Budget flights and hotels for Cambodia

royal palace phnom penh cambodia
We called it Pigeon Park, in front of Royal Palace, because locals sell corn and feed the pigeons

My trip this month to Cambodia had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. A friend is traveling Southeast Asia and when he said he was going to Angkor Wat, I mentioned it was on my Things to Do Before I Die list. When I found an airfare for as low as $522 round trip, I couldn't pass it up. It's been 30 years since I was last in Asia - 1986. In that time the internet and wi-fi have come into existence as well as dozens of new airlines. It's made travel that much easier and affordable.

I had been hearing about Google Flights for a while and it paid off. I did a search for San Francisco to Bangkok and easily found my $522 flight. The problem was trying to book it from the Google Flights site. After several tries, I just switched to the airline's website and booked directly from them. The flight was from China Eastern, an airline that my Chinese friend described as the Southwest Airlines equivalent. There's also Air China and China Southern as well as other airlines from other countries such as Air Asia. The point is, Google Flights did find me an exceptional price. Later, on my return trip, I met a woman who had booked the same route as I for only $490! She said she used Cheapoair.com, so check that one out too.

I was a bit nervous as I read mixed reviews of China Eastern online. I actually found them to be just fine. Service was good with plenty of food (two meals and a snack on the SFO/Shanghai legs) and plenty of onboard entertainment. I got to watch three movies in either direction. The long haul flights were also about 2/3 full, allowing me to have an empty seat next to me to spread out a bit. Also nice, the crew constantly monitored the restrooms and kept them clean.

Shanghai airport was frustrating though. China restricts internet and so I had trouble logging into a wi-fi system as well as accessing anything. I returned on November 9th, which was November 8th (voting day) here in the U.S. We were anxious to see the election unfold and the only thing I could pull up was CNN's homepage and nothing else. My freedom of speech was suppressed as I could not comment on Facebook or Twitter. I felt gagged. We did manage to realize Trump had been elected before take-off.

Rod had been traveling through Southeast Asia a number of times as he is now retired. He uses Hotels.com to find places and it turned out to be an excellent tool. Download the app to your phone because they give you extra deals via app only. Also, I have to give kudos to them because I had a problem with mis-scheduled hotel stays and took care of it with them all via Twitter since I couldn't call them. Great customer service via Twitter. 

On my way to join him I had to stop for a rest in Bangkok. I found the Dharasom's Colonial House hotel at $30. It was close to the airport and offered airport pickup. I was greeted by a welcome drink of juice, which turned out to be pretty customary throughout the trip. The room had cable TV, air conditioning, a safe, minibar with free beverages, and the bathroom included a clawfoot tub. The price also included breakfast which had continental items such as fruit and cereal, but also a hot breakfast of fried rice and eggs. What made this even more special was the service. The manager, Bee, drove me to the elevated train system on both days.

In Cambodia my experiences were mixed. I was interested in staying under $10 a night, which is possible.  Rod's stayed as low as $4-5 and my cheapest was $7. Keep in mind that you often get what you pay for.

Many times the under $10 is going to be hostels where you stay in shared dormitories. Some hostels are very nice. In Cambodia the best hostel chain is Mad Monkey. It has excellent reviews and includes shared living spaces, wi-fi, restaurant, and pool.

I wanted a private room because I'm a light sleeper and the last thing I wanted to deal with was snoring. So I found a place called Advisor Angkor Hotel where I spent three nights. The $7 price truly meant a roughing-it experience. The room had no AC, only a fan. I was also forced to change rooms three times in two days. The first room's main light went out, so they moved me to another room which then had no hot water. They let me have both room keys so I could shower in one and sleep in the other. I complained for the last night saying I wanted a room with both lights and shower, hoping for an upgrade to an air conditioned room. No luck. Just another primitive room. I'm used to roughing-it when I travel, but the humidity was so strong in Cambodia that I couldn't sleep and realized I needed a room with AC.

Rod and I shared rooms for the rest of the trip. Our next hotel was Kiri Villa, which I enjoyed. It was on a quiet street only about three blocks from the main activities of Pub Street and the Night Market area. Many of the budget hotels want you to remove your shoes at the door to reduce tracking in dirt, but here we were able to go to our rooms. For $14 a night we had two beds, AC, cable TV, and a refrigerator. Most hotels will supply two bottles of water each day as well. They had a restaurant where we had one of our better meals.

Our final hotel was in Phnom Penh. The Number 9 hotel was in a great location in my mind. It was on a quiet street and only two blocks from the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the main tourist attractions. It was also a block from the main boulevard parks. There are some very big boulevards where there is a wide, park-like median strip that has many monuments on it. The park comes alive at night with people exercising and socializing. We came across Cambodian style jazzercise, soccer-like ball games, elevated hacky sack games, and more. There's also plenty of food carts around the perimeter with snacks and drinks, even alcohol.

Number 9 was costing us $24 a night because I wanted a pool and Rod wanted breakfast. A pool is great to have to refresh yourself after a long, hot, sweaty day in the Cambodian heat. We had cable TV and wi-fi, but Rod was bummed there was no refrigerator in this one.

Hotel tips
Many hotels have a feature where your room key must be inserted into a device in order for the power to turn on in the room. While understandable from a conservation perspective, it's rather annoying to be unable to charge devices while you are out or that the AC is off and you return to a stuffy, sweltering room. My friend figured out a workaround. Detach the key from the keyring so you can leave the keyring in the power switch and just carry the key around. Of course, this is best if you have your own keyring to attach it to so you don't lose it.

Also realize that the bathrooms in budget hotels do not separate the shower. The shower will often be right over the toilet and you will soak the entire bathroom, much like some bathrooms on small RVs. The hot water comes from a wall unit which creates on-demand hot water as the water passes through and gets heated by an electric heater. Showers can be messy, especially if dealing with water everywhere bothers you. I wished for more towels to wipe up the area afterwards. 

It was wonderful to see that travel throughout the region can be quite affordable with the right apps/websites and the willingness to forgo luxury level hotels.