First impressions of Cambodia for Digital Nomads

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

My first impressions of Cambodia for Digital Nomads wasn’t as good as I was expecting. To be honest, when I first arrived, I wasn’t sure how long I would stay.

The flight from Bangkok arrived in Siem Reap airport, which is insanely big and far more luxurious than I was expecting it to be. After all, in my head, Cambodia was still very much a developing nation. I didn’t expect there to be a brand new beautiful airport there when I landed.

The flight on AirAsia was great. Cost £57 one way, and was a perfect way to save myself hours on a bus.

Phem Tuk Tuk Driver Siem Reap - Angkor WatI was met at the airport by Phem, my Tuk Tuk driver in Siem Reap. He took me back to the hotel and had made enough of a good impression for me to have already decided he was going to be my go-to guy here in Siem Reap.

The one thing I noticed straight away was that the main road had been built to connect the Airport with the town, a well built tarmac surface road, but every side road off it was just a dirt track leading off in to the sticks.

Why did I want to come to Cambodia?

Ever since I was 17, and I had watched the Tomb Raider film, I fell in love with the idea of seeing Angkor Wat and the temples, hidden in the jungle here in Cambodia. I was VERY excited I would finally get to see them.

When I was younger I had hesitated a lot about coming here, always fearing civil war or other reasons, and in a way, I wish I had come sooner. From what I’ve been told, the country has radically shifted towards western and eastern tourism and capitalism is now booming over here.

I was taken to the Suon Angkor Boutique Resort. A nice little hotel, situated about 10 minutes away from the centre of Siem Reap. The hotel’s entrance has a tropical feel. As you weave your way through the flora at the entrance, you finally appear on the other side, in front of the first of 2 swimming pools at the hotel.

Siem Reap Hotel ViewYes, they have 2 swimming pools. A fresh water one and a salt water one. Not sure why you need both, but that’s the way it is.

The room was clean, a good size and had a nice bathroom. The air-con worked a treat, and that’s important, as the temperature was starting to reach 36 degrees during the day.

Siem Reap – the town centre

My idea was simple, check in, grab a shower and head out for a bite to eat and a little exploring around the town. So I jumped in a Tuk Tuk, with Phem, and off we went to the famous Pub Street.

Here you are in a mix of what feels like an old western town (wooden buildings in a straight line) and what I can imagine somewhere like Magaluf looks like (pubs, loud music, neon signs and drunk people).

The street is long and straight and every where you look there is some form of signage to say “DRINK HERE!”

After a bit of walking around, to get a feel for the area, I sat down somewhere for a beer. It’s $0.50 for a draft beer here, so to be honest, it’s ridiculously cheap.

As you’re walking around, you’ll be accosted by various people, trying basically to con you out of your money. The children are the worst, as you feel remarkably sorry for them and as they look up at you, begging, your heart melts. There is a big problem here in Cambodia, where children are used to make money, and as a result, parents don’t send them to school, they simply use them to earn.

Remember, if you are here, don’t give money to children!

I decided to have a bit of a walk around, I found Angkor What? a decent looking bar, which had a bit more atmosphere than some of the others, and where the music was less loud, so I figured I would stop in there for another.

It was in this bar, on that fateful night, that I met Mighel, a Londoner who was working and living here in Cambodia, based in Phnom Penh. He was out with a friend of his over from London too, and after a brief chat we ended up getting on well and having a few drinks. And then a few more, and maybe even a couple after that!

You can read all about that here: 24 Hours in Cambodia and one hell of a hangover to show for it!

Pub Street in Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Pub StreetYou can have a lot of fun in Pub Street. There are organised pub crawls, tons of bars and restaurants, some even offer shows with traditional Cambodian performers, called Aspara.

But straight away you notice just how tourist focused this area really is. You’ll find every sort of food from burgers to pizza, sushi to steak, French cuisine to Mexican restaurants. It’s all been built to take tourists money. There are very few Khmer grills, where you can actually taste local food.

Even when you do find a Khmer grill, chances are on the menu you will find Thai food, pasta and probably even pizza too.

No Tuk Tuk Today, and No Tuk Tuk Tomorrow!

Tuk Tuk drivers can be a massive pain, but once you have one you like and trust, just use him. As you walk up and down the streets you’ll be harassed by the other drivers, “need a Tuk Tuk?”, when you say no, it quickly turns in to, “how about tomorrow, for a tour?”

If it doesn’t go that way, then it goes the route of, “do you want marijuana?” and after you say no to that too, you’ll even get asked, “cocaine?”.

It’s a strange place, and takes a little getting used to at first.

Co-Working in Siem Reap

I decided to go and check out the Co-Working space Angkor Hub in Siem Reap. I have to be honest, the guy that was there on the day “running” the place wasn’t overly friendly. In fact I think the only words I heard from him where “$5 for the day”.

With a lot on that day I decided to just sit down at the desks outside and get on with work. A few people were already there doing the same and a few more arrived, but to be honest, the atmosphere was a bit quiet for my liking. No one spoke to each other, everyone just kept their heads down and I didn’t know where you could grab coffee.

Once I realised that the internet there wasn’t better than my hotel, (in fact I think it was slower) I decided to give in and head back to the hotel.

I don’t need an office environment to get shit done. I’m happy at a table by the side of a pool, with access to coffee and cold drinks. That’s pretty much all I need.

Cambodia is more expensive than I initially expected.

Beer is cheap, accommodation is reasonable, food is expensive compared to Thailand.

That’s the best way to summarise it I think. I’ve been told that you can find great value street food, but without much knowledge of what you are going to eat, it can make it hard. An average meal in a restaurant around Siem Reap is about $6-$8.

Koh Samui - Street Food
Pad Ka Prao Kai – My favourite dish in Thailand

In Thailand I had got used to some choice locations where I could grab lunch or dinner for 50-70 BHAT (£1.50).

Also, the majority of meals here have been western food, pizza, burger, Mexican, etc. I’ve only had a couple of meals where I’ve had a chance to eat really good Khmer food.

If you do want to go local, find the spicy green mango salad, that’s delicious, in fact it’s the best Cambodian dish I’ve had over here. 

Angkor Wat and the temples around it

I’m in the process of editing a vlog about the temples and I don’t want to give too much away here, but I will say this.

It’s definitely worth seeing. Go down there, spend a day, see as many temples as you can, or want to. Take a moment when you’re looking at them to imagine what it would have been like, nearly 1000 years ago, building these structures.

Each temple has it’s own style and feel, from trees growing through them, to different coloured stonework, size, shape and feel, they are all worth a visit.

Angkor Wat itself is a megastructure for that time. It’s enormous and majestic. I did the sunrise tour, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend it or not. Too many people and too many selfie sticks in my way to really enjoy the view.

To the Capital we go!

I headed up to Phnom Penh. It’s a good few hours on the bus, so be prepared. the bus is pretty clean and has some form of air conditioning so you will survive the journey.

Cambodians drive in a funny way. By funny I mean not as well as they could. They don’t rely on rules of the road, mirror, signal, manoeuvre or anything like that. They drive at their own pace and if someone is in the way, they simply toot their horn at them and try to get past.

When they can’t pass, they toot some more and slam on the breaks.

This can make it hard to sleep on any bus ride around Cambodia. Dozing off and waking up to brakes being slammed and the horn wailing usually makes me think I might not see my next birthday!

BKK 1 area in Phnom Penh

Old Fashioned in Phnom Penh Baccus LaneThe area was recommended to me by Mighel, that I had met in Siem Reap. He lives there and has done for more than a year now, so I took his advice.

It’s a much nicer environment than Siem Reap. For me it had a nicer feel to it, a less touristy feel perhaps.

There’s a lot of works going on in the city, but I’m sure it will be lovely once it’s finished.

I found some nice bars and restaurants in the BKK1 area, especially in Bacchus Lane, which isn’t well known or advertised. It’s a tiny lane where someone has created several different bars, and a ramen noodle place. A lot of expats  frequent the area.

It has a nice vibe, friendly staff in all the bars and there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Secret Bar in Phnom PenhI was even shown a secret bar, which we just happened to be walking past. I’ll give you a hint, the entrance is a fake old Coca-Cola vending machine. Go check it out, the Old Fashioned’s there were delicious.

Food is still expensive, I’d say my average meal around town was about $9, but it was good food. Asian, Japanese, dumplings, and once again Pizza. I did manage to have one Khmer meal there too, a spicy beef and green papaya salad.

Cambodia is developing really fast.

It’s a lot more developed than I imagined. In Siem Reap, I had already noticed this, when, as I walked around a corner, I found a Costa Coffee on the side of the road.

Like that wasn’t enough, a little further on, I came across the Hard Rock Cafe there. WTF Cambodia!

In Phnom Penh you’ll come across Starbucks and Costa Coffee, as well as KFC, Domino’s Pizza and I’m guessing soon enough pretty much every other major western brand that you can think of.

I even saw a Mango clothes store.

A Range Rover on every corner!

Bentley Phnom PenhThere is a lot more money in Cambodia than I originally thought.

I don’t know how many brand new Range Rovers, Audi Q7s and even Bentleys I’ve seen driving around the capital. The money isn’t fairly distributed and I’m guessing a lot of it comes from outside of Cambodia, but there is still a lot of it moving around the city.

The BKK 1 area is possibly richer than other areas, but it’s an interesting, fun and safe place to hang out.

A bad deal for Cambodia?

There is a lot of money being invested in Cambodia, but I’m not sure if it might be to the detriment of the country in years to come. I’ve been talking to lots of peoples, locals and expats that live here, to better understand what’s actually going on.

The majority the new buildings you come across in Phnom Penh are being built with Chinese and Vietnamese money.

On the south coast, near Sihanoukville, you will find Chinese casino developments and hotels. Big ones!

Angkor Wat - Sunrise Tour Full Of TouristsAnd apparently, the Angkor Wat site, where all the temples are, has been sold on a lease basis to a Vietnamese firm to exploit for the next 15 years.  That’s like London selling off the rights to the Tower of London, for some private organisation to capitalise on it.

Tourism, the Vietnamese and the Chinese, seem to be driving the development of this country at a rapid rate. I’m just not sure if in 20 years it will be nicer than it currently is. I feel like the Khmer people are really struggling to keep hold of their culture, their traditions and even their country.

Cambodia or Thailand for Digital Nomads?

So far I am not convinced that I would prefer to stay long term in Cambodia, or if in fact, I would prefer to continue exploring Thailand. The truth is the two places are very different, and so far, I’ve preferred the Thai way of integrating the western world, whilst still keeping Thai traditions, cuisine and culture well and truly alive.

Update: When I started writing this I hadn’t yet been to the south coast and hadn’t had a chance to check out some of the other parts of Cambodia. I’ve now been down to Sihanoukville, Otres Beach and even to Koh Ta Kiev, a little piece of paradise, and these parts have changed my mind about Cambodia as a destination, but not really in my preference of Thailand over Cambodia for long periods of time.

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