Whether you want to gaze at the Meekong and guzzle amok, go wild on Pub Street, drink bottles Angkor by the beach, climb a greased-up pole for cash on an island, or explore the wonders of the ancient city of Angkor, you’ll find it in this complex country of ancient history, dried fish, temples, turmeric soup, scams and smiling faces.
While Cambodia is still recovering from Pol Pot’s leadership in the '80s, the Khmer people are so lovely and smiley that you wouldn’t guess it just by talking to them – they’re probably the most hospitable people I’ve ever met while travelling. Ever.
Why Go? With tourism booming, locals have done all they can to ensure the needs of foreigners are met (hence the main strip of Siem Reap collecting the name ‘Pub Street’…take a guess at why).
In a way, this means it’s harder to experience Cambodia as a local, but there are plenty of areas outside the main cities that are allow you to see the real Cambodia – and I still believe you haven’t experienced life until you’ve been dropped at a bus depot at 7am and seriously weighed up the odds between starvation and another round of fish and turmeric soup for breakfast.
When To Go? Cambodia is a tropical place – it’s pretty warm (30-to-40-degrees Celsius) most of the time, but for cooler temperatures, I strongly recommend going from November to March. Between March and June is horrendously hot and humid – it can really ruin what should be a fantastic experience, so bear this in mind if your body doesn’t take well to extreme heat and varying degrees of discomfort.
Visas: You can get a tourist visa at the border for US$20, and you’ll need a passport photo (or risk a $1 fine…). There can be a bit of a line for a visa, so allow some time for this process – they’ll also want to collect your fingerprints before stamping your passport. You can also arrange to get a visa online for an extra US$5.
Currency: US Dollars (USD) and Cambodian Riel (r) – sometimes if your notes aren’t in good condition, they won’t be accepted. There are also a lot of fake notes in some areas, and while I strongly advise you not to accept these (you can tell when they're fake), sometimes they're accepted by shop keepers in touristy parts, but I wouldn't try and use them outside those parts. Most ATMs dispense US dollars.
For currency conversion, XE is the best tool (and it's free!).
Cost: Cambodia is excellent for anyone looking for a budget holiday, or to live like a king for a comparatively small amount. Budget travellers can enjoy US$5-10 rooms, $2-5 meals and $1-3 public transport, while extravagant travellers can bask in $50+ hotel rooms, fine dine for another $50, and cruise around in a jeep for $60 – Cambodia caters for everyone.
Getting Around: Buses and motos are general methods of transport around Cambodia, but I cannot emphasise how much you need to be wary of scams.
Moto: Agree on a price that includes the whole group of people. It’s common at the end of the trip for drivers to tell you the agreed-on price was for each person.
Buses: Do your research. After learning to trust the tourist bus systems in India and Nepal, we were too trusting in Cambodia and got totally screwed over. Unless you hire a car and do it yourself, buses are the only to see the country, so don’t do what we did and head in to the nearest tourist agency in Siem Reap – look it all up on Trip Advisor before booking anything.
Motorbikes: If you're walking along a stretch of road and people on motorbikes start honking at you, it's not necessarily because you're a sexy beast – locals are asking you if you need a lift. They mostly do it for some extra cash, and while I've never done it, they don't charge much so I can see the benefit.
As with everything that involves putting your well being in the hands of others, use your own sense of judgement to analyse the situation and don't be pressured in to it if you feel you might be at risk.
Private Car: You can get loads of private day tours around Siam Reap and Angkor, as well as private rides to different towns (Cambodia Private Driver is supposed to be pretty good). This kind of information is all over Trip Advisor.
Bicycles: Lots of locals ride bicycles, and you can hire one for $1-10/day, depending on the quality.
NOTE: I really can’t stress how important it is to get a bike that suits your needs. We decided $25 for a moto tour around Angkor was too much, and got mountain bikes for $4 instead. Bad idea. Unless you’re a bicycle-enthusiast, riding over 45km around an ancient city in blazing heat is not ideal, and the seat was so awful that in the end sitting down was a big problem. So the next day we got road bikes because they had wider and more comfortable-looking seats. They had no gears. The smallest incline pushed fire in to my legs. This happened for another 50-odd kilometres. Cheaper bikes are probably good if you’re exploring the flat areas of Siam Reap, rather than serious cycling.
Accommodation: Hotels and hostels come in abundance at all sorts of prices in the bigger cities and towns, like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. On the other hand, places like Sihanoukville and Koh Rong are a bit different.
As beach destinations, hotel-owners know foreigners will pay whatever sum of money to stay there, and the conditions vary widely from 10-room multi-sex dorms to private beach villas – you really get what you pay for in these places, and don’t assume they come with air-conditioning or wifi. Accommodation is very clean and affordable for the most part, just make sure you ask questions before taking a room.
Food: Cambodians are all about their seafood. From years and years of trying to survive in extreme heat with no refrigeration, they’ve pretty much got meat preparation and preservation down to an art form. You can get everything from fried crab, barbecued fish, barbecued squid, fermented fish, dried fish, pickled fish, fish soup, and fish amok (curry), to fish paste, shrimp paste, fish cakes, and crab cakes – I could go on.
Each fish soup will have some form of fermented fish paste mixed in as a seasoning, shell fish are sold in bulk at the local markets with each single customer buying around two full bags, and families can eat as many as three whole barbecued fish for lunch alone. From the incredible crab markets of Kep, to the freshly caught snappers of Sihanoukville, to the fish-laden roadside food joints along any given stretch of highway, Cambodia is a seafood lover’s dream – just get used to the idea of gutting your own fish once it’s grilled and on your plate.
If you’re not in to seafood, your other main option is pork. If you’re a vegetarian things will be a bit harder, so I suggest using something like Google Translate so you can ask what your options are at eateries. In tourist dens like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Western food is widely available.
Other things to note: Women: Women travellers shouldn’t have many problems in Cambodia. Exercise a regular degree of caution (don’t walk down dark alley ways, ride a bike at night, follow strangers in to unknown territory – that sort of thing), and you should be fine. There are always a few people who might hit on you or make it weird, but for the most part, Cambodian men are really polite. Keep in mind that if you wear revealing clothing away from the beach, you’ll get a few looks.
Scams: Cambodia isn’t referred to as Scambodia for no reason. At some stage, you will probably pay more for something than you should have, but make sure it’s for something like dinner or shampoo at a market, rather than for a bus ticket across country.
There are fake bus tickets, pirated movies, counterfeited goods and old books re-covered as new ones – the list goes on, so if you find a deal that’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you do your research before committing to major purchases, you shouldn’t have too many problems.
Haggling: Haggling is a way of life in Cambodian markets and you’re expected to partake, but don’t be a jerk about it. What’s only a dollar to you can be quite a lot to a local trying to support a family. Haggle to a suitable price, not the lowest price.
NOTE: We were at a restaurant in Battambang and there was an Australian family sitting near us at a big table. They were being pretty loud, boasting about how they 'haggled' the restaurant owner down from a $1 gin and tonic, to a 50-cent gin and tonic. Haggling just for the sake of it isn’t really fair on locals, and I really urge you to do it to the point where you don’t feel like you’re being ripped-off, rather than to save 50-cents.
Have you been to Cambodia? I'd love to hear about it!