Cambodia in 3 days: a cautionary tale

Cambodia in 3 days: a cautionary tale

Can you do the highlights of Cambodia in 3 days? If we define ‘the highlights’ to be Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields then yes, you can. Does that mean you should do it in 3 days? That was the question I (apparently) decided to try and answer during my first trip to southeast Asia.

I had to be back in HCMC on Thursday night for my flight home on the Friday, and I wanted 2 days in Sapa after getting there on the Saturday morning previous. So if I wanted to do Cambodia I had 3 days tops – 3 and a half, if we’re including the half day travel to Phnom Penh (we should really).

Here’s the itinerary:
Day 0 (travelling to Cambodia):
Sleeper bus Sapa-Hanoi
Flight Hanoi-HCMC
Bus HCMC-Phnom Penh

Day 1:
Morning: Killing Fields/S-12
Afternoon: bus to Siem Reap

Day 2:
Angkor Wat

Day 3:
Day: Siem Reap
Early evening: flight to HCMC

And here’s how that went…


Day 0: travelling from Sapa to Phnom Penh

Sunday night: sleeper bus Sapa-Hanoi – 7 hours

Mostly uneventful, mainly because I bagged myself a front-row seat and therefore could actually fit in it. Those who have undertaken sleeper buses in Vietnam will know that this is no mean feat.

Monday morning: flight Hanoi-HCMC – 2 hours

This story is entitled ‘How to get on a flight leaving 20 minutes after being booked on it’.  Suffice to say: it can be done, but people will shout at you even though it’s not your fault.

Monday afternoon: travel to Phnom Penh overland from HCMC – 6 hours

In retrospect, this should already be setting alarm bells ringing. Because seriously? That travel day is insane. Don’t do it. I was able to break it up with a trip to Phuc Long (hellooooooooo lover, aka. the amazing sweet chai tea thing) and… McDonalds. I’d already been travelling for 13 hours by that point, don’t  judge me on my poor food choices. But there was a point in Hanoi airport where it didn’t look like that break was going to happen, and that was Not Good.

My bus to Phnom Penh was comfortable (even if there wasn’t any wifi as promised), but no word of a lie, by the end of that day I was approaching meltdown and already a bit freaked about Phnom Penh’s reputation. So when the driver said ‘no, don’t walk to your hostel, no good for you’… well let’s just say it wasn’t the best end to a day ever.

Fortunately it was redeemed with a 1-hour whistlestop tuk-tuk tour around the city at night, accompanied by Steve and Ana, two of the lovely people I met on the bus. So the actual end to the day was seeing the likes of this:

Day 1: Phnom Penh

Morning: Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (Killing Fields) and S-21

Now, these took surprisingly little time. I was expecting them to take the better part of a day; both took about an hour each, the thing that took the most time (and money) was the tuk-tuk journey.

I do have plans for a separate post about Killing Fields and S-21, but there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said. (So presumably at some point I will be writing a play about it.) Suffice to say here that if you’re really pushed for time, it is possible to do both justice in a morning. Just.

(This is one of very few photos of that entire day. As you might imagine it felt somewhat inappropriate to be snapping away incessantly, so I kept it to a bare minimum.)


Afternoon: Phnom Penh-Siem Reap

Oh boy.

So the tuk-tuk had been caught in rain, meaning I missed the comfortable shiny bus brand I had travelled into Phnom Penh on the day before. In its place: a local bus. Which, in its defence, got me from A to B. Not in its defence, it was seriously bumpy and kept stopping off at places that seemed mostly interested in ripping off the blonde girl.

At one point a rest stop tried to charge me £11 for a can of coke and a packet of crisps.


Anyway, I got to Siem Reap, checked into my hotel and arranged my sunrise Angkor Wat tour. If I was going to do Angkor Wat, I only had Wednesday to do it. I would just have to ignore the looming cold and power on through.

You can see where this is going can’t you?


Day 2: Angkor Wat

I went at sunrise. I looked around all the main temples. I took photos. It was amazing.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you much more about it. The reason: that cold? Overnight it had mutated into a full immune system killer. Pair that with the functional ovens that are the temples, and you’ve got one borderline delusional girl walking around.

I am frankly amazed I didn’t fall off a temple roof.

By lunchtime I’d had enough; fortunately I’d done the highlights (yes, including the Tomb Raider temple!). So I asked my tuk-tuk driver to take me back to the hotel for a ‘power nap’.

That power nap lasted 18 hours. Yes, that’s right: my attempt to do the Cambodia highlights in 3 days resulted in me losing an entire half a day to illness and sleep.


Day 3: Siem Reap

Fortunately those 18 hours of sleep had made me feel a lot better, so I was ready to get out and explore a bit.

Siem Reap is quite a nice place to potter around. There’s not a whole lot going on in the town if you’re passing through – its tourist offering is hardcore geared toward Angkor Wat visitors, with a price list to match. Nonetheless there’s the big market and a lot of coffee shops to while away the day in.

If I’d had longer/was feeling better, I might have rented a cycle and had a look around that way. But because I’d been an idiot and pushed myself too much the day before, I had no energy or inclination to do much else other than soak up the atmosphere.


everyday i’m tuk-tuking #siemreap #Cambodia #flyingnellydoescambodia

A video posted by Krystina Nellis (@flyingnelly) on Sep 26, 2015 at 4:20am PDT

In the early evening I got my (expensive) flight back to HCMC. Considering that I really didn’t like the city when I initially arrived, returning to Saigon felt almost like coming home – complete with Australians ready to lead me astray with 50,000 dong buckets of rum and coke. Okay, so maybe not that much like home – £1.50 for a rum and coke anywhere in London? ‘lol’. Compared to the craziness of the four days prior, Saigon was comparatively a peaceful haven. I. Know.


HCMC by night ❤ A photo posted by Krystina Nellis (@flyingnelly) on Sep 26, 2015 at 4:16am PDT

So what have we learned from this crazy adventure?

If you think you might want to do Cambodian highlights as part of a ‘Vietnam’ trip, plan it in advance and do it at the start of your trip. Personally, on this occasion, I came away from Cambodia feeling it had been an expensive detour – a feeling I’m sure I would not have had if I’d actually planned to do it properly. I might go back in future; but this experience left me wiped out and not that thrilled with it all. I didn’t do the country justice at all, and that’s all on me.

Yes, it is possible to do the Cambodia highlights in 3 days. But you really, really don’t want to.