Cambodia still is an adventure country because in most places you will seldom encounter other travellers, the beautiful temple ruins of Angkor Wat are of course an exception, but even there you can end up in some deserted temple if you stay away from the really famous ones. And apart from that Cambodia has a lot to offer in terms of scenery: mountain ranges, the Mekong which is one of the longest rivers in the world, the delta, lonely islands and gorgeous beaches. You will definitely find something that suits you here!
The predominantly Buddhist kingdom of Cambodia is situated in the Gulf of Thailand and borders Thailand in the North and West, it also shares borders with Laos in the North and Vietnam in the East. The total area is more than 180.000 km2 so it is roughly half the size of Germany. Around 4 million people live there, 2 million of which are in the capital Phnom Penh.
The most important landmark in the country is the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap, in the Northwest of the country. It is among the world’s bodies of water, richest in fish so many people in the area live off of fishing. The Mekong too which crosses the country from North to South plays an important part in the local ecosystem.
Since Cambodia is close to the equator there is not much of a difference between summer and winter. The temperatures vary between 26 and 33 degrees all year round, with a rainy season between May and October.
The best time to visit Cambodia is December through March when it is dry here. After March temperatures will rise up to 40 degrees and the humidity hits 90%. It can be a bit too much then! We were there in March and that really already was the limit. We were literally dripping sweat all day in the hot and humid monsoon climate!
There is almost no change in climate within the country.
We very much perceived Cambodia to be a safe country but you still should pay attention to your valuables. Assaults on tourists do occur from time to time and you don’t want to be one of them!
Cambodia is a very young country, almost half of the population is under 14 years old. The national language is Khmer but English is well established as language of commerce. In general however, knowledge of English is rather poor.
People pay in US Dollars in Cambodia, even though the official currency is Riel. But this is only used for change and very small transactions. Credit cards are only accepted at larger hotels and restaurants.
You can withdraw cash in larger cities but usually only with a credit card, debit cards are usually not accepted. You can directly withdraw US Dollars, try to get small bills if you can, 50 dollar bills are usually difficult to use at small restaurants or markets.
Passport and visa are required for immigration to Cambodia. You can obtain a visa at the Cambodian embassy in Berlin or online at www.evisa.gov.kh. If you get the visa online you are required to use specific entry points but these are the common ones anyway.
The airports of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are among them. The current entry points and border crossings are listed here.The electronic visa application has to be placed at least 2 weeks before travelling.
Make sure that you don't buy a multiple entry visa if you will only be entering the country once, it's more expensive! A normal visa costs 30 $. You should bring this sum along in cash as well as a passport photo.
The third possibility of obtaining a visa is right on site. But we would recommend applying for the visa in advance, this saves time and hassle, online is really the best way to do it!
The visa is valid for 4 weeks and immigration has to be within the 3 month period in which the visa can be used.
Recommended vaccinations for travellers are hepatitis A and for longer stays or special risk of exposure hepatitis B, rabies, typhoid fever and Japanese encephalitis. There is also a risk of Malaria all year round, but especially during the rainy season. This risk however is very low in Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap lake. Angkor Wat is said to be malaria free.
The streets in Cambodia are real challenge! There are not many main streets but lots of unpaved dusty gravel roads.
Public transportation is well organized in Cambodia. This way you also see the most of the landscape and easily get in touch with other travellers and locals.
For 7 to 12 dollars you can go from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the trip is around 6,5 hours. A good bus operator is Giant Ibis Bus. You even have free wifi here.
Busses are a popular means of transportation among locals and travellers alike. They connect the famous sights, are pretty comfortable and even have air conditioning and a toilet!
There also are busses with sleeper chairs for overnight rides. The busses for locals are simpler but they offer the full experience: they are crowded, you have little space for luggage and you might find yourself sitting next to a chicken. Authentic and funny but at times a little stressful!
Unlike the busses pickups and collective taxis cover individual destinations but they are more expensive.
If you want to travel to one of the neighboring countries there are also several bus operators for that. Be prepared for an adventurous ride!
Exploring Cambodia by train is tedious because the trains run irregularly and are much slower than the busses.
Planes are a lot faster and more comfortable. Cambodia has incredible 17 airports but only Siem Reap and Phnom Penh offer regular flights. You can for instance immigrate with Vietnam Airlines via Vietnam or with Bangkok Airlines via Thailand. We flew to Cambodia with Angkor Air which was fine. Cambodia Angkor Air is the only airline that offers domestic flights and the pricing is fair, count between 50-100 $.
Unlike in neighboring Thailand people drive on the right in Cambodia, so don’t forget to look left before you cross the street!
Depending on the season and the Mekong’s water level you can make the journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with a speed boat (around 35 $ per trip). This however is not possible March through August.
For distances within the city or a trip out to Angkor Wat you best take Tuk Tuks or Remorks (motor bikes with a trailer), they are cheap and fast. A small tour of Angkor Wat costs around 14 $ an hour, a large tour 18 $. Usually accommodations have their own drivers, you can usually book a tour right there. Additionally to the cost for the tour you will have to pay 20 $ for admission at the entrance to the temple grounds.
In the bigger cities you can also rent bicycles at pretty much every corner. There is no cheaper way to get around. For 2 $ a day you can ride out to Angkor Wat and when getting a bike from White Bicycles you even support local projects.
Cambodia’s traditional and cultural celebrations go by the Cambodian moon calender. They are all influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism and the royal culture.
These are the most important celebrations:
- Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei: the Khmer celebrate New Year’s eve on April 13, sometimes April 14. This is when the harvesting season ends and the farmers can relax before the start of the rainy season. The celebration lasts for 3 days and is accompanied by dancing and traditional Khmer games.
- Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal: every year in May the beginning of planting season is celebrated with a ceremony in the park next to the royal palace in Phom Penh. Traditionally the ‘king’ plows the ground while the ‘queen’ sows out the seeds. This is supposed to ensure a good harvest. All women and men wear traditional colourful Khmer attire.
- Pchum Ben Tag: for 15 days between the end of September and the beginning of October the Cambodians celebrate their dead and offer food to the monks and hungry souls of the temples. A very important celebration in Cambodia!
- Water festival: this three day celebration takes place every year in November. It is a kind of thanksgiving of the Mekong river and marks the beginning of fishing season.
Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country. You should dress and behave appropriately, but you also don’t have to worry too much. In Siem Reap you can walk around in shorts and t-shirt without a problem.
However things look a bit different if you visit Angkor Wat. You should wear long clothing there and cover your shoulders with a shawl.
Ever since the civil war Cambodia has been one of the world’s most mine-littered countries so you should not stray away from obvious paths without a guide. There are even unexploded bombs, some of them also relics of the Vietnam war, especially along the Thai border. You should also stick to the paths when exploring Angkor Wat.
The security situation in Cambodia can change quickly. Check the country’s status when planning a trip.
Cambodia is very strict about drug-related crimes. The possession of even small amounts of drugs entails long prison sentences and the prisons are horrible. Misappropriation of items of historical value or anything that is part of the cultural heritage is strictly prohibited. So leave the parts of temple ruins alone!
Despite the prosperity of the last years Cambodia is still a very poor country. 35% of the people live in poverty. Be prepared to see women sleeping by the side of the road with their children and the sight of malnourished children in general.
If you ever sit down with Cambodians, sit sideways. It is considered disrespectful to sit with your feet extended towards someone!
Cambodian cuisine is versatile. Local Khmer specialties are mixed with influences from the surrounding countries like Vietnam, China, Thailand or Malaysia. It is often referred to as ‘Thai cuisine without the spiciness’ because it is very similar to Thai cooking but not as hot. And like in Vietnam there are obvious French influences like baguette.
Rice is served with pretty much every meal at any time of the day, sometimes there is pasta too. Fish, seafood and chicken are typically prepared sourly. The dishes are often seasoned with a paste of small dried fish called Prahok. Our favourite dish is Amok, a curry of fish, meat or vegetables and usually served in half a coconut. But there are also lots of different soups (Sup) on the menu which are a breakfast favourite.
If you are really daring then you can try fried bugs, grasshoppers or spiders. The market in Siem Reap is a good place for that!
Popular drinks in Cambodia are sugar reed juice which is usually freshly squeezed. You shouldn’t drink the tap water but drinking can be bought at every street corner.
Any kind of unbottled beverage is generally served with ice. We did try some of the iced drinks but if you want to be careful, stay away from ihe ice.
If you like beer you definitely should have tried Angkor Beer when in Cambodia.
On the markets you find roasted coconuts for drinking. They are pretty small but super delicious! And the coconut meat is just as good as the coconut water.
Like in Vietnam desserts are often made with sticky rice. Num Pra Ny is sticky rice with coconut or banana added and everything wrapped in banana leaves.
Traditionally people eat on the ground, usually seated on a mat. The food is served on palm leaves and eaten with the right hand. But in restaurants you sit on chairs and eat from tables. And don’t worry if you are not super proficient with chopsticks, knife and fork are part of the standard cutlery here!
As already mentioned there is a risk of malaria in Cambodia which varies from region to region. If you want to travel throughout the entire country you should definitely take along malaria prophylaxis and mosquito spray.
Also bring long light clothing to protect yourself from the malaria transmitting mosquitos. These clothes will also come in handy when you visit the temples as will a shawl to cover your shoulders with.
When you are out in the full glare of the sun you should have some kind of protection for your head.
The accommodations in Cambodia are generally very clean. If you want to be very safe though, bring a silk sleeping bag. It is also great if you want to sleep without a blanket but not entirely uncovered. It can be folded to a tiny pack and weighs next to nothing.
You will need adapters for the power outlets, best to bring one that has overload protection. As always when travelling you should bring copies of all your documents, especially of the visa with you and also have digitally saved copies.
THE highlight and the reason why most people come to the country is of course Angkor Wat. But there are other nice places that are definitely worth visiting especially if you are this close anyway.
- Angkor Wat: the largest and most famous temple site is situated close to Siem Reap. You can see the most important temples in one day but if you want to do this a bit more relaxed then plan several days.
- Siem Reap: we really felt at ease here! The market, cheap but great food, nice Western cafes that serve wonderful smoothies and salads and nice people.
- Kep: just under 3 hours from Sihanoukville you find this beautiful little town on the coast: colourful colonial buildings, markets, fish and seafood - a small paradise!
- Sihanoukville/Otres Beach: a nice quiet beach, beach bars, restaurants and long chairs, all of it less frequented than Serendipity or Ocheutael beach.
- Koh Rong Samlen: you can reach this island from Sihanoukville and simply let your soul relax in this paradise.