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Cambodia guide

Overview

Cambodia, long isolated from the international community, has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s most exciting tourist destinations.

Modern day Cambodia now occupies but a fraction of the territory that the once mighty Khmer Empire covered. During the 9 th to 14 th century AD it stretched across most of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and the vast complex of temples at the empires former capital, Angkor, still stands today as a true and lasting testament to the greatness of the Khmer god-kings.

Phnom Penh - the modern capital - wonderfully combines a bustling, commercial heart with Buddhist temples, majestic palaces, shady avenues and colonial style building. Various museums and sites of interest in and around the city chart Cambodia’s past - from the glories of the Khmer Empire to the darker recent history of genocide by the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia’s countryside is a beautiful patchwork of rice paddies dotted with small villages. National parks have been opened covering vast tracts of dense, unspoilt jungle - and the mighty Mekong River cuts the country in two. Tonlé Sap (Great Lake), a large freshwater lake is one of UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage Sites because of its importance to the wildlife and ecology.

To the south of the county there are the beautiful beaches and warm emerald seas off the Gulf of Thailand. Nearby National parks have been set up to preserve the fragile ecology of the mangrove swamps.

But most importantly, you have in Cambodia some of the most warm, and friendly people in the world, who are always genuinely happy to welcome you to their amazing country.

Brief History

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started. Read more...

Highlights

  • Siem Reap – The magnificent Khmer temple remains at Angkor, including Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm
  • Phnom Penh – The majestic King’s Palace, Tuol Sleng prison museum, The Killing Fields, French colonial buildings
  • Tonlé Sap – Vast freshwater lake rich with varied bird and wildlife
  • Sihanouk Ville – Beautiful, white sandy beaches and mangrove forests

When to go

The best time to visit and enjoy Cambodia’s famous temples, Wat’s and pagoda’s are during the cooler months of December and January when humidity is low and there is little rainfall. Please be aware that though these areas are more exposed to the elements and the cooler temperatures of this time of year are a blessing they are also the busier tourist months of the year and main sights can be crowded.

Though Cambodia can be visited at any time of year it is best to avoided April with its extreme temperatures in the 40’s and May, June when the south western monsoon brings rain and high humidity.

You may wish to coordinate your trip with one of the annual festivals, such as Bon Om Tuk, a three-day Water Festival, in October or November, marking the changing of the flow of the Tonle Sap River and is also seen as thanksgiving to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish or Khmer New Year which usually falls on April 13th or 14th.

Geography

Cambodia is dominated by two river systems, the Mekong River to the northeast and the Tonlé Sap River and Lake to the northwest. These two bodies of water meet at Phnom Penh where the upper Mekong and the Tonlé Sap converge into the lower Mekong River, which continues southwards to the border with Vietnam. During the monsoon season the Mekong River rises so much that water backs up the Tonlé Sap River reversing its flow and swelling the lake to over twice its normal size. As the rains stop and the level of the Mekong drops the water in the Tonlé Sap drains back into the Mekong. This yearly phenomenon makes the Tonlé Sap Lake one of the world’s riches sources of freshwater fish.

Three main mountain regions border the fertile lowlands of central Cambodia. To the southwest lay the Cardamom and Elephant Mountains, along the northern border with Thailand lays the Dangkrek Mountains, and to the northeast lays the Eastern Highlands.

Weather & climate

The climate of Cambodia can broadly be divided into 2 seasons, each governed by monsoons. From May to October the southwesterly monsoon brings rain and high winds. The rain is usually sporadic but humidity during this period is very high.

From November to April the northeasterly monsoon brings dry, cool weather, but during March and April the temperature climbs to uncomfortably high levels before the rains arrive again.

Click for Phnom Penh, Cambodia Forecast
Phnom Penh
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Rain (mm)
7
10
40
77
134
155
171
160
224
257
127
45
Sun (hrs)
9
9
9
8
7
6
6
6
5
7
8
9
Temp (Max)
31
32
34
35
34
33
32
32
31
30
30
30
Temp (Min)
21
22
23
24
24
24
24
25
25
24
23
22
Days of Rain*
1
1
3
5
6
10
11
11
12
13
9
3
Hum (%)
64
62
60
62
70
72
73
75
78
76
72
68
* denotes number of days with at least 1.0 mm of rainfall

Money

Cambodian riel

1 US$ = 4,095 riels (June 2012)

Common notes

  • 100 riels
  • 200 riels
  • 500 riels
  • 1,000 riels
  • 2,000 riels
  • 5,000 riels
  • 10,000 riels
  • 20,000 riels
  • 50,000 riels
  • 100,000 riels

NB: US$ are widely accepted in the country and more or less work as a second currency. Because of its location so close to Thailand, you will find that Thai baht is also accepted in most places. Bear in mind that if paying in US% or Thai baht, your change will be given back in riels.

It’s also possible to change Thai baht or US$ with local private moneychangers, at some shops and markets or as usual, any banks that you may come across. These banks will also change most other currencies such as Sterling, Euros etc. The banks tend to open from 7.30am to 2.30pm.

If you have travellers’ cheques in major currencies then the banks will accept these although it is likely that a commission will be charged.

In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, banks and even some travel agents will allow you to draw cash against most major credit cards but you can expect a surcharge of around 3-4%. These days, more and more shops, restaurants and hotels in the major tourist destinations will accept payment with credit cards.

Until recently, Cambodia had no ATM’s whatsoever but this is changing fast and it’s now possible to withdraw money from ATM’s located in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Most credit cards and some debit cards are accepted but its best not to rely on this as a way of accessing your funds while in the country.

Holidays

Fixed Public Holidays

New Years Day-1st January
National Sovereignty Day/Children’s Day-23rd April
Commemoration of Ataturk/Youth & Sports Day-19th May
Victory Day-19 th August
Republic Day-29th October

Variable Muslim Holidays (2010 dates)*

Ramazan - Ramadan-11th August - 10th September
Seker Bayrami - Eid Al-Fitr (Feast at the end of Ramadan)-11th September
Kurban Bayrami - Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice)-16th - 19th November

*These Muslim festivals have no fixed dates and generally fall about 11 days earlier each year.

For exact dates of holidays and festivals for the coming year please click here.

Religion

Cambodia’s dominant religion is Buddhism, with a small Muslim and Christian minority.

Vaccinations

We do always recommend that you seek professional medical advice when considering holiday vaccinations but the ones that are normally recommend for travel to Cambodia are listed below:

  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Tetanus
  • Typhoid
  • Malaria prophylactic drugs are recommended
  • Yellow Fever (A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required)

For direct, up-to-date information on vaccination requirements for Cambodia please click here

Customs

  • To greet someone in the traditional Cambodian manner, start with a small bow and bring your hands together in prayer. The bigger your smile the better!
  • Cambodia is a devout Buddhist country and therefore religion is taken seriously. Shoes must always be removed before entering a temple. It is always best to err on the side of caution so dress conservatively, i.e. shorts would not be welcomed. Images of Buddha are always considered sacred and due care should be taken at all times. Never put any symbol, picture or book that contains the Buddha’s image on the floor or anywhere else disrespectful. All women (local and tourists) are forbidden to touch, give to, or receive from a Buddhist monk.
  • As with most of Asia, public shows of intimacy are generally frowned upon and nude or topless sunbathing is deemed inappropriate. It’s generally a good idea to try and dress conservatively wherever possible, with the obvious exception of in and around beaches. Cambodian women tend to be conservative and should certainly not be touched without their consent.
  • In Cambodia, the feet are considered as unclean (the lowest part of the body) and therefore they should never be used to point out things or to touch someone with – if this happens by accident, a swift apology is required and will suffice. Never show the soles of your feet in public so this rules out putting your feet up, either on chairs or tables and even while travelling in buses and rickshaws. The head (highest part of the body) is respected so try not to touch people’s head or ruffle their hair, as this is also considered rude. If invited into someone’s homes, as with temples, you should also remove your shoes.
  • In general, people do not expect tips unless you are staying at a large tourist resort, and even then only when a service charge is not included. However, throughout the country a small tip will always be appreciated.
  • With regards to shopping – although haggling is not taken as seriously as it is in Thailand, but that said it remains part of the culture and you will be expected to haggle for just about everything that you intend to buy. It’s important to remain friendly and always barter with a smile for the best results. Street sellers are common, particularly in tourist areas but exercise caution here as what they are trying to sell you may not always be what you think it is.

Security

Although many people naturally associate Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, thankfully the regime that affected Cambodia is long gone and while the memories remain these days Cambodia is one of the safest countries to travel in. Low level crime does still exist - however as a visiting tourist the only crime you may fall victim to is theft. This is usually through stealth rather than violence so visitors should remain vigilant and guard personal possessions at all times. Muggings can occur in more remote areas of the country but the risk is very low in terms of comparison to the West.

Due to the turbulent past of the country, military land ordinance and mines continue to be a major problem for the people of Cambodia. You will almost certainly see limbless Cambodians begging on streets. Although international help is now certainly making a big difference, the grim reality means there is still a long way to go before the country is completely cleared.

The risk to the visitor remains incredibly low as all tourist areas in the country have been thoroughly cleared of ordinance. Unfortunately, you don’t have to stray too far to enter a risky environment so bear this in mind and think twice before leaving well-worn paths and never give in to the urge to pick up any military looking objects.

Know before you go

In association with the ‘Know Before You Go’ Campaign, we are working with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to do all that we can to help British travellers stay safe overseas. Before you go overseas, check out the FCO website at www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo. It is packed with essential travel advice and tips, and up-to-date country information.

FCO know before you go logo

Visas

The majority of foreign nationals are able to get a 30-day visa for US$20. These visas are issued on arrival into the country, either at Siem Reap or Phnom Penh airports, or when crossing into the country by land. Business and other visas are able to be arranged although a greater fee will be incurred.

When leaving the country by air there is a US$20 departure tax payable at the airport.

How to get there

By Air

There is one main international airport in Cambodia, in the capital Phnom Penh. We start most Thailand tours in Bangkok, though we can also combine Vietnam or Cambodia (or both) in many itineraries, and there are good options to fly into one country and out of another for this type of tour. Flights between Phnom Penh & Siem Reap and Bangkok, Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh are also regular with Bangkok Air, Vietnam Airlines, Air Asia and Dragon Air operating several flights every day.

Flying from the UK

If you are flying from the UK, then there are only indirect (1 stop) flights to Phnom Penh with British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines or Thai Airways. The flight takes around 15 hours depending on connection times. Fares range from around UK£700 if you book well in advance, but do increase significantly during busy periods. In general, the earlier you book the better, as flights tend to get more expensive closer to departure. Flying from regional airports such as Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow will require a stop-over in London, Europe or the Middle East and normally is a little more expensive than flying from London.

Where to book

We hold an ATOL, and you are welcome to book your flights with us. Please discuss your ideal dates and departure airport with our sales staff, and we will send you a selection of airlines, flight times, and prices. You can then choose whether to book your flights through us, or to make your own arrangements. If you book your own flights, we will still include both your arrival and departure airport transfers.

By Land

Laos

The boat crossing between Laos and Cambodia is currently closed and the best way to make this border crossing is by purchasing an organised package for a travel agent in Pakse, Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon. They will be able to sell you a through ticket to the Cambodian town of your choice. Prices may seem a little high, but when compared to what it will cost you to cross the border independently, the rates for the border crossing segment are a bargain.

Thailand

Train/Bus - Take the daily 5:55am train from Bangkok's main Hualamphong station to Aranyaprathet arriving at 11:35. Aranyaprathet is just a few kilometres from the Cambodian frontier.  The fare is only 58 baht (about £1 or $1.60).
At Aranyaprathet, take a tuk-tuk (about 40-60 baht) or the bus (about 10 baht), from the station to the Cambodian border at Poiphet (15km).  The border is open 07:00-20:00, and visas can be bought there.  Don't get sidetracked into a travel agency, make sure the tuk tuk driver takes you to the official border post to buy your Cambodian visa (or buy an e-visa beforehand). Then take a Cambodian taxi, bus or pickup truck from Poiphet to Sisophon (48 km) and Battambang (112 km).  You will need to spend the night in Battambang. In the morning take a bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh.  Buses run many times daily between 06:30 & 12:45, journey time 5½ hours, fare around 14,000 Riel ($4).

Vietnam

There is a daily bus service between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, alternatively, a number of local tour operators run a river boat + bus service from Saigon to Phnom Penh, a very enjoyable way to travel between the two cities.

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Factfile

Time: GMT+7
Dial code: 00 66
Area: 514,000 sq km
Elevation: Lowest point: Gulf of Thailand 0m
Highest point: Doi Inthanon 2,576m
Population: 65,493,000 (2008)
Capital: Bangkok
Government: Constitutional monarchy
Language: Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects

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