My Love Affair with Cambodia

Moving to Jakarta has been a huge adjustment, not just because it’s my first time living abroad but because I’ve had to make the transition from being a long-term traveler to being a sedentary apartment dweller.  I’m sure I’m not the only long-term traveler that’s had a hard time making this adjustment but, for me personally, it’s been unexpectedly challenging.  I appreciate the opportunity of living abroad, even with all its ups and downs, but I miss the freedom and excitement that comes from being a nomad, that feeling of never knowing where I’ll be the next day or the next week.

Aside from being a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Jakarta offers a semblance of security that I craved during my 12 months of non-stop travel.  Having a routine, a source of income, an apartment to call home and a kitchen to cook meals in are all things I appreciate.  But despite these little pieces of comfort and security, the road still calls to me.  After living in one place for six months, I’m missing my former life as a traveler…desperately.

Because of Aaron’s busy teaching schedule and my overall lack of money, we haven’t been able to do too much traveling since we moved to Jakarta in August.  Aside from quick trips to Bali, Malaysia and Singapore we haven’t actually left the confines of the city.  And, let’s just say, both of us have been experiencing a bit of Jakarta fatigue for the past couple of months.

As I mentioned before, we’d been planning on doing a bit of traveling in January but because we are the most indecisive people in the world we had a hard time nailing down plans.  We both assumed we would spend our vacation exploring one or two of the otherworldly destinations on offer in Indonesia, because we are living in Indonesia, after all.  But being two people who have a tendency to make random, spur-of-the moment decisions we, of course, veered way off course and purchased two tickets to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

And we couldn’t be happier with the change of plans.

Aaron and I spent seven fleeting days in Cambodia during our first-ever trip to Southeast Asia way back in 2006.  We were baby backpackers at the time and made the mistake of rushing through a country that’s so diverse we could have easily spent weeks or even months exploring all it has to offer.  During that trip, we explored the crumbling temples of Angkor, wandered the seedy, riverside streets of Phnom Penh and learned all about Cambodia’s unfathomable history.

Back then, Cambodia was the roughest country I’d ever visited and, at times, it was tough.  But despite being a bit rough around the edges, I was hooked.  Aaron and I fell in love with Phnom Penh fast and hard.  I can still remember sipping on Angkor beers at one of the many riverside bars and musing about moving to what we viewed was a very underrated Southeast Asian city.

Considering we were so enchanted with Cambodia, it’s ridiculous that it took us eight years to make it back here.  But, in a sense, I’m glad we waited.  Being able to return to a country a little older and a lot wiser is an opportunity both of us are relishing.

Touching down in Phnom Penh last week we were instantly reminded of why we loved this city so much.  Our first night back in Phnom Penh we found ourselves in much the same manner as during our first trip.  We’re still dreaming up all sorts of plans to make living here a reality – maybe I could write for the Phnom Penh Post, maybe Aaron could teach at a university or maybe we could just open up a little burrito shack (a very random dream that we have)!  Perhaps we’ll never have the chance to live here, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, we will take it in a heartbeat.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Monks hanging out near Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.

While we spent a few days in Phnom Penh soaking up the culture, watching orange-robed monks stroll down the streets and getting our fill of Khmer food, we also made it a point to fit in some much needed beach time on the rustic island of Koh Rong, where we are now.

pier panoramic

As I write this I’m sitting on the balcony of our little bungalow, perched on a hillside overlooking a bay that’s so picturesque you’ll just have to see it to believe it.

view koh rong

Aaron might or might not be lying in bed in the fetal position dealing with a bout of food poisoning (something that always happens when we travel) but, regardless, this trip has been pretty amazing.

beach koh rong with boat

I’ll be writing a lot more about our Cambodia travels soon, but for now I wanted to give you all a sneak peak of one of my favorite countries.

Have you been to Cambodia?  Does it seem like the type of country you would like?


A special thanks to Leah from The Mochilera Diaries for interviewing me about my experience traveling as a couple.  As many of you know I have a travel partner in crime, Aaron, but I’ve never really gone into what it’s like to travel together.  So if you’re interested in learning about the nitty gritty of traveling with a partner or just eager to hear little more about Aaron and I and our crazy travel experiences, you can find the interview here.  Also, if you haven’t already, check out Leah’s blog because it’s one of my favorites!  

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

22 thoughts on “My Love Affair with Cambodia

  1. Lovely post. Cambodia is a destination, that is still waiting for us. 🙂 One day we Will surely get there, so we can’t wait for more info.
    We’ve been away from blogging for some time, so we didn’t really follow your posts. Hope you enjoy it in Jakarta and that you are making the most of it. 🙂 You are really lucky in a way, that living in Indonesia enables you to see South-East Asia in details.
    2ticketstowonderland recently posted…Travel plans for 2015

    1. Good to hear from you! I’ve missed you guys 🙂 Something tells me you two would love Cambodia. From the temples to the beaches it’s an AMAZING country. And there is just something magical about the people too. It’s really a special place.

      Ha, Jakarta has been interesting. There are lots of ups and downs, of course, but ultimately it’s been a really great experience for me. And I do love that I’m so close to all of these awesome SE Asia destinations.

    1. Kaleena, you are going to love it! At least I hope you love it as much as I did 😉 I didn’t realize it had such amazing beaches either. When I was there in 2006 I went to Sihanoukville and its main beach was less than impressive. Koh Rong is an hour ferry ride from Sihanoukville and that’s where I went this time around. It is honestly one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen…I’m talking about Long Beach which I’ll be writing about i detail very soon! If you have any Cambodia questions please feel free to ask 🙂

  2. Cambodia has always been one of my maybes…I’m not really a fan of temples when travelling and there’s always lots of it around SEA but I may change my mind looking at that beach…haha…ok, maybe another time instead…:)
    sha recently posted…Why I’m Going to Love 2015

    1. Seriously, the temples of Angkor will no doubt impress even you. They are amazing and unlike any other temples I’ve ever seen. And the beach on Koh Rong is on my list of the top three beaches I’ve ever been to. That is very high praise coming from me. Maybe someday you’ll give Cambodia a shot!

  3. Ahh, so beautiful!! I absolutely LOVED Koh Rong. I mean all of Cambodia was great…very underrated as you say. Lovely people. I will admit though, the food’s pretty shit haha. My trip through the country was pretty short, just 11 days, so I think I could stand to go back for a closer look one day. I have a lot of unfinished business in Southeast Asia!
    Leah recently posted…The 12 Best Things About Being an Expat in Medellín

    1. My first (and second trip) was also about 11 days. I saw the temples, the capital and Sihanoukville. It was too much stuff for so little time. For years I’ve wanted to go back and spend a month or two exploring the country. There are so many places I still don’t know anything about there! Koh Rong really impressed me. I walked across the island to Long Beach and was completely blown away. Long Beach is way up there on my favorite beaches EVER list. I wish I would have had more time to stay on that side of the island. It looked like perfection to me 🙂

    1. You will love Koh Rong, Ashley! It boggles my mind that I’d never even heard of it when I was there in 2006. That place is going to get really overdeveloped, fast, which is so sad. My advice is to get there soon!

  4. I’m glad you guys were able to get some time away! Even when you’re in a foreign/exotic location, if you’re used to moving around fairly frequently, it doesn’t take long for wanderlust to set in.

    As for Cambodia… it’s not my favorite destination in SEA, that’s for sure, and I really didn’t think much of Phnom Penh, either! I much preferred Kampot & Kep, which were more laid back and less gritty. I also liked the food there better too (the fresh green peppercorns were amazing!), although I’d love it if you could tell me what Khmer food actually is… despite spending a month in Cambodia, I never did figure out what distinct dishes are available other than the ubiquitous fish amok.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…How Much It Costs to Travel in Italy* (& Other Handy Advice)

    1. The time away was beyond necessary. We arrived back in Jakarta yesterday and both immediately fell into a depression 🙁 We’re both wondering how we can possibly get back on the road ASAP. I think traveling long term has ruined real, normal life for me!!

      Most people don’t seem to be as enamored with Cambodia as I am, especially when it comes to Phnom Penh. There’s just something about it that clicks with me, I guess. I met a guy on Koh Rong who was raving about Kampot. We wanted to go but since we only had 10 days in the country we just couldn’t squeeze it in…but now I’m really intrigued! Ha, I ate a bunch of veggie amok, which was delicious. But, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what the major Khmer dishes are. I did bring a bunch of pepper back with me though 😉

  5. I’ve only spent 2 short days in Cambodia – mostly at Angkor and surrounding area, which is obviously not enough time to know the country. Worse still, I was on a Korean tour with my aunts and mom. We didn’t even eat any Khmer food while we were there. Can you imagine!? Clearly I need to revisit. But wowwww!! Koh Rong looks amazing! How developed is the island? Is it all beach huts, or is there any mid-range accommodation available? Hubby and I are looking for a short beach break, but want to really relax.
    Shelley recently posted…3 Things I love about Seoul, My Favourite City

    1. Cambodia is definitely worth more of a visit. Both of my visits have been way too short and there’s a lot more I’d like to see.

      As far as Koh Rong goes I’ll be writing some posts about it soon that will give a lot more information which will hopefully help you out. No, it’s not super developed yet. There are a ton of budget and mid-range bungalows clustered near the pier. There are no major hotel structures (that I saw) so you’ll likely be staying in a beach hut. I checked out quite a few and they’re all pretty bare bones but range from really crappy to fairly nice. Overall they’re all overpriced for what you get. I paid $30 for mine which I thought was one of the better deals (and best views) in town. I can get you the name if you want. But other bungalows of the same caliber can run up to $70. Oh, and since the island isn’t really developed Koh Rong only has electricity from 6pm-2am. It actually didn’t bother me at all. Our bungalow stayed so cool that we didn’t even use the fan at night (but we were there in the “cool” season). I think Koh Rong would be an excellent choice for a relaxing trip…it sure did the trick for us. Long Beach is one of the most perfect beaches I’ve ever seen…just saying.

    1. Yay, I’m so happy that there’s another Cambodia lover out there 🙂 It’s definitely rough around the edges but there is SO much to love. Koh Rong completely exceeded my expectations. Long Beach was insane and I just wish I would have been able to stay longer. It looks like we have the same taste in travel destinations 😉

  6. I love your photos of the boats!! I’ve heard such great things about Koh Rong, and Cambodia in general. Glad you guys got a break from hectic Jakarta! Althugh I’ve never been a long term traveler, our travel style has adjusted too. Our first trip together was across the US and back in 2 weeks, now I choose a maximum of 3 places (relatively close to each other) for 2 weeks! 🙂
    Katie recently posted…7 Amazing Things to Do on Isla Holbox Mexico

    1. Thanks Katie! There are many more photos to come 🙂 You would LOVE Koh Rong. It kind of reminded me of the Gilis, but not as built up and a lot more rustic. Oh my gosh, I think back to my first backpacking trip though Europe and we literally went to six countries in three weeks. I used to try and fit in everything into small amounts of time but I’ve learned not to do that. I definitely prefer slow travel these days.

    1. Obviously I love Cambodia. I really hope you enjoy your time there this summer, Becky! Where are you planning on visiting? I highly recommend Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Koh Rong 🙂

  7. Em, What is nice in Cambodia? It is consider expensive cities in Asia as i noticed. Using that Tuk Tuk and for short distance you have to pay 3 to 4 $. The foods also expensive. What i dont understand about this country the base salary is around 100$ and the clothes and foods are super expensive. How they survive these people?
    Any other places rather than Phenom Penh can suggest? Thanks for the information.
    My next destination will be in october to Jakarta then back to Cambodia for business trip, and it is the first time for me to visit jakarta, even i visited most of the cities and Islands of Indonesia.

    1. Well, I suppose everyone has their own personal preferences. There are certain things about Cambodia and Indonesia that I absolutely love. And, of course, there are things about both that irk me to no end. The expensive tuk tuk rides are annoying in Phnom Penh. But I’m finding that once you know the system they get (a little) cheaper. Once I start exploring Phnom Penh more I’ll have some more info on fun things to do here. The beaches in the south are incredible. And I’ve heard Kampot is remarkable. Enjoy Jakarta for me. I still can’t believe I’m not living there anymore!

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