This trip on the first half of Aug/2014 was my first time in Cambodia. If you are reading this and considering whether or not it should be in your bucket list, I say: go for it!
The impressions you find below are from the perspective of a relatively seasoned traveler who is used to explore unknown places wearing a backpack and who had been to SE Asia multiple times before.
We were four travelers (my friend Isa from California, and Cameron and Lester from New Zealand – I did not know them prior to this trip – Isa did) with coordinated itineraries for transportation, but not committed to doing the exact same things.
We stayed in nice hotels (so it was not a backpacking trip), but most of my activities were local and close to the ground.
Our itinerary: 2 days in Phnom Penh (the capital, a typical SE Asia bustling city), travel by taxi and 2 days in Kampot (a coastal city famous for, among other things, “Kampot Pepper”), travel by taxi and 2 days in Sihanoukville (a party beach resort town), fly and 2 days in Seam Reap (where the famous temples are). In retrospect, this was a perfect first overview 8-day trip itinerary (thanks to Cameron, who had been there before and designed it), with a good balance of tourist crowds, off-the-beaten-path time, exploration and relaxation.
I will take the risk of generalizing my superficial perception of a short-time visitor and say that the stronger impression on me from this trip was the fact that Cambodians are nice. But not in a casual way, like when we use “nice” as a placeholder to nothing remarkable to say. I mean really nice. A combination of grace, politeness, sweetness, sincerity, lack of judgment, openness. Perhaps gentle is a better way to express the attitude I experienced there. There, I said it, Cambodians are gentle people.
Cambodians have been subject to oppression and tragedies in recent history and a significant portion of the population lives under poverty lines. It is amazing that they can live on with grace and be optimistic in situations that others would consider unbearable.
When researching for a visit to Cambodia, you will read about corruption in government and police, mosquitoes, unsafe tap water, landmines, lack of infrastructure. Don’t let that deter you. Yes, going there requires some planning and precaution, but once you arrive, those things cease to be negative to your experience.
You will also read that the weather is hot. That doesn’t cease to be relevant once you get there. In August, it is 33-34C for most of the time. It is the rainy season, but we were very fortunate and rain did not interfere with our trip.
Perhaps surprisingly, crime or personal safety were not factors in my experience anywhere, at any time. Big city, small village, it didn’t matter. An illustrative example: we took a bicycle tour in Siem Reap. The local guide didn’t seem to understand why I was asking if it was safe to leave the nice mountain bikes parked without locks and unattended while we visited the temples.
Not a reason to visit, but a nice plus if you do: your US dollar is accepted anywhere and goes very far getting what you need. A nice meal in a posh place is $6, seafood dinner served on the beach front is $3. A beer costs 50c to $1. You can hire a driver to take you around for the whole day for $15-$20 (a tuk-tuk carries up to 4 people). A nice (I mean nice) hotel room goes for $45-$50. A beach bungalow is $20. A backpacker bunk bed to spend the night will cost you $3.
Language is not a big issue. In the cities, people tourists interact with all speak English. Where English is not spoken, there is always goodwill and gestures.