Cambodia Guide: Planning Your Trip

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The remnants of a glorious Khmer empire still enchant visitors to Cambodia—not just the grandeur of the Angkor temples, but also the effervescent joy of a people who shook off a genocide within living memory.

This patchwork of contradictory elements—majesty, hardship, culture, happiness—makes this Southeast Asian country such a compelling place to visit.

Siem Reap and its nearby Angkor temples have put Cambodia on the travel map, but you need to go beyond for the complete experience. Visit the lakeside villages at Tonle Sap, or go on a river cruise to the capital Phnom Penh. Visit Koh Rong’s white sand beaches, Kampot’s farms, and a little-known temple ruin at Banteay Chhmar.

For first-time visitors, Cambodia can be a lot to take in at once: ease your entry by reading the information provided below.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Schedule your visit to Cambodia during the dry season from late November to early April. The cooler weather and lack of mud make a visit to the Angkor temples perfectly pleasurable, and avoids the monsoon season’s floods.
  • Language: Over 90 percent of the local population speak the Khmer language. You’ll find some locals can speak conversational English in the main tourist areas, like Siem Reap, but expect little to none when you go out to the villages.
  • Currency: the local currency is the Cambodian riel (KHR), with its value pegged at 4,000 riel to the US dollar. The greenback is accepted in most tourist spots, though they will only accept new-looking bills.
  • Getting Around: The best way to go places is by hiring the auto-rickshaw called the tuktuk; they’re even better value if you hire one over the course of several days.
  • Travel Tip: You’ll be pressured to see Angkor Wat’s fabled sunrise. It’s like visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa: any sense of greatness is dissipated by the massive crowds coming to see the same thing. Visit during the early morning or late afternoon, but give sunrise a miss.

Things to Do

Everybody’s heard about Angkor Wat and the Angkor Archaeological Park that surrounds it. But what do you know about Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s biggest lake, which increases size sixfold during the monsoon season? Or the lively restaurant and nightlife scene in the capital Phnom Penh? What if we told you that Cambodia’s white-sand beaches rival Thailand’s, or that the Cardamom Mountains are excellent places to hike and meet elephants in?

Here are the experiences we recommend when you’re planning a trip to Cambodia:

  • Explore the vast Angkor Archaeological Park. This 400-acre park near Siem Reap contains Angkor Wat and a collection of Buddhist and Hindu temples dating back to the 12th century. “Temple fatigue” is a real danger here, with the vast collection of structures contained within; choose from a 10-mile “Small Circuit” that can be seen in the space of a day, or the 16-mile “Grand Circuit” that requires a multiple-day entry pass to cover.
  • Visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. In the 1970s, torture camps like S-21 in Phnom Penh contributed to the Khmer Rouge-led genocide that killed up to three million people. Now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former school building now stands as a grim reminder of the absolute depths that humans can sink to under the influence of a malign ideology.
  • See Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Tonle Sap changes with the seasons, expanding from 1,000 sq mi to 6,200 sq mi during the rainy season from June to October. The flooded forests provide a rich breeding ground for over 300 species of fresh water fishes—indeed, the lake provides half of Cambodia’s total fish catch. Located only ten miles north of Siem Reap, Tonle Sap is renowned for its floating villages, where entire communities live off the bounties of the lake.
  • Laze about on a beach. Cambodia’s island beaches are arguably as good as Thailand’s, but with less crowds and more charm. Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second-largest island, offers 27 miles of lightly-developed coastline; a rugged beach destination that’s easily accessible from the mainland, with an affordable set of campsites, bungalows and hostels to stay at while you’re enjoying the place.
  • Go hiking in the Cardamom Mountains. This mountain range near the border with Thailand contains a large chunk of virgin rainforest that’s become an ecosystem for endangered flora and fauna. Hike through these jungles and discover waterfalls, rare plants, and the occasional elephant. Ecotourism projects like the Chi Phat commune go a long way in preserving the local environment, while curating it for tourists.

What to Eat and Drink

Sitting in the shadow of the cuisine of neighboring Thailand, Cambodian cuisine is noted for its lack of heat. But Khmer food is more complex than you’d think: it represents waves of multiple influences, from noodles brought over by the Chinese; bread dishes imported by the French; and curry sauces reflecting Indian sources.

Most dishes throughout the day are eaten with plain white rice, but the meats and vegetables all reflect Cambodia’s unique terroir. Thanks to the abundance of freshwater lakes, rivers and streams, fish is the country’s most important protein. The Khmer also eat beef and pork, all given subtly complex flavors by local herbs and spices like shallots, garlic, galangal and lemongrass.

Koh Rong Samloem, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

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Where to Stay

Siem Reap, the most common international gateway for tourists to Cambodia, offers a wide range of accommodations ranging from hostels to historic five-star hotels. Make sure to book in advance, particularly if you’re visiting during the high season between December and February.

Beyond Siem Reap and the cities, rural areas and more laid-back towns like Kampot offer homestays for tourists who want to experience local living. “Glamping” is also offered as an option in some community-based tourism sites like Banteay Chhmar.

Getting There

Most international visitors fly in to Cambodia via Siem Reap International Airport, located three miles from Angkor Wat and about five miles from Siem Reap itself. From Siem Reap, you can take minbuses, buses or domestic flights to other parts of the country, including Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville (the gateway to Koh Rong).

If you’re planning an overland visit from neighboring countries, several border crossings are open for tourists: the Aranyaprethet/Poipet and Trat/Koh Kong crossings bordering Thailand; and the Moc Bai/Bavet crossing bordering Vietnam.

Most nationalities can enter Cambodia without a visa for up to 30 days; check with the Cambodia Ministry of Tourism for any changes in policy before planning a trip.

Culture and Customs

  • Cover up in Buddhist temples. Despite the influx of Western tourists, Cambodia as a whole remains conservatively Buddhist, and will not brook any disrespect to their temples and monks. This means covering your shoulders and legs when visiting active Buddhist temples, including the Angkor park complex. Tourists wearing “skimpy” clothes will not be allowed to enter.
  • Tipping is optional in Cambodia. Prices in Cambodia don’t include a tip, and tips aren’t expected from tourists. However, given low local wages, any tip will be appreciated, and shows your genuine satisfaction with good service.
  • Don’t visit local orphanages. Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia's least developed and most poverty-stricken countries, and many entrepreneurs have capitalized on foreign charitable impulses to set up orphanages where tourists can volunteer their time. But the “orphans” in these places often still have a living parent; a good number of orphanages are only a cynical tourist cash grab.
Cambodia, Siem Reap, Tonle Sap lake

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Money Saving Tips

  • Stay at a hostel. Not all Cambodian hostels are grimy and stinky; some approach boutique standards without raising the price too high. Hostels aren’t just great for saving on accommodations, they’re also excellent places to meet other tourists, swap tips on the best places to see, and even split costs on transport or food.
  • Hire a tuktuk for more than just one destination. Tuktuks can be found lining up at almost every street corner in Siem Reap. But you don’t have to hire a different tuktuk for every trip. Tuktuk drivers are happy to serve as your personal chauffeurs for your entire visit to Siem Reap, if you can negotiate a reasonable package for yourself. A visit to the Angkor temples might cost $20, and maybe $5 or so for a one-way trip to the airport. Put together a list of places you want to visit, and see if a tuktuk driver can accommodate them all at a price you can live with.
  • Look for free stuff to do. In Phnom Penh, for instance, you can take up free meditation classes at Wat Langka every Monday, Thursday and Saturday evenings at 6pm; and Sunday mornings at 8:30am.
  • Buy a local SIM card for phone and mobile internet use. Cellular phone roaming in Cambodia, as with the rest of Southeast Asia, is just a matter of buying a local SIM card and slapping it into a compatible handset. There are multiple cellular providers in Cambodia to choose from—although Cellcard’s cheap data packages are popular with tourists, and Smart offers good rates for international long-distance calls. Prepaid SIM cards can be bought at almost every corner store, convenience store, and cellphone store; present your passport to buy one.