The differences between Thailand and Cambodia are not always as obvious as one might think. “Which is the better?” is a question that I get asked just about every time I go back to the UK. Of course it all comes down to taste, but I suppose there are a few pointers that are worth looking at. Here we take a look at some of the reasons for which people book holidays, and make an objective critique. I will be the first to admit that objectivity is difficult in these things.
People: Both are great, but there are differences between Thailand and Cambodia’s people.
The people are for me, the greatest attribute of any country. It is they who make a country what it is. Generally speaking people are people around the world. However it is clearly impossible to try and pretend that we do not have national traits that in some cases define us as nationals of our home countries. In Thailand I find the women to be very hard working and for the most part more honest than they are given credit for. There is certainly an element of laziness about a lot of the men. Obviously you can’t judge them all as the same. It is not uncommon though, for a Thai man to happily send his wife or sister off to work in the sex trade as long as he gets his cut. Taxis, motor bike taxis and tuk tuk drivers, sometimes give the impression that they would prefer to hang out with their mates on a street corner than take a fare. Cambodia’s population give me the impression of being harder working. It is mainly a city dwellers’ thing I think. In the countryside all the people in Southeast Asia seem to work incredibly hard. Both countries have that uniquely Asian logic that drives us all crazy at first but becomes strangely endearing when you’ve lived here as long as I have. I find Cambodians more trustworthy. Again, I’m judging this on Bangkok, because that is where I spent most of my time.
Verdict: Cambodia edges this one, but I genuinely love the people in Southeast Asia. I think Cambodia has suffered so much horror in recent history that it has made them so much more warm and open. They seem to have adopted the psychology of “we’ve had enough bad times, we’ll make the best of everything.” As a side note, it is incredible that when you travel round the world, the people with less, give the most.
Weather: Not much to complain about all round
The bottom line here is that both countries have spectacular weather. Nobody is going to come here and be that disappointed. Even if you cock up and book in the middle of the wet season, the rain tends to fall in short bursts normally in the afternoons.
Thailand has three seasons, hot, cool and wet. Though the cool is a lot hotter than most countries. The north of the country is cooler than the south. Partly because of the latitude and partly because of the altitude. The best time to visit the country for the weather is between November and February, this sees rather dry and temperate weather. From March to June temperatures of 40ºC are not unusual. April is scorching hot. The monsoon season runs from July to October.
Cambodia is a hot country of that there is no doubt. The country really has only two seasons. October to April is the dry season and May to October, the wet. It is hard to say whether it is actually hotter in the hot season than Thailand, but it certainly feels like it. Visiting the Angkor temples in mid May feels about as hot as hell. When the rains come they offer a respite from the fierce heat and dust.
Verdict: This is about a draw, the bottom line is that both countries have fantastic climates.
Food: There are differences between Cambodia and Thailand on this topic
Thai food is certainly better known throughout the world, whilst Khmer food is catching up. Not many countries in Europe or America for example would feature Cambodian restaurants, but Thai restaurant are ubiquitous in almost every country.
Thailand has a cuisine that is often, fiercely hot. The girls in Bangkok, eat food that has even them gasping. Sometimes it is so spicy that it is almost impossible to eat. However, for flavour, it is the best in the world as far as I am concerned. Larb Moo, a hot minced pork salad is a simple but sensational dish. Street food in Thailand is absolutely brilliant, the standard of food for sale at ridiculously cheap prices in Thailand is hard to fathom.
Cambodia can count some really great dishes in its national cuisine. Beef Lok Lak and Fish Amok will stand up against any truly great dish. The local cuisine is high on flavour, slightly spiced and extremely healthy. Again street food is very good, with seafood dishes in certain areas being really excellent.
Verdict: So, Thailand or Cambodia? This is a no brainer for me, Thai food is, in my opinion, the best in the world. As much as Cambodian is good and improving it is still behind Thailand.
Entertainment: Not as clear cut as some would think
Well, this is a can of worms. I suppose it all depends what you are looking for. On face value there are many differences between Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand is far more advanced and has far more to offer. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Cambodia is more authentic, less expensive and certainly less cynical. The pubs, bars, lady bars and go-go bars of Bangkok and Pattaya are tired and jaded. Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza and Patpong in Bangkok are certainly more vibrant than anything in Cambodia, but they are all a shadow of their former selves. Whether that is merely the viewpoint of someone who has spent years there, I can but guess. It is for me, a tired old reflection of what it used to be. I still have favourite haunts like the Pickled Liver Pub on Sukhumvit Soi 7, but for the most part, I find it all, well, boring.
Cambodia is quieter, more laid back and more authentic. It is though, growing fast. The first time I went to Phnom Penh it had about half a dozen bars. Now there are probably a couple of hundred. The country is probably where Bangkok was a decade or more ago. Less jaded, less cynical and less expensive. I’m sure they will arrive at a similar place at some point in the future, but for now Cambodia is winning.
I guess arts, theatre and cinema are where Thailand wins. Bangkok is a thoroughly modern capital city in many ways and has amazing facilities in these areas. Cambodia is still developing and has a long way to go. Restaurants are certainly more abundant in Bangkok, but I really like them in Cambodia.
Verdict: This is hard, I suppose I have to try some objectivity and admit that more people will find more to do in Thailand. Personally, I prefer the Cambodian style, but I will give the award to Thailand.
Temples: Do we really have to discuss this?
Both countries have a seemingly endless supply of amazing temples and religious sites. Bangkok has its Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Arun. Chiang Mai has the beautiful white temple of Wat Rong Khun. Phnom Penh has the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Siem Reap has the temples of Angkor. No matter how you try and dress this up, Angkor Wat is quite simply the most incredible religious site on the planet. It is the world’s largest religious site and features on a whole lot of bucket lists.
Visitors to Southeast Asia always list the temples and pagodas among the main reasons for their visit. There are beautiful, even for non believers. The artistry and architectural splendour, unbeatable. The two countries combined will fulfil anyone’s temple fix for the rest of their lives.
Verdict: I’m sorry Thailand but no matter what you throw at this, you will never compete with Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the fabulous surrounding temples. The differences between Thailand and Cambodia on this topic are huge, Cambodia wins by a very long way.
Scenery: Both simply beautiful
Quite possibly the most controversial of all these topics. How does one choose between, the amazing scenery of Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountains and the Mekong Delta as it forces its way from Cambodia into Vietnam? Thailand certainly has more coastline and more beautiful beaches. However Cambodia has the Tonle Sap, a truly amazing inland lake.
Thailand enjoys more miles of the Mighty Mekong River as it forms the border with Laos. Cambodia though, has more water, as the Mekong divides and forms the Delta. The low tide level of the Mekong River in Cambodia is lower than the high tide level of the sea. This creates amazing activity regarding the flow of the river.
Throughout the bulk of the countryside there is little to choose between the two counties, in fact at times it is hard to tell the difference.
Verdict: I think there is very little to choose between these two amazing countries. Inland I think Cambodia wins, for beaches and coastal beauty Thailand wins. Overall I’ll cast my vote for Thailand, just; the sheer beauty of the islands clinches it.
Architecture: There are differences between Thailand and Cambodia
The countries have developed at a differing pace, but in some ways they have followed a similar path. The main differences between Thailand and Cambodia is that Thailand has never been colonised whereas Cambodia has. And there’s the rub! The French colonial architecture in Cambodia is superb. Phnom Penh has the terrific Sisowath Quay river front. Way past its former glory, it is faded and peeled, a shadow of its original splendour and all the more interesting for it. Siem Reap is a wonderful town, broad tree-lined boulevards are the order of the day here.
I have already covered the temples which of course make up a huge part of a country’s architecture. In Thailand the temples tend to be a bit superficial. They are mostly a lot newer than they try to make out. If it’s skyscrapers that float your boat then Thailand wins hands down.
Verdict: I prefer the architecture in Cambodia, the cities are far less developed and all the more lovely for it.
Transport: Neither are great, but both have their merits
There are quite a few differences between Thailand and Cambodia on this front. I suppose it needs breaking down.
Taxis: Thailand’s taxis and in particular, those in Bangkok, are pretty awful. They will normally not want to even take you where you want to go in the first place. The drivers will try not to put the meter on. They can be violent if you argue over a rigged meter and it is generally a stressful experience. In Cambodia they are less regulated but I haven’t had any issues with them. I’ve used them for short hops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and also long trips to and from the border.
Motor Bike Taxis: These are generally pretty good in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. The drivers wear vests so they are easy to spot. It’s worth keeping your eye on them when they are parked up, they have been known to take a drink! Less visual in Cambodia, I’ve never used them as Tuk Tuks are everywhere.
Tuk Tuks: Cambodia wins this by a mile, better vehicles, better drivers, more honest and more fun. The tuk tuk design in Thailand is stupid. Unless you are of very small stature, you won’t see much from the back of one. Which kind of defeats the reason for taking one. The drivers will argue over money, try and rip you off and drive like maniacs. In Cambodia, they are in the form of a small landau towed behind a motorbike. They are a really nice way of getting around. The drivers are ok, the fare is normally a dollar for a short journey and two for a longer one.You might have issues if the journey sites somewhere between the two, but its a dollar that we are talking about.
Trains: Awful in both countries. It probably quicker to walk! Thailand is the better of two bad options, but I wouldn’t recommend either to be honest. Bangkok to Ayutthaya is a pleasant enough journey but it’s still very slow.
Buses: I haven’t used public buses in either country. Generally speaking private mini buses or taxis are so cheap, I’ve never looked.
Metro: The Bangkok Sy Train is superb. There are only two lines but the cover a lot of where you would want to be. Cambodia has nothing by way of a metro system.
Verdict: I would give this to Cambodia if it wasn’t for the BTS Sky Train in Bangkok. I’ll call this one a draw.
Beer: a few years ago this wouldn’t have been an issue
When I first cam to Southeast Asia there was simply no debate on the differences of beer. It was take it ope leave it Tiger. In recent years though, the craft beer craze has finally arrived. It is perfectly possible to get amazing craft beer right across Bangkok. They are expensive but that is because they are mainly imports.
Whilst this has been booming in Bangkok, the same cannot be said about Phnom Penh, where it is still wall to wall Anchor and Angkor (I still can’t remember which one it is that I prefer) But needless to say it is cold piss all the way, with no real attention to care, craft or beer. Both countries are lagging behind Saigon by the way, who now has microbreweries all over the place and responsible for about twenty different locally brewed masterpieces.)
Verdict: Thailand wins this one on a walk over.
Healthcare is easy to judge
The differences between Thailand and Cambodia when it comes to healthcare are quite marked. Or rather I should say the differences between Bangkok and Cambodia. Bangkok has some of the best healthcare services on the planet. Hospitals like the Bumrungrad and Samitivej are world class facilities that see patients flying in from around the globe to receive treatment. It is no understatement to say that Praram 9 Hospital possibly saved my life and certainly saved my mobility in 2012.
Verdict: If i were to take ill in Asia I would want to be in Bangkok. Cambodia has nothing that comes close and this is a walk over for Thailand. In fact if I got sick in the UK, the first think I would book would be a flight to Thailand.
Golf Courses are growing at a rapid rate
Golf as a sport is growing at an enormous rate throughout the whole of Southeast Asia. Thailand has some truly world class courses now and there number is growing all the time. The sport is relatively new to Cambodia though things are improving. The Nick Faldo built Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap is the best in the country. Thailand though has some truly splendid golf courses. The Banyan and Black Mountain courses in Hua Hin and the Chiang Mai Highlands are fantastic courses.
Verdict: This has to go to Thailand. The differences between Thailand and Cambodia are marked. Cambodia is developing at an admiral rate, but has a long way to go to catch up.
Final Verdict: I think a few people might argue with my findings but having lived in both countries I think I am capable of expressing an fairly unbiased point of view. I have spent more time in Thailand in total but more time in Cambodia over the last four years. I think that as a country I prefer Thailand, but as cities go, I prefer both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to Bangkok. That being said I prefer Chiang Mai to Bangkok as well. This is a tough call for me, but I guess the best way to be brutally honest is to say that if I was in a financially secure position for the rest of my life, I would probably want to live in Thailand. I would not live in Bangkok, I think it is well past its sell by date. However, a nice place near the ocean on one of the islands, with a nice Thai girlfriend, would be the ultimate retirement. Thailand shades it for me, but only because of the islands.
There might be differences between Thailand and Cambodia, but I truly love them both. Let us have your feelings on the matter.