Cambodia is known the world over for greatness, as embodied by the iconic temple of Angkor Wat, but also for atrocities committed under the rule of the Khmer Rouge that left terrible scars on the country and its people.
18 years after Pol Pot’s death, Cambodia is still recovering but it holds many wonders to be discovered and you will not be able to help falling for its generous and welcoming people.
Here are a few tips to make the most of your trip.
1. There is more to Cambodia than Angkor
- This sounds like an obvious cliché but too many tourists still rush towards Angkor without taking the time to enjoy the rest of the country. You might want your trip to culminate with the temples of Angkor and spend 4 to 5 days wondering at their stunning beauty, and that’s totally fair, but that is no reason to disregard other parts of the country.
- Spend a couple days in Phnom Penh, the capital city, and enjoy its peculiarity when compared to other south-east Asian big cities where rampant modernity has already taken everything over in their wake. Phnom Penh still holds a certain charm of old but it is home to the Royal Palace, a must-do if you’re in town, although you will have to remember to wear long sleeves and pants unless you want to pay for overpriced clothes. There are also several remembrance places in and out the city. If you only have time to do one, visit the Tuol Sleng Prison, also called S21. Not only will you learn more about the history of Cambodia but this will definitely remain etched in your memory.
- Seaside lovers will want to spend some time in the small coastal cities of Kep and Kampot, that are also quite infamous for their pepper and their exquisite crab.
- Battambang is an endearing city that can be a nice stop if you are travelling from the capital to Angkor. There are caves and ancient temples in its vicinity as well as lovely villages that can keep you occupied for a couple days as well.
- Cambodia is also home to a variety of national parks so, in brief, try not to focus entirely on Angkor when planning your trip!
2. Travel like the locals
- You will probably arrive by plane to Cambodia, so think ahead and pay for an e-visa (US$37) beforehand to save some time at the airport, unless you’d rather have a proper paper visa on your passport. But how will you travel when you leave the airport?
- Tuk-tuks are the best option for short distances. They’re usually quite cheap and you can even rent them for a day for around US$10 on average, which can be profitable for groups of 3 to 4. Try not to pick the first tuk-tuk driver you meet though and always ask around to find the best bargain. You will be expected to tip the driver too but how much you give is entirely up to you.
- If you’re staying somewhere for more than a day, it could be convenient to rent a motor scooter. Be ready to get some bumps on the way though as traffic is pretty erratic. Those familiar with south-east Asian countries know how scooters can be a living hell, even for pedestrians, but if it’s your first time in Asia try to practice your driving beforehand and always insist to be given a helmet. It could also be recommended to possess an international driver’s license, in case the police arrests you -which might be the case if they see a tourist lost in the middle of a Cambodian crowd. You will not be allowed to rent a scooter in Angkor however but my advice would be to rent bikes for US$1 a day and explore the temples at your own pace.
- Buses are recommended to travel long distances but they come in all shapes and sizes. You will not find much comfort inside the cheapest buses but at least it will feel genuine as you watch Cambodian karaoke for hours in a row and it will also save you quite a lot of money compared to tourist vans. Forget about being in a rush however as Cambodian roads will make you scream in frustration if you ever dreamed of getting to your destination fast.
*it takes about 3 hours from Kep to Phnom Penh; 6 hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang; 3 hours from Battambang to Siem Reap, but traffic jams are frequent and can leave you stuck on the road for quite long.
3. Get familiar with Cambodian money
- Most people tend to accept US dollars in Cambodia so you might play it easy and arrive with your pockets full of a familiar currency, but sometimes you will have to deal with Cambodian riel. It is confusing at first to mix both currencies but after a while, when you learn the proper exchange rate and how much one dollar is worth in the domestic currency, things will get smoother.
- The cost of living for a tourist is not exaggerated and you will always be able to get a decent meal for less than US$5. In some remote places or rural areas, you could well get a filling meal for no more than US$1.50 but do not expect to find such affordable prices in Siem Reap, although you can try to avoid western-type restaurants and eat on markets. Hotels are fairly reasonably priced too but you can expect to find varying degrees of comfort and privacy.
- Another important thing you have to keep in mind when it comes to money is to avoid giving it to children. Throughout your journey, you will encounter a lot of kids begging in the streets or in front of tourist spots but refrain from giving them money as it will only land in the wrong hands.
4. Get informed on Health and Safety Issues
- Health can be a bit of an issue in Cambodia so ask your doctor before your trip for any vaccine or any specific medication you might need. It would be best to get vaccinated on hepatitis A and typhoid. Zika and dengue fever are also to be feared. Avoid tap water at all costs as well -trust me, you really do not want to drink tap water, not even inside a seemingly innocent sugarcane juice. Keep in mind that Cambodia is still a very poor country so there are some habits you simply cannot keep.
- Cambodia is not a particularly dangerous country nor does it have a reputation for street thefts but use common sense and try not to carry too many valuable items on you. Be also very careful not to wander too far into the countryside or around Angkor as there are still landmines scattered all over the place. You will most likely see crippled people on various occasions, some playing in bands to try and raise awareness on their plight, so give some money when you can.
- Cambodia is currently fighting human trafficking and pedophile networks so you should not be witness to any child abuse but if you are, be aware that there are hotlines you can call, such as that of the charity Action pour les Enfants. To report a crime, call the 092 311 511.
- To get more information on Health and Safety in Cambodia, follow these links:
- US Department of State’s Recommendations
- Cambodia Travel Advice – UK
- Travel Advice Cambodia – Australia
5. Beware of the monkeys
- Some light-hearted advice to conclude, although you might realize throughout your trip that it could be quite a nice idea to stay away from monkeys. They look cute and furry but they can be your worst enemy.
- Always keep an eye on your food when you see monkeys around, as they will steal it in the blink of an eye. Even better, if you can, try not carry any food if you know there will be monkeys on your way. Plastic bags are also an item you should try to keep hidden in their presence.
- Do not smile to them as they will interpret it as a bellicose sign on your part so just take a look from afar. As much as I love monkeys, it’s in your best interest. But that is what you will probably do after you’ve seen your first person chased by an enraged fat monkey.
Cambodia is a fantastic country full of centuries-old architectural wonders where you will meet and be greeted by numerous extraordinary people. Do not hesitate to stop to talk to them by the way and agree when they ask to take a picture with you, which will happen more than once. You certainly will come back home with countless memories and a longing for more.