Sandwiched between larger Southeast Asian countries, travel to Cambodia is often included as part of a longer itinerary encompassing Vietnam, Thailand and perhaps Laos. This petite nation has its own draws however; the sprawling temples of Angkor being the most famous, along with white-sand beaches, laid-back culture and a very pleasant climate. Historically it is, unfortunately, most remembered for the reign of terror and genocide committed by the fanatical Khmer Rouge in the 1970s where one fifth of the population were killed. Relics of this tragic event in Cambodia’s past can still be found in the capital city Phnom Penh and surrounding countryside. Leftover from another time, graceful French colonial architecture can still be found in Cambodia’s towns as well as crusty baguettes sold in baskets on the street. Ruins and temple sites dating back to the 6th century, some which have only recently become accessible to visitors, dot the country and multihued wats punctuate towns and cities; evidence of a long and rich cultural heritage.
The official currency of Cambodia is the riel (symbol: ៛), although US dollars are freely used alongside it and most purchases can be made in either dollars or riels or a combination of the two. It is common to pay for something in US dollars and receive change in riels. US coins are not used, so riels often take the place as fractional dollar amounts. The larger a purchase, the more likely it is you will pay in US dollars. Riel coins are not commonly in circulation and riel notes come in 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000 denominations. Most businesses work on an exchange rate of 4000 riels to one US dollar.
ATMs are now readily available in major cities, the most prevalent being those of ANZ Royal Bank and Canadia bank. They dispense US dollar currency and have a maximum withdrawal amount of up to $800 per transaction and $2000 per day. ATMs will usually charge a fee for using a foreign bank card, depending on the type of card and the bank. Travellers cheques are still a viable option in Cambodia and cost a similar amount to ATM withdrawals, although it is only possible to change them in major cities and airports. American Express and Thomas Cook are the two most widely accepted travellers cheques and it is a good idea to carry some smaller denomination cheques as some banks and offices may not change larger amounts in one go.
Cambodia is an inexpensive country by most travellers’ standards. Market stall and street food snacks start from as little as 1000 riels, local Khmer restaurants have meals for around $1-2 and other Asian and international restaurants will generally come in for around $2-10 per person. A bottle of water will cost around $0.50-1.00 and local draught beer costs about the same. Entrance fees are very reasonable also, although may seem expensive compared to other costs in the country. Entrance to Angkor Wat and surrounding ruins starts at $20 for a one day pass and most attractions in Phnom Penh charge $5-7 per adult.
Prices are fixed in shops but you are expected to haggle in markets and street-side sellers. Bargaining is a low-key and friendly with both sides intending to meet a happy middle ground. Tipping is not generally expected in Cambodia although you may be charged a service fee at higher-end resturants and hotels. Given the very low wages in Cambodia, a small tip can go a long way for the locals involved and should be considered when you receive good service. If you’re pleased with the service, you should tip your guide and the driver if appropriate, at the end of a tour.
Major Cities and Towns in Cambodia
Most visitors will at least pass through Cambodia’s vibrant capital city of Phnom Penh with its tree-lined boulevards, palaces and museums. In the north-west the major town and jumping off point to visit Angkor Wat is the bustling centre of Siem Reap, while further towards the Thai border Battambang is a laid-back town with picturesque colonial architecture. Along the southern coast Sihanoukville is the best known resort town with its white-sand beaches and undeveloped tropical islands. Further along the coast Kampot is another coastal town with Chinese and French influences offering access to the nearby Bokor National Park. Along the mighty Mekong River in the north-east, the riverside town of Kratie is where you can see the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin.
Citizens of ASEAN countries or the Philippines are permitted to enter Cambodia without a visa. All other nationalities require a visa to visit Cambodia. A tourist visa is valid for 30 days from the date of entry. You can obtain a VISA from your nearest Cambodian Embassy prior to travel or simply apply for VISA on arrival at the border crossing during your tour. Please note that e-VISA’s obtained on-line at https://www.evisa.gov.kh can only currently be used if entering Cambodia from Thailand. Please do not use this service if your tour enters Cambodia from Vietnam. Please check with your nearest embassy for processing times and conditions along with the latest visa requirements for your nationality before you leave your home country.
The electricity supply in Cambodia runs at 230 volts and they use most commonly use two-pin, flat-pronged plug such as those used in the United States and Canada. European-style round-pronged plugs may also be used or UK-style three-pronged plug. Some hotels may have a ‘universal’ socket which will take any of the above plug-styles, but it is recommended to take a universal adaptor to cover your bases.
Etiquette and Culture
Cambodia’s people are around 90% Khmer, with around 6.5% ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, 2.5% Cham and 1% chunchiet. The chunchiet are an indigenous ethnic minority found in Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar, Thailand and Laos are typically shorter and darker-skinned than the Khmer. Around 95% of the country practices Buddhism alongside some ancestor worship and animism. The other predominate religion in the country is Islam practiced by the Cham people.
The national language of Cambodia is Khmer which is written in Khmer script comprising of 33 consonants and 23 vowels. While English is increasingly spoken in major cities and towns, learning a few words in the local language will go a long way to ingratiating yourself to the locals. Hello is pronounced ‘sues-day’ and thank you is pronounced ‘aw-coon’. The traditional greeting in Cambodia is called the sompeyar involving placing hands palms together in front of the chest and slightly inclining the head in a bow. This is very polite and a sign of respect and is always used to those older than yourself. The handshake is becoming more common and may be used between men or when men greet foreigners but women will probably still greet you with the sompeyar.
Cambodia is almost one and a half times the size of England with a total area of 181,040 sq kms. It has over 400 kms of coastline, bordering the Gulf of Thailand and contains Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, Tonle Sap. The Mekong River travels through the east and south-east of the country, past Phnom Penh and through into Vietnam. In the far-east the jungle-drapped Dângrêk Mountains can be found and in the southwest the Cardamom Mountains and Elephant Mountains run all the way from the Thai border to the sea. The rest of the country is chiefly alluvial plain and plateaus.
From around the 1st century AD Cambodia was part of the Funan kingdom, which covered parts of Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam, in an area populated by the Khmer, a dark-skinned, curly-haired people from whom most modern-day Cambodians are descended. It was the first important Hindu kingdom in Southeast Asia and drew many cultural influences from India with whom it had trade relations. It also traded with China and much of what is known of the state comes from accounts by Chinese traders and envoys.
During the 6th century, Chenla, which was previously a northern dependency of Funan, broke away and gained its independence forming a central state which was broken up into at least two kingdoms – ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Cenla’. There is little recorded of this time in Cambodia’s history and even the word Chenla comes from contemporary Chinese sources.
In the late 8th century, Jayavarman II arrived from Java claiming to be a Cambodian prince descended from Funan lines. He declared himself ruler and established the kingdom of Kambujadesa, a strong, self-aware kingdom which would endure and expand, marking the start of the Khmer Empire and the rule of Angkorian kings. Khmer kings followed the Hindu religion and believed one of their key duties was to build temples for the gods. Temples built by a king were rarely reused by the next, so as a result the country’s most famous temples are from this period, including Angkor Wat which is still the largest religious structure in the world and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
The Khmer Empire began to fragment and decline from the 11th century and by the 13th century the Thais had removed the Khmers from Sukhothai and Lopburi had claimed its independence, as had the Cham, greatly reducing the kingdom’s territory.
The 16th century saw the arrival of the first Western explorers, with Spanish and Portuguese visiting from the Philippines and Malacca. As the Vietnamese took control of the Mekong Delta in the south and the Thais expanded their terrority in the west, Cambodia found itself sandwiched between two powerful neighbours, splitting the royal family into pro-Vietnamese and pro-Cambodian factions. The political to and fro-ing and invasions from both sides eventually led to Cambodia asking France for protection. A treaty with the French was signed in 1863 affording Cambodia protection in exchange for mining and timber rights and the right to preach Christianity. Corruption and rebellion allowed the encroachment of French control over the country and by the early 20th century France was ruling Cambodia.
World War II saw the Japanese occupy Cambodia, who allowed the French to continue their administrative control. After the war ended the French reestablished control until left-wing guerilla movement Khmer Issarak rebelled against the French between 1947 and 1950. Following several significant political developments, full independence was eventually won on November 09, 1953 and Cambodia’s leader Sihanouk was touted a national hero.
During the conflict between north and south Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, Sihanouk allowed the north Vietnamese to send troops and arms via Cambodia to the Viet Cong in the south. Throughout the conflict the US dropped over half a million tonnes of ordanance on Cambodia in a series of covert bomb raids.
In the northeast the Khmer Rouge gained popularity and gradually took control of the country, finally arriving in Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. During their three and a half years in power the Khmer Rouge relocated large swathes of the population to the countryside from cities to achieve their aim of a agrarian society of peasants. They began a campaign of mass executions, killing anyone linked to old ideas, political structures or academia. Even wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language was enough to comdemn you. They killed an estimated two million people, around a fifth of the population.
The Khmer Rouge were stopped by the Vietnamese, who invaded Cambodia in 1978 after the Khmer Rouge massacred Vietnamese villages along the border, taking Phnom Penh in just 17 days. They formed an interim government and restored many basic freedoms including schools and private farming. They withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. The UN created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to stabilise the country and oversee elections which were held in 1993. Sihanouk’s son Prince Ranariddh’s party, FUNCINPEC, won the election but the existing interim government led by ex Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen refused to cede leadership. Initially the two leaders shared power and Cambodia had two prime ministers until eventually Prince Ranariddh was ousted by Hun Sen who remains in power (2014) and is one of the longest server leaders in the world.
10 Interesting Facts about Cambodia
2. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, lost his eye during the Khmer Rouge conflict.
3. UNESCO has listed Cambodia as the world’s third most landmined country in the world.
4. The most common way to refer to eating in Khmer is nyam bai which translated literally means ‘eat rice’.
5. A popular street-side snack, ‘thousand- year eggs’ are duck eggs that have been stored in jars of salt until the shell turns black by which time the whites and yolks have turned to a jelly-like consistency.
6. In Cambodian markets you can find trays of grasshoppers, beetles and crickets which are fried and sold by the bag.
7. Cambodia’s national religion is Theravada Buddhism and is practiced by 95% of the population.
8. Parts of the Mekong River in the northeast of Cambodia are home to the rare and elusive Irrawaddy dolphin.
9. Bonn Chaul Chhnam is the name of the Khmer new year and it is held in April.
10. Cambodian weddings are long, complicated events where the bride has at least six changes of costume and the bridegroom and his family and friends make a procession through the streets to the brides house bearing presents and trays of food.
Top Attractions and Highlights in Cambodia
Easily the country’s biggest draw for travellers, this vast complex of temple ruins with the famous Angkor Wat at its forefront is full of elegant Khmer carvings, ornate temple walls strangled by tropical tree roots and enormous stone faces atop towering monuments.
2. Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River
Inhabiting a small stretch of the Mekong river at Kampie, these intriguing mammals are one of five river dolphin species in the world and look more like porpoises than marine dolphins.
3. Phnom Penh
The national capital, Phnom Penh holds a charming allure with elegant tree-lined boulevards, verdant gardens, buzzing riverfront, museums, markets, palaces and pagodas.
The most popular coastal resort in Cambodia, Sihanoukville has beautiful beaches, lively nightlife and plenty of fresh seafood.
5. Preah Vihear
Overlooking the Thai-Cambodia border perched atop a hill, the temples or Preah Vihear are remote and mysterious.
6. Tonle Sap lake and floating villages
The vast Tonle Sap lake supports an abundance of life including those that live on mobile floating villages that dot the lakeshore. It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997.
7. Bokor National Park
Originally a hill station built by the French to escape the summer heat, Bokor National Park’s waterfalls, forested slopes, valley and coastal views and eerie ruins ensures it continues to be a popular spot for visitors.
8. Ream National Park
Sporting scenic coastline, mangrove swamps and evergreen forests, as well as several islands off the coast, Ream National Park is a great spot for walking, boat trips, swimming and diving. It is home to an estimated 155 species of bird.
This seaside town is famous for its food, in particular its crab. It is also a laidback alternative to the busier Sihanoukville and a nice place for exploring the offshore islands.
Cambodian food tends to have an understated use of spices and is not as hot as some of the region’s other cuisines. Typical flavours include lemongrass, coriander, black pepper, fermented fish paste (prahok) and kroeung, a generic word for a range of spice pastes which may include cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, lemongrass, shallots, garlic and kaffir lime leaves.
Rice is a staple food in Cambodia and is consumed daily by most Cambodians including for breakfast. In addition to plain white rice, rice is used to make noodles, rice paper rolls, rice porridge or sticky rice which is served as a desert with durian or coconut milk.
Baguettes are a common site amoungst streetfood hawkers, filled with your choice of meat and pickled vegetables, and are a tangible reminder of the country’s French colonial heritage. Many of the dishes served in Cambodia are variations of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, use fresh produce and can be stir-fried with various ingredients to order.
Other popular dishes include:
Amok is a national dish. It is fish, coconut milk and a mild, fragrant curry paste wrapped in a banana leaf and steam-cooked. It can be served with rice.
Nom Banh Chok (Khmer noodles)
This is a typical breakfast food consisting of rice noodles with a curry sauce made of lemongrass, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves. It can have cucumber, green beans, bean sprouts and mint leaves piled on top.
..or spiders, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, etc. Cambodians eat just about anything and you will often see trays of fried insects sold on skewers or by the bag. Time to take a culinary walk on the wild side?
Best time to travel in Cambodia
Cambodia is a tropical country and is warm year round. The dry season is from November to May when the least amount of rain falls. Within these months are two distinct times, the cool season from November to February which is peak tourist time, and the hot season from March to May when temperatures and humity soar.
The wet season runs from June to October with a monsoon hitting the whole country coming up from the Gulf of Thailand. The wettest months are September and October but rain mainly falls in the afternoon in a predictable pattern and it by no means prevents travel during this time except to the most remote regions where roads may be impassable.
When to travel
Cambodia is a year round destination and enjoys warm temperatures throughout the year. The driest and coolest weather is between November and March but this is also the busiest time of year for travellers, so it is important to make travel arrangements well in advance.
To enjoy lower prices and fewer crowds travel between April and October, just remember you will need to take into account afternoon rains and plan accordingly.
Cambodia’s major festivals include Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam) in April, the annual water festival (Bonn Om Tuk) in mid-November where competitive boat races happen on the river at Phnom Penh and the Royal Ploughing Day (Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal) marking the start of the planting season in May.