Cambodia is one of the least touristed of all the countries in South East Asia, which has been largely due to its political instability until fairly recently – the memory of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is still fairly strong in many travellers’ minds. However, the country has so much to offer for those people who want a real cultural experience, with many sights and experiences not to be found elsewhere and a real feeling of freedom. What you will get is the most incredible temples at Angkor Wat, vibrant noisy chaos in Phnom Penh, and beautiful countryside with tiny wooden villages all around. Khmer (Cambodian) people are by their nature warm and friendly and a visit to this country can be a truly soul-enriching experience.
The climate of Cambodia is governed by two monsoons, which really dictate the seasons – typically cool/dry from November to February, gradually getting hotter through April before the rains start in about May. The rainy season lasts until about October but normally there will only be a short downpour in the afternoon. Temperatures range from about the high 20s in January and can be in the 40s in April.
The currency of Cambodia is the riel; at the time of writing there were approximately 3900 riel to the US dollar. However, everywhere in Cambodia accepts (and most prices are quoted in) US dollars – riel and dollars are completely interchangeable, so you may get your change in a mixture of currencies. You can cash travellers’ cheques at most of the banks in the major towns and some are also able to give cash advances on your credit card. Virtually nowhere accepts credit cards as a means of payment, and the ATM network is rudimentary (downtown Phnom Penh and Siem Reap only), so it is recommended to bring US dollar cash and travellers’ cheques.
There is a pretty long list of recommended vaccinations for visitors to Cambodia; typically these include tetanus, diphtheria, polio, typhoid, hepatitis A and Japanese encephalitis. Malaria tablets are also strongly recommended, particularly when travelling in rural areas. Consult your doctor or travel clinic for the latest advice. The overall standard of medical treatment facilities is pretty low, although there are a few Western doctors in Phnom Penh and an Emergency SOS clinic. Everything from antibiotics to antimalarials can be bought over the counter in most pharmacies, but don’t count on being able to get supplies if you need a particular medication – bring it with you.
As mentioned previously, the roads are pretty bad (with a very few exceptions). Most of the national highways were probably once tarmac; now, however, they vary between part-tarmac with a lot of holes to basically dirt tracks. The only public land transportation is the bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville (quite pleasant, the best road in Cambodia) and two trains from Phnom Penh to Battambang in the North West and Sihanoukville in the South West. Both of these are a really interesting way of seeing the countryside but are notoriously unreliable and slow; the timetable only gives departure times, with arrival generally quoted as “any time after…..”. There are also boats that travel daily between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and Siem Reap and Battambang – these are generally fairly efficient but have been known to break down mid-river and are also far more full than they should be. Otherwise, people buy a seat on either a truck or a minibus that’s going where they want to go (cheap, but generally packed to the rafters – a good way to meet the locals but can be pretty wearing after a couple of hours).
You can also arrange a taxi to take you pretty much anywhere; serious amounts of haggling are generally called for! Taxis tend to congregate at fixed locations in major towns; many of them will sell you just a seat, so you can cut costs by sharing with other people, but this really requires you to get to the taxi stand early in the morning (before 7am) to be sure to find other people going your way. In the towns, the most common form of transport is the “moto” (motorbike taxi) – you can recognise them from the seemingly millions of other drivers by the baseball cap they all wear (actually a lot of them have branched out in the fashion stakes now, but if they’re wearing a hat, they’re a moto). Actually, normally they’ll approach you. ALWAYS agree a price before you go anywhere; typically in town you should never have to pay more than 2000r.
Until the ending of the long civil war, Cambodia was a very difficult country in which to travel. However, with the advent of peace, most of the popular tourist destinations are now safe to visit; de-mining operations have cleared all but the most remote locations. If in doubt, ask one of the local people. Robberies are now also pretty rare, but it is not recommended to walk or take a moto (especially one you don’t know) after dark in Phnom Penh – take a car instead. As with most developing countries, tourists displaying excesses of wealth may sometimes just be too much of a temptation, so keep it low-key and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (Angkor) have a very wide range of accommodation from backpacker dorms to 5-star luxury and just about everything in between. The quality varies significantly – for most budget-range accommodation, cold water showers are the norm (actually the cold water isn’t really cold, and on hot days you’ll actually welcome it!) whereas for anything of “international” standard you could be almost anywhere in the world. Price-wise, expect to pay from $20/night for a “nice” guest house with private bathroom and aircon to over $300 for a standard room in a four or five star hotel. Outside of the two main destinations, your choice drops dramatically, veering more toward backpacker accommodation with a few towns offering small hotels.
There are a huge amount of influences on Khmer food (or maybe it’s the other way round?) – it’s a sort of fusion of Thai/Chinese. Fish and seafood are generally delicious, particularly down on the coast (try the king prawns/shrimps). Staple to everything is steamed rice, and fruit and vegetables are in abundance. Khmer spicy soup (with pork or deer) is really great, as is amok (a sort of fish curry with coconut milk). AVOID the durian fruit (smells and tastes like something that died a while back) and Cambodian cheese (actually made from fermented fish; smells and tastes like something that died a LONG way back, which I suppose actually it did…). In the main towns there is also a wide selection of “international” food, from pizza to steak (and I know a place that does great bangers and mash…), a lot of it very good quality – the increasing number of expats and the increased availability of imported produce have resulted in quite a few restaurants springing up that offer dining as fine as you’d get at home. As mentioned previously, Cambodia has thankfully escaped the attentions of McDonald’s and the like (so far); there are a few places selling burgers if you get really desperate, but they won’t bear any resemblance to anything you recognise…
The telephone network is pretty bad; calling anywhere outside the country will cost a minimum of US$2 a minute, the line is generally crackling and you may lose a connection mid-sentence. Anyone calling in generally has the same problem. Prepay mobile phones are incredibly popular and have fairly good coverage inside the country. Phnom Penh has heaps of mobile phone shops and you can pick up a second-hand phone fairly cheaply. There are Internet cafés in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap which have a reliable high-speed connection; expect to pay US$2 per hour in Phnom Penh and US$4 in Siem Reap.
Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have a selection of bars and nightclubs catering to expats and tourists, where you can drink a wide range of beers and spirits, shoot some pool and so forth. Many of these are open until 4am! There are also quite a lot of local places, which can be quite an experience and definitely worth a visit – ask someone for advice on where to go. Expect a mixture of traditional dancing and “house” music, beer on ice sold by brand-sponsored waitresses and a lot of friendly interest in your presence. The Khmer people are also extremely fond of karaoke and you’ll see many places on street corners. There is no cinema as such, but a couple of places in Phnom Penh have private viewing rooms (for up to eight or so people) that you can book; just choose a video disc from the many they have on offer and book a room to watch it in, they have a surprisingly large selection of current titles to choose from. A few of the hotels in Siem Reap offer traditional dance shows with dinner, which can be quite a pleasant experience for the new visitor. Outside of the two main towns, life is much more subdued – there’s a selection of local cafés that also serve beer and these tend to close about 9-10pm. Some of the towns have small hotels with bars, but the nature of the Khmer people is to awake early and retire early, so you won’t find much late-night activity away from the tourist spots.
For visitors, most shopping centres around the markets. There’s a huge amount to choose from; in particular silk, woodcarvings and silver are really nice. Cambodia also mines gemstones and you can choose the stone you like and get it made into a piece of jewellery of your choosing, at very reasonable prices – the Russian Market in Phnom Penh has silversmiths on the premises that you can watch working. Other things you can buy include clothes (in Western sizes; Cambodia has quite a number of garment factories), shoes, rucksacks, watches, CDs and software, fruit, plants, fish, shampoo, pens, motorcycle parts…..the markets are a great place to visit just because there’s so much going on. Outside of the markets, there are an increasing number of arts and crafts shops opening up, selling locally made products. Items here are often of very high quality but expect to pay much higher prices than in the markets. A number of these shops sell products made by land mine victims or people who are being helped and trained by one of the NGOs.