Cambodia in a Nutshell

An Introduction to Cambodia

Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia
Introduction to Cambodia

In spite of decades of suffering, persecution and poverty, the people of Cambodia love to laugh and you are sure to receive a warm welcome wherever you wander through this charming country. The Kingdom of Cambodia covers 181,035 square kilometres and bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos in the north, Vietnam in the east and the Gulf of Thailand in the south.

Most people travel to Cambodia to visit the magnificent Angkor Wat, located near the bustling town of Siem Reap. One of the seven wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is just one in a number of enchanting ancient temples in this area, while the capital city of Phnom Penh also has plenty to offer visitors.

Although this richly diverse nation is bordered on virtually all sides, there are still some pretty islands and beaches to explore in Cambodia, such as the beach resort of Sihanoukville and the nearby islands in Ream National Park. The mighty Mekong River flows through Cambodia from Laos to Vietnam and is a great way to travel through the country.

Cambodia’s natural beauty makes it a great place for trekking and there are plenty of dense jungles, unspoilt forests and paddy fields to explore, while the Cardamom and Elephant Mountain Ranges provide a spectacular backdrop.

Subsistence farming is the main occupation of this impoverished nation, and most people live in stilted huts in small village communities. Although the majority of people (about 95%) are Khmer, there are also about twenty different hill tribes, each with their own unique culture, believes and style of dress.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer and it is spoken by most people, while some people also speak French, Laos and Vietnamese, especially near the country borders. Although many people speak English in tourist areas and you will often be approached by people who want to practice their English, it is a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in Khmer.

Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia, with about 90% of the population following either Therevada or Hinayana Buddhism. Worship is an important part of Khmer life and you will find a large number of temples scattered around Cambodia, although a large percentage were destroyed during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia really comes alive during the numerous festivals and public holidays, and it is idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.

Money Matters in Cambodia

Money Matters in Cambodia
Money Matters in Cambodia
Money Matters in Cambodia

Cambodia has its own currency, which is known as the riel and comes in denominations of 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 riel notes. However, visitors are most likely to come across the 500 and 1,000 riel notes, while changing 50,000 and 100,000 riel notes can be rather tricky and should be done at up market hotels as well as fancy restaurants and banks.

In addition to the riel, US$ are also widely accepted throughout Cambodia, and the pricing for hotel rooms and often food and other items in tourist areas tends to be quoted in riel. Travellers who have just come from Thailand will also be able to spend any leftover Baht in areas close to the Thai/Cambodian borders. It is a good idea to carry a selection of US$ and riel notes and take good care of them as notes that are torn and crumpled will usually be rejected.  

Costs
While the cost of visiting Cambodia is cheap by Western standards, it is quite a bit more expensive than in the neighbouring nations of Laos and Thailand. The biggest costs here are accommodation and transport, although both can be done cheaply by those who are on a shoestring budget. By cutting back to the absolute necessities it is possible to send just US$10 a day, while those who want a few little luxuries such as beer should allow themselves US$25. A budget of US$100 a day offers access to some of the country’s best hotels and restaurants, while the sky is the limit for those who can afford to spend US$200 per day.

Changing your money
Banks can be found in all major tourist areas of Cambodia and while these establishments offer to change currency, local moneychangers generally offer much better rates. Changing riel into other currencies can be rather tricky and costly, so it is best to avoid changing large amounts of cash unless you really need to.

ATMs
The number of ATMs in Cambodia is on the rise and although there are incidents of cards being swallowed, this is becoming less common. ATMs usually accept just MasterCard and Visa and dispense cash in US$.

Travellers’ cheques and credit cards
Traveller’s cheques and credit cards can usually be used in up market hotels and banks in most tourist areas of the country. However, changing travellers’ cheques elsewhere can be difficult, and it is best stockpile some cash before heading out into the countryside.

Tipping
Although tipping is not expected it can make a big difference as wages are extremely low and even a tip of $2 might almost double the waiter or waitress’ wages.

Food and Drink in Cambodia

Food and Drink in Cambodia
Food and Drink in Cambodia
Food and Drink in Cambodia

Travellers who suffer from a chilli intake problem will be pleased to discover that the food in Cambodia is much less hot than in the neighbouring nations of Thailand and Vietnam. However, that doesn’t mean that the dishes here are bland, as they are seasoned instead with herbs such as coriander and lemongrass, giving them a unique tanginess. The main staple here is rice, which is served alongside most curry, soup and stew dishes.
Those with a strong sense of adventure who want to sample authentic local food should check out the food stalls that crop up at Cambodia’s night markets. These are also the cheapest places to dine, while those who are looking for a taste of home will find a wide range of international restaurants in tourist hubs such as Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.

Here is a selection of dishes that you will discover as you travel through Cambodia:

Amok trey – one of Cambodia’s signature dishes, featuring fish, pork or chicken in a rich and lightly spiced curry sauce.

Lou – short, thick noodles with added egg and chicken.

Caw – this is a slightly sweet dish of braised chicken or pork and egg stew flavoured with delicious caramelized palm sugar.

Bai cha – a delicious dish of Chinese sausage fried with rice.

Somlah machou khmae – a sweet and sour soup dish that is made with tomatoes, pineapple and fish.

K’dam – a speciality from Kampot, this is a delicious dish of crab cooked in pepper.

Visitors to Cambodia should avoid drinking tap water as well as drinks with ice in them. Bottled water is cheap and easy to find throughout the country and should be used even for brushing your teeth.  

Green tea is popular in Cambodia and served free of charge along with most meals in restaurants. Tea lovers will also want to try the local drink known as dtai grolab, which is created by brewing tealeaves in a glass with a saucer on top. Both Indian tea and coffee are readily available in Cambodia, although they are usually served with plenty of ice.  

Those who like to relax with a beer or two in the evening will find bars located all over the country, while beer also tends to be served in restaurants and at night market stalls. However, the local tipple of choice is a type of rice wine that is extremely strong an should be approached with caution.

Survival Tips in Cambodia

Survival Tips in Cambodia
Survival Tips in Cambodia
Survival Tips in Cambodia

This is a great time to visit Cambodia as the years of war and instability are finally over and the country is rebuilding itself slowly but surely. People are generally friendly and honest and roads are much better than they have been in recent years. However, you still need to apply a certain amount of common sense when travelling through Cambodia and there are a few things to watch out for or avoid.

Avoid drinking tap water and drinks with ice in Cambodian. Bottled water is cheap and easy to find.  

Avoid deals that seem too good to be true such as buying ‘precious gems’ as they are often worthless stones that have been chemically treated. There is also a considerable amount of counterfeit medication around, so only buy from trustworthy pharmacies and clinics.

Despite the efforts being made to sweep the countryside for landmines, there are still believed to be as many as six million unexploded landmines in Cambodia. Visitors should take extreme caution when wandering off the beaten track, and it is best to hire a guide when exploring rural areas independently, preferably someone who knows the area extremely well and can steer you away from danger.

Keep abreast of the current political situation while visiting Cambodia by reading the local newspaper regularly. Violent outbursts do spring up from time to time as well as demonstrations and political gatherings and should be avoided at all costs.

Although you should always keep valuables hidden, extra caution should be taken at night and it is a good idea to take a close-sided taxi rather than a cyclo or moto, especially when exploring touristy areas such as Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is famed for its corrupt police force, who are known to try almost every trick in the book to get fines from tourists. If you are stopped by the police at any time, make sure you keep a close eye on your belongings, as it has been known for the police to plant drugs on foreigners in the hope of receiving a fine or a bribe. In confrontations with the police it is important to keep your cool, arguing in a firm yet friendly manner and solving the situation without heading to the police station.

Location and History of Cambodia

Location and History of Cambodia
Location and History of Cambodia
Location and History of Cambodia

Covering a total area of just over 180,000 square kilometres, Cambodia is one of the most diminutive countries in Southeast Asia. The nation is bordered by Laos in the north, the Gulf of Thailand in the south, Thailand to the west, and Vietnam in the east.
Sometimes referred to as Kampuchea, Cambodia people are known as Khmer. Visitors witnessing the warm and generous nature of the Khmer people could hardly guess at the hardship they have undergone for the last 500 years or so. Angkor fell in 1431 and since that time Cambodia has been pillaged by a number of nations.

Consequently the people of Cambodia are very poor, with many living on less than US$1 per day. However, the situation is slowly improving and the many monuments that were decimated or lost are being rediscovered and restored, while the rise in tourism allows businesses to open all over the country and employment rates to improve.

Up until the start of the 15th century Cambodia was a prosperous nation, and examples of this can be seen in the magnificent temple complex of Angkor Wat. When the nation fell Cambodia was largely dominated and became under French political control. Prince Sihanouk declared Cambodia’s independence during WWII, but his hopes for the nation were soon crushed.

Prince Sihanouk’s reign was not appreciated by everybody as he was criticized for restricting education to the elite and his obsession for writing and starring in movies. Many of the educated elite were angry over the lack of descent jobs and bad economic system and sought a solution in politics, joining first the Indochinese Communist Party, and then the Khmer Rouge.

The dawning of Second Indochina War caused the US to take an interest and Sihanouk abdicated and supported the Khmer Rouge, with many people following his example. After a five year resistance the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and forced the evacuation of all towns and cities, with those who refused to leave being killed instantly.

For three years the majority of people in Cambodia were put through unimaginable hardships, with more than one million and probably closer to three million (more than half the population) dying from torture or poor conditions. Everyone was forced to live in the countryside and work for the Khmer Rouge, with families being separated and everyone living in fear as the consequences for refusing were horrific punishments and death.

When the Vietnamese finally put an end to the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1978 there was no infrastructure left and the country had to be entirely rebuilt. There were elections sponsored by the UN in 1993 and since the end of the 20th century things have steadily improved. Leng Sary, Pol Pot’s brother in law, is currently on trial for ‘crimes against humanity’.

Types of Transport in Cambodia

Types of Transport in Cambodia
Types of Transport in Cambodia
Types of Transport in Cambodia

The poor condition of both roads and vehicles in Cambodia can make it difficult to travel through the country at times, and travellers need to allow plenty of time and apply patience when planning their trip. However, the situation is improving, and major roads such as the road that leads through the countryside from the border with Thailand to Siem Reap has finally been sealed, cutting the journey time dramatically.

Travel by plane

There are two major airports in Cambodia, which connect the major cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh with destinations in Thailand, Laos and other neighbouring nations. There are also small domestic airports in places such as Sihanoukville, Stung Treng and Koh Kong. Siem Reap is the country’s main domestic airline, which provides reasonably priced flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

Travel by boat
The Cambodian countryside is full of waterways, and taking a boat is a great way to see the nation’s natural beauty. Although this is by no means the fastest way of getting around, taking a boat between places such as Siem Reap and Battambang offers travellers the chance to watch local life unfold and meet new people along the way. While those who are in a hurry to get to their next destination may be tempted to take one of the new fast boat services, the safety records on these are often poor, while the fee tends to be rather step.

Travel by bus
The buses in Cambodia are reserved for long distance journeys between towns and cities, as there is currently no public bus network here. However, most places are small enough to explore on foot, making this no real hardship. Many of the buses that are used for long distance journeys tend to be rather worn out and often break down mid journey. However, those who spring for a VIP bus ticket will be offered a reasonably comfortable seat in one of Cambodia’s newer buses.

Travel by cyclos and motos
Cyclos and moto are cheap Cambodian forms of taxis and feature open sides that serve as a natural form of air-conditioning. Fares need to be negotiated between the passenger and driver in advance as there is no metre system in Cambodia, and it is a good idea to suss out the going rate in advance.

Hiring a car or a motorcycle
Private vehicle hire is an excellent way to really get to know Cambodia and visitors will be able to travel wherever the mood strikes them. However, driving in Cambodia can be a little bit challenging for those who are unused to the rules of the road, and it is best to hire either a car with a driver or negotiate the fee for daylong moto hire.

Travel by bicycle
For the ultimate sense of freedom, hire a mountain bike and simply cycle away. Although most roads aren’t in great condition, there is a flat trail along the side, which is perfect for bicycles. If you don’t mind getting a little hot a sweaty, this is by far the best way to explore.

Explore by helicopter
Although not really a form of transport, a helicopter ride is an interesting way to see the city of Phnom Penh or the ancient temples near Siem Ream.

When to Visit Cambodia

When to Visit Cambodia
When to Visit Cambodia
When to Visit Cambodia

Cambodia’s climate is tropical and the weather is hot and humid practically all year round. However, there are four main seasons; the cool and dry season from November to February, the hot and dry season from March to May, the hot and wet season from June-August, and the cool and wet season that lasts from September-October.

The temperatures in Cambodia are significantly higher than other Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, with average temperatures of between 28-35?C in the hot season. The weather is also very humid during this period. April is by far the hottest month, and only travel during this time if you are used to walking around in the heat.

However, things cool down to around 25-30?C in November to February, and this is a good time for temple hopping. There are occasional cool evenings, but Cambodia could never be referred to as cold and you will rarely need a jacket, if ever.

The rain descends on Cambodia from June to October, with heavy showers and storms sweeping the entire country. However, the rain is mainly restricted to the afternoon, so it is still possible to rise early and spend the morning exploring and relax in the afternoon and evening.
Tourist numbers are low during the rainy season, so this is a good time to beat the crowds.

The peak tourist season is from December to January and if you are travelling in Cambodia during this time it is a good idea to book popular hotels in advance, although there is usually plenty of accommodation available.

Festivals and Holidays in Cambodia

Festival and Holidays in Cambodia
Festival and Holidays in Cambodia
Festival and Holidays in Cambodia

The people of Cambodia love to party, and visitors will want to time their visit to coincide with at least one of the vibrant festivals and holidays that take place throughout the year. while many are held to mark special religious events and focus around the country’s temples, others are simply ways to mark historical and cultural events.
Whatever the occasion, the Khmer people celebrate with style, and most festivals are colourful events that feature fireworks displays as well as feasting, drinking and dancing. All are welcome to join in the fun, and foreigners especially are persuaded to get involved and let their hair down for a while.

Here are some festivals to put in your diary:

National Day
Held on January 7th, this holiday marks the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

Chinese New Year
Held somewhere between the end of January and the start of February, this vibrant festival features firework displays and parades through the streets.

Khmer New Year
This festival takes place in the middle of April and marks the end of the harvest. The people of Cambodia decorate their houses and gather for elaborate family feasts. The streets also erupt in all out war as people keep their cool during the hottest part of the year by firing water pistols at each other.  

Royal Ploughing Day
Taking place in May, the Royal Ploughing Day pays homage to the mighty ox. The best place to take in the festivities is in Phnom Penh, particularly near the Royal Palace and the National Museum.

King Sihanouk’s birthday celebration
October 31st is a special day for the people of Cambodia, who gather at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and all along the river in order to pay their respects.

Water Festival
Held at the end of October, the Water Festival lasts for three days. Like the Khmer New Year, part of the fun here is the street water fights, and those who plan to keep dry at this time of your will have to stay well hidden indoors. However, those who dare to join in are sure to have fun and among the highlights at this time of year are the boat races along the Tonle Sap and Monkong River.  

Independence Day
November 9th is the day for the Khmer people to celebrate their independence, which was finally granted by the French government in 1953. To witness the festivities, head to Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument.

Dos and Don’ts in Cambodia

Dos and Don'ts in Cambodia
Dos and Don'ts in Cambodia
Dos and Don'ts in Cambodia

The Khmer people highly value manners and respect, especially regarding religion. They are warm and welcoming by nature and will generally forgive foreigners for their mistakes, but taking the time to learn the local customs will make a big difference to your travel experience.

Clothing
Take a look around and you will soon notice that the people of Cambodia tend to dress conservatively, and it is best for visitors to follow suit, especially when visiting sacred places such as temples. Despite the heat, men should keep their shirts on at all times, while it is also best to avoid wearing sleeveless t-shirts and shorts in temples. It is also impolite to wear shoes inside temples as well as family homes and some businesses.

In the Temple
Be careful in your treatment of Buddha images as they are extremely sacred. It is better to avoid touching them altogether but if you do have to touch them, handle with extreme care and never touch someone’s personal Buddha statue or amulet unless you are invited to. It is rude to point the soles of your feet towards a Buddha image, and it is best when sitting to tuck your feet to one side so that the soles point backwards. There are certain parts of the temple that you may not be allowed into or cannot touch or sit on. Look for signs or follow the examples of others if you are unsure.

Monks
Monks are forbidden from having female contact, so women must take care to keep out of their way if coming across a monk in a crowded street or bus. Although women are permitted to talk to monks, even their mothers and sisters must first pass any objects such as food to a man before the monk can handle it.

At Home
If you are lucky enough to score an invitation to a Khmer family home, it is important to observe the correct etiquette. Each home has a special place, either just inside the doorway or just outside, where shoes are kept. Make sure that you remove your shoes and place them here and follow the actions of the other diners when it comes to eating. The head is considered sacred by Khmer people and it is important to avoid touching people’s heads, while the feet are unclean and should not be used to point with.

Showing Affection
In the conservative Khmer society, kissing and holding hands in public with members of the opposite sex is taboo and should be avoided.