The Kingdom of Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា ឬ ប្រទេសកម្ពុជា) (sometimes transliterated as Kampuchea to more closely represent the Khmer pronunciation) is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, Thailand to the northwest, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
Cambodia has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last half-millennium or so. Ever since the fall of Angkor in 1431, the once mighty Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbours. It was colonialized by the French in the 19th century, and during the 1970s suffered heavy carpet bombing by the USA. After a false dawn of independence in 1953, Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horrors of civil war in 1970 to suffer the Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign of terror, and only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did the country begin to totter back onto its feet.
Much of the population still subsists on less than the equivalent of US$1 a day, the provision of even basic services remains spotty, and political intrigue remains as complex and opaque as ever; but the security situation has improved immeasurably, and increasing numbers of visitors are rediscovering Cambodia's temples and beaches. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, now sports luxury hotels, chic nightspots, ATMs, and an airport fielding flights from all over the region, while Sihanoukville is getting good press as an up-and-coming beach destination. However travel beyond the most popular tourist destinations is still an adventure.
It is important to remember that Cambodian history did not begin with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's incredibly harsh regime has garnered most attention, but the Cambodians enjoy a long and often triumphant history. Anybody who witnesses the magnificence temples at Angkor will be able to see that the Khmer Empire was once a wealthy, militarized, and a major force in the region. Its zenith came under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), where the Empire made significant territorial gains from the Vietnamese and Cham. The Khmer Empire stretched from modern day Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam
The period following the fall of the Khmer Empire has been described as Cambodia's dark ages.
French colonial expansion in the area known then as Indochina included coming to dominate Cambodia as a protectorate under French political control. However, the French were always more concerned with their possessions in Vietnam. Education of Cambodians was neglected for all but the established Elite. It was from this elite that many "Red Khmers" would emerge. Japan's hold on Southeast Asia during the Second world War undermined French prestige and following the Allied victory Prince Sihanouk soon declared independence. This was a relatively peaceful transition; France was too absorbed with its struggle in Vietnam, which it saw as more important to its conception of L'Indochine Francaise.
Prince Sihanouk was the main power figure in the country after this. He was noted for making very strange movies in which he starred, wrote and directed. His rule was characterized at this point with a Buddhist revival and an emphasis on education. This was a mixed blessing however. He succeeded in making an educated elite who became increasingly disenchanted with the lack of jobs available. As the economic situation in Cambodia deteriorated, many of these young people were attracted to the Indochinese Communist Party, and later the Khmer Rouge.
As the Second Indochina War spread to Cambodia's border (an important part of the "Ho Chi Minh trail"), the USA became increasingly concerned with events in the country. While traveling to Moscow and Beinjing, Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol and other generals who were looked upon favorably by the United States. Sihanouk then put his support behind the Khmer Rouge. This change influenced many to follow suit; he was after all considered a Boddhisatva. Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge followed the Vietnamese example and began to engender themselves to the rural poor.
Following a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns. Over 1 million people (and possibly many more) died from execution or enforced hardships. Those from the cities were known as "new" people and suffered worst at first. The rural peasantry were regarded as "base" people and fared better. However, the Khmer Rouge's cruelty was enacted on both groups. It also depended much upon where you were from. For example, people in the East generally got it worse. It is debated whether or not the Khmer Rouge began "crimes against humanity" or a protracted "genocide". There are claims that What is clear, as Ben Kiernan argues, there was a disproportionate number of ethnic Chams killed, and the ethnically Vietnamese also suffered persecution. Nonetheless, the Khmer also suffered often indescriminate mass killings. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and ended 13 years of fighting (but the fighting would continue for some time in in border areas). Cold War politics meant that despite the horrendous crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge they were the recognized government long after the liberation of the country by the Vietnamese, indeed they continued to receive covert support and financing by the USA. As a result of the devastating politics of the Khmer Rouge regime, there was virtually no infrastructure left. Institutions of higher education, money, and all forms of commerce industries were destroyed in 1978, so the country had to be built up from scratch. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid diminution of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s. A coalition government, formed after national elections in 1998, brought renewed political stability and the surrender of remaining Khmer Rouge forces.
The International Criminal Court is currently putting Leng Sary, Pol Pot's brother in law, on trial for 'crimes against humanity'.
The two pillars of Cambodia's newly-stable economy are textiles and tourism. The tourism industry has grown rapidly with over 1.7 million visitors arriving in 2006 and 2.0 million in 2007. The long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge, as the population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. More than 60% of the population still gets by on subsistence farming. The government is addressing these issues with assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. New construction of roads, irrigation, and agriculture are invested to bring up the rural areas.
All visitors, except citizens of Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam need a visa to enter Cambodia. The official price for a tourist visa is US$20, and US$25 for a business visa - but expect much higher prices (US$30 or more for the tourist visa) to be demanded at land border crossings.
Visas can be obtained at any Cambodian embassy or consulate overseas. Visas are also available "on arrival" at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos.
To apply for a visa, you will need one or two (depending on where you apply) passport-size photo(s), a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, passport photocopies when applying at some embassies/consulates (not needed if applying on arrival), and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee (expect to pay a substantially higher price if paying in a local currency).
In Poipet, Cambodia custom officers are known to ask tourists to pay 1000 Baht (about US$30) for a visa on arrival, instead of US$25. Stand firm but stay friendly and keep your smile, they rarely insist it. The penalty for having no photo is usually only US$1-2, but the price is also negotiable.
The original provider of the e-Visa service was kicked out in murky circumstances, and their site now rails against the evils of the new provider. However, travellers who have obtained e-Visas with the new system report no problems using them.
Alternatively, citizens of most nations can now apply for an e-Visa online. The cost is US$25 (US$20 + US$5 processing charge) instead of the normal US$20, and you get the visa by e-mail in 3 business days. For the e-visa you will need one photograph of yourself. You can scan your passport photo (into .jpg format, please!) or take a passport photograph of yourself with a digital camera. Please take note that e-Visa is currently operated by a private Malaysian Company.
The e-visa will come back as a PDF file. You will then need to print out two copies (one for the entry and one for the exit). After printing out your two copies, cut out the e-visa part and put both copies into your passport.
For those entering by air, the e-Visa is valid at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. It's cheaper to get your visa on arrival at either airport. However if you get a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) you do get to skip two lines at the airport: the line to apply for the visa, and the line at the cashier to pay the fee. Of course, if you checked luggage, you'll probably have to spend the saved time waiting for your bag.
For those entering overland, do note that overland e-Visa entries are restricted to just three border crossings: Bavet (Svay Rieng) from Moc Bai (Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam); Koh Kong (from Hat Lek / Trat, Thailand); and Poipet (from Aranyaprathet, Thailand). However getting a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) is definitely the way to go in order to avoid the common scam of visa overpricing at border crossings (see Scam alert).
If you don't have a passport photo at visa on arrival in Phnom Penh airport (and possibly other entry points), they will scan in the one on your passport for an extra $2.
If you are a foreign national, be aware that you will have to pay an airport departure tax when you leave Cambodia through the airports, about $25 for international flights, it is about $4-6 for internal flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
International departure tax
From both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the surcharge is a steep US$25 for adults and US$13 for children 12 and under. The tax is not included in your flight ticket.
Cambodia has international airports at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Direct flights connect Phnom Penh International Airport (previously Pochentong International Airport) with China (Guangzhou | Hong Kong | Shanghai), Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon/Seoul), Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).
Direct flights connect Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport with Laos (Pakse | Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon/Seoul), Taiwan (Kaohsiung | Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok | U-Tapao (Sattahip/Pattaya)) and Vietnam (Hanoi | Ho Chi Minh City).
Travellers going specifically to visit the Angkor temple ruins may prefer to use Siem Reap as it's only a few minutes away from the main sites; however as Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on direct flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap, it's a lot cheaper to fly to Phnom Penh and to take the bus (or cross overland from Bangkok).
Low-cost carrier Air Asia has introduced flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, while Jetstar Asia has begun flying from Singapore to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Other airlines operating flights to/from Cambodia include Asiana Airlines , Bangkok Airways , China Southern Airlines , Dragonair , Eva Airways , Korean Air , Lao Airlines , Malaysia Airlines (MAS) , Shanghai Airlines , Siem Reap Airways (a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways), SilkAir , Singapore Airlines , Thai Airways International , and Vietnam Airlines .
Beware of scams when entering Cambodia overland. Most common is the inflation of the visa fee from the official US$20 to 1000 baht (US$30+) charged by Cambodian custom officers but it is easy to deal with. In Poipet which is a visa-free zone, you can always change your Thai bahts into US dollars with cigarette vendors or restaurants. Insist to pay your visa with US dollars. When dealing with custom officers, stand firm, keep smile will give you a long way to go. If you don't have an ID photo for the application of visa, don't let them charge you more than 2 dollars. You can also get your visa in advance - either from a Cambodian embassy/consulate (via an agency if necessary) or from the e-Visa website. See the Visas section for full details.
Past scams have included telling travelers they have to get visas from a consulate at inflated prices before going to the border (not true), fines for not presenting a vaccination certification (even though this is not mandatory), charging 50 baht for a (bogus) SARS health form, and enforcing an imaginary US$100 to Cambodian riel exchange requirement (at lousy rates).
All six international border crossings are open 7 AM to 8 PM and all have visa-on-arrival facilities at the Cambodian immigration checkpoints.
On the Thai side, there are good sealed roads to all 6 crossings. There are no direct bus services from Thailand that cross the border, but there are buses to all crossings except Chong Sa-Ngam.
On the Cambodian side, more basic and less frequent bus services are available from Poipet and Koh Kong.
The busiest land crossing into Cambodia, and the most convenient for onward travel to Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park. Long the stuff of nightmares, the road has finally been paved all the way from the border to Sieam Reap and Phnom Penh.
Take a bus to Trat (transfer in Chanthaburi if necessary) and from there a minibus to the border. After crossing into Cambodia there are two possibilities - the once-daily boat to Sihanoukville (can be unpleasant in adverse weather), or else a minibus or taxi to either Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh.
Those with a yen for adventure can try out the four other international crossings:
Through bus tickets cost ~USD$10-12. Bus passengers must walk between the Cambodian and Vietnamese checkpoints and transfer between the two buses that travel the Cambodian and Vietnamese legs respectively. At this crossing only one passport photo is required for a Cambodian visa.
Alternatively, it can be interesting to join a Mekong Delta tour (2-3 days) that travels between the two cities; the total cost is about US$25-35 for three days.
Mai Linh Taxi Company in Ho Chi Minh City provides bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap directly from beginning of 2007. The price is US$18.
It is possible to cross at the Trapeang Phlong - Xa Mat border but as of now you have to organise your own transport.
It is now possible to cross the border at O Yadaw near Pleiku. Cambodian visas are available on arrival. You can get a motorbike taxi to the border from Duc Co on the Vietnamese side, but there is no regular transport available on the Cambodian side. It maybe possible to hitch a ride with the border officials, though.
Onward transportation not regularly available. Cambodian visas available, but expect 1$ to 2$ of transaction fees on both sides of the border. Travel agencies on both sides have border crossing packages.
To/from Laos - There is one border crossing for tourists on the Mekong, a 90 minute speedboat ride north of Stung Treng. The border guards have few opportunities for "alternative" income, and will usually try to make a few extra dollars from scamming tourists.
To/from Thailand - There are no ferry services between Cambodia and Thailand. However it is possible to cross the border from Thailand to Koh Kong on foot, take a 15 minute share taxi or motodop (motorbike taxi) ride, and then proceed to Sihanoukville by ferry from there (or vice-versa).
To/from Vietnam - It's possible to travel between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh by boat, or by combination of road and boat. Fast boats leave daily from Chau Doc in Vietnam's Mekong Delta and take 5 hours to reach Phnom Penh. Chau Doc is a four hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. A popular overland route is to make a three day trip, stopping at Can Tho and Chau Doc before taking the boat to Phnom Penh.
Domestic departure tax
From both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the domestic departure tax is US$12.
The domestic aviation scene in Cambodia is in a permanent state of flux.
The only airports currently operating scheduled passenger flights are Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The third major airport, Sihanoukville, which in the past has seen some activity, is expected to start receiving scheduled flights again in early 2010.
The main operator has long been Siem Reap Airways , a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways, which currently flies ATR-72 turboprops between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (55 min, around US$60 one-way plus taxes, 4-6 flights daily). Siem Reap Airways had its operator license suspended in December 2008, but its owner and big brother Bangkok Airways has stepped in to fill the gap.
The new kid on the block is Cambodia Angkor Air , a joint venture between the government and Vietnam Airlines, which flies between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam).
A non-commercial provider of services is Mission Aviation Fellowship which operates flights to Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Stung Treng and other destinations. Aid workers and medical cases have priority but seats may be available.
Helistar Cambodia , a VIP helicopter charter and scenic flights company, operate to virtually anywhere in Cambodia. Helicopters can be chartered to fly from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for one-way or return journeys. The basic hourly charter rate is US$1495 per flight hour plus 10% VAT and 10% SPT. They operate modern, air-conditioned French-built Eurocopter Ecureuils with luxury leather seating for up to 5 passengers. They also have licenced Australian and foreign pilots. A pick-up and set-down transfer service is also available at both international airports.
The three main routes to Phnom Penh (from Siem Reap, Sisophon, and Sihanoukville) are all sealed and in good condition. National Route #7 from Stung Treng to Phnom Penh (Skuon) is in good condition, paved between Kratie and Phnom Penh, partly paved and partly gravel between Stung Treng and Kratie, but well maintained, even in the wet season. Most other roads are unpaved dirt; many are in abysmal condition, others are maintained fairly regularly (but fall apart with alarming speed in the wet season). On the unsealed routes, overloaded trucks do a good job of smashing poorly built bridges. In all, buffer your schedule and expect delays when travelling around the country, especially on the dirt roads, and doubly so in the wet season.
For longer journeys there is a system of buses and pickup trucks that usually operate from the local market square. Mekong Express has the best reputation for comfort and speed and consequently charges a premium, while Sorya (formerly Ho Wah Genting) and GST offer a slightly cheaper no-frills service. Travel remains cheap, with journeys from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville costing under US$5, but bring along something warm if you don't like freezing air-conditioning and earplugs if you don't like Khmer karaoke. There are few, if any, night-time services, so most buses leave in the early hours of the morning (6-7 AM) and the last ones leave in the afternoon.
Motorcycle taxis are ubiquitous. For quick trips across town, just stand on a corner for a moment and someone will offer you a lift - for a small, usually standard, fee of US$1 or less.
Motorcycle rentals are available in many towns, with the notable exception of Siem Reap.
Display extreme caution if you decide to risk driving or riding yourself, as driving practices are vastly different from developed countries. Local road 'rules' will also differ from city to city. In any case, choosing one of the above options will be cheaper and easier for even the most experienced traveller.
Ferries operate seasonally along many of the major rivers. Major routes include Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Siem Reap to Battambang, and Sihanoukville to Koh Kong. Boats are slower than road transport, charge higher prices for foreigners, and are sometimes overcrowded and unsafe. Then again, Cambodia's highways are also dangerous, and boats are probably the safer of the two options. The high speed boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap costs US$33 and takes about 6 hours, departing at 7.30am, and offers a spectacular view of rural life along the Tonle Sap river.
There is also a few luxury boats operating between Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Saigon. For something around 150$/day including accommodation, food and excursions, it's a good alternative to regular boat service.
The boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang takes longer (especially in the dry season), and is less comfortable and more expensive than taking a seat in a share taxi, but is favoured by some travellers for its up-close view of subsistence farming (and hundreds of waving children) along the river. Taking the boat late in the dry season (April and May) is not advisable as low water levels mean that you must transfer to smaller vessels in mid-river. During the rainy season the boat between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong can also be dangerous due to high waves as well as due to the fact that these Malaysian river taxis were not built for the open sea.
As of 2009, the only normal passenger train in Cambodia from Phnom Penh to Battambang has been suspended . There are no passenger services to Sihanoukville or Kampot anymore, but it may be possible to hitch a ride on a cargo train if you enjoy that kind of thing.
Despite the lack of normal train services there are bamboo trains or noris running around Battambang, and you can also travel on a bamboo train from the outskirts of Phnom Penh to Battambang on demand. These trains are home made railcars which carry just about anything, pigs, motorcycles, crops, you name it, as long as it fits on the train. They are also great fun to ride on and they are actually reasonably safe, and the drivers are friendly. They cost around $2 per person for a short journey and around $6 to hire one with a driver. Ask locally where you can find a norry, or you can find one at Battambang station.
Cambodians primarily speak Khmer, which unlike most languages in the region is not tonal, but makes up for it with a large assortment of consonant and vowel clusters. Young Khmer prefer to learn English over other foreign languages and you will find people who speak anywhere from basic to fluent English in major towns and cities. In market situations, most Khmers will know enough English to complete a basic transaction, though many vendors carry calculators into which they punch numbers and show you the screen to demonstrate the price.
Some elder Khmers speak French from the colonial days, but partly because of the Khmer Rouge era (in which those speaking foreign languages were targeted for extermination), actually encountering anyone fluent in French is rare in most parts of the country. German and other European tongues can be found in the tourist centres (but are even rarer than French) and Japanese is also a popular language for tourist industry workers.
Vietnamese is widely spoken Phnom Penh and pops up all over the country.
When shopping be sure to look for businesses that display the Heritage Friendly Business Logo. Heritage Watch has launched a campaign that aims to encourage support for Cambodia's arts, culture, heritage and development. Businesses that are giving back to the community are certified as Heritage Friendly by the independent organization and permitted to display either a gold or silver Heritage Friendly logo. Look for the logo to ensure that you are supporting socially responsible corporate citizens!
You can get away with pretty much haggling anything in Cambodia. Restaurants, outdoor food stalls, even rates for guesthouses. It doesn't even matter if you lose your temper as myths of "saving face" doesn't really translate to money. However, there are a few guidelines:
Siem Reap is the easiest place to bargain, Phnom Penh may be a little harder but still worth a shot (worked at a guesthouse in Phnom Penh). Just remember to be persistent.
The Cambodian riel is the official currency, but US dollars are universally accepted in Cambodia. While there are sufficient ATMs in the major tourist areas of Sihanoukville, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh which dispense US$ it may be wise to bring your own supply of US$1, $5, $10 and $20 bills to avoid problems changing larger denominations of $50 or $100 notes. US dollar coins buy nothing but confused looks.
The exchange rate is generally around 4000 riel to the US$, and it's not uncommon to receive change in a mix of the two. Near the Thai border (especially Battambang, Koh Kong, and Poipet) Thai baht is also accepted; further east (including Siem Reap) baht can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Likewise Euro can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Banks give the best rates, avoid money changers at markets or on the street. Torn foreign currency notes can be difficult to exchange. It's acceptable to check each note and ask to have them changed if you aren't happy with the quality, even in banks.
If you're planning on heading out off the beaten track, you need to take enough US dollars to get you back to a point where you can get more.
In many of the larger towns one or more of the local banks operate as Western Union Money Transfer agents.
ATMs can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville, and Kampot; both debit card withdrawls (Maestro, Cirrus, Plus, VISA) and cash advances on credit cards are possible. For the rest of the country it's best to stick to cash or traveller's checks (in US$).
VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards; MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.
Note that ATMs will dispense US$ in varying denominations. If you receive bills in poor condition(especially $50 or $100) from an ATM attached directly to a bank try to change it there immediately as it may be difficult to change later.
Please note that ATMs throughout most of Asia only accept a 4-digit PIN. If your PIN is more than 4 digits, best to take care of that at home before you need cash and find yourself out of luck.
Traveller's cheques, like credit cards, are accepted in major business establishments, such as large hotels, some restaurants, travel agencies and some souvenir shops; American Express (in US$) are the most widely accepted flavour. However, competitive rates are only usually found in banks in Cambodia's larger cities (guesthouses in heavily touristed areas may offer similar services but at horrendous rates). The usual fee for cashing traveler's cheques is 2% and US$2 minimum.
While not as spicy or as varied as food from neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore or Vietnam, Khmer food is tasty and cheap and is invariably accompanied by rice (or occasionally noodles). Thai and Vietnamese characteristics can be found in Khmer food, although Cambodians love a stronger sour taste in their dishes, especially through the addition of prahok, the famous Khmer fish paste (although for most foreigners this is most definitely an acquired taste!). In addition to Khmer food, there are large number of Indian and Chinese restaurants, especially in Phnom Penh and large provincial centers.
Typical Khmer dishes which are palatable to westerners include:
Don't forget Khmer desserts - Pong Aime (sweets). These are available from stalls in most Khmer towns and can be excellent. Choose from a variety of sweetmeats and have them served with ice, condensed milk and sugar water. A must try is the Tuk-a-loc, a blended drink of fruits, raw egg, sweetened condensed milk and ice.
There is also a wide variety of fresh fruit available from markets. The prices vary according to which fruit is in season but mangoes (around Khmer New Year, with up to 9 varieties on sale) and mangosteen (May/June) are both superb.
Other popular Khmer foods which are less palatable to westerners include pregnant eggs (duck eggs with the embryo still inside), Prahok (a fermented fish paste) and almost every variety of creepy or crawly animal (spiders, crickets, water beetles) as well as barbecued rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds.
For foreigners the safer bet is Indian restaurants. 'K.K.Tandoor', opposite Vietnam friendship monument, Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh is the newest Indian restaurant in town. Air-conditioned and serve unique North Indian Moghlai cuisine. Naans and Butter chicken are westerners favourite dishes when in the restaurant. The owner Mr. K.N.Sharma is a friendly veteran who lived in Cambodia for more than 15 years and can give you any details you require to move around in Cambodia. You may contact Mr. Sharma on his Mobile number 855(0)12829588.
The tap water supply in Phnom Penh has undergone some serious changes at the hands of a "water revolutionary" in the government, Ek Sonn Chan. So in Phnom Penh you can drink the tap water without problem, although it is highly chlorinated and you may not like the taste. Also there is some concern about the bottle water vendors. The U.S. Embassy web site says that "In 2008, Cambodia's Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy reported that more than 100 bottled- water companies in Cambodia were being considered for closure for failing to meet minimum production quality standards. Only 24 of the 130 bottled-water companies are compliant with the ministry's Department of Industrial Standards." That page seems to be down on bottled water generally, so take it with a grain of salt.
Outside of Phnom Penh (and perhaps Siem Reap) you should assume that tap water is not potable. Khmer brand water in blue plastic bottles sell for 1000 riels or less (although prices are often marked up for tourists, to 50 cents or a dollar).
Iced coffee is ubiquitous in Cambodia. It is made Vietnamese style, freshly brewed and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Walk past a local eatery any time of the day and you are bound to see at least a table of locals drinking them. One glass costs between 1500-2000riel. Iced tea made with lemon and sugar is also refreshing and ubiquitous.
Fresh coconut can be found everywhere, you could say it is ubiquitous, and is healthy and sanitary if drunk straight from the fruit.
In general, Khmers are not what could be described as casual drinkers: the main objective is to get hammered as quickly as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in!
The two most popular domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor — best ordered "an-CHOR" with a ch sound! — and Angkor. Kingfisher Beer, Beer Lao and Tiger are popular beers with foreigners. A plethora of other beers include ABC Stout, which is dark and not so bad, in addition to the standard Heineken and Carlsberg. Many of the cheaper beers are not especially nice, such as Crown or Leo, and only drunk by the locals.
Palm wine and rice wine are available in villages and can be OK at 500-1000 riel for 1 litre bottle. However, some safety concerns have been raised with regard to sanitation, so the local wines may be best avoided. Bottled water is readily available at 500 riel for a cheap 1L bottle, or double that for a screw-cap. In Phnom Penh tap water is theoretically clean, though most travellers still buy bottles.
For a truly Khmer experience, hunt down a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the "X.O." version, it's also the cheapest legitimate tipple around.
Drugs, including cannabis, are illegal in Cambodia, and penalties can be very severe. That said, enforcement tends to be on the lax side and many guesthouses are permanently shrouded in purple haze. Low-grade cannabis (ganchaa) is fairly common in Cambodian cooking (for the flavor), but the days when you could just walk up to the Central Market and buy a kilo are over.
Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are full of Happy Herb pizzerias, but the police crack down occasionally, so even if you ask for "extra happy" and try out your secret handshake, you may only end up with lawn clippings. Alternatively, if they do deliver, be warned that effect of eating Happy Pizza comes on only slowly and you may end off biting more than you can chew, so proceed with caution.
Heroin is very high grade in SE Asia and foreigners requesting cocaine are sometimes provided with it instead, this regularly leads to deaths.
Western-style accommodation is available in most major towns the country over; even less-touristic places such as Kampong Chhnang have a number of affordable guesthouses or hotels. Basic guesthouses can go as low as US$2/night in the countryside but prices in the cities are usually in the US$5-10 range. At the budget end, expect to provide your own towels etc. If you want air-con and hot water, the price creeps up to close to US$10-20, and you can easily pay over US$100/night if you want to stay in a branded five-star hotel.
Cambodia has fewer opportunities for language and cultural studies for the short-term traveller, though there are many language schools and private teachers advertising for those who are hanging around a bit longer. There are also meditation groups which meet at some of the Buddhist Pagodas in Phnom Penh.
Paddy's Gym, close to the Japanese Bridge in Phnom Penh offers kickboxing lessons, and the owner can tell you about Pradal Serey - Cambodia's answer (and, it is claimed, precursor) to Muay Thai!
An excellent way to get to know and understand more of the country is to do some voluntary work. Travel to Teach runs a project with schoolchildren in Phnom Penh and also helps "beach kids" in Sihanoukville.
Projects Abroad offers volunteer projects teaching English, working with orphaned children, conservation and other area, based mainly in Phnom Penh.
Finding a paid job teaching English in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is easy for English speakers, even if you have no other qualifications. If you're interested, print out some resumes and start handing them out to various schools.
Cambodia is a safe and friendly country, with the usual exception for large cities late at night, particularly Phnom Penh, and unobserved luggage or wallets. Bag snatching, even from those on bicycles and motorcycles, is a problem in Phnom Penh. Be discreet with your possessions, especially cash and cameras, and as always, take extra care in all poorly lit or more remote areas.
Intending visitors should be aware that there is no real rule of law in Cambodia. Crimes may or may not be investigated; if perpetrators are wealthy or connected to the government they will often be untouchable by police and courts. This, combined with the country's high traffic accident rate, makes Cambodia a riskier travel destination than most. Some long-term expats lose a friend a year, or more, to crime and traffic. You should also be aware that the courts are corrupt, so contracts are not enforceable.
Cambodia suffers from a legacy of millions of land mines left during the war years. However, to tourists, land mines present a minimal to nonexistent threat, as most areas near touristed areas have been thoroughly de-mined. Many tourists mistake electric or sewage warning signs along national highways for land mine signs. HALO Trust, a leading mine removal organization in Cambodia asserts that you would have to drive through the jungle for at least an hour north of Angkor Wat to come across any mines. The threat is to locals in extremely rural areas who rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods.
All that said, in remote areas such as Preah Vihear (near the border) and Pailin (a former Khmer Rouge stronghold), exercise caution: ask for local advice and heed warning signs, red paint and red rope, which may indicate mined areas. Do not venture beyond well established roads and paths.
The age of consent in Cambodia is 15. Prostitution is theoretically illegal but widespread, although generally not overtly aimed at tourists (there are no go-go bars and such). Many bar and clubs, however, do have taxi-girls wandering the premises, especially in Phnom Penh. Bear in mind that Southeast Asia has a fast-growing HIV infection rate, so safe sex is a must in all cases. Cambodia has gained some notoriety as a destination for pedophiles, but under Cambodian law the penalty for sex with minors can be up to 30 years in prison, and such tourists may be prosecuted by their home countries as well.
As Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, reliable medical facilities, doctors, clinics, hospitals or medication are scarce, especially in rural areas. For more serious ailments it is very advisable to get to Bangkok, or to Saigon as more specialists are available and repatriation to your own country is easier. Make sure that you have travel insurance which covers flying you to a city where you can be treated.
Local hospitals and clinics in Siem Reap (and in the rest of Cambodia) can be in very poor condition and badly equipped and medicines are often past their sell-by date or made up of local mixtures of flour and sugar.
In local clinics, avoid getting an infusion to treat dehydration, as there is a risk of septicemia which is caused by bacteria entering their blood during infusions. The same goes for blood transfusions.
Although no health certificates or vaccinations are required by visitors to Cambodia, it is recommended that you get vaccinations against tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis, a polio booster and especially gamma globulin shots (against hepatitis A). In addition to this, you should take a course of malaria tablets, as well as a mosquito net. The mosquitoes come out in force in Siem Reap at dusk. Take a medical kit including panadol, antihistamines, antibiotics, kaolin, oral rehydration solution (ORS), calamine lotion, bandages and band-aids, scissors, DEET insect repellent, etc.
The most common ailment for travelers is diarrhea, which can deteriorate into dysentery, resulting in dehydration. Avoid untreated water, ice made from untreated water and any raw fruit or vegetables that may have been washed in untreated water.
The local water supply is not drinkable, so avoid. Bottled water is available everywhere and is very cheap and you should try to drink 3 liters a day if possible. Take water purification tablets with you or iodine crystals to sterilize water if you plan to go more rural areas. Boiling water will also make it safe to drink, and will not cause plastic bottle waste, or impart a taste to water.
If you do get severe diarrhea and become badly dehydrated, use an oral rehydration solution to help you overcome it as well as plenty bottled mineral water. However, if you have a lot of blood or mucus in your stools get to a doctor as you probably have dysentery and will need antibiotics.
In the hottest months, March and April, the temperature can rise to 35°C, so use sunscreen and always wear a hat to avoid sunstroke.
Consult your doctor a few weeks before you leave to get the most up to date advice on which inoculations you need and what to take with you.
Please be aware that local prostitutes of both sexes carry with them many STD's. The official HIV rate within the prostitute population is 34%.
Most medical services in Cambodia are not up to Western standards, and the rest are few and far between and very expensive. Should you become seriously ill or injured while in Cambodia, evacuation to Thailand or Singapore will be the most likely result. Because this can be incredibly costly, adequate insurance coverage is an absolute must while in Cambodia.
There are presently no vaccination requirements to enter Cambodia, unless arriving directly from Africa. Border officials have from time to time operated scams whereby travellers were "fined" for not having proof of vaccinations, however this now appears to have stopped completely.
Before visiting Cambodia, be sure to discuss prevention with a qualified specialist / travel clinic. It's especially important to review the relevant vaccinations (hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, measles, rabies, tetanus-diphtheria, typhoid, etc) well in advance; in addition, both malaria and dengue fever are endemic in some parts of Cambodia, particularly in heavily forested areas for malaria, though dengue fever can be found throughout the country.
HIV/AIDS is widespread and on the increase, with some surveys showing as many as 40% of commercial sex workers being HIV positive. If you intend to engage in such activities, be sure to use protection.
Tap water in Cambodia is not suitable for drinking. Phnom Penh municipality claims that its water is treated and cleaned, and this is probably true; however by the time it gets to your tap, it's most likely been contaminated anyway. Bottled water is the only thing you should ever drink or brush your teeth with. Boiling water will also make it safe to drink, and will not cause plastic bottle waste.
Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. While the more heavily touristed places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are well adjusted to tourist behaviour, people in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung are less so. Always ask permission before you take somebody's picture, as many in the more remote areas do not like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment.
Dress for women is more conservative in Cambodia. While shorts are now acceptable in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it is more respectful to wear knee length shorts or trousers when outside of these areas.
Groups of young children can be found everywhere in Cambodia and many travellers feel 'pestered' by them to purchase their friendship bracelets and other wares. However, it's often the case that children enjoy the chance to practice their English on you- and by asking them their names and ages a conversation is likely to develop where the 'hard sell' is forgotten. Children and adults alike enjoy looking at photographs of your family and home country.
The Khmer Rouge issue is a very delicate one, and one which Cambodians generally prefer not to talk about. However, if you approach it with politeness, they'll gladly respond. People, in general, hold no qualms when talking about the Vietnamese; in fact, they have been widely perceived as liberators when they intervened in Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the aforementioned brutal regime. The pro-Vietnamese regime gradually rebuilt all the infrastructure that was severely damaged by the Khmer Rouge's policy of de-urbanising the country leading to economic prosperity in the 1980s, with sporadic uprisings.
Cambodia uses the GSM mobile system and Mobitel is the largest operator, although competition is stiff. Pre-paid SIM cards are widely available (starter packs from US$5), but tourists are only supposed to use a few varieties with very limited validity (7 days is typical). If you need a regular card, it's usually easy enough to get your tuk-tuk driver or even the guy at the shop to sign his name on your behalf.
Internet cafes are cheap (US$0.75-US$1/hour) and especially popular in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In Kampot, Kratie and Sihanoukville the rate is around US$1/hour. Elsewhere, Internet access can be scarce or non-existent; many cafes feature dated computers and slow dial-up connections.
As Cambodia continues to grow, so does its connection to the world. These days there are numerous places you can go to use your own laptop to connect to the internet. Not just in coffee shops but in fast food restaurants, bars, and even gas stations. The cost to locals for home use has dropped tremendously. For various speeds and bandwidths the prices range from $29.95 to $89.00. Always remember vat is added to all prices, and even the locals pay vat.
Because of the literacy rate in Cambodia, an issue arises of whether Cambodia focused sites need be in English or Khmer. English is the predominate language of the internet and is taught in the major universities in Cambodia. The majority of internet users in Cambodia are able to understand English, but with the use of Khmer unicode more sites are able to become bilingual. Still Khmer has a long journey to be included in the internet with the same status as other South East Asian languages such as Thai and Vietnamese, but as more Cambodians get online, the better outlook Khmer has for lasting internet success.