Recently, we heard rumours that the governments of Thailand and Cambodia may be offering a joint visa for travellers who wish to explore both South East Asian countries in one trip. The announcement was made in the Phnom Penh Post last month and is being called the “Two Kingdoms, One Destination.” tourism pact.
The collaboration between these two countries aims to increase tourism to both destinations, and with Thailand as the heavyweight in terms of tourist numbers, Cambodia looks to gain more from the deal. (Last year, 4.5 million tourists visited Cambodia, generating a massive $3 billion worth of Cambodia’s GDP. This year, the Ministry of Tourism are predicting $5 billion worth of visitors).
For backpackers, the potential deal means that we’ll no longer have to deal with that annoying border crossing at Aranya Prathet and Poipet, which has long been notorious as a hot spot for visa scams! The ‘joint visa’ will likely encourage more backpackers who would have otherwise remained lazing on the beaches of Thailand to squeeze a visit to Cambodia into their itineraries!
The rather sparse border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia
So what does Cambodia have to offer compared to Thailand?
Will this news make Thailand and Cambodia the two hottest destinations in South East Asia for a whirlwind backpacking trip?
Let’s take a closer look at both Thailand and Cambodia…
Thailand’s beaches have been smattered across postcards and hailed as the image of ‘paradise’ for decades. One of the most popular backpacker adventures is an island hopping adventure along the east and west coast of Thailand, covering Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan on the eastern Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Phi Phi and Phuket on the western Andaman coast, not to mention the mainland utopia of Railay and Ton Sai. It’s true that with literally hundreds of amazing tropical islands, Thailand is a beach bum’s heaven!
However, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a slice of paradise all to yourself! That’s why backpackers are appreciating the more tranquil and less developed islands of Cambodia’s less frequented coastline. The islands of Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem, Koh Ta Tiev and Koh Tang offer pristine white beaches, excellent diving and cheap as chips bungalows. Many people say that this is the Thailand of 30 years ago. The jumping off point to these islands is the backpacker hub of Sihanoukville, which is gaining a reputation as one of the best places to party in South East Asia. Which country’s beaches do you prefer?
Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Koh Tao Island, Cambodia
The massive temple complex of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia is the absolute winner when it comes to impressive temples! The UNESCO World Heritage site is home to the oldest religious building in the world, dating back to the Khmer Empire of the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s a South East Asia backpacker rite of passage to cycle around these ancient ruins soaking up the incredible atmosphere. So what does Thailand have to offer in terms of temples? Although nothing quite as old and epic as Angkor Wat, Thailand has some equally spectacular architecture. Head north to Chiang Rai to visit the unusual White Temple with all it’s surreal details, climb to the top of beautiful Wat Doi Suthep for spectacular views across the whole of Chiang Mai and visit Wat Phrakaew in Bangkok to see the sacred ‘Emerald Buddha’. Both Thailand and Cambodia hold ancient magical secrets for Culture Vultures!
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The incredible White Temple, Chiang Rai
Bangkok is renowned the world over for it’s pumping nightlife. The minute you arrive in Bangkok and head to the backpacker hub of the Khao San Road, you won’t be able to stop yourself from partying all night long! Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg of what Bangkok offers in terms of nightlife; glitzy rooftop bars, live music venues, jazz bars and atmospheric street side bar-vans with their doors open selling cocktails! As for the rest of the country, you’ll find beach parties galore on the islands (not to mention the world famous Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan!) and everything from Irish pubs to ice bars elsewhere! If you’re looking to get your party hat on, Thailand is the place to be! Although not as varied, Cambodia has a burgeoning nightlife scene with some lively clubs, trendy riverside bars and quirky nightspots in the capital, Phnom Penh. Probably the most famous street for backpackers in Cambodia is the aptly named ‘Pub Street’ in Siem Reap where you can get yourself a beer or a bucket for less than 1$ USD!
The Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan
The aptly named Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia
4. Countryside and Off the Beaten Track
Both countries have incredible potential for backpackers wanting to head off the beaten track to witness spectacular countryside and an authentic way of life. Although Thailand receives over 25 million tourists each year, it’s still fairly easy to get out into the wild where tourist faces are uncommon! Hiring a motorbike or a bicycle is easy and cheap and will allow exploring at your own pace and with freedom. If you’re new to Thailand, this trip by Tru Travels is an excellent introduction to some of the highlights and hidden gems of Thailand! National Parks such as Khao Sok, Suthep, Doi Inthanon and Khao Yai offer amazing opportunities for nature lovers. (Thailand has 127 national parks). If it’s the untrodden path you crave, Cambodia is an explorer’s paradise! Head to the wild wild east of Cambodia to Rattanakiri National Park, catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin in the dishevelled town of Kratie or explore the beautiful countryside around Kep and Kampot. Backpackers are only beginning to head away from the tourist hubs of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville to discover more of what this charming country has to offer!
Breathtaking Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Way off the beaten track in Kampot, Cambodia
Foodies are in for a treat when exploring Thailand and Cambodia! Famous Thai dishes that you’ve heard of like Tom Yum Kung, Pad Thai, Green Curry, Pad Krapao taste a million times better when eaten in an atmospheric street side cafe whilst watching a Thai soap opera! From hot soups and spicy curries to tangy fish cakes and delicate spring rolls, there is so much variety in Thai food - just don't forget to add a few dashes of chilli sauce to absolutely everything you eat! Cambodia’s cuisine is equally as interesting - with influences from Indian, Thai and even French cuisine. Don’t miss the delicious fish amok curry, lap khmer (limey beef salad) and k-dam cha (fried crab). Why not take a Cambodian cooking class to learn how to make some of these tantalising dishes back home!
Delicious fish amok curry, Cambodia
Thailand's famous pad thai, fresh on the streets!
6. Culture and Festivals
Both Thailand and Cambodia are brimming with cultural treats for the open-minded backpacker! From gentle Buddhist rituals at temples to family traditions, art, dancing, music and more - you’re likely to come across, or even be invited to share in these special cultural times. In Thailand, don’t miss the amazing festival of Loi Krathong which takes place every November, best witnessed in Thailand’s capital of culture, Chiang Mai. Thousands of lanterns are released into the sky and tiny boats with candles on them are set afloat on the river creating a beautiful sight! Buddhist New Year in both Thailand and Cambodia (in April) is a wonderful event to be a part of as objects are cleansed with water to signify purity and people are cleansed too - by throwing water over each other in a giant water fight!
Beautiful Loi Krathong Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Water festival in Cambodia - Buddhist New Year
Anyone who travels to South East Asia, cannot fail to notice the gentle and friendly nature of its people who seem to welcome foreigners with open arms. Thailand and Cambodia are very safe countries to travel and if you’re ever in trouble (your motorbike breaks down, you get lost, you get stung by a jellyfish!) - you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who will want to help you! Although many parts of Thailand have been used to receiving tourists for over 50 years, in some areas of Cambodia and even parts of rural Thailand, you will be quite a novelty - so it’s up to you to behave responsibly and make a good impression for the rest of us!
A friendly tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap, Cambodia
You'll find Thai smiles everywhere you go...
The quality of backpacker hostels is increasing across both countries, with lots of excellent, clean and trendy hostels with a great atmosphere! In Thailand, the average price for a dorm room is 300 baht, (under $10 USD) whereas in Cambodia, you can still get yourself a bed for under $5 USD. Beach bungalows on the Cambodian islands remain the stuff of backpacker dreams - rustic, beachfront bamboo huts for $1 USD complete with geckos. It’s getting harder and harder to find this sort of cheap digs in Thailand these days, with hostels on the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan being more upmarket and hence pricier. In the capital cities of both Bangkok and Phnom Penh, you’ll find some awesome hostels where you can party night away!
Basic beach bungalows in Sihanoukville, Cambodia
A trendy hostel in Krabi,
Overall, travellers will find Cambodia a cheaper experience than Thailand, in terms of accommodation, food, transport and experiences. If you’re careful in Thailand you can still find great value for money if you are careful. Tips on how to make things cheaper include - eating street food instead of eating in restaurants, taking local transport instead of VIP trains and buses and hunting around for the cheapest hostels. Of course travelling in pairs and sharing rooms can help, as well as asking for group discounts for adventure activities. If it’s your first time traveling, you may also like to take part in a group adventure which can work out great value for money!
A cheap street food night stall in Pai, Thailand
Local Transport is aways the cheapest and best way to go
10. Backpacker vibe
So there you have it - it’s difficult to compare these two countries in terms of the adventure offered to the backpacker. Whilst Thailand is certainly more well trodden and long celebrated for its beaches, islands and national parks, Cambodia offers pretty much the same - just with a more rustic, tranquil feel - and less tourists! It’s true that Thailand will have more opportunity in terms of outdoor activities such as rock climbing, diving, rafting, kayaking and trekking - yet Cambodia isn’t far behind these days! If you’re willing to delve under the surface of both countries you’ll find amazing landscapes, people and culture. Our conclusion? Do both countries in one trip!
You'll find a great backpacker vibe in Thailand and Cambodia
Are you looking to cover Thailand and Cambodia on one backpacking trip?
Check out this awesome group adventure by Tru Travels which covers some of the highlights of the two kingdoms in 16 action-packed days. It’s the perfect coastal itinerary along the Gulf of Thailand that is currently being promoted by the two Ministries of Tourism as part of the ‘Two Countries, One Destination’ campaign.
On the Tru Travels Thai-Khmer Explorer, you’ll begin your adventure in the Thai capital of Bangkok and after sampling the buzz of the city, head South from the city to the beach town of Lae Mai Pim in Rayong. You’ll continue your journey along the West of Thailand towards Cambodia via the beautiful Thai island of Koh Chang. Once you’ve entered Cambodia, you’ll head to the long sandy beaches and parties of Sihanoukville and full moon parties of the island of Koh Rong. You’ll then head north to visit the quirky mountain town of Kampot, before heading to the country’s capital Phnom Penh to experience some culture, history and surprisingly good nightlife. The final stop on the tour is of course, one of the highlights of the entire South East Asia – the ancient and spectacular temples of Angkor Wat.
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