mystery meats abound and are all worth trying, if only once. Seafood was fresh and delicious. The fruits were amazing. Especially loved Mangosteen. Breakfasts are so cheap at only 1. to 3. and are often filling enough that I would eat only a snack for lunch and then dinner. My stomach of steel held up well with eating tons of street food, with only one day where I felt a little rumbly in there.
Traveling in Cambodia is easier than I expected. Because everyone accepts the US Dollar, this makes it really easy if you are from the US because you don’t have to convert money in your head to keep track of how much you spend. Also, there are so many people that speak English well enough and everyone is so friendly.
I ran into MANY female solo travelers in Cambodia and want to encourage anyone considering solo travel there to go for it. You can easily meet others along the way and have wonderful experiences. Ask other solo travelers to take your picture at the temples, as it is a good way to initiate conversation. Befriending my tuk tuk driver and hiring him as a guide allowed me to get so much more of a cultural experience and feel safe going to places where I might not have been able to otherwise, but that was just one of those lucky things that no amount of planning can predict, so leaving my plans open to change allowed me to have the fullest experience.
When I returned home I made a donation online to Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, as it has been suggested on this forum that it is an excellent organization doing great things.
Thanks again to everyone’s contributions to this forum. It really helped me have confidence to travel alone and have everything go smoothly. All of my hours reading on this forum really paid off!