You have done some good investigation and your rough plan is good. But I think you need to add more destinations. Also I want to change your schedule so it suits my schedule better(!). I will add my ‘tuppence worth’ on the destinations you have marked down and obviously you can take it for what its worth (…about two pence). I have been to most of the places you mentioned, but not all. Also I am going to suggest a few more destinations you should consider.
Are you flights to and from Phnom Penh fixed already? What time is your flight scheduled to land in Phnom Penh?
Another important question – are you or Matt able to drive a car or moto? This will have a big impact on your travel plans.
You should keep the time you spend in PP to a minimum. There are not a lot of ‘must-see’ sights and these could be squeezed into one day if necessary: Royal Palace and Museum, Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum… maybe Wat Phnom temple. Phnom Penh is quite a hard city to be in (dusty, over-crowded, hot, traffic). But at night everything changes when the crowds, heat, dust and traffic disappears …and the night-life is great.
I have two gigs booked back-to-back in PP which I would really like you to come and see: Friday 19th June will be an acoustic ‘Miss Sarawan’ duo (Mealea and I) at a place called Alley Bar. Saturday 20th June will be a full band rockabilly blow-out at an outdoor venue called FCC – The Mansion. The scheduling of these gigs is very serendipitous because in consecutive nights you can see the best of what I have been doing here. The gigs are both in very nice venues. The gigs are very different styles of music. So my strong suggestion is to use that Friday and Saturday (plus maybe one day before or one day after) to see the sights, see some music, eat nice restaurants etc. If you have the budget I would also suggest that these two or three nights would be the time to blow-out and get a really nice hotel ($30 a night gets you something really good, $50-$60 per night would get you luxury – send me links to hotels you like the look of in PP and I will investigate). Phnom Penh is where you can indulge your spending power and get stuff like great international-standard hotels and restaurants for a fraction of the price of the West. Siem Reap is a bit of a tourist-bubble (more expensive) and provincial Cambodia doesn’t have the western-style places.
When I am going around Cambodia I stay in cheap guesthouses for $5-$8 per night (or $10-15 if I want aircon). There’s no need to spend more than that (but Siem Reap is more expensive). I would strongly recommend not booking ahead online. The places which can be booked online are the places geared up for tourists – same standard of accommodation as the Cambodian-speaking places, but twice the price. Also, the online price is often more expensive that the walk-up price. Cheap, available accommodation is in fat supply in Cambodia and unless you are here during a public holiday weekend (which you are not) there is no need to worry about finding a room. Ignore the booking.com/agoda bullshit about ‘one room left’ or ‘special discount online price’. Just learn a few words of Cambodian language (‘two people’ ‘one night’ ‘fan-room’ ‘aircon-room’) and you are good to go. Even if you don’t speak any Cambodian, there will be loads of tuk-tuk drivers in your face in any destination when you get off the bus who will want to help you find a room (because they get commission from the hotel).
Apart from those two or three days around 19th June, you don’t need to set time aside to see me because Mealea and I would like to come with you and Matt for part of your holiday. There are a few places we haven’t yet visited in Cambodia and this would be the perfect time for us to take a few days off from PP and travel with you. I guess it would make sense to (thinking this out as I am writing… apologies for long rambling) accompany you at the beginning of your holiday as we can be the most use to you then in terms of advice/help/logistics/language. But, its not essential, I’m sure you will be fine starting on your own. Perhaps when you have finalised your schedule we can choose when to join you.We would pretty much love to accompany you anywhere but Siem Reap, which we’ve already done a couple of times.
Sunday 14th: Arrive Phnom Penh: rendezvous Joe : meal and drinks.
Monday 15th-Wednesday 17th: DESTINATION ONE: travel with Joe and Mealea.
Thursday 18th-Saturday 20th: Phnom Penh: sights by day, gigs/nightlife by night.
Sunday 21st – Tuesday 24th: DESTINATION TWO
Wednesday 25th – Friday 26th: DESTINATION THREE
Saturday 27th – Tuesday 30th : DESTINATION FOUR
Wednesday 1st July: Return Phnom Penh
So that’s PP taken care of: a night at either end of the trip and a weekend in-between. You could really cut that weekend down to two nights if you want. Now let’s look at your destinations. You suggested visiting three non-Phnom Penh destinations during your holiday – this would be a very chilled, almost (dare I say it) Mum and Claire-paced holiday. Four or five destinations seems about right for a relaxed-but-active time but you could absolutely expand this.
You will be travelling around on buses (but you can fly from PP-Siem Reap) or share minivans/taxis. The journeys will be quite tough depending on the quality of the transport. There are no fast journeys in Cambodia (the roads are mostly narrow and crap and there are no railways), with the exception of some amphetamine-fuelled taxi drivers who try (and succeed) in driving 250km in three hours. I would personally rather be safer and slower. I guess 4-8 hours depending on the trip – so you have to factor in the fact that you’ll be tired when you get to your destination. Bear in mind that the length-of-journey estimate quoted by a bus operator will almost always be wrong by 1-2 hours. Also its quite common for buses to make unscheduled stops and even break-down en route.
Siem Reap is definitely a must for the obvious reasons of the temples. Bear in mind the sheer scale of the temples: There are like, 50 or 70 of them (at a guess) spread around. You can make the journey to the more out-of-the-way temples but I’m not sure this is worth it. The main group of temples can be navigated by bicycle which is fun (the terrain is flat) but get some serious sunblock/clothes and expect to be proper knackered at the end of the day. Alternatively, you can get a personal guide and a tuk-tuk but this is a lot more expensive and not really my scene. Or maybe try both ways. Most importantly, get a really good guide book – don’t just rely on a few pages in the Lonely Planet Cambodia, get a stand-alone book. We can sort this out when you meet us in PP. Siem Reap town itself is nice and fun but very tourist-orientated: walking down ‘Pub Street’ sometimes feels like you’re in Benidorm. You can see the must-see temples plus a few secondary ones in two long days. Three days would be best, four days might be too long.
Kratie is a nice chilled-out riverside town but very sleepy and not much going on there. It was the first place I visited in Cambodia – on the 1st May, 2013. Boat trip on the Mekong to see dolphins was good but didn’t see much more than a few tails popping in and out of the water.
Joe’s tuppence worth: Kratie is nice but there are far better options in Cambodia for a sleepy riverside town experience (Kampot, Battambang). Not worth a special trip but worth spending the night if it’s on the way to another destination.
I haven’t been to Sen Monorom Elephant Sanctuary so can’t say a lot about that. Tours seem very expensive at $50 per day/$70 for two days (then… how much do they charge for accommodation?). There are other options in Cambodia for going hiking/seeing nature/waterfalls (Rattanakiri, Kirirom Park, Bokor Mountain), albeit without the elephants. But, on the other hand, I see that Sen Monorom is close to Bousra waterfall which could be a big highlight.
Joe’s tuppence worth: Go if you really wanna see elephants. Otherwise it seems expensive and out-of-the-way.
You said you wanted to see nature and temples. Well, the temples is pretty much taken care of by the Siem Reap trip. I have some suggestions for nature and other places that I think you would like:
Preah Vihear – temple on the Thai border. I haven’t been. Would like to go for the reportedly breath-taking views. Well out of the way but might be possible to visit en route between Siem Reap and Stung Treng/Rattanakiri. Transport might be a hassle.
Stung Treng – riverside town. Haven’t been, looks like there are some rapids there and not much else. Probably only desirable as a staging-post/stopover.
Bateay – this is Mealea’s home town, a small rice-growing village outside of Skun town, about 100km or so North-East of Phnom Penh. Skun have world-famous fried tarantulas (I haven’t tried them). I suggest Bateay because you will be able to see real countryside village life and you will get a warm welcome from the locals. This would be a chance to see the real Cambodia. Obviously this would only be something to do with Mealea and I.
Kampong Chnnang – riverside town on-the-way to Battambang. I heard really good things about this place. Picturesque.
Kep – down the road from Kampot is a small coastal tourist town called Kep. I haven’t been but everyone says its lovely but quiet. And there is some kind of a beach there. You can eat great crabs here apparently.
Si Phan Don – an hour or two north of Stung Treng you can cross the border into Laos and spend some time on ‘4000 Islands’. It’s a backpacker haven, loads of sandy islands in the wide part of the Mekong River. Really cool place but complicates the visa situation if you want to come back into Cambodia. Not sure how practical this would be. Probably best to stick to Cambodia.
Rattanakiri – mountains, waterfalls, national park, tribal villages. I haven’t been but seems like a beautiful place for nature.
Battambang – Second city of Cambodia. Spiritual home of Cambodian rock’n’roll music of 1960’s and 1970’s. Sleepy rural town (one can hardly call it a ‘city’) but some interesting things going on there – cool bars, art galleries. Famous Battambang circus. I love going to Battambang. Tourist stuff like a hillside temple and bamboo train.
Sihanoukville/Kompong Som – are you going to come to South-East Asia for a holiday and not spend some time on the beach? Sihanoukville is a sprawling, tourist-orientated place but there are very quiet parts and even whole islands you can visit for a tropical beach experience. It’s great.
Kampot – great place. Small and sleepy riverside town but, like Battambang there are loads of interesting things going on (art galleries, live music). Like all of the provincial ‘cities’, really cheap to eat, drink and stay. If you come here you have to take the trip up to Bokor Mountain.
Kirirom – national forest park. Wonderful place but not a lot to actually see and do there apart from quietly experiencing nature. There is an eco-tourism village where you can stay with locals which is great. Hard to imagine doing Kirirom without own transport.
Koh Kong – town (and also there is an island called Koh Kong) off the south-west coast. Not been but heard great things about it. Want to experience the entire surrounding Cardamom Mountains area. Prime place for experiencing nature/waterfalls/mountains. Good thing about Koh Kong is it that it is relatively near to, or on-the-way to and from other destinations Sihaoukville, Kampot, Kirirom and also a place called Srae Ambal. That convenience would present a big benefit over alternative nature destinations like Sen Monorom and Rattanakiri.
OK so that has covered my recommendations for Cambodia. You can choose what you want to do. Keep it freeform or plan it out. I will resist the temptation to plan it all out for you and leave it with you. It’s your holiday. If you want to come back to me with another itinerary I will let you know my thoughts on it.
A FEW PRACTICALITIES:
Any kind of closed shoes will be uncomfortably hot. Get some ruff-and-tuff hiking sandals for when you’re in the countryside and some good flip flops for other times, that’s all you will need. Don’t pack any socks.
Make your own judgement on Malaria tablets but it doesn’t seem to be something that most people bother with. I think the main thing is to get a good quality mosquito repellent (probably cheaper here) and the right clothes: loose-fitting, light trousers, long sleeves, hat (buy this stuff here it will be cheaper). If you want to sleep outdoors in the national parks you can get a hammock and mosquito net really cheaply over here.
It’s easy to get money out from cash machines in Phnom Penh. You don’t really need to get currency before you arrive because we’ll be waiting for you at the other end. During your stay, use Canadia Bank ATMs to get money out from your UK bank account. The rate of exchange will be equivalent to or cheaper than changing cash. Just make sure you notify your bank of your travel plans so they don’t block your card when you try to use it in Cambodia. US Dollars is the main currency but you will also use Cambodian Riel. Its confusing. Generally you will use Dollars for most transactions and Cambodian Riel for small transactions only. Essentially, your dollars will be like your UK bank notes and your Cambodian Riel like your UK coins.
You can spend as little or as much as you like in Phnom Penh : live high or live low. In the provinces (except in Siem Reap) you will get by very cheaply. $20-$40 per person per day is plenty, and that includes travel, accommodation, eating out and boozing.