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Cambodia – The Kingdom of Wonder

Last Update: August 2020


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Cambodia


A bustling capital in full development, home to the world’s largest religious monument, jungle, lakes, never ending rice fields, tropical white sand beach Islands and an original Asian cuisine.

Cambodia features just about everything that a traveler could wish for. On top of this Cambodia has the most welcoming and friendly inhabitants in the whole of South East Asia.

Welcome to the Kingdom of Wonder!


Monks at the Mekong in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Monks relaxing on the banks of the Mekong river in Phnom Penh

Apart from the beaten path that leads to Angkor Wat, most of the country’s scenic treasures are still unspoiled. A change is coming however. Compared with the number of tourists that neighboring peers Thailand and Vietnam are getting, Cambodia is still far behind. However, with the yearly growth percentage of tourist numbers projecting double digits for the next decade, Cambodia seems to be closing the gap at great speed.

Currently more than 20% of the visitors originate from China, but for now they seem to focus on Angkor Wat, Sihanoukville and the capital Phnom Penh. Still, the influx will surely have a massive impact on the whole Kingdom for the foreseeable future. Never did a call to come and visit before it’s too late hold more truth than right now!



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Reasons (not) to visit Cambodia


Reasons to visit Cambodia

  • The extreme friendliness and welcoming nature of the Cambodian people;

  • Nature in Cambodia is very diverse with jungle, plains, lakes, mountains, and many National Parks;

  • Khmer culture and history are rich and certainly worth exploring;

  • Transportation within Cambodia is very much available and affordable. Your journey might take some time though;

  • The gorgeous Islands in the South are excellent beach destinations;

  • Overall, the cost of travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap. There are a few exceptions, such as Sihanoukville, the Islands and organized tours countrywide;

  • It’s very easy to get off the beaten path. There are plenty remote areas that are fairly easy to reach.


Read: 5 major downsides to Phnom Penh!


Reasons not to visit Cambodia

  • Organized tours can be expensive compared to neighboring countries;

  • The weather in Cambodia is extremely hot all year round, except for the mountainous areas;

  • The once laidback beach destination Sihanoukville is completely taken over by Chinese hotels and casinos. Prices have spiked and infrastructure is appalling;

  • Angkor Wat is unique and a must see. Unfortunately this means that over 2 million people visit every year. The huge crowds can be a let down and are actually destroying the monument by overtourism;

  • Petty theft is a problem in Phnom Penh. Especially pick pocketing and bag snatching are a major nuisance;

  • Although less visible, sex tourism is still not under control in Phnom Penh. From time to time there are police crackdowns, but for the time being, women and children are still being exploited on a large scale.


Beach in Cambodia
Tropical paradise on the Southern Islands
Crowds at Angkor Wat
Crowds at Angkor Wat

Visa



Check the visa requirements for Cambodia

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How to get to Cambodia


Cambodia has three international airports: Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, of which the latter services most of the intercontinental flights. I recommend using the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of all incoming and outgoing flights.

For international buses to and from Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City you can use the 12Go.com transportation portal or Bookaway to book your tickets online. Skip the lines at the bus station!

Warning: Do not buy your bus ticket from the shady travel operators on Khaosan road or Pam Ngu Lao street. Don’t be that guy that got scammed, trust me, you don’t want to end up stranded at the border!



Cost


Like most countries in South East Asia, Cambodia is very affordable. Although it is certainly possible to spend on luxury and decadence, the average traveler will find it very easy to save on money without having to commit to harsh conditions.

While the official currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel (KHR), the US dollar is widely used and accepted. It’s in fact the preferred currency in the larger cities. The street rate is KHR4,000 for US$1. No US coins are used so when you pay with US$ expect to receive your small change in KHR with KHR100 notes equaling as little as 2,5 cents.


Due to the low value of the Khmer Riel, this is what you’ll be packing for a night on the town photocredit @Poraman

Especially in the cities and major towns most prices are normally listed in US$ with just some of the shops showing prices in KHR. In rural villages prices are likely to be listed in KHR, but they will always accept payment in US$.

To add to confusion the currency of the neighboring country might also be in use in Cambodia border towns.

You might want to stack up on the smaller US$1 and US$5 bills since they will not always have change for the bigger notes. Also, they like their US$ bills crisp and clean. On several occasions we had our larger bills from US$20 and up rejected, because they showed the tiniest wear.

Accommodation

The price for a dorm room may start as low as $3 but around $6 is more the norm. Expect to pay $10-$15 for an air-conditioned room in a guesthouse or small hotel while a 3-star hotel room will start from $20 and up.

Of course you won’t have any trouble to find luxurious hotels and resorts that are priced accordingly. However, their price levels are usually well below Western hotels with comparable service standards.

Note that prices are significantly higher on the Islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. A bungalow without any real luxury on the beach will set you back at least $30 per night if you’re lucky enough to find one available. The good news is that they also rent out tents on the beach for $15 per night.



Find your accommodation in Cambodia with Agoda.com

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Also, airbnb is definitely an option to consider. Especially in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there’s a huge selection. It’s possible to rent a private apartment for as low as $25 per night.

Food

Food is abundant in Cambodia at mostly cheap prices. It’s perfectly possible to get a full meal for $2 at the food stalls. If you limit yourself to local drinks like sugar cane water or iced tea there’s no reason to spend more than a total of $2.50 per meal.

Restaurants offer meals starting at $4 per dish and $1 for a local beer. This includes Western style dishes with a Cambodian twist. Expect to pay from $6 and up for better quality Western fare in a nicer restaurant. Needless to say that the more touristy or fancier it gets the more expensive it will be.


Street food in Cambodia
Cambodian street food

If your budget is really, really tight, go for the local markets. At the markets, $1 will go a long way if you crave a local Nom Banh Chok or Kuy Taev (Khmer rice noodle broth).

Transportation

There are many transport options and they all come with a different cost. Therefore, one simple way to balance your budget in Cambodia is by smartly managing your transportation.

Long distance transport from let’s say Phnom Penh to Siem Reap can be done by plane starting from $35. A minivan will do the same distance for $9 and a coach will set you back between $6-$8. If you plan on traveling to the Islands, don’t forget to budget the ferry fare, which was $22 for a roundtrip in 2020.

For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets for most routes within Cambodia I always use the transport planning tool from BookmeBus.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s).

The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.



Getting Around

Prices for getting around in cities are cheap. A single journey public bus ride within Phnom Penh is only 40 cents (US). Short moto taxi rides charge between $0.75-$1.25, while rikshaw and tuk-tuks do the same stretch for US$1-$3 all depending on the time of day and your negotiating skills. Metered taxi’s will be slightly higher.

Using a taxi app (also available for tuk-tuks) is really worth considering as it eliminates the issue of negotiating. Grab and Passapp are the most popular and widespread apps in Cambodia.

Wait! I’ll give you one more option and leave it up to you whether you want to use it. You can always rent a bicycle or a motor bike, although a bicycle might be less of a great idea in Cambodia, because of traffic and the lack of real bicycle infrastructure. Rent prices vary, but it’s almost always very cheap.


Freedom of movementphotocredit @km.traasgpu.com

Note that proper document requirements for tourists riding a motorbike are very confusing. Not having the right documents will most likely invalidate all insurance you might have. Check out this link for an explanation on the regulations.

Tours

Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I get it, I do, where is the adventure in that? However, if you don’t have a lot of time a tour might actually not be a bad idea. It allows you see multiple highlights in a condensed time frame. Also, for jungle treks and alike, it’s always wise to at least hire an experienced local guide anyway.

Prices for tours will differ greatly, depending on the area and the kind of activity. Keep in mind that often the bigger your group, the lower the price per person. In the Things to do chapter I have listed a few great activities.



When to go to Cambodia


Weather

It is often said that Cambodia has three seasons, hot, very hot and hot as hell. Officially though, Cambodia has just two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season with a so called “cooler” period in between. Well, you can forget about cooler, because it’s not really.


dry season in Cambodia
Dry season often brings drought photocredit @climatechangeincambodia.weebly.com

Rainy season starts in May and runs through November with considerable precipitation causing floods almost every year. December starts off the dry season until April. January-February is supposed to be the “cooler” period with temperatures dropping to 30 Celsius. From my experience, Cambodia is just unbelievably hot all year round.

Events

With as many as 28 official public holidays per year, Cambodia ranks nr. 1 in the world. Every now and then in the run-up to new elections the sitting government finds a new day to declare public holiday hoping to please the electorate. Funny detail is that after the landslide victory of the 2019 elections, that same government is now planning to dismiss several public holidays.

There are only a few public holidays that will shut down the whole country though. Most public holidays will only see government institutions, schools and banks closed. For Cambodian Joe Schmo it’s usually business as usual and a normal working day.

The most notable public holidays with big festivities and great migrations that paralyze public transport are: Khmer New Year on April 14, 15, 16 and the Water Festival in mid/end November (actual date depends on the moon phase).


Read: 11 best things to do in Siem Reap!


So, when to go?

Weather wise January and February are the best months to visit Cambodia. However, it’s also the peak season and certainly the most expensive period. Just to let you know, I visited Cambodia at any time of year and always had a good time. Don’t let a bit of rain stop you, unless it’s torrential and causing floods.

Except for maybe September and October, most precipitation usually comes in late afternoon showers. Besides, rainy season means abundant green nature all around and the rain clouds in the distance will provide your Angkor Wat photo’s with a stunning and dramatic backdrop.

Actually, November, December and March are also very good months to visit, although March could already be scorching hot. Come November the rainy season ends and therefore precipitation should be somewhat limited. December has nice weather, but prices are slowly rising. Come March, peak season is over so prices are more friendly plus you get to avoid the larger crowds. 


Grey skies in Cambodia
Some grey days are to be expected in rainy season



Where to go in Cambodia


Cambodia is filled with beautiful sites, some of them still unknown to the greater public. I have compiled a neat selection for you from highlights to some real hidden gems to help you create your ultimate itinerary. < Click on any of the highlighted destinations to find out more >.


National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Highlights




Things to do in Cambodia


So much to do, so little time. Yep, life is all about choices. Down here I have listed a few of my favorite activities. Maybe this helps to make up your mind on what to do when in Cambodia. Have fun!

Bicycle your way to Silk Island. A great way to escape the Phnom Penh heat and dust is to bicycle your way to Silk Island. An oasis of rural tranquility just a mere 7km from the city.

Get your crab fresh from the sea. Hand pick your crab out of baskets straight from the sea at the Kep shores. The crab market food stalls will prepare them any way you like it, but I strongly recommend to have them prepared with fresh pepper from neighboring Kampot.

Dolphin spotting in the Mekong river. This is your chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins in their natural habitat near Kratie town.

Pay your respects at the Choeng Ek killing Fields. Take a moment to remember Cambodia’s darkest hour. I guarantee that you will find a whole new appreciation for the population’s resilience.

Sustainable meeting with rescued Elephants. The Elephant Valley Project in Sen Monorom (Mondulkiri) offers real sanctuary to currently 10 elephants. No riding, no bathing, no crowding around animals. 

Visit the world’s largest religious monument. This might very well be the reason you came to Cambodia in the first place. Behold Angkor Wat, the center of the ancient Khmer empire.




Food in Cambodia


Sometimes similar to Thai food, but without the heat. Sometimes similar to Vietnamese food, but with slightly stronger flavors. Khmer food is certainly influenced by the cuisine of its neighboring countries and even Europe. Nevertheless, Cambodia does have a truly original cuisine of its own.

Actually, Cambodian cuisine is heavily underrated. If anything, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine are probably more influenced by the Khmer than the other way round. Don’t forget that the ancient Great Khmer empire once controlled large parts of nowadays Thailand and Vietnam.

Read up on Cambodian food in the articles below and feel confident when ordering in a restaurant next time you visit Cambodia.


Where to eat in Siem Reap
13 must eat Cambodian foods
7 Ingredients that define Khmer cuisine



Health in Cambodia


Let’s face it, Cambodia’s medical facilities and services are not up to par. To argue that healthcare in Cambodia does not meet international standards would be an understatement. Best advice is of course to not get sick anywhere, ever. But if you do get sick, for heaven’s sake, don’t do it in Cambodia!

Pharmacies are abundant in the cities and also in the small towns. In many cases a prescription is not needed. Watch out for Chinese counterfeit drugs though. It’s probably a good idea to buy your drugs from one of the bigger pharmacy chains like Ucare.


No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. If you do get sick or involved in an accident, let’s hope you didn’t skimp on travel insurance.

Make sure that medical care abroad, evacuation and repatriation are included since any serious ailment or injury will almost certainly involve medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Trust me, it’s expensive and payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.

Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote right now!



Safety in Cambodia


Crime

Except for the traffic Cambodia is a very safe country. That doesn’t mean however that crime is non-existent. The ever so general advice to always “be aware” of your surroundings applies like in any other country. The same goes for not showing off your valuables and don’t wander into dark alleys late at night when you’re alone and drunk.

Next to pick pocketing, bag snatching is the common crime in the major cities. Motorbikes drive up next to you and/or the tuk-tuk you’re in. Within a split second they grab your purse, backpack, camera, phone or even your necklace. Always wear your bag across your chest and be aware that someone could snatch your phone while you are completely preoccupied with making that cool instagram selfie.


Thieving monkeys

The perpetrators are mostly youngsters in need of cash to satisfy their ice or yama addiction (crystal meth) and besides tourists they target locals as well. The latter have zero tolerance for bag snatchers and mobs lynching thieves in public is not uncommon.

Violence against tourists and/or expats is not very common, but does exceptionally occur in the form of muggings. Women and intoxicated persons seem to be especially targeted. Small groups of youngsters gang up on you to get what they want. Do not resist when this happens. The robbers are usually amateurs and therefore nervous and unpredictable. There is no telling how their panic will make them react in case you do resist.

Police

Don’t expect any real help from the Cambodian police. Police make very little salaries and are more interested in how to make an extra buck for any assistance that they provide. If you need them to provide you with a report for insurance purposes, be ready to pass a small bribe for getting the right documents. The amount will depend on the mood and need of the officer helping you, but anywhere between $5 and $20 should do the trick.


No help at all


Read: Outrageous scam in Cambodia, you won’t believe it!


Flooding

During the rainy season flooding occurs often. Out in the country it’s fierce enough to be life threatening and every year people die. Make sure you are well informed a few days ahead about the situation in the region that you plan to visit. The weather might look agreeable from where you are, but water could be coming from upstream areas.

In cities like Phnom Penh it’s less of a threat since they have their drainage more or less under control. It can still be a nuisance however when streets are blocked off due to high waters. Pumping the water out has become an increasing challenge after some of the city’s major lakes were reclaimed to make way for more development.


Flooded streets in Cambodia
Floodings are a part of life in Cambodia – photocredit @nextcity.org

Traffic in Cambodia

Now here’s the real hazard in Cambodia. Traffic is very busy and chaotic especially in the cities, but also in smaller towns. There are of course traffic rules, but none of the locals seem to abide by them.

One major problem is the lack of sidewalks and if there are any they are often completely cluttered. Parked cars, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, advertising, shop products, garbage, potholes, pots and plants are all crowding the limited space meant for pedestrians. As a result you are forced to walk on the street just inches away from motorized traffic that zooms by. They come from all directions and often at considerable speed.


Cluttered sidewalk in Cambodia
I’m telling you, even babies will clutter the sidewalk

A driver’s license is not mandatory for motorbikes up to 125cc and boy, it shows. The common driving style for the average motor biker in Cambodia resembles that of a drunken maniac wannabe Formula-1 pilot. Ok, I might be exaggerating, but believe me when I say that to walk the streets of Cambodia is a real challenge.


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