Despite a long, brutal and often bloody history since the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th Century A.C.E, which includes French colonisation, civil war, the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign of terror and carpet bombing by allied nations, Cambodia has been a firm stop on the South East Asian tourist trail for a long time now.
Cambodia is a battered and beaten country that is just now managing to get back onto its collective feet, poverty and political corruption is rife and services and infrastructure is spotty. Despite that, the people of Cambodia display a spirit and a resilience that is hard not to be moved by. The intoxicatingly fascinating and world famous temples of Angkor Wat – the faded remains of the infamous Khmer empire – rival anything in Egypt or South America, beautiful pockets of countryside and an attractively relaxed way of life have ensured that a steady stream of backpackers pour across the border.
Most backpackers stay for just a few days as a stopover from Thailand before they head on to Vietnam or elsewhere, leaving just enough time to see the temples, but if you can spare the time Cambodia is worth much more than that. A rich and colourful history, wonderful, friendly people and cheap, delicious food, it is well worth ignoring the corruption and problems the country faces to explore it just a little deeper.
Buddhism is the largest overriding religion in Cambodia, with small pockets of other religions such as Christianity and Islam accounting for a very small percentage of the population.
Unlike a lot of South East Asia, Cambodia is relatively conservative, and tourists should dress a little more respectfully, especially women. It isn’t necessary to go to extremes, simple knee length shorts or skirts and tops or T shirts that cover the shoulders is generally comfortable and considered respectful. Like anywhere else in the world, polite respect will get you a long way.
All Western visitors need a visa. Only citizens of the surrounding nations of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore are exempt. Tourist visas are very easy to get and last up to 30 days. These are most commonly issued on arrival at any airport or land border and cost $20 USD at the time of writing. Be aware however that there are many scams involving Cambodian visas, including fake visas being sold throughout Thailand and overcharging at the borders. You should only ever get your visa at an official border crossing and should hold out for the official price.
Alternatively if you wish to stay longer than 30 days, you can get your visa issued in advance at any Cambodian embassy or consulate as these last up to 90 days.
The following list of vaccinations are recommended for visits to Cambodia by the Centre of Disease Control.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are also strongly recommended.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
There is a high risk of malaria throughout Cambodia and antimalarial prophylaxis is strongly advised. Speak to your GP or specialist nurse before you leave to see which prophylaxis is most suitable for you.
Medical facilities – where they do exist – are relatively rare in Cambodia and are not of reliable quality. If you need to carry any medical supplies with you then ensure you have them before you arrive and have enough for the length of your stay. If you need medical attention, then it is often better to get to Thailand, Malaysia or even Singapore if you can.
Crime and Safety.
With reasonable precautions for safety and security, Cambodia is a fairly safe country. Petty crime such as theft and bag snatching is a problem in the larger cities such as Phnom Penh, and you should take precautions against this and don’t advertise anything valuable, especially cash. Corruption is rife within the police and the judiciary and bribes are normal, so don’t count on any assistance. Saying that however, most Cambodians see the benefits of Western tourism and this does filter through to officials too, so as with anywhere if you display a good level of common sense then you will generally be fine and safe.
There are a large number of scams in Cambodia based around poverty and begging, one of the more popular being the ‘orphan scam’ (it is also known under a variety of similar names), which basically either involves you ‘donating’ to an artificially enforced poverty stricken orphanage (many of the children may not even be orphans), or buying materials for the same orphanage which are then ‘resold’ to the next group of tourists that come along. Just don’t give them any money, no matter the hard sell or the puppy dog eyes.
You will also get large groups of children clamouring around you trying to sell you small trinkets such as friendship bracelets. This is more of an annoyance than a danger, and is generally easily dealt with. Ignoring it (whilst remaining polite) is often the best bet.
Like anywhere else in South East Asia, if you are stupid enough to get involved in any way with drugs regardless of the seemingly easy access in some areas, then you can expect extremely harsh penalties and no help or sympathy from anyone.
Costs and money.
Cambodia is still amazingly cheap, even by South East Asian standards, although you can still spend an absolute fortune on outrageously priced tours and expensive hotels if you want to. The Cambodian currency is the Reil, but USD is widely accepted too especially for larger transactions. It does work out more expensive if you rely on the US currency however, and it is always advisable to use local currency whenever possible. Like the rest of South East Asia, alcohol will be your biggest expense if you fancy a few drinks with dinner (especially if you drink imported beer), but everything else is simply dirt cheap.
ATM’s are starting to become more common in the major cities and tourist hubs, but still remain relatively rare in the more rural off the beaten track places.
Accommodation costs can be really good if you are travelling on a budget. Cheap hostels can be found for as little as £2 to £3 GBP, and midrange travellers can get a comfortable private room with air con and en suite for £10 to £15 GBP. As I’ve already said, costs can go through the roof after this, but you really don’t need to spend more than mid range prices for a good level of comfort.
Food, like accommodation, is extremely cheap too. Street vendors will give you a good, tasty and filling meal for less than £1, and western food in a restaurant (which generally cater to tourists, not locals) will set you back around £5, with a whole range of choices in between these extremes.
Transport is very cheap within Cambodia, even renting a whole driver for the day will not set you back more than £10 – £15 GBP. Beware of expensive and unnecessary package tours from Thailand. Getting the bus over the border yourself is cheap and easy. Provided you avoid the scams that is.
Activities are relatively expensive for the country but still well worth it by Western standards, and considering what you get £10 to £20 GBP for a day’s guided trek or tour is not all that much at all.
When to go.
Cambodia can be visited at any time, the climate is hot and humid year round. The slightly cooler months are generally December and January, while the slightly hotter months are April through to June. The monsoon season can last from June to November, but as with most wet seasons in the region rainfall is often heavy but in short bursts so it can still be a great time to visit.
This is where every backpacker heading to Cambodia will end up, as it is the jumping off point to the famous Angkor Archaeological park. It still retains a nice, easy and relaxed pace despite modern services and infrastructures springing up to service the stream of backpackers and travellers coming through. It is easy to get to thanks to good air and land links, and despite prices being higher than in the rest of Cambodia (the unfortunate effect of growing tourism), it is still relatively cheap. Aside from the archaeological park itself, there are a number of museums and temples that are well worth visiting here, and it is easy to spend a few extra days than you anticipated here simply enjoying the ambience.
Angkor Archaeological Park.
Angkor archaeological park, more commonly referred to as Angkor Wat (even though Angkor Wat is only a part of the much larger complex) is the single reason most people hop the Cambodian border from Thailand (aside from visa runs), and more than that, it is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most important archaeological and historical monuments in South East Asia, second only to Borobudur in Indonesia.
The easiest way to see the temples is to base yourself in Siem Reap a short distance away and either get one of the multitude of organised tours from any number of agencies or guesthouses there, or simply organise your own transport from the city.
There are a number of crowded and uncomfortable tour buses that take groups around the park, but these famously overcharge and do not take in all of the temples. Discovering the complex independently over a period of a few days is an infinitely better experience and much more relaxing as you can take your time and go at your own pace. If you do this however, you will be better off buying a 3 day or even 7 day pass depending how much you want to explore. Remember also that the complex is huge, but there are a multitude of cheap options for getting around and back to Siem Reap within the park itself. Renting a bicycle in Siem Reap is an excellent option for getting around independently. Hiring a local guide at the complex is also an option if you wish.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city and largest centre of growth, with slowly burgeoning high rises, hotels and restaurants. However, under this very thin veil of gentrification, the city is still very much shabby, poverty stricken and run down, with infrastructure and services like electricity ramshackle and chaotic traffic. There are still a few relatively nice places to explore however, most notably on the waterfront, and you can still find glimpses of the French colonial influences amongst the crowded, polluted streets if you look for it. The Royal Palace is well worth a visit though, and is arguably the premier tourist draw in the city, with some interesting museums and memorials relating to the cities violent past if you are interested.
Despite having a strange sounding name that wouldn’t sound out of place in North America thanks to its French colonial past, Sihanoukville (or Snooky as it is sometimes more affectionately known) is a pleasant enough resort town that no longer shows the signs of relatively recent civil war and still has a few nice beaches, despite some of the others being overdeveloped and a little run down. It is an okay place to spend a few days on the coast but despite trying, still can’t come close to living up to the reputation of Thailand or Malaysia when it comes to beach hotspots. There are however a number of islands reachable by boat that are beautifully untouched and offer only a few limited beach hut accommodation options just off the coast.
Learn your history.
Nowhere in South East Asia has such a fascinating mix of ancient history, archeaological wonders and fascinating – if brutal – recent history, and there are plenty of museums (including one dedicated to land mines), cemeteries, temples and ruins to keep that interest alive. Your enjoyment of these sites – as well as your knowledge – will be greatly improved if you read up a little beforehand. Guidebooks are an excellent source of basic information.
If you fancy escaping the muggy heat and humidity of the temple sites and jungles for a little while then head to the hill station of Bokor. The air is a bit cooler up here and there is a refreshingly breezy mountain climate with amazing views of the coast.
Take a bike ride.
Hiring a bicycle is easy and cheap in Cambodia and taking a bike ride into the countryside or around the temple sites is a great way to explore.