The Ultimate Cambodia Itinerary: Where To Go In Cambodia With 5 – 21 Days.

Cambodia Itinerary Ta Prohm

The Ultimate Cambodia Itinerary

Where to go in Cambodia with 5 - 21 days.

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A perfect Cambodia itinerary offers the opportunity to experience the magic of travelling regardless of whether you have 5 days or 3 weeks to spend. Use this guide and the multiple itinerary options to help you plan your perfect adventure and decide where to go in Cambodia.

 

Cambodia is one of the best countries to experience every extreme of travelling. It’s home to some of the world’s most jaw-dropping ancient architecture from the 12th century at Angkor Wat. But just a few hours south, the contrast is stark as you experience the country’s heart-wrenching history. Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and the S-21 Genocide Museum are potent reminders that one quarter of this beautiful country’s population was killed in the 1970s.

 

Today’s Cambodia is a unique and incredible mix of this grandeur and tragedy. It has an eager, youthful population who are bright eyed and ready for change. With strikingly beautiful islands, quiet backwaters where you can kayak or SUP, lush rice fields, red roads, and some of the kindest people you’ll meet, Cambodia will unabashedly capture your heart as it first captured mine 9 years ago. After living here and exploring the country over the past year, I hope to be able to share some of the greatest gems of Cambodia with you, whether you’re looking for a 1 week Cambodia itinerary or to spend a full 3 weeks exploring. With the help of my Banana Trail teammate, Michael, I’ve also put together a comprehensive guide for exploring the temples of Angkor. So without further ado, let’s get started planning your Cambodia adventure!

Basic information before you go to Cambodia:

Visa requirements:

You can purchase a visa upon arrival at air or land borders. It costs $30 USD for 30 days. A passport photo is required. If you don’t have one you’ll be charged an extra $2 USD.

Money:

Cambodia’s official currency is the Cambodian riel. In practice, the country uses both US dollars and Cambodian riel. It’s common to pay for anything less than 1 USD using riel (e.g. 25 cents = 1000 riel) and anything over this using US dollars.

Getting There:

Plane: International flights now arrive at both Phnom Penh’s airport and Siem Reap’s extravagant new airport. Flights to get here don’t tend to be the cheapest in Southeast Asia, so if you have some extra time to spare you might consider flying to Bangkok and overlanding to Cambodia from there.

Bus: You can take the bus into Cambodia from neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam or Laos. Buses from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh take 6-7 hours while buses from Bangkok to Phnom Penh take 12 hours and from Bangkok to Siem Reap around 8-10 hours.

How much should I budget for my trip to Cambodia?

Backpacker’s budget: On average plan to spend about $5-8 for a dorm bed, $2 for a plate of noodles, $9 for a bus ride within the country, and $1 for a glass of Angkor draft beer. Angkor Wat ticket entry will be your big splurge.

Flashpacker’s budget: On average plan to spend about $20 for a private room in a hostel or guesthouse, $6 for a great meal, $45 for a one-way flight within the country, and $3.50 for a cocktail.

When is the best time to visit Cambodia?

To avoid the intense rain and heat in Cambodia, it’s best to visit between November and March.

 

Getting around in Cambodia:

Download Grab (the regional ride-sharing app) and PassApp (the Khmer version) on your phone when you arrive in Cambodia. These apps take away the stress of getting ripped off for a tuk-tuk or rickshaw ride and also save you having to direct your driver around a new city. If you’re booking buses between Cambodia’s cities you can use the online service Book Me Bus.

** Some of the links in this section are affiliate links. If you click one of the links marked with a *  and make a purchase we’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you. Just like the travel backpacks we build, we’re very particular about travel products. So any products or services we suggest, we test and use ourselves before making any recommendations or endorsements**

Is it safe to visit Cambodia?

This question gets a resounding yes as an answer! Cambodia is one of the countries I’ve felt the safest in as a solo female traveller. That being said, like anywhere in the world (including your home country), you should keep your wits about you on the road. On that note here are a few things to be aware of… Bag and phone snatching: These have become sadly commonplace, especially in Phnom Penh. Wear your backpack with both straps on and if you’re going out in the evenings, try to just carry your belongings in your pockets. Watch out for motorbikes passing by when you’re taking photos with your phone, or all of those beautiful travel photos and your means of communicating will disappear in a flash! If you’re looking for peace of mind, check out World Nomads* for comprehensive travel insurance including theft (I’ve used their insurance to cover me while living in Cambodia). The powdered milk scam: This one used to be a favourite in Siem Reap and it still pops up from time to time. A woman will stand nearby a shop and ask a passerby to buy milk for her baby. She’ll explicitly tell you she doesn’t want money, just milk. Unfortunately these women have a deal with the nearby shopkeeper, so once you buy that milk and leave, they will return the milk and grab the cash. There are much more sustainable ways to support those who need help in Cambodia. Try visiting a training restaurant or donating your time or money to a reputable local NGO instead.

What to bring to Cambodia (the essentials):

This is not a complete packing list by any means, but these items are crucial for a successful Cambodian adventure:

A great travel backpack– Uneven terrain and frequent bus, boat, and tuk-tuk rides make the Khmer Explorer Travel Set perfect for travel in Cambodia. Durable, weather resistant, ergonomic, and the queen of organization, we built this pack for adventures just like this. Plus every bag supports a student in Siem Reap province, so you’re giving back to this country before you’ve even landed!

Comfortable clothing for hot weather – Think linen, organic cotton, and light colours. Cambodia gets crazy hot, even during the cool season.

Water bottle & water purification device (like a Steripen) plus electrolyte tablets: Cambodia is one of the hottest countries I’ve every travelled too, meaning you’re going to be really, really thirsty. Plastic pollution is a major problem, so grab your favourite water bottle and use the ever more readily available water coolers or your own purifier to stay hydrated and cut down on plastic waste. Also, bring along some electrolyte tablets if possible. The water here doesn’t have many minerals and these tablets will help prevent dehydration.

A comfortable pair of sandals or shoes for walking – If you’re visiting the temples of Angkor you’ll be doing a lot of walking and climbing!

Cambodia Backpacking Itinerary:

Cambodia offers plenty of experiences for trips of all lengths. The following outlines are a good starting point for your adventure with the option to speed up or slow down any of these itineraries as you see fit. Scroll through the whole post or click on any of the individual stops to skip ahead to that section and treat this Cambodia itinerary like a buffet. For the temples of Angkor I’ve put together a special section within Siem Reap dedicated to planning this highlight.

5-day Cambodia Itinerary:

Siem Reap or  Siem ReapPhnom Penh

7-day Cambodia itinerary:

Siem Reap  → Phnom Penh

10-day Cambodia itinerary:

Siem ReapPhnom PenhKampot or The Islands

14-day Cambodia itinerary:

Siem ReapBattambang →  Phnom PenhKampotThe Islands

3-week Cambodia itinerary:

Siem Reap Battambang → Phnom Penh → Kep → Kampot → The Islands

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Where to go in Cambodia:

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the jewel of Cambodia. The jumping off point to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, many tourists make this their only destination in the country and if you’re short on time in Cambodia, this is the place to see. While the town itself has become a bit of a tourist madhouse, heading just a few streets away from the notorious “Pub Street” brings you to a different world of beautiful green fields, sleepy villages, and hidden temples to explore. Many people cram a marathon visit to Angkor Wat in one day and move on, but there is so much more to enjoy in Siem Reap and it’s worth spending a few more days in this little town. 

How to get here:

By Air: International flights arrive straight into Siem Reap, so for those limited on time, flying directly here is a great option. Your guesthouse or hostel will usually offer a free pick up service from the airport. Alternatively, you can use PassApp or Grab to book a tuk tuk. 

By Bus: Buses arrive to Siem Reap from across the country. From Phnom Penh it takes about 6 hours by bus. We would recommend Giant Ibis ($15) for their great safety standards and conservation efforts. Cambodian roads can get a bit crazy at night so try to travel during the day for your own safety when possible.

Siem Reap Highlights: 

Visiting the Temples of Angkor.

The ancient city of Angkor was once home to a population of over 1 million people and held the title of the world’s largest city. During the period between its creation in 802 AD to its abandonment in 1431, the God Kings of the Khmer Empire constructed a series of magnificent temples and religious monuments across hundreds of square kilometres of modern day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.  The crown jewels of this era are housed within the Angkor Archaeological Park adjacent to the town of Siem Reap. From taking in sunrise over Angkor Wat, to gazing at the many faces of the Bayon, or wandering the tree-engulfed corridors of Ta Prohm, no trip to Cambodia is complete without a journey here. Is it crowded? Absolutely. Can the tourism be overwhelming? For sure. But just like many of the world’s great wonders, a trip here is sure to be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

A guide for Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Angkor Archeological Park.

Tickets & Fees:

Passes are sold for one day ($37, valid only on the day of purchase), three days ($62, valid for 10 days from the date of purchase) and seven days ($72, valid for one month from the date of purchase). Cash and credit cards are accepted at the ticket centre, which every tuk-tuk driver knows the location of. If you’re navigating yourself, Google Maps will guide you there.

Buy your ticket the evening before your after 5pm to avoid the chaos of getting it on the first morning. You’ll also get access to the Park that night, offering you the bonus of watching the sunset to kick off your temple touring. The most popular sunset spot, Phnom Bakheng, is extremely busy and you’re unlikely to get a spot (given you won’t be getting your ticket until 5pm), but the temple Pre Rup is also open until 7pm and is a great way to start your adventure after buying your ticket. 

What to bring:

A small day bag with water (lots) and a few snacks.

Your ticket (it will be checked at numerous checkpoints).

Sunscreen.

A hat.

Sunglasses.

Bug spray.

How to get around:

The vastness of Angkor Archeological Park is only realized once you begin exploring it. Let me say it’s big. Really big! In light of this, walking from temple to temple is out of the question. Generally the two most common options are traveling by tuk-tuk or by bicycle:

Tuk-tuk: $15 for the day

From the minute you arrive in Siem Reap, every driver, tuk-tuk driver, and tout will ask you how you plan to see the temples and more than eagerly offer their expert guiding services to you. Seeing the temples by tuk-tuk is a great way to go when it comes to staying as comfortable as possible in the Cambodian heat. Generally, many tuk-tuk drivers have a good idea of which temples to visit and at which times. They’ll help you plan out your itinerary and wait for you while you take the time to tour each one. Often the biggest challenge is finding the right driver. I’ve had good luck taking a driver affiliated with my hotel, hostel or guesthouse and usually recommend going this route. Alternatively talk to a few before committing and pick the person you like the best!

Bike: $1-9 (depending on whether you choose a rickety old bike or a polished mountain bike)

Cycling is a great way to explore the temples of Angkor and truly appreciate the beauty of the magical scenery in this area. Many hotels and guesthouses make bikes easily available for rent to guests. Don’t underestimate this though, as you can easily be cycling for 17 km (Small Circuit) or 26 km (Big Circuit) in the scorching Cambodian heat depending on the route you choose. If you decide to take a bicycle, be prepared to sweat, and remember to bring a headlamp if you go out for sunrise. I’ll never forget the intense paranoia I had of becoming roadkill in the pre-dawn as hundreds of tuk-tuks and tour buses cruised past me as I peddled furiously along the road to Angkor Wat. If you need help planing your cycling excursion, use the map and guide below. 

What to watch out for?

While rare, in some of the smaller temples you may be chatted up by a child or adult who gives you a tragic tale about a series of unfortunate events that led them to a very poor financial position. The conversation may start out as just a friendly conversation that you can easily mistake as getting to know a local, but it will inevitably find its way to their dire situation. These individuals are generally cons, so do your best to get out of the conversation and politely leave when it starts taking a turn. There are plenty of ways to help out by donating your money or time to organizations truly making a difference in Cambodia, so choose this option instead to be a responsible traveller.

What to wear to Angkor?

The Angkor Park remains an active religious site. As such, it’s recommended that you wear a shirt that covers your shoulders and shorts/pants/skirt/dress that extends below your knees. Individuals not meeting this dress code have been rejected entry in some cases, so do air on the side of caution and respect.

Angkor Wat Map

(+ Angkor Thom, Big & Small Circuit)

You’ll be able to pick up a general map of Angkor at your hotel or hostel, but here’s one you can use for quick reference. The Angkor Park is broken down into 2 circuits, the Small Circuit (~17km) and the Big Circuit (~26km). If you’re only here for 1 day you will likely stick to the highlights of the Small Circuit. If you have 3 days, you’ll move onto the Big Circuit. If you have 7 days, you’ll be able to spend a lot of time wherever you want and potentially double down on your favourites.

 

Here’s a quick summary of a few of the temples:

Angkor Small Circuit:

Angkor Wat អង្គរវត្ត : The largest religious site in the world, Angkor Wat is a spectacular 12th century temple that was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and designed to represent Mount Meru, the sacred 5-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology. Despite the mass of crowds, a sunrise (~5 am) here is a truly unique experience. Make sure to spend time admiring the massive lengths of bas-reliefs and finding some relative solitude as the bulk of tourists eat breakfast or rub the sleep out of their eyes following the sunrise.

Phnom Bakheng ប្រាសាទភ្នំបាខែង –  This hilltop temple near to Angkor Wat is a hotspot for sunset vistas. But with great views come great crowds. If you plan on watching the sunset here, arrive early otherwise you won’t get a spot. During the day this is a place to find solitude, although it gets extremely hot during midday as there is no tree cover once you reach the temple.

Angkor Thom អង្គរធំ – Literally means “Great City”. If ever there was an ancient city worthy of its namesake, it’s Angkor Thom. The minute you enter, over the gigantic moats, through the walls, and beneath the faces that watch over each gate, you will be taken aback by the size and scale of this ancient citadel. The following temples are highlights within the Angkor Thom complex:

Bayon ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន– Lying at the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon. While smaller than Angkor Wat in size, the detail and 216 smiling faces adorning its towers make this temple a fan favourite.  Many theorize that the faces depict King Jayavarman VII (ព្រះបាទជ័យវរ្ម័នទី ៧) the builder of Bayon and Angkor Thom. This temple is truly spectacular in its level of detail. Explore the beautiful lower levels of the Bayon to escape the crowds while still being able to peek up at the towering faces above.

Baphuon ប្រាសាទបាពួន – Slightly north of Bayon lies the 30m tall 3-tiered Baphuon. Climb the steep steps to take in the view over Angkor Thom. As you journey around this magnificent structure and observe its details, take a moment to appreciate that you’re standing on a restoration project that was 50+ years in the making.  By the 20th century the Baphuon had almost entirely collapsed and an epic restoration project began. Over 300, 000 of the blocks were labelled and arranged around the area and a detailed catalogue created. Then the Khmer Rouge conflict followed and the plans were lost. In 1996 restoration resumed, and piece by piece the temple was reassembled over the span of 15 years.  On April 2011 the temple reopened, fully restored. Some call it one of the world’s largest puzzles, and for good reason.

Preah Palilay ប្រាសាទព្រះបាលិលេយ្ – Continuing north from Baphuon, the often forgotten jungle-gem of Preah Palilay is one of my most recent favourite discoveries within Angkor Thom. Tucked away behind a Buddhist monastery in the forest, this little temple has a chimney-like tower at its centre and several huge trees entangling its base stretch almost as high as the tower itself. This temple is worth a quick visit to really feel like Indiana Jones.

Banteay Kdei ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្ – Banteay Kdei is similar in style to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, but a smaller version. It’s a charming little temple located across from Srah Srang lake.

Srah Srang ស្រះស្រង់ – This large water reservoir demonstrates the engineering capabilities of the Khmer Empire. It also happens to be a nice place to watch sunrise with fewer crowds.

Ta Keo ប្រាសាទតាកែវ – Just outside of Angkor Thom lies Ta Keo. A mountain style temple dedicated to Shiva, Ta Keo was left unfinished in the 11th century. An inscription claims it was struck by lightning, a bad omen that led to a halt in its building, but the death of the temple’s commissioning King is another potential reason. Regardless, climbing Ta Keo’s three tiers of steep steps is worth the fear of slipping to get a nice view from the top level.

Ta Prohm ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម – The iconic tree temple that was brought to fame by Tomb Raider lies about 1km to the east of Angkor Thom. Ta Prohm was originally built as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Today Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the Angkor Archeological Park due to the fact is was left almost as it was found when rediscovered. Massive trees drape their roots over ancient stones striking up an incredible contrast of man vs. nature.

Angkor Wat Map Bayon
The faces of Bayon.

Angkor Big Circuit:

Preah Khan ប្រាសាទព្រះខ័ន– Reminiscent of Ta Phrom (including the unrestored style), but with half the crowds. This temple is a must visit. Wander the many corridors and meditate among the trees. If you get your timing right, you may even have the place virtually to yourself.  

Ta Som ប្រាសាទតាសោម – A small temple in the theme of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, Ta Som is another one of my favourite places. Tucked away in the jungle on a dirt road off of the main concrete circuit, this temple is often missed by the tourist hordes and I’ve had the place to myself on multiple occasions. It’s a beautiful place to navigate through the rubble and admire the trees soaring through and beyond its stone walls.

Neak Pean ប្រាសាទនាគព័ន្ – Just down the road from Preah Khan lies this small and peaceful water temple. Its small size and boardwalk access can make it a little crowded during busy times, but it’s a beautiful place nonetheless.

Pre Rup ប្រាសាទប្រែរូប) – A great choice for sunset if you’re looking to avoid the insane crowds of Phnom Bakheng, Pre Rup offers striking views over the surrounding area. Remarkably it never gets too busy here, so climb up to Pre Rup’s top tier and sit down for a bit of relaxation to absorb the beauty of the Park.

Beyond the Angkor Park:

Banteay Srei ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយស្ – 25 km northeast of Angkor Thom lies Banteay Srei. This small temple is frequently raved about for its elaborate carving that may be the most elaborate of all the temples of Angkor. You’ll need a tuk-tuk to get here, but if you have the energy after all the other temples, the carvings are worth the trip.

Preah Khan an essential place to visit in Cambodia
Preah Khan Temple.

1 day at Angkor:

Note: To do Angkor in 1 day is a whirlwind, but if you’re short on time here’s my recommendation on how to do it:

If biking, count on a commute of 1 hour to Angkor Wat if you’re staying on the northern side of Siem Reap, longer if you’re staying elsewhere. (Take it from someone who missed the sunrise not once but twice. Don’t miss it…)

~5:00 am sunrise at Angkor Wat

~7:30 am Angkor Thom

~12:30 pm Lunch in Angkor Thom

~1:30 pm Quick stop at Ta Keo

~2:00 pm Ta Prohm

~4:00 pm Banteay Kdei

~ 5-6 pm Watch the sunset at Srah Srang or frantically back pedal through Angkor Thom and watch from the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng (leave early or cut Banteay Kdei if choosing this option otherwise you won’t get a spot).

7 pm Relax. Take a deep breath. You saw the highlights of Angkor in 1 crazy day.

3 days at Angkor:

3 days is often cited as the perfect amount of time to explore the temples of Angkor. It’s a busy 3 days , but affords you the time to see all the temples you want at a somewhat relaxed pace.

Day 1:  Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat- Start the day at the world famous Angkor Wat if you can bring yourself to wake up for the sunrise (5 am). It really is a breathtaking (albeit crowded) experience. Spend several hours admiring the vast bas-reliefs and queuing up to climb the steep steps to the upper level. Grab breakfast, a less than fantastic coffee, or the snack of your choosing at one of the many stalls/cafes along the north side of Angkor Wat.

Srah Srang & Banteay Kdei- Instead of proceeding north to Angkor Thom (we’ll save that for day 2), head east to Srah Srang and Banteay Kdei. Spend some time enjoying the reservoir and small temple.

Ta Prohm- Explore the magnificent Ta Prohm and get to know your inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (among many other people trying to do the same thing).

Ta Keo – Take the time to climb up the Ta Keo mountain temple, before calling your first day. If you made it for the sunrise at Angkor Wat, you may be itching for a nap.  Even if you didn’t make sunrise, you’re likely going to be itching to cool down poolside with an ice cold Angkor draft, or maybe a nap and a cool down…

Day 2:Angkor Thom:

Cycle past Angkor Wat and proceed through the south gate into the great city of Angkor Thom. The temples in here don’t open until 7:30, but if you take the time to arrive around this time you’ll be rewarded with far fewer crowds than later in the day. Better yet, the morning is generally mildly cooler.

The Gates- No matter how you enter Angkor Thom, you’ll pass over the great moat and through an intimidating set of gates and walls towering over 9m tall.  

Bayon – At the centre of Angkor Thom this incredible temple can easily occupy several hours of exploration. Wander along the Terrace of the Leper King and Terrace of the Elephants, transporting yourself back to a time when this parade route would have seen kings returning victorious from battle.

Baphuon- Conclude your day by summiting the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle and admiring the amazing restoration work.  

Afternoon (time dependent) in Siem Reap or visit further out Banteay Srei by tuk-tuk or motorbike.

Day 3 The Big Circuit:

An early start will once again be to your advantage. Set out biking past Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom before continuing through the north gate until you reach Preah Khan.

Preah Khan – wander through this massive temple and enjoy the relative quiet compared to the temples along the small circuit. Find a spot to sit and appreciate the power of the gigantic trees that engulf this temple.

Once you’ve finished at Preah Khan, continue down the road, stopping at Neak Pean and wandering across the boardwalk before proceeding onwards to Ta Som and concluding at Pre Rup.

If you’re not templed-out, bike back past Ta Prohm and through Angkor Thom, taking the time to stop at your favourites one more time.

You can climb up Phnom Bakheng and bid adieu to your time at Angkor with a view. If it’s later on in the day already, you may even want to take the time to linger and watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. The perfect conclusion to the way you started.

Banteay Ampil
Banteay Ampil an off the beaten path temple

Exploring off-the-beaten-path temples:

The joy of spending several days longer in Siem Reap is that you can take the time to visit the countless off-the-beaten-path temples in the surrounding area. Of course the famous Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon temples can’t be missed, but they can be crazy busy and it’s worth spending a day or two visiting some equally incredible ruins without the crowds. Our favourite two hidden temples are Beng Mealea and Banteay Ampil. You can also venture further afield to Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer empire, now tucked away in the jungle with few tourists making the journey to visit it.

Banteay Ampil actually lies outside any kind of official zone so it’s free to visit. Beng Mealea costs $5 as it also lies outside of the Angkor Park. You can pick up your Beng Mealea ticket on the road to get there.

Visiting the ethical Phare circus:

Usually I hear the word circus and cringe, but not when it comes to Siem Reap’s Phare circus. This amazing spectacle – the Cirque du Soleil of Cambodia – features traditional dance, theatre, live music, and circus arts. Some of the performances will leave you in goosebumps. Profits from your ticket here support the education, training and social support programs of the Phare Ponleu Selpak school.

Eating for good:

Siem Reap is the place to eat amazing food and to make a difference. Haven and Spoons are two of my favourite restaurants for their amazing food and social impact. These restaurants offer vocational training in the hospitality industry plus accommodation, meals, and social support to disadvantaged youth from the surrounding areas. If you’re looking for something a bit more local, be sure to head to Road 60 to experience the real Siem Reap. Every night this road comes to life with bright lights, food stalls, mats laid out on the road, and carnival-type rides. It’s where all of the locals head at night when the tourists are drinking too much Angkor draft on Pub Street.

Where to stay:

There is certainly no shortage of accommodation in Siem Reap. Lub d or Onederz are both awesome, social hostels close to everything happening in town. If you’re looking to splurge, eOcambo Village is the place to go, not only for their beautiful rooms but because they may have the loveliest staff I’ve ever met.

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Battambang:

Often neglected Battambang is a place that should be missed only at your own peril. It’s not that there are a particular number of attractions to see in Battambang, but this countryside city is the best place to bask in the relaxed Khmer way of life and escape the tourist hordes. Take the slow boat from Siem Reap past floating villages, stroll through the local market, attend a cooking course, and cycle around. You may just find your own little piece of inner peace in this relaxed destination.

How to get here:

By Boat: 

The most scenic way to get to Battambang is to take a 7-9 hour boat ride from Siem Reap. It costs $20. 

By Bus: 

The bus from Siem Reap to Battambang takes just 3-4 hours and costs about $6. 

Battambang Highlights:

Boat riding from Siem Reap to Battambang:

Sure you could make this trip in one third of the time by bus, but isn’t travel about the journey not the destination? When the water is low, the boat frequently gets stuck so this can be an extra long journey. While it may be long, it is far from a boring trip. Passing by villages floating on stilts, local fishermen at work in their boats, and children playing on the riverbanks, this is the way to observe everyday Khmer life at its finest. It may be the perfect way to transition from the commercialism of central Siem Reap town to the charming quaintness of Battambang.

Learning to cook Khmer style:

Cooking in Southeast Asia usually evokes images of Thai food, but we promise you that a Khmer cooking course is not an experience to be missed. And there is no better place than the sleepy town of Battambang to have this experience. Head over to Nary Kitchen where you’ll scour the local market for ingredients, then return to make multiple dishes you didn’t realize you were capable of creating. A cooking lesson, a delicious meal (we promise Nary’s instructions are foolproof), and a free recipe book thrown in – it is hard to find better value for $10!

Battambang Market

Where to stay:

Battambang still isn’t a tourist hotspot so accommodation options are more limited here, but they tend to be affordable and clean. Check out Pomme for a consistently good hostel.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh might not be the city you fall head-over-heels for right away. Most people stop here only for a day or two and move onwards. In spite of this, it’s an important stop on your Cambodia itinerary to truly begin to understand Cambodia’s difficult past. A day in Phnom Penh visiting the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum of S21 is harrowing. Be sure to allow yourself time after these visits to relax at one of Phnom Penh’s many great cafes or restaurants. The city is constantly changing and it’s an interesting place to soak in Cambodia’s rapid transformation over the past years. It’s a city where past really does meet present.

How to get here:

By Plane:  

International flights arrive here from across the world. From the airport to the centre of town (Riverside, BKK1 or Russian Market) a rickshaw booked through Grab costs around $6. An official airport taxi has a fixed rate depending on the area of your destination ($12-$15). You can also take the public bus which costs just 1,500 riel ($0.37).

By Bus: 

Phnom Penh is a hub to access Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and destinations across Cambodia. Buses coming into Phnom Penh will drop you off at different locations depending on the bus company you choose. Most bus company stations are located along the riverside or near Orussey market.  

Phnom Penh Highlights:

Visiting the harrowing S-21:

Tuol Sleng, also called Security Prison 21, is a former school that was turned into a security prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. More than 14,000 people were tortured, imprisoned, and ultimately killed in these halls. Only 7 people who walked in here walked out alive. One of these sits at the entry point as you enter S-21. As you navigate past the faces of all those who were lost, it’s a particularly potent reminder of humanity’s dark side.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields:

Located just 40 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was the largest of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. This is the location where those imprisoned and tortured at S-21 were sent to be executed. Today this is a place dedicated to educating both Cambodians and international visitors about the Khmer Rouge genocide in an attempt to prevent this from ever happening again.

Markets Cambodia Itinerary

Strolling through Kandal or BKK market at 7am:

Phnom Penh is bursting with amazing markets to explore, from the famous architecture and fake goods of the Central Market to the souvenir haven of the Russian Market. For really authentic experiences though, visit Kandal or BKK markets when they open at 7am. Watch as shopkeepers lay out vegetables and meat to sell for the day and get lost in the corridors selling the widest variations of items. These are the markets not catered to tourists in any capacity and they’re great places to get a sense of Phnom Penh’s daily bustling life.

Settling down at a cafe and shopping for good:

There are so many amazing cafes and restaurants in Phnom Penh, you don’t have to look far to find them. One of my all time favourites, not only in Phnom Penh but globally, is the charming ARTillery Cafe. Located close to the Royal Palace, ARTillery offers a nice respite from the heat and offers amazing treats like a falafel waffle eggs benedict. Right outside of ARTillery you can find secondhand and ethical goods shops to get your souvenir shopping out of the way while you’re here.

Where to stay:

Onederz Phnom Penh location is another favourite spot to stay in the city. It’s located in the riverside area of the city, close to all of the main tourist attractions.

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Kampot

I have yet to hear someone say they felt anything short of love for Kampot. This riverside town has a dilapidated charm different to anywhere else in Cambodia. The crumbling colonial buildings and quiet streets make it a brilliant town to explore either by foot or by bicycle. With amazing coffee shops and restaurants, pepper farms galore, a river brimming with activities, and a hill station to explore, Kampot is sure to charm you.

How to get here:

By Train:  Cambodia’s passenger trains are running again! You can take the train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville with Kampot as a stop along the way. It’s worth taking this slightly longer journey (4.5 hours) for the beautiful countryside views along the way and to avoid Phnom Penh’s crazy traffic. It costs $6.

 

By Bus:  The bus from Phnom Penh to Kampot takes just 3-4 hours (depending on traffic getting out of Phnom Penh). It costs around $6-10 depending on the bus company.

Kampot Highlights:

Kayaking with the (fabled) crocodiles:

Don’t worry, apparently it’s a myth that there are crocodiles in this river, although I did see a water snake when I was kayaking here. Rent a kayak at Greenhouse, Champa Lodge or Meraki and explore the beautiful backwaters here that are covered by tree cathedrals. It’s very reminiscent of the Mekong Delta here and you’ll often have the water completely to yourself. You can also rent a SUP board and test out your balance on the river water.

Eating, drinking, and eating some more:

A lot of great chefs who got tired of the Phnom Penh chaos moved themselves down to Kampot, and it really shows in the quality of restaurants here. Trendy Cafe Espresso is the perfect breakfast choice with its strong coffee, overflowing granola and fresh fruit of all varieties, and mouth-watering Huevos Rancheros. It’s truly a big slice of breakfast paradise in Cambodia. When it comes to dinner, there are so many amazing spots that I’m hard pressed to choose just a handful to recommend. Explore for yourself and don’t be surprised if you stay longer in Kampot just for the food alone.

Exploring the salt fields and pepper farms:

The only shortcoming of this area of Cambodia is that the roads are notoriously potholed. Whether you’re exploring by motorbike, tuk tuk or bicycle, prepare yourself for a bumpy ride to get out to the countryside salt fields and pepper farms. Kampot pepper is famous for good reason and you may find yourself with a whole new appreciation for this kitchen staple after visiting Kampot. Journey out to the certified organic pepper farm, La Plantation, and take their free tour to see step by step how pepper is made and sample half a dozen kinds of pepper variations. 

Where to stay:

If you’re looking for a great social hostel, Karma Traders is for you. They host amazing live music, quiz, and taco nights and the staff is ultra friendly. The dorms here aren’t the most soundproof, so if you’re looking for a quieter night’s sleep you might want to try a private room. If you’re flashpacking, take the 20 minute ride out of the city to tranquil Greenhouse, where you can rent a riverside bungalow and kayak, float, or stand up paddle to your heart’s content.  

Kep

Kep is a sleepy little seaside town blossoming with greenery. It’s a popular vacation spot among Khmer locals, but less international tourists visit here. If you’ve been craving some relaxation, hiking trails, beachfront, great seafood, and beautiful sunsets, Kep may just be your heaven on earth. There isn’t much to do here (which is really what makes it such a charming place), so you only need a day or two here, especially if you’re short on time.

How to get here:

By Bus:  Located just 4 hours from Phnom Penh ($8) or 1 hour from Kampot ($4), this is an easy bus ride. 

Kep Highlights:

Hiking in Kep:

Kep National Park is the only place you can hike without a guide in Cambodia, as the area has been completely cleared of landmines and unexploded ordnance. A trail system snakes around the park and it’s a great place to take a 2 hour stroll or peddle a mountain bike through. The Led Zep Cafe makes for a nice spot to rest your feet and quench your thirst in the park.

Taking in a sunset at the Sailing Club:

This swanky spot on the beach is a great place to grab a sunset drink and take in the incredible view over the ocean. It’s not cheap, but it’s also not as expensive as you might think when you first lay eyes on it.

Day tripping to Rabbit Island:

Koh Tonsay (or Rabbit Island) is a blissful little patch of sand less than an hour by boat from Kep. It’s rustic and if you’re looking for a Castaway experience, you can settle in one of the little bungalows on the beach here to stay the night.

Where to stay:

There’s a reason why Khmer Hands Bungalows has a perfect 5 star rating on TripAdvisor. These adorable bungalows are super thoughtfully designed and the owners of this place are some of the most wonderful people around. The place doubles as an arts training center.

The Islands

Less famous than Thailand’s islands, Cambodia has its own set of island gems. With white beaches and bioluminescent plankton you can swim with at night, these islands are still worth their hype. Located off the coast of Sihanoukville (try to time your visit to avoid spending the night in Sihanoukville), Cambodia has an island for every kind of beach lover.

How to get here:

Take the bus or plane to Sihanoukville and, if possible, jump on a boat right away to access the island of your choice. Sihanoukville has become expensive and is not the most pleasant place to stay.

Koh Rong

Koh Rong is the most famous of Cambodia’s islands and it’s getting busier and busier by the year. If you’re looking for a party, this is the island on the list to visit.

Kong Rong Samloem

Koh Rong’s quieter sister, Koh Rong Samloem is a popular alternative for those looking for a more relaxed time on the beach. Accommodation here can be expensive so make sure to look into where you’ll stay before visiting.

Koh Ta Kiev

Koh Ta Kiev may be the jewel of all of these islands. It’s reminiscent of what my first trip to Cambodia’s little island, Koh Russei, was like 9 years ago. There are basic beach bungalows, limited electricity and wifi, and travellers can actually get back to the basics here.

Off the beaten path spots in Cambodia:

If you have some extra time to spare in Cambodia and you happen to be a lover of the mountains, there are three wonderful places you could add to your itinerary.

Kirirom is Cambodia’s first national park and its location in the Cardamom mountains make it a cool and refreshing retreat from the country’s heat. With pine forests to explore and adventure activities galore, Kirirom is a great off-the-beaten-path adventure spot not too far from Phnom Penh.

In Cambodia’s wild east, a visit to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri provinces shouldn’t be missed by trekking lovers. There are plenty of multi-day treks you can take through the jungles of these provinces and Mondulkiri offers ethical elephant experiences. Be sure to read this thoughtful article to make an informed decision about which elephant sanctuary you visit. They aren’t all created equally.

How to get here:

Mondulkiri (7 hours, $10-13) and Ratanakiri (9 hours, $11-15) are easily accessed by bumpy bus rides from Phnom Penh. Kirirom is harder to get to and often necessitates figuring out some private transportation.

Responsible Travel Tips for Cambodia:

Orphanage tourism in Cambodia: 

The last years have brought increased knowledge about the harms of orphanage tourism, yet this is still an issue to be mindful of as you travel to Cambodia. Visiting or volunteering at orphanages is incredibly harmful to Cambodia’s young population.

Plastic waste:

Plastic waste is an astronomical issue in Cambodia. Tourists alone using disposable water bottles account for 26 Olympic-sized swimming pools of plastic waste in just one year. You’ll quickly see this when you arrive in the country. As a responsible traveller there are a number of things you can do to mitigate your own impact. Bring your own water bottle and fill it up from refill stations or use your SteriPen, pick up a bamboo or metal straw instead of using disposable plastic straws, and say no to plastic bags when offered them.

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Cycling from Calgary to Beijing with Brandon

Cycling to Asia

Cycling from Calgary to Beijing with Brandon

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Brandon Hartwig is what I hope the traveller of the future looks like. For three reasons.

1. He’s disarmingly modest. I didn’t learn until several days after we’d met that he had cycled 150,000km from Canada to China. Or that his photography has been featured in a number of impressive publications like Canadian Geographic.

2. He makes you want to travel responsibly without telling you to. His descriptions of working in community based tourism in Kyrgyzstan and traveling the world on his bicycle make you want to pick up your bike instead of a plane ticket and wave goodbye to the harms of mass tourism.

3. He has some pretty outrageous travel adventures to share. And let’s be honest, we could all use more amazing stories in our lives. From a rogue bear ripping his tent apart in Russia, to getting into a real-life bumper jeeps experience at a border crossing, Brandon has weathered just about every high and low you could dream of facing on the road.

Forget trying to find something to watch on Netflix, you may want to grab your popcorn to hear this Explorer of the Future’s odyssey.

Veering off the Gringo Trail into the unknown

Brandon has spent the past decade consistently working towards his next adventure. After lengthy stints abroad that ranged from surfing around Australia to hopping along the Gringo Trail in South America, Brandon was ready for something different.

 

“After so many trips you just start looking for those real experiences. South America was a big one for me because they call it the classic “gringo trail” – you’re always doing the same things and constantly running into the same people and same places. And I was like, okay, how can I branch out of this?”

 

This desire to travel differently and to finance his adventures through his career ultimately led him to pursue a degree in Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership. The ecotourism focus of his degree resulted in a three-month contract in Kyrgyzstan working in community based tourism.

 

“There was a small article on this up and coming ecotourism destination where it’s just beginning its tourism career in the international realm. And I was thought, oh, I should go there! What can I do? It’s so undeveloped for tourism that community based tourism is kind of the first thing that gets set up. So I headed over there, contacted the Community Based Tourism Association of Kyrgyzstan, and they were super keen to bring me on. I really enjoyed it because it’s just at the grassroots level and it’s often with people in rural and poor areas who are usually marginalized in some way. They can come together in a community collective and start things like guesthouses or traditional craft workshops for women. Then they pool 1% of that back into a community fund and apply those funds to bettering their lives, whether it’s protecting certain areas in the environment or building schools and playgrounds.

 

It’s a nice way to travel because often people are looking for those authentic experiences and they can be, in areas where mass tourism has taken over, hard to find or to differentiate – is it or is it not? But in community based tourism it really is.”

 

With this experience under his belt, the outdoors focus of his degree also required him to push the limits by leading an expedition that lasted at least 10 days in his fourth year.

 

“The experience of being in the wilderness I find after 7 days has a super, I don’t want to say, profound effect on you. You become a lot different and start to think of a lot more things after you’ve been alone – especially away from people for that long and phones and technology. I just fell in love with it and realized I wanted to do it every year. So I kept on doing it. I did ski trips and kayak trips. And then it was alright, I need to do a big trip and I should incorporate it with some travel.”

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The start of a 7-month, 150,000km expedition 

This initial thought to do a longer expedition led to what would become a 7-month, 150,000km expedition by bike from Brandon’s hometown of Calgary, Canada all the way over to Beijing, China.

 

“It all started with Mongolia. So [my partner, Kara and I] thought, Mongolia, Mongolia, what can we do? Maybe we can traverse some mountains, and then it was, oh, biking, it’s such a massive country, we can see a ton of it on bikes! How cool would that be?

 

And then you’re thinking down the line maybe I’ll bike around the world. I’ll turn left out my front door and maybe I’ll return one day from the right. So I started looking into it and realized it’s kind of practical, we can go up to Alaska and take a 3 hour flight to Russia and then we can keep on biking. It kind of blew up from there and we told too many people and once you start telling people you have to back it up.

 

The day came and I grabbed the bikes from the garage, waved goodbye to mom…. and called her 15 minutes later with all the things I forgot to bring and she drove them across the city, gave them to us, and we kept going.”

 

Even once his mom had delivered him his forgotten items, things didn’t quite get off to a smooth start.

 

“We were off to a horrible start actually. On the second day my partner crashed her bike. Really, really bad. We had to get evaced. We had just gotten into the mountains and we had to get evaced out and we ended up spending another two weeks at home before we set off again. She went ripping down our first big gravel hill and I turned around and she was just a heap on the middle of the road. She was super lucky – no broken bones – just a ton of road rash. Her skull and everything was fine. [She had] lots of check ins with the doctor because of the pressure and swelling, that’s a big thing. But it was all good and she left probably earlier than most people would have. We did a couple of test runs around the city and decided we would go super, super slow and not worry about anything. We were just happy to get out again.”

 

Pushing through any apprehensions, they got back on their bikes two weeks after Kara’s crash and conquered the same hill she had previously crashed on. For the next two and a half months they peddled from Calgary through British Columbia, into the Yukon, and finally to Anchorage, Alaska where they would take a three-hour flight to Russia with their bikes and resume riding.

“Canada was pretty good. We had one day where we were trying to link these backroad towns on the bike. So we ended up having to walk these train tracks and we were asking people, “can we walk these train tracks?” and they were like, “well, I wouldn’t do it without a gun…”.  We ended up doing it anyways and we saw about 28 black bears in 5 kilometres. We could hear them in the forest crashing around us. Then the rest of that trip was fine all the way through. Russia was a different story.”

One rogue bear, one shredded tent, and 20 hours of walking to escape

We were in Kamchatka and we didn’t take out the bikes. We thought we’ll take a little bit of time off, just do some hiking and trekking around and just get used to being in a new country. So we were in this national park and we hiked in for a couple of days to these hot springs. We were hanging out in these hot springs and we go back to our tent. And I was like, oh my shoe’s moved, I didn’t leave it here. And Kara was like, nah you probably left it there that’s where we were moving everything. Then we walked around the corner and our tent and our entire campsite was just destroyed. The tent was completely shredded and knocked down and poles were broken, my air mattress ripped in half, sleeping bags were shredded with feathers floating through all the trees and forest. Some of the pockets on the backpack were ripped off. All from a Kamchatka brown bear.

 

It’s the middle of the night, it’s around midnight, and we don’t have bear spray because we couldn’t fly it and we couldn’t find it in Russia. All we had was a little flare. So we try to gather what we can, get our food which was 100 metres away up in a tree so there was no cause for the bear to come by. But we learned after it was a bit of a problem bear. It had destroyed a quad that was in the area that was the ranger’s. They just kind of failed to tell us any of this when we first saw them.

 

And then we’re two days into this hike, and we’re thinking how can we get out? We have nowhere to stay. No shelter, no sleeping pads. We thought maybe we could make this work but it was this northern miserable rainforest. It had rained the full two days for us to get in there. In the end we just decided to long haul it out in one giant push. I think we left at 4 in the morning and didn’t get to lay down until midnight. Just like steady walking, whatever that is like 20 hours of walking.

It was entertaining that’s for sure. I wasn’t even shocked when it happened, well no I was shocked. I thought, it’s fine, it’s just crap, at least we weren’t in the tent. I think I started laughing – this is so ridiculous, what just happened. With our little flare to protect us.”

Human challenges

Besides a rogue bear, humans posed the occasional additional challenge for Brandon and Kara on their journey.

“There were a couple of human involved experiences that were a bit scary. Always alcohol was involved. We had an issue with one person who pulled over and became a bit threatening. Every person pulls over and wants a selfie with you – so I thought it was the same thing – then he grabs my hand and doesn’t let go of it. He’s squeezing it as hard as he can. I’m thinking uh, oh. He’s clenching his other fist. Hs mouth, his gums, are all bloody, I can just tell he’s super intoxicated. I was like, oh this is an uncomfortable situation. Then he was threatening to rip out my partner’s nose ring because she had come up. Luckily we did our best to say “we really like Russia!” in my broken Russian, and “oh this is a great place!”, and “oh sorry I don’t understand!”. Then slowly just backed out of the situation. We were backing away and his buddies came over and we just got on the bikes and went off in the other direction.”

In spite of this experience, the majority of people they met were extremely hospitable and intrigued to see these Canadian strangers on their bikes.

 

“We met a lot of people who had never seen a foreigner before. And there are a lot of indigenous groups up there. They were very, very kind – just wanted to say hello. A lot of them would tell us, they had grandchildren who spoke just a little bit of English, that we were the first foreigners they had ever met. It was a really, really cool experience.

 

We were always invited in [when we were biking]. People invited us into their homes, people were feeding us, they would pull over and give us food and snacks. It was overwhelming the hospitality all the way from Calgary into China.”

Ready to Start Planning Your Own Adventure?

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From galloping gazelles to border bumper cars

After cycling through Siberia, they finally entered the fabled country that had inspired their trip in the first place: Mongolia.

“We come into Mongolia and we’re so excited. Land of the big blue sky, it’s like Alberta, so we’ll get like 300 plus days of sunshine a year. So it’s cold but we’ll get the sun and feel warm during the day. And sure enough that’s how it plays out. As soon as we cross into the border, we’re biking along and there are herds of hundreds of gazelle galloping through the steppe, they’re galloping near our bikes as we’re riding. Essentially it became this magical, beautiful place where there’s no cities, there’s just the tiny village here and then just herdsmen and their yurts and motorcycles and horses all over the place. It was so cool.

I remember one morning we were camped up on this hill because you could camp wherever, Mongolia’s like the world’s largest open campground – amazing. And we were on this hill,  I think we’d just started the stove for breakfast and we could just hear the ground was shaking and unzip the tent and this huge herd of gazelle is like cresting up over the hill where the tent is and running along the ridge line. We were just laying in the tent looking out the little tent door window and thinking this is just the most magical moment in my entire life.”

This calm was a stark contrast to what they would soon encounter at the border between Mongolia and China.

“We noticed these jeeps going into the border. They were lined up for kilometres and they were super old and smashed to bits. I’m surprised any of them could even drive. We get to the border and it’s all lined up with these things, so I guess you have to go through the border in these jeeps. We were like okay so that’s why they’re all here. So we put our bike in one. And we get to the border in Mongolia and he says, you gotta take your bike and  go through the crossing and get your stamps and stuff, I’ll see you on the other side to do the actual crossing between the checkpoint in Mongolia to the checkpoint in China. And we go in and the guy says “you gotta put your bike through the x-ray”. And I was like, that x-ray machine is like 1 foot by 1 foot. And he’s like okay, just whatever, doesn’t scan our bikes or anything. Then he goes through and says you’re supposed to have this stamp. And he’s like eh whatever and waves us through this border. I don’t even know if we got a stamp out of Mongolia.

Then we get to the other side and we’re wondering is this guy going to pick us up? So sure enough we find him. We get back in the jeep with the bikes and we get to the border and it’s getting a little crazier and a little crazier and this took 4 hours or something – there were so many people. We were like what is going on. The cars start to funnel together and I go oh, they’re obviously only letting one vehicle in at a time and I’m thinking these vehicles are getting really close to one another. And the next thing I know our driver is sideswiping the car next to us and all of a sudden we’re smoked from behind by the other jeep. And then it’s just a thousand of these jeeps crammed together, smashing into each other, trying to get into this one single lane to cross into the Chinese side. It was mayhem. It was a thousand vehicles smashing into each other. Like, wow, this explains why these things are in pieces on the other side of the border.

I couldn’t believe it and our driver is laughing hysterically as it’s like smash, smash, smash – it’s pandemonium. And we get to the other side, the Chinese border and he doesn’t even want any money! He just takes off in his jeep around the corner. Then we come out on the bike path and we’re thinking where are we?”

Finding a new routine and pushing through the cold

Bears, bumper cars and gazelles aside, life fell into a new, meditative kind of routine on this journey for Brandon.

 

“You’re almost wanting to escape routine and life when you go on a trip like this and then it just turns into a daily routine anyways. 7am rolls around I turn on the coffee, then it’s 8 o’clock I’m turning down camp, and oh I’m biking for 2 and a half hours and I’m going to stop and have a tea and some cookies, and then in 2 hours I’m going to stop and have a sandwich, and then bike for two hours and have another cake, bike for another two hours, put up camp. On repeat all the time. It was a lot of time to get inside your own head and to not think and just to be on the bike and be like wow, did 2 hours just pass? It feels really good.

 

But the hardest thing were a couple of the cold days we had on the trip to be honest. I’ve never felt my hands or my feet go so numb that they weren’t there. And knowing that I have to keep moving because I don’t have enough food to stop for the day or oh we’ve gotta get to this next town and just the bitter cold and shaking and trying to get the pedals to go forward. Just the worry is it going to be like this every day, am I going to be able to do this for 2 months because this was already happening in September I think. It would feel so terrible to cut this short and just take the train to Beijing but we kept telling ourselves maybe we’ll get to Mongolia and we’ll get that blue sky and sunshine, so that kind of helped. And near the end of Mongolia it was kind of the same thing – with wind ripping through the Gobi Desert, we couldn’t even keep our water from freezing during the day. So we’d ride with water bottles in our coat. And you’re in the middle of the desert realizing this is your lifeline. You’re shaking water bottles to try to melt the ice out of it. That was uncomfortable.

 

Near the end of the trip we couldn’t even cook. We’d just get in our sleeping bags in all of our clothes, all of our layers, and just lean out the door of the tent and fire up the stove. And we’d be done eating and we’d crawl into the sleeping bag and wake up and barely stick an arm out to get breakfast going. You’d only get out when it was like, okay, it’s time to bike and that’s the only thing that’s going to keep me warm.

I was being very stubborn the whole time. People would offer us rides too – “oh I’ll give you a ride for a couple hundred kilometres because this section is going to be boring, you’re not going to see anything”. But in the back of my head it was oh we’d be cheating, we want to do this thing from start to finish. And I mean at the same time you don’t want that to be what it’s all about. Whatever if you miss a few kilometres here and there. But in the end we ended up doing it all.”

Getting off the bike in Beijing

With jobs lined up for the winter season in Japan, Beijing ended up being the end point of Brandon and Kara’s 7-month, 10,500 kilometre odyssey. If you’ve been on a big trip yourself, you know how strange it can feel once it’s over, but for Brandon it was even stranger getting off the bike.

“We went straight to a microbrewery and we hunted down burgers. […] It felt very very weird. It was strange. We had a week in Beijing and we were like what do we do? I guess we’ll just walk. And walking hurt and I remember putting on a backpack for the first time in Japan and that hurt. I think I’d lost 25 pounds on the trip and I was not a big person when I started but I was very, very tiny by the end of it.  My sense of time was also skewed. I’d think I need to go here, it’s only a couple of kilometres. I was used to doing 70-140 kilometres in a day, so I couldn’t really make sense of distances. And also what do I do every day? That was probably the biggest thing.”

 

Finding faith in humanity

 

Besides getting used to walking again and putting on more weight, this kind of extreme adventure impacts a person in other ways that don’t go away so quickly.

 

“For me, it was that the human factor became the most valuable part of the whole experience for me. Because before I used to always go on these – I mentioned I was doing skiing and kayaking trips and expeditions – it was always about going to the backcountry and getting away from people and from all that and just escaping. And this trip there certainly was lots of times when we didn’t see anyone and we were remote in the backcountry. But the most important element ended up being the people we’d meet along the way and the people that would invite us into their homes for dinner, or the people who would give us a bed at night. Especially in really unexpected places where these communities are clearly not well off and just for someone to share that little bit with you of what they already have was just overwhelming. And all of a sudden it was like wow, I do all these trips to get away but the human part of this trip was so amazing and it kind of gives you a little faith back in people. [Before] I was like I need to get away from people and then I realized oh, people are so wonderful. The hospitality from people was completely overwhelming, I’ve never experienced something like that before.”

 

Brandon has no plans of slowing down any time soon after completing this first big bikepacking trip. With his sights set on a bike trip through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan next, you’re going to want to follow along with this Explorer of the Future.

You can find him and his incredible photography (featured throughout this article) on Instagram @freeluftsliv and at https://brandonhartwig.com/home.

 

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54 Days Walking Across Mongolia with Caeli

Banana Backpacks Explorer Series

54 days walking across mongolia with caeli.

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Imagine walking 1,150 kilometres across Mongolia. You have food drops scheduled along the way, but you’re not certain what’s going to be in each package. You have 5 ways to filter water, but you’re unsure where you’ll be able to find sources. You have a 19-year-old local riding along on a motorbike as your sole way of communicating with anyone, but you can hardly communicate with him yourself.

This was Caeli Barron’s life for 54 days as she walked across Mongolia. Her story is an incredible one – and one that she tells with such humour, humility, and honesty that it will make you feel as though you were along with her on this gruelling journey. It takes an incredible explorer to plan a trailblazing trip like this, and Caeli is just that.

Jumping into the adventure deep end

Some of us like to wade out into the world slowly. We don’t want to lose our feet and get swept away. Caeli was never this kind of traveller. Growing up with the Canadian Rockies as her playground, her love for pushing herself out of her comfort zone started at a young age. While other 19-year-olds with the travel bug were planning the hostels they would stay at in Europe, Caeli decided on a whim to do a very different kind of adventure.

“I definitely was in a bit of that soul searching part of life. I think I decided it in one day. My mom came home from work and I was like “I’m going to Nepal, I’m going to book my ticket this week”.”

Once she had her ticket booked, she decided to combine 6 weeks of volunteering, 10 days of silence, and 3 weeks of trekking into one physically and mentally demanding journey.

“The [volunteer] placement that I was in was up in this mountain village for 6 weeks. The town was northwest of Pokhara, the other major city there. It was a few hour bus ride and then you had to hike up the mountain – there was no road access – so it was another few hours of hiking up the mountain to get to the village. And it was pretty crazy because I was the only person who spoke English there. Pretty funny to be up there using sign language for 6 weeks.”

While this initial 6 weeks already pushed Caeli, she went on immediately after her placement finished to do a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal.

“That was also very intense because it was no speaking, no writing, no eye contact, one meal a day – so that was another huge challenge. I came out of the meditation just talking nonstop, I called my parents, and just talked at them for 3 hours. And I pretty much left for my trek right away [to do] the Annapurna Circuit Trek there. So that was a huge relief to finally be doing something more familiar.”

The decision to walk 1,150 kilometres across Mongolia

After returning to university in Canada and filling her days with adrenaline-fueled activities in the nearby Rocky Mountains, inspiration struck again.

“My inspiration for Mongolia was that I saw a film at the Banff Film Festival about this guy who rode horseback from Mongolia all the way to Hungary. His story was so cool and I was really drawn to the Mongolian landscape, so I was pretty set. I talked about Mongolia for a few years, just like how much I wanted to go there, and eventually started making actual plans for it.

I think, coming from a sport background, I’ve always been drawn to the especially hard things. I like to push myself physically and mentally. I like the challenge of being thrown into a scenario where you’re really uncomfortable because I feel those are the times when you have the best experiences and learn the most. Maybe not at the time, but afterwards you look back and realize it was one of the best things you’ve ever done. And then watching films about these epic adventures, I wanted to have my own expedition and, I mean, I don’t have a lot of mountaineering skills or crazy climbing [experience], but I was like, I can walk a long ways so why don’t we do that.”

Logistical challenges

“I started to do a bit of research and then eventually got one of my friends on board in the pretty early stages of the planning and then it took quite a while, like a few months I would say of emailing different people and trying to find a contact that could help because contacting locals in Mongolia is extremely difficult. I’m sure there’s a few organized trekking groups there but for the most part there’s not a whole lot. And I also wanted to do this unique type of trip and a lot of them basically said no, or a couple of companies that were Australian or European wanted like 30,000 [Canadian dollars] for what we wanted to set up.

Eventually there was a European company that had worked with a local Mongolian man and said “we can’t offer you the services for the budget that you have, but this guy we’ve worked with and he’s looking to start his own guiding company, he might be willing to work with you”. And so we were just lucky that they referred us to this man and he helped organize all the logistics and what was a reasonable route to take. It was very individualized – basically he helped us do something that nobody else was willing to work with us on.”

It became even clearer just how unique this adventure to Mongolia was going to be when the Mongolian embassy in Canada knew Caeli by name.

“It was kind of an ordeal [with the visa processing]. You had to have a letter of invitation. And once [the local organizer] signed that, it was actually pretty funny, he sent the letter to the embassy. I’d called to see if our visas were in and they knew who I was. I was the only person who applied for a visa at that time. They’re like, “oh are you Caeli?!”. And I was like, “yeah?”, and they were like, “yup, we have your visa here!”. Because nobody else at that time had applied for a Mongolian visa in Canada.”

Once she had her visa arrangements and months of route preparation finalized, she arrived in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. From there Caeli, her friend Ella, and their local guide (a 19-year-old who didn’t speak much English), drove for two full days to where they would start their expedition for the next two months.

“It ended up being 54 nights, I think was the exact number. We were averaging between 25 to 30 kilometres a day. You’d wake up have breakfast, walk until dinner more or less. So it was 8 hours or so [of walking]. The hours of sunlight were very long there. It was pretty much as far as we wanted to go, we would go. The first like week and a half or two weeks, I found it very hard to walk that far with the heavy packs and stuff. We didn’t train for it so it took awhile for the body to get used to it.”

Want to Plan Your Own Legendary Journey?

Download the Explorer’s Guide for Caeli’s tips on how to plan your own trek + tips from all of the Banana Backpacks Explorers. 

Food, fuel and water

“Food, fuel and water. They’re all interconnected. Because you need the fuel to obviously get to the next gas station, we needed fuel for cooking our food, you needed water to cook the food because it was all dry food, and then you needed water to drink obviously. And then just running out of food so you could get to the next station which was reliant on how much fuel you had. So they’re all interdependent of each other and it was quite stressful. There was really no way to prepare for it in some ways.”

With Mongolia having an incredibly small and spread out population, accessing food and water along the way had to be carefully planned before she set out on the trip. 

“[Our local organizer] originally set out 9 or 10 food caches that he would send out on a bus or with somebody he knew who dropped them in certain places. We had the GPS locations of all our food caches, so we were always trying to budget our time in order to get to the food cache to have enough food to go on. So we didn’t have to carry all of our food at once which helped the weight.

We didn’t have much role in planning the food. A lot of it was what our organizer had put in, which was a lot of packaged food from Russia. So we had very, very, very disgusting food the whole time. It was actually awful. Almost like Mr Noodles but worse. We did have some cereal with powdered milk and then we’d have little packages of coffee – it was called Coffee King. Which had like one ground of coffee and then just sugar. Then we had this sunflower seed block. It was this grey brick of mushed sunflower seed that was pretty good. He had lots of chocolate bars. That was our main source of energy. Just hundreds of chocolate bars and peanuts.

One time we got to a food cache and there was barely anything in it and we were able to get some bread and cheese from the local people. We were able to buy some of their homemade stuff off them which was really nice. And then the odd people would invite you into their house for tea, like milk tea, which had obviously milk in it and salt and butter sometimes. So that keeps you going a bit.”

Running out of water

“The food caches were somewhat reasonably placed in terms of distance between each other but we didn’t know exactly where we were going to find water. So, yeah, it was very stressful. We did get very close to running out, and our guide didn’t know how to ration. He was using water to wash his face and stuff and I was at the point of tears and I was like, if you wash your face one more time, we’re not going to survive kind of thing. And he’d blow his nose and use the water to wash out his nose and I was like, oh my goodness, I just kind of accepted my fate, I was like this is either going to be bad or we’re going to figure it out, so one way or another you just have to do it.

It was hard when we’d take water breaks to stop yourself from drinking. You know when you’re thirsty you want water and to restrain yourself and you’d hand the bottle over. My friend Ella was hiking with me and she’d drink some and I’d be thinking oh, she’s drinking a lot, she’s drinking a lot! Then I’d be all worried about running out.”

This new understanding of water shortages shifted Caeli’s perspective and understanding immensely.

“Obviously there are people around the world that have to worry about food and water so much more than we do but coming from and growing up where I have, in a privileged lifestyle, [running out of water] has never been something I’ve had to worry about. It was a different set of challenges.

Just how resourceful the Mongolian people are and the ways which they conserve water and stuff is pretty inspiring. One technique that they’ll use if they want to wash their hands but they don’t want to pour the water over their hands because you’ll waste a lot that way, they’ll take a big sip of it and they’ll hold it in their cheeks and slowly spit it out over their hands so they use the most minimal amount to actually wash their hands and then they can drink the rest if they don’t finish their mouthful or whatever. But at least they know they’re not going to use more water than what’s in their mouth.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me [how they access their water]. We came across some wells. In one well the water was so sulphuric we actually felt sick after drinking it. Our stomachs were so rumbly. Also one time we saw a bunch of people filling up their water bottles and it looked like it was just mud, but there was just a little bit of water. There were times we were filling up our water bottles in a little stream, and we’d like hold our water bottle under the water and be wafting away chunks of poo that were floating down. We had like 5 treatment water systems that we’d use to try to purify our water and we actually didn’t get sick which is a miracle. But there was literally chunks of poo floating down the river and we had to use that water, we didn’t have a choice.”

Plan your next adventure.

Download the Explorer’s Guide for Caeli’s tips on how to plan your own trek + tips from all of the Banana Backpacks Explorers. 

Crazy hikers, crazy experiences

When I asked her if the Mongolian people they met along the way thought they were crazy, she laughed.

“Yeah I think they thought we were crazy! They couldn’t believe that we’d be walking out there. People that would drive by occasionally would offer to drive us because they didn’t understand why we wouldn’t get in their cars. They were pretty shocked all around I’d say.

I feel like every day was crazy. There was a day when our guide disappeared for 4 hours and we didn’t know if we’d find him. There was a day where we ended up exactly where we started because our map was wrong. There was a day when we did get a short ride from somebody and they had a baby in the car and the baby was being sick. So he stops the car, turns the baby upside down, pats it on the back so it throws up a little bit. Then puts his mouth over its nose, sucks out its boogers and spits that on the ground, throws the baby back in the car and continues.

There were challenging days, more so when I was physically hurting. But on this trip, I wanted to be there the whole time, which I feel hasn’t been the case on a lot of other trips that I’ve done. I usually am thinking about the end or ready to be home. And not once on that trip was I struggling with it. Maybe because I was so focused on just getting to the next point and making sure we were going to have enough resources – that more consumed my thoughts. And I mean obviously being with another person trekking for that long, there were days when we wouldn’t talk much and that would be hard going the whole day being pretty silent. But I don’t feel like I really went crazy. I went more crazy in Nepal. Maybe that just toughened me up.”

“The Dude Abides”

All of these crazy experiences left a lasting impression on this explorer that, understandably, continues to remain with her today.

“I think about that trip all the time. It’s something that I think about every day because it was such a unique experience and whenever I’m out hiking or finding something challenging I often think back to it. At the end of our trip me and my friend got tattoos done in Ulaanbaatar and it’s kind of ridiculous but it’s “the dude abides”. We got it written on our forearms. It does come from a movie reference but I haven’t seen the movie. Basically we actually wrote this on our arms early into the trek and it became our, I don’t know, our inspiration. We were like everyone in Mongolia is so laid back and so chill and they just deal with the most ridiculous things in their life and they’re just such resilient people and I love it. They’ll come up to you and lie down on the ground and have a conversation when they first meet you and talk to you, well not talk to you because they don’t speak English, but they’ll lie down and just stare at you. Anything is cool. So we had this motto, “the dude abides”, and whenever anything challenging would come up, we’d just be like “well, we’re just going to deal with it”. So I guess that’s what was inspiring and what we wanted to take forward from the trip. And obviously we got it tattooed on our arms so it was meaningful to us at the time and still is: to just be a bit more relaxed and to take the challenges that come up in life and not take everything so seriously.”

Quick Qs with Caeli Barron

What item won’t you travel anywhere without?

“I would say for a trip like that definitely an inReach. So that was a device that would call for emergency evacuation if we needed it. And you could also text, communicate via text with emergency responders or also just text anyone you want if you need to communicate with the outside world. So I think that’s a necessity for big trips. And then a water purifier. Those are the two things, the top two for sure.”

What’s the most uncomfortable thing that’s happened to you on any of your trips?

“I would say probably the marriage proposals I got in Nepal. It sounds funny now but it was actually so stressful for me because they were relatives of the women I was living with and it was very hard when people would invite you over into their homes and cook you a meal and then eventually you knew that it was coming. And I found that very awkward and stressful and I couldn’t really communicate with them either so it was very hard.”

What was your worst night of accommodation?

“I feel like Mongolia wasn’t so bad because we were just in a tent. But there was one night we were staying just on the outskirts of the city. It was 35 or 37 degrees that day and obviously it’s really hard to be sitting around baking in a tent. And we were basically in a garbage dump, more or less. There was garbage flying around everywhere just outside the city because they don’t really have a proper way of disposing things there, they just dump it away from where people are. So we were amongst the garbage and that night we were caught in a sandstorm and we thought the tent was going to fly away like with us in it. So we were holding down the tent for hours and hours that night. We didn’t get any sleep, there wasn’t any water, and just stressing about where to go to the washroom. There was the odd person who comes around, there’s nowhere to hide in these desert areas, there’s not one bush that you can crouch behind. You’d have to walk like a kilometre to where the horizon line would like dip down and you could get away far enough so they couldn’t see you.”

Where is next for you?

“I’ll probably stick to North America. I want to do some climbing trips and stuff to the States and up north would be cool to do some more exploring. Maybe Greenland one day would be a pretty neat place to go.”

Anywhere that’s not very inhabited right? I feel like those are your spots.

“Exactly. I like people, just a few people at a time you know?”

Want to Plan Your Own Legendary Journey?

Download the Explorer’s Guide for Caeli’s Tips on how to plan your own trek + tips from all of the Banana Backpacks Explorers. 

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