Emerging from a turbulent past, Cambodia is fast becoming a must-visit destination. But get in quick, before tourists by the bus loads take over and potentially ruin what is currently a captivating, sobering and unforgettable country.
The country is a cultural wonder, telling the tale of ancient civilisations and the traditional Khmer people through one spectacular site after another. The Khmer people are perhaps this country’s greatest treasure, embodying the courageous spirit that has seen Cambodia overcome adversity, welcoming tourists with open arms and a wide smile.
Best Time To Go
Cambodia is generally warm year-round, with the ideal time to travel being December and January, when humidity levels are relatively low and there is little rainfall. The warmest time of the year is April where temperatures range around the mid-thirties and May to November monsoon brings warm humid conditions and refreshing afternoon showers.
Cambodian produced silk is beautiful quality, however it is generally less easy to find than Chinese or Vietnamese silk, and is more expensive. Jewellery and gems are a popular buy in Cambodia, but make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re buying.
Cambodia’s turbulent history is etched into her beautiful and varied cuisine. You will find influences from neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam as well as a reminder of the 100 odd years the French ruled here in everyday meals throughout the country. One of the things we love is that you quite often have the subtle spiciness with hints of coconut that is synonymous with Thai cuisine while having the freshness that you will find in Vietnamese cuisine.
As with most Asian cuisines Cambodian food is all about the balance of flavours – you must have the following: spicy, salty, sour and sweet. One thing we have noticed is that Cambodian’s put much more of an emphasis on the ‘sweet’ than most other Asian cuisines.
One of the best things about Cambodia is that life still happens out on street – it is quite common to see families cooking their meals out on the street in front of their house and any party will always happen on the road in front of their house.
Cambodia has a great street food scene. You will see street vendors selling everything from stir-fried noodles, rice porridge, fruits, ice cream (a favourite is ice cream served in a sweet hot dog bun!), eggs, roasted sweet potato, crickets, spiders and other creepy crawlies!
The Cambodian capital is a buzzing city with its central tourist area a compact and relatively easy to navigate hub. Phnom Penh provides a lesson in Cambodian history with Tuoi Sieng Prison and the chilling ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek. Charismatic in design, the city has a French Colonial charm and traditional Khmer influence.
Hire a guide so you can fully understand the atrocities undertaken here. The memorial is grim, but a chilling insight into the history of the Khmer people.
A wonderful museum full of treasures from the Angkor period.
Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace
The Royal Palace and the attached Silver Pagoda were built over a century ago to house the King of Cambodia, and the royal family still reside here. It is worthwhile hiring a tour guide.
Phnom Tamoa Wildlife Rescue Centre
Made famous for its role in rescuing Sun Bears, this centre rescues everything from tigers to elephants. Worth a visit, and your contribution helps to keep the centre running.
Phnom Chisor Temple
It’s a bit of a drive (about 1.5 hours out of Phnom Penh), and then a bit of a walk up many stairs, but this really is a stunning temple. Get a driver/guide.
A nice spot on the riverside for a stroll, watch the boats go by, stop for a bite to eat. The restaurant and café scene is buzzing at night.
Phnom Penh has an amazing food scene – not only is the Khmer food a taste sensation but Phnom Penh is growing as a leader in the region with world class international cuisine to rival any of her neighbours! A foodie heaven, this tour is led by Aussie expat Sonya Duck and highlights some of the best of the best cuisine of the city. Ask us for details.
Close to Siem Reap are the temples at Angkor Wat. The UNESCO World Heritage site is as magnificent as it is humbling. Built in the early 12th century, this spiritual sight has withstood the test of past turmoil and become an architectural treasure. There are so many temples to visit, we have only mentioned the main ones here.
Try to allow yourself 2 or 3 days to see the sights here properly. And make sure you hire a good guide. This 12th Century architectural wonder has put Cambodia on the map for a reason.
These amazing ancient ruins feature stone pillars and carvings intertwined with massive tree roots and jungle in this temple complex.
If you aren’t yet templed out, this beautiful temple is decorated with reliefs of faces and has a more delicate beauty that is a sight to behold.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus
For something completely different, check out this unique circus located behind the Angkor National Museum. Modern Cambodian tales are embodied by talented artists trained in Battambang. The performances mix theatre, music, dance, acrobatics, juggling, aerial acts, fire or contortion.
Tips & Tricks
Taxis are widely available in Phnom Penh although transport options are endless from bicycles and boats to cyclos/tuk tuks. Taxis aren’t available in Siem Reap, but there are plenty of tuk tuks. If you are going to be in one city for more than a couple of days, it is a good idea to strike a deal with a tuk tuk driver and use him exclusively during your stay. This saves constant negotiations and having to flag down a driver.
Cambodia operates a Visa on Arrival system. The cost is currently US$20, which is payable in US dollars only. You will need to take a passport photo with you. You can also get your Visa online at www.mfaic.gov.kh. Be aware that some border crossings do not accept the E-Visa, so make sure you check on the website.
The official currency is the Cambodia Riel, however the US dollar is adopted as the defacto currency in most areas. You will sometimes be given small change in Riel. There are ATMs available in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, as well as a couple of ANZ ATMs. Higher end establishments accept credit card, but generally you’ll need to carry cash.
Thailand is more well-known for its beaches, however Cambodia also has beautiful beaches, and they are much less touristy. Some of the best beaches can be found at: Long Set Beach, Koh Rong; Southwestern Beach, Koh Rong; Koh Thmei Beach, Ream National Park; Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Saloem; Sokha Beach, Sihanoukville.
Khmer or Cambodian is the official language of Cambodia with different dialects spoken between different regions. English is understood in most of the main tourist areas. It’s always a good idea carry your mobile phone and have your hotel phone number with you.
Some helpful words and phrases:
Hello – Sousaday
Thank you – Are kun
How much? – Tha ley pullman?
Can I pay please? – Som ket loi?
Too expensive! – Tha ley na
Stick to bottled drinking water and steer clear of the tap version. Always brush your teeth with bottled water. Ice from restaurants is generally made from purified water, so is safe to drink.
Use common sense – foreigners are associated with money, so don’t look too flashy and keep an eye on your wallet. There are plenty of beggars and street kids. They won’t cause you any issues if you’re polite and keep walking.
Make sure you have full medical travel insurance – this is not the country to be poorly. Minor ailments are treatable, but anything past minor you’ll need to head on out of there.
If you want to avoid spending much of your trip in the smallest room in the house, make sure vegetables and fruit are washed with purified water or peeled where possible. Beware of ice cream that is sold in the street or anywhere it might have been melted and refrozen. Shellfish such as mussels, oysters and clams should be avoided, as should undercooked meat, particularly in the form of mince.
Respect local dress standards, particularly at religious sites. Cover your upper arms and upper legs and always remove your shoes before entering a temple, as well as any hat or head covering. Nude sunbathing is considered totally inappropriate, even on beaches.
Temples are maintained by donations, so when you visit, make a small contribution.
Do not raise your voice or show signs of aggression. This will lead to a ‘loss of face’ and cause embarrassment to the locals, ensuring the situation gets worse rather than better.
You don’t need to tip in Cambodia, but it is always greatly appreciated when you do. A dollar here and there is all that is needed.
Shops & Restaurants
Opening hours can be very variable, so best to check ahead if you have somewhere particular in mind you want to visit. Most shops are open all day, 7 days a week. They tend to open late in the morning and close late at night. There are a few exceptions, with some stores closing on Sundays.
A special thanks to Sonya Duck from Urban Forage and Asia Escape Holidays for their contribution to the content on this page.