Travel to Cambodia

What You Need to Know Before Going to Cambodia

Travel to Cambodia
Jim Purdum / Getty Images

Before planning to travel to Cambodia, you should know the basics: visa requirements, exchange rate, time difference, and other traveler essentials.

But along with practical information, you should know a little about Cambodia's struggle to recover after decades of war and bloodshed. Grab a copy of the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung and prepare to be moved by a firsthand account of atrocities that happened not too long ago.

Rather than complain about road conditions or petty rip-offs — there are plenty — make a conscious effort to connect with the place through the hearts of the people. Travel to Cambodia can be very rewarding, indeed.

Cambodia Travel Essentials to Know

  • Official Name: The Kingdom of Cambodia
  • Other Names: Kampuchea
  • Population: 15.5 million (per 2014 census)
  • Time: UTC + 7 (12 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time)
  • Country Phone Code: +855
  • Capital City: Phnom Penh (population: 1.5 million per 2012 census)
  • Primary Religion: Buddhism

What to Expect During Cambodia Travel

Cambodia, home to the once-powerful Khmer Empire, has literally taken a beating in the last 500 years. Despite being the most dominant power in the region for centuries, Cambodia fell to Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) in the 15th century and never fully recovered. Since then, a number of conflicts were fought through Cambodia, leaving far too many orphans, land mines, and UXOs behind.

Cambodia was made a protectorate of France between 1863 and 1953; further suffering was brought on by the Vietnam War. Pol Pot and his bloody Khmer Rouge are attributed with the deaths of over two million people between 1975 and 1979.

Needless to say, with such a bloody history, the people in Cambodia have seen suffering and lived through hardships. A mending economy and extreme poverty gave rise to rampant corruption. Despite the setbacks, Cambodian people still welcome foreign visitors — most of whom come to see Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Although there is much more to see when traveling in Cambodia, the ancient ruins of Angkor temples dating back to the 12 century that are scattered throughout the jungle draw more than half of Cambodia's annual international visitors.

Located near modern-day Siem Reap, Angkor was the seat of the mighty Khmer Empire that peaked between the 9th and 15th centuries until the city was sacked in 1431. Today, Angkor Wat is protected as an amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Containing both Hindu and Buddhist temples spread over many miles, the bas reliefs and statues depict scenes from mythology, providing a small glimpse of the ancient Khmer civilization. Although the main site is impressive, it is also busy. Fortunately, intrepid travelers have the option to visit the many unrestored temples located away from the main site.

In 2013, more than two million foreign tourists came to see Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.

Getting to Cambodia

Although Cambodia has around a dozen overland border crossings with neighboring Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, the easiest way to reach Cambodia with the least amount of hassle is via a budget flight to Siem Reap or the capital, Phnom Penh. Lots of cheap flights are available from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

If your main objective is to see Angkor Wat, flying into Siem Reap is easiest. Phnom Penh is connected to Siem Reap via bus (5-6 hours) and speedboat.

Cambodia Visa and Entry Requirements

A visa for Cambodia can be arranged online before travel via the e-visa website or citizens from many approved countries can simply get a 30-day visa on arrival at the airport in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Visa on arrival is available at some of the major land border crossings. Just to be safe, arrange your visa in advance if you'll be crossing overland at one of the less-popular checkpoints.

Two passport-sized photos are required as well as a visa application fee. The official price for a visa should be around US $35. Officials prefer if you pay the application fee in U.S. dollars. You may be charged more for paying in Thai baht.

Tip: Some of the oldest scams in Southeast Asia happen to travelers crossing into Cambodia. Border officials have been known to change the visa application fees on a whim; all prefer if you pay with U.S. dollars. If paying with Thai baht, be mindful of the exchange rate you are given and hold out for the official entry fee.

Money in Cambodia

Cambodia has two official currencies: the Cambodian riel and the U.S. dollar. Both are accepted interchangeably, however, dollars are often preferred. Try to carry smaller denominations of both currencies at all times.

Western-networked ATMs are widespread throughout Cambodia; the most common networks are Cirrus, Maestro, and Plus. Expect to pay a fee between of up to $5 per transaction on top of whatever your bank charges. Credit cards are only accepted in large hotels and at some tour agencies. It's always safer to use cash (card skimming is a problem in Cambodia) and stick to using ATMs in public places, ideally those attached to banks.

Tip: Worn, faded, and damaged notes are often passed on to foreigners and may be difficult to spend later. Take care of your money and don't accept money that is in poor condition.

Like most of Asia, Cambodia has a culture of haggling. Prices for everything from souvenirs to hotel rooms can generally be negotiated. Plan to use up your Cambodian riel before leaving the country because it cannot be exchanged and becomes practically useless outside of Cambodia.

Vaccinations for Cambodia

Although there are not any officially required vaccinations to enter Cambodia, you should have the usual, recommended vaccinations for Asia.

Mosquito-borne dengue fever is a serious problem in Cambodia. Although the vaccine for dengue isn't too far away, you can protect yourself by learning how to avoid mosquito bites.

When to Visit Cambodia

Cambodia only has two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season and peak months for visiting are between November and April. Temperatures in April can exceed 103 degrees Fahrenheit! The rain begins sometime after the hottest months to cool things down. Heavy monsoon rains make a lot of mud, can shut down roads, and greatly contribute to the mosquito problem.

The best months for visiting Angkor Wat are also the busiest because of the number of sunny days. January typically has the least number of rainy days.

Cambodia Travel Tips

  • Avoid mentioning or asking questions that may cause locals to become uncomfortable. Controversial topics include: war, politics, the Khmer Rouge, the problem of land mines, and other subjects that could trigger dark memories.
  • Avoid supporting bad, unsustainable practices such as child begging. Don't buy souvenirs made from insects, shells, or wildlife; these cause further damage to the environment. Practicing sustainable travel is especially important in Cambodia.
  • The water in Cambodia is unsafe to drink. Bottled water can be purchased everywhere; always check the seal before drinking.
  • Although marijuana is very easy to find (you can order it on pizzas in Siem Reap), it and all other drugs are illegal in Cambodia just as they are in Thailand. Partake at your own risk.
  • Petty theft is more of a nuisance in Cambodia. Learn to secure your guesthouse and don't put your smartphone out on the table while eating.
  • Although busy with tourism, Angkor Wat is still very much a religious monument. You will encounter many monks there. Dress appropriately and follow the usual rules of temple etiquette.