Cambodia was the very first country I traveled to. I always knew that I wanted to travel the world, but what I didn’t know was that I would dive head-first into the world of humanitarian work and travel to developing nations.
When most people think about the first country they want to visit, Europe typically comes to mind, especially the summer after graduation. And this was almost my story. If it had not been for my lack of a passport, I would have gladly taken the opportunity to spend the summer in Europe after my high school graduation (though this would happen four years later, but not in the way I had originally envisioned.)
Instead, I wound up in a country who’s history, culture, and geographic location was a mystery to me until I was presented with the opportunity to go there. And I haven’t had a single regret since. It has solidified my love of mixing travel with volunteering (without bleeding into the realm of voluntourism – this was not just a photo opp. it was a real chance to embrace a new culture and help make a difference at a local level).
So here is my rundown, at a glance:
Cities Visited: Siem Reap (and the Floating villages), Phnom Penh, Mondulkiri
Type of Travel: Volunteer Travel
Language: Khmer, English (many people speak at least a little bit)
Money: The official currency is the Riel (which is a non-convertible currency, but USD is pretty much universally used and accepted (though the Riel can be helpful for very small transactions). ATM’s are pretty common and also pretty reliable, so no need to worry there.
Getting There: Flying into Siem Reap or Phnom Penh is the best option
Getting Around: For quick trips getting from one side of the city to the other, I highly recommend using the Tuk Tuks. They are very inexpensive, especially when you share one. It is not uncommon to share a Tuk Tuk with two other people and only pay around $2-$3 USD for the ride. Going from city to city, I would use a taxi as public transport can be overcrowded.
Where to Eat: Eating from most street vendors is ok. There are a lot of different tasty roadside treats to try. Most restaurants also have great food (usually going to restaurants that look busy means they food is good and reliable, but don’t be surprised if your stomach needs time to adjust)
Where to Stay: Depending on your own level of comfort, there are a number of places you can stay. I stayed in both a more luxury hotel (though it was only $20USD/night) my first few nights, then went on to stay in the Angkor Wat Guesthouse in Siem Reap, which I would recommend. They both had great food, good accommodations, and AirCon. When staying at the elephant refuge, accommodation had less of a tradition comfort style. We stayed in hut-like structures, no AirCon, bathrooms (spider-ridden bathrooms) were separate, but believe me, the pancakes made it all worth it.
What to See: Angkor Wat, the floating villages, Phnom Penh, and Elephant Valley Project
What to Bring: Number one thing: Toilet Paper. Cambodia is definitely a BYOTP country. Also bring: bug spray, after bite care, malaria pills, clothing for both warm and cold weather, modest clothing if you plan on visiting Angkor Wat, comfortable shoes you don’t mind walking in, and hiking boots, a camera, an adapter for chargers, toiletries (they aren’t always easy to find, especially if you are particular).
Water: Do Not Drink! The only water that is really safe to drink is bottled water. Water is fine to shower or wash your clothes in, but I would highly recommend using bottled water for brushing your teeth as well.
Internet: A surprising number of places actually had reliable Wi-Fi connections (including a gas station in literally the middle of nowhere)
Comfort Level: Low. And I don’t mean this in a bad way. I mean this in the if you don’t like spiders or dirt or living in poverty-like conditions, or having no AirCon… then this definitely isn’t the trip for you. Expect to be out of your comfort zone a lot.
Other Essentials: Remeber that even if you are staying in what is considered luxury accommodations, this is a developing country and many people are living in extreme poverty conditions.