“The most beautiful thing in Cambodia isn’t the country — it’s the Cambodian people.”
— Rithy Panh
Right in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, nested between Thailand and Vietnam, sits the smaller and often overlooked Cambodia.
Having spent the better part of 2018 in that country — and with tourism to the “Kingdom of Wonder” steadily increasing — I thought I would put together a travel guide (more of a survival guide, actually) for those who are tempted to visit Cambodia but aren’t quite sure what to expect.
Most of the information in this article is based on my first-hand experience traveling around Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia, with a sprinkle of second-hand info I’ve gathered over time from trustworthy sources.
Why You Should Visit
I’ll be honest with you: Cambodia is not for everyone. If you are picturing a beach holiday, for example, you’d be better off visiting Thailand or Bali, Indonesia — seeing as Cambodia has a tiny coastline and only a handful of islands, none of which are particularly noteworthy.
Similarly, if Western-style amenities and comforts are important to you, Cambodia might disappoint you here and there. The country is still fairly underdeveloped at this point (though it’s growing fast), and the capital city of Phnom Penh doesn’t even have a proper sewer system as of yet.
There are two main reasons why you should travel to Cambodia. One is the rich cultural legacy left by the ancient Khmer empire, which is best appreciated by visiting the religious complex of Angkor.
The second reason is that Cambodia still has an “innocence” about it, a feeling of being stuck in an older time period, something that is becoming harder and harder to find in Southeast Asia (and the world).
By this I simply mean that Cambodia hasn’t yet been spoiled by economic development and mass tourism — so if you want to get a feel for the “real” Khmer culture, have genuine interactions with the friendly locals, and get some respite from the stress of modernity… now is the time to visit.
Give it a decade or two and Cambodia will become just as developed as neighboring Thailand, which means pollution and traffic will increase, the cost of living will go up, and cultural attitudes will change in subtle ways.
Just like nearby Laos and Myanmar, you are advised to visit Cambodia sooner rather than later. Drastic change is set to arrive in all three countries in the upcoming years. Old shophouses will be replaced by apartment complexes and shopping malls; traditional clothing may eventually fall out of use; and much of what makes these countries unique is going to get diluted.
Don’t wait for that to happen before you book your flight.
Where To Go (and Safety)
Cambodia is not a big country by any stretch of the imagination. You can drive from the Western border to the Eastern one (or North to South, for that matter) in about half a day, and it only takes that long because there are no highways, and the national roads are frankly terrible.
Most of the country is rural, consisting of expansive rice fields dotted with small settlements that are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
The only major cities are Phnom Penh, the capital — a fast-modernizing quasi-metropolis of 1.5 million people — and the northwestern city of Siem Reap (population 140,000), notable for being the getaway to the Angkor region, and therefore equipped with tourism infrastructure.
Few visitors venture further than Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Those who do typically head for Sihanoukville, a beach resort with an “anything goes” vibe — infamous for its drug, gambling and prostitution scene — or nearby Kampot, a quaint small town surrounded by hills and pepper farms. The northern town of Battambang is also becoming popular, despite lacking meaningful attractions.
If you visit Battambang, Kampot or Sihanoukville you should keep your wits about you and be prudent at all times. Police and government presence is minimal in those areas, and there have been sporadic reports of tourists being drugged, robbed, beaten or even raped (though such happenings are rare: most visitors don’t run into any issues).
The big cities are safer. It’s unlikely that you’ll have trouble in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, provided that you take the usual precautions you would adopt anywhere else in the world (avoid dark alleys; stay at reputable hotels; don’t get into arguments or fights; etc.).
Two of the safest neighborhoods in Phnom Penh are the Russian Market area (a favorite of expats) and the Riverside area (where a majority of tourists end up staying). Elsewhere in the city things can get a little sketchy, so you are not advised to book a hotel in any other part of town, at least for your first visit.
Regular hotels are preferable to guesthouses. The latter can be very affordable (as little as $5 USD per night), but you get what you pay for, and you’ll probably have to deal with all sorts of inconveniences. At the very least, read guest reviews before you make a booking (pay attention to the negative ones).
If you need to report a crime in Phnom Penh, go to the Central Security Office at Number 13,Street 158, near Wat Koh. In Siem Reap, the Tourist Police office is next to the ticketing booth for the Angkor temple ruins. In the smaller towns, seek advice from local police on which office you should report to.
Most tourist deaths in Cambodia are related to road accidents and drug use. Renting a motorbike is cheap ($4–6 USD a day), so a lot of tourists end up having accidents on the dangerous Cambodian roads. Wear a helmet and don’t be reckless. Also, be aware that riding a motorbike or driving without a licence may invalidate your travel insurance in the event of an accident.
Speaking of which, it’s always a good idea to have travel insurance in case something goes wrong. World Nomads provides personalized insurance to travelers from over 140 countries: you can click here to get a quote.
As for drugs: absolutely avoid them. Khmer drug dealers are known to sell heroin under the guise of cocaine, which is lethal if snorted/ingested. In fact, most drugs get tampered with in strange ways, including over-the-counter drugs sold at pharmacies (plenty of those are counterfeits from China).
You could literally lose your life if you put your hands on anything other than marijuana and alcohol. This happens with a certain frequency, so be smart and make sure your trip to Cambodia doesn’t turn into a trip to the morgue.
Marijuana is semi-legal in Cambodia, in that the plant is traditionally used in Khmer cuisine, so local people are allowed to grow a few plants for personal consumption. Foreigners caught smoking marijuana are nevertheless subject to fines (small bribes, in practice) by the police.
For a safer way to try marijuana, eat at one of the many branches of Happy Pizza, a chain of pizza restaurants that uses weed in some recipes. (No, really. I’m not making this up.) As mentioned, this is actually legal in the country.
All things considered, the only “drug” worth taking in Cambodia is good ol’ alcohol. Beer is incredibly cheap — as little as $ 0.50 USD for a draft in some places, though it’s more commonly priced at $1–2 USD. Local brews include “Angkor”, “Phnom Penh” and “Anchor”, all of which are nice and refreshing.
I keep quoting prices in US dollars because that’s the de facto currency of Cambodia. ATM machines in the country actually dispense dollar bills. A local currency also exists — the Khmer riel — which is used interchangeably with the USD, at an informal conversion rate of 4,000 riels for 1 dollar.
In Sihanoukville, only drink bottled or canned beer and watch your drinks to make sure they don’t get spiked. In that town there have been multiple reports of people unwittingly being drugged, usually in order to facilitate a robbery. This doesn’t seem to be as common anywhere else in the country.
Things To Do
At the risk of being repetitive: your main reason for going to Cambodia should be the Angkor temples. There’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world, and you would be a fool to visit the country and miss out on the chance to explore the majestic site.
I’m one such fool. The first time I went to Cambodia I skipped Siem Reap altogether and spent an entire month in Phnom Penh. I still enjoyed my stay, but later on I made sure to return to the country and pay the Angkor region the attention it deserved.
The most famous of the temples is named Angkor Wat (it was featured in the first Tomb Raider film and in the fourth videogame of the series, so you may know it from there), but there are several more temples, some of which are just as large and impressive.
Your typical prepackaged tour includes a visit to 4–7+ temples over the course of a day (or multiple days), so you’ll probably get to see all the major ones no matter what you do.
You don’t really need to book a tour in advance. Most hotels in Siem Reap can arrange a tour on the spot (in fact, they’ll be keen to do so) and they’ll provide you with a tuk-tuk driver, whose only job is to carry you around the complex, from one temple to the next (it’s a long distance! Forget about going on foot).
I paid my driver $15 USD for the day, but you may be quoted less or more. If you are thinking “That’s cheap!”, you are correct (from a Western point of view)… however you should be aware that $15 USD is three times the average daily wage in Cambodia, so it’s a substantial amount in the eyes of a local.
While tuk-tuk fares (and plenty of other things) are flexible in Cambodia, the tickets for the Angkor site come with a set fee, mandated by the government. As of 2018, the prices are $37 USD for a one-day pass, $62 for a 3-day pass and $72 for a 7-day pass — per person. (The prices were doubled in 2016, so it’s unlikely that they will increase again in the near future; but you never know.)
You will buy your ticket(s) at a designated government office near the temple complex. (Don’t buy them anywhere else, it could be a scam.) Make sure you queue up at the correct counter — pay attention to the signage — as the layout is a tad confusing, and plenty of people wait in line for half an hour only to be informed that they have come to the wrong counter. (Don’t ask me how I know that. Sigh.)
Start your visit early in the morning (and I mean before sunrise) if you want to avoid the crowds. Oh, and bring some water. It’s pretty hot in Cambodia, and temple-climbing can make you thirsty real fast.
Cambodia remains heavily affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge era. Don’t stray off main routes in rural areas, including around temple complexes, and don’t pick up any metal objects.
Once they’ve gotten their fill of temples for the day, most tourists go back to Siem Reap proper, and spend the night out partying in the aptly named Pub Street. Just so you know: it’s a major tourist trap. Everything is overpriced there, the music coming from some bars is deafening, and I didn’t enjoy the place one bit. But that’s just me, so feel free to check it out for yourself.
(There’s not much else to do in the town anyway… aside from getting a blind massage. I encourage you to spend your money at one of these parlors, rather than on Pub Street, since blind people arguably deserve it more. Bar and club owners in Siem Reap are already doing a thriving business.)
Pub Street is also the perfect place to mingle with other travelers — mostly backpackers — so you can go there to socialize, if you belong to the right demographic. For older travelers, a quiet evening back at the hotel is probably a wiser choice (how about reading a book on Cambodian history by the pool).
The residents of Siem Reap tend to be friendly — much friendlier than in Phnom Penh, in my experience — so you can try and get to know some locals. Many of them will appreciate your effort, especially if you can speak a bit of Khmer (which isn’t a difficult language to learn… or at least is easier than Vietnamese).
If you are a man, forget about hitting on random Khmer women. It’s my duty to inform you that Cambodia is a very traditional place, one of the few remaining countries in the world where a majority of girls remain virgins well into their twenties, “saving” themselves for marriage. It’s much, much easier to find love and companionship in Thailand.
Speaking of Phnom Penh: the capital has arguably even less to offer than Siem Reap. The Royal Palace is underwhelming if you have already seen the one in Bangkok, and most of the temples (wats) lay in disrepair. The main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are the War Museum and the Killing Fields, which are a bit too dark and depressing for my taste (but you may enjoy them).
Other than that, you only have a Central Market, a handful of parks, and a scattering of specialized shops (jade, antiques, wood carvings). There’s also a modern shopping mall (Aeon Mall) and a large casino (NagaWorld, popular with Chinese visitors and expats), both of which are well worth a visit. Selfie-worthy landmarks might include the iconic Independence Monument and the aesthetically pleasing Vattanak Tower, the only real skyscraper in the city.
On the plus side, Phnom Penh has a fairly decent nightlife. It’s not quite the metropolis, so don’t expect anything too flashy, but the Riverside area has plenty of restaurants, bars, street-food stalls, a lively night market, and even a red-light district (I’m only mentioning the latter because it’s impossible to miss… so don’t book your hotel on the Riverside if that’s something you’d rather not see).
While it only truly comes alive at night, the Riverside is also fairly busy during the day. Travel agencies in the area can assist you with all your visa needs (including getting a visa for Vietnam, if that’s your next destination) and arrange some fun day trips (think quad biking, or taking a ferry down the Mekong). The aforementioned restaurants and bars run happy hours during the day, and their kitchens are open pretty much 24/7.
Khmer food doesn’t hold a candle to Thai food — sorry, it’s true — and I like Vietnamese food better, but that’s not to say food in Cambodia is tasteless. The local take on fried noodles can be quite delicious, for instance. Be an adventurous eater and try out the Khmer cuisine, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill, overpriced Western food that is easily found all over the Riverside (things like burgers, pizza and pasta).
Street food is the way to go, in my opinion. It’s cheap, tasty, and one of the joys of traveling to Asia. (Hopefully you won’t get diarrhea. Bring medicines just in case.)
How To Move Around
Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville are the only cities in Cambodia with international airports. You can fly in, out of, and between these three places by air — which is the best mode of transport available in the country.
If you plan on visiting any other location, you will likely take a bus. There are many bus companies to choose from; some offering a pretty good service (air-conditioned buses and whatnot), others not so much.
My favorite bus company is Capitol, which operates in all the major cities and many of the smaller towns. Their vehicles aren’t the best by any means, but their fares are significantly cheaper than the competition, and the staff is professional enough.
You should avoid Virak Buntham, quite possibly the worst bus company in Cambodia. I’ve heard horror stories of drivers robbing passengers in their sleep and beating people up with a steel pipe, among other things. Literally any other company is preferable.
A common problem with all bus drivers across the region is that they drive like crazy. Reckless driving, combined with poor roads, leads to a high number of horrific accidents every year, some of which are fatal for at least a few of the passengers.
I don’t know what are the statistical odds of dying in a bus accident in Asia— I’ve traveled by bus half a dozen times in Cambodia, and I’m still alive — but I’m informing you that it’s not a completely safe option, so keep that in mind.
If you take a bus to Thailand, Laos or Vietnam and your passport gets “confiscated” by the driver before the trip even starts — don’t panic. It’s standard procedure. The way it works in Cambodia is that at the border checkpoint the driver will hand over a whole bunch of passports to an immigration officer, and the latter will proceed to stamp all passports in one go. Unorthodox, yes… but it speeds up the process.
Passenger trains are (slowly) being reintroduced in Cambodia after a 14-year hiatus, but the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet. The only real alternative to buses is renting a car or motorbike and driving yourself. (Pack plenty of water, a first-aid kit if you can, and be careful on the road.)
To move around within a single city, the most convenient form of transport are tuk-tuks. These charming little vehicles (which are also popular in India, and to a lesser extent in Thailand and Indonesia) can be found all over Phnom Penh, and in every medium-sized to large town. You can flag down one, negotiate the fare with the driver (based on the distance), and off you go.
Tuk-tuks are normally $1–2 for locals, but most foreigners end up paying more than that. It’s common to get quoted $3–5, or essentially double what the fare should be. If you can’t speak any Khmer it’s unwise to complain: you can try to haggle them down a little (some drivers will shave off a dollar if you politely insist), but it’s easier to simply pay up, since it’s not a lot of money at the end of the day.
However, paying $3+ for a ride multiple times a day can quickly add up, so here’s a better way to go about it: download the Passapp application on your phone (it’s available on both Google Play and the Apple Store), which is essentially Uber for tuk-tuks. With Passapp you can summon a metered tuk-tuk directly at your location, and pay a fair rate without the need to haggle, since the final price is shown directly in the app.
(The Grab app — Uber’s main competitor in Southeast Asia — is also being rolled out in Cambodia as we speak, at a time when it has already become an integral part of everyday life in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.)
Metered tuk-tuks are a fairly recent introduction: they started popping up in Phnom Penh around 2017, and they are now spreading to the rest of the country. You can easily recognize them from their bright colors (yellow, red and white are the most common) and from their peculiar shape, which is very different from the classical tuk-tuks. If you flag down a metered tuk-tuk (even without using Passapp) most drivers will be happy to turn on the meter, upon request that is.
In case you are wondering, taxis aren’t widely available in Cambodia. There are scant few around, mostly limited to Phnom Penh, and not all of them are licensed. This is a bit surprising considering that taxis are everywhere in Thailand and Vietnam (or Indonesia and the Philippines, for that matter), but I guess this just goes to show that Cambodia is really lagging behind its neighbors. It’s another issue that will likely be solved in the near future.
In the end, the most cost-effective and hassle-free option is probably to rent a motorbike for the duration of your stay (unless you are traveling as a family). You can pay as little as $50 for a monthly rental in Phnom Penh, and you shouldn’t have any trouble with the police so long as you wear your helmet at all times (those who don’t tend to get stopped and asked for a small bribe, to be paid on the spot and without recourse).
You should resist the temptation to walk in Cambodia, unless it’s a short distance. Not only the heat will ensure that you are drenched in sweat after a few minutes, but Khmer people consider walking an “uncouth” and “low-class” thing to do. Tourists walking around (or riding a bicycle) are a source of amusement and bewilderment for the locals.
Foreigners spotted walking around Phnom Penh tend to get pestered by tuk-tuk drivers offering them a ride. (It’s more aggravating than you can possibly imagine.) They can’t fathom how a “rich” foreigner could possibly desire to move on foot, which leads to a lot of misunderstandings.
You will also discover that random Khmer men of all ages are in the habit of offering strangers a ride on their motorbike. It’s a common way for Khmer men to raise some extra cash, and sometimes it’s their only occupation, in a country where job opportunities are still limited and there’s no such thing as government welfare.
Cultural Dos and Don’ts
As you may have inferred, Cambodia is an old-fashioned place in more ways than one. So you probably won’t be shocked to hear me say that Khmer people place a lot of importance on dressing well and keeping up appearances (a trope throughout all of Asia, to be fair).
The average Khmer man is better dressed than the average male tourist, in spite of the huge difference in disposable income. Whereas many visitors are happy to stroll around in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, Khmer men typically wear long pants and button-up shirts, undeterred by the heat.
Similarly, Khmer women tend to dress modestly and not expose too much skin (although that’s already changing, and miniskirts are getting popular in Phnom Penh). Tattoos and piercings are a rare sight outside of the red-light areas.
No one will comment on your appearance no matter how you present yourself (not openly, at least!), but if you want to stand out from the other tourists you should try your best to imitate the local fashion. To make an impression on the Cambodians, dress conservatively and wear proper shoes (as opposed to sneakers). Trust me, it goes a long way.
Make sure your dollar bills are crisp and not tarnished: many shops and hotels won’t take them if they show even the slightest sign of damage. (No, I’m not joking.) As for Khmer riels, people are a lot less fussy about those, so they’ll accept a local banknote even if it’s crumpled (again, not an exaggeration).
Smoking is allowed nearly everywhere in Cambodia, notably in all bars and restaurants. It’s great if you are a smoker (I am one, so I relish in it), but it can be a veritable nightmare if you don’t smoke. Just be prepared for it.
Tipping is optional at all venues and it’s not a part of Khmer culture. However there is a bit of an expectation for foreigners to tip, since Khmer people have now gotten used to tourists tipping all the time. Do as you wish, and rest assured that it won’t be a problem either way.
The local word for “foreigner” is barang, a blanket term that encompasses all foreigners, but particularly those of Caucasian appearance. It’s the Khmer equivalent of the Thai word farang (or laowai in Vietnam and China, gaijin in Japan, bule in Indonesia and ang mo in Singapore). You’ll hear that word a lot, but it doesn’t have any intrinsic derogatory meaning.
Khmer and Thai are related languages, with some 30% of the vocabulary being either identical or similar. The main difference is that Thai is a tonal language, whereas Khmer is not, which makes the latter somewhat easier to learn. The two scripts are also very similar (though not identical), and as a foreigner you’d be forgiven for mixing them up.
The similarities with Thailand extend far beyond language. In both countries it’s a big no-no to touch people on the head (don’t do it!), since it’s considered the most sacred part of the body. And in both cultures it’s customary to greet people by pressing the palms together in a prayer-like fashion, a gesture called wai in Thailand and sampeah in Cambodia. Even Khmer boxing looks a lot like Muay Thai.
If you are confused by the sampeah and its usage, here is all you need to know (as a tourist): you should not perform the sampeah for someone younger than you, except in return for their own sampeah (in that case, it would be bad form not to reciprocate).
It’s a very formal gesture, so it’s typically reserved for the elderly and for people of higher social status. When in doubt, don’t do it — but always reciprocate one. (“Corporate” sampeahs, such as those performed by convenience store cashiers, are usually reciprocated with a smile or a nod.)
English proficiency is much higher in Cambodia compared to Thailand, and it’s especially high among service staff, so communication is rarely an issue. Older people may be able to speak some French — a legacy of colonialism — but the language has long since fallen out of fashion in Cambodia. Most schools don’t teach it anymore, greatly favoring English and Chinese.
There aren’t many taboo topics in Cambodia (fewer than in the West, in fact), but you are advised not to talk about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge: it’s a dark page of Cambodian history, one that the country is still recovering from, and it would be insensitive of you to suddenly bring it up (especially with older people, who actually lived through it).
As in nearly every country today, politics and immigration are sensitive issues in Cambodia. As a foreigner, it’s best for you not to bring up those subjects. (Just so you know: the current prime minister of Cambodia is for all intents and purposes a dictator; and Cambodia currently operates as a client state of China, as should be evident from the preponderance of Chinese investment into the country.)
Another topic to avoid is Vietnam (anything related to it). The two countries have a tense relationship, and you may notice that the Cambodians aren’t very fond of the Vietnamese, so to speak.
Lastly, be respectful with and around Buddhist monks and religious sites. Don’t do anything that could be perceived as offensive, including wearing skimpy clothes in a temple, or being loud. Women are not allowed to touch monks for any reason.
As with any developing country, there are a number of vaccinations that are highly recommended for travelers to Cambodia. Tdap is one of them (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), along with hepatitis A and B, meningitis, polio and typhoid. I personally wouldn’t visit Southeast Asia without getting all of them first (as I have).
Optional vaccinations might include Japanese encephalitis and cholera. Consult a travel doctor to make sure you get all/only the vaccinations that are right for you. I’m not a doctor, and there’s only so much I can say on this topic, so don’t rely on my advice: ask a professional.
Rabies is widespread in Southeast Asia, and in most of the world. Westerners often ignore that it’s a lethal disease. It’s commonly acquired through a bite from an infected dog, but any mammal can be a carrier — including but not limited to cats, monkeys and bats. Don’t get close to animals.
If you get bitten or scratched by a rabid animal, you have a very short window of 24 hours to receive the first dose of anti-rabies serum. Additional doses must be administered in the subsequent weeks, following a precise schedule. Failure to do any of the above will result in a very painful death — sometimes within days. (The mortality rate is virtually 100%.) Conversely, following the correct procedure results in a speedy recovery, without any complications.
The Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh (at 5 Monivong Boulevard, a.k.a. Street 93) is the go-to place for rabies-related emergencies. When it comes to rabies, I wouldn’t trust any other hospital or clinic in the country. Note that the Pasteur Institute is closed on weekends and major holidays, so don’t travel to the countryside around those dates (and be extra wary of any dogs you might come across).
If you need a general-purpose hospital, the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital (888 Russian Confederation Boulevard) has the best reputation in the country, being staffed with many physicians who have studied abroad. U-Care and Western are the two most reputable branches of pharmacies, and you can trust their products to be safe.
Mosquitoes pose a threat in Southeast Asia and throughout the developing world. They can infect you with malaria (in the rural areas) or dengue fever (more common in urban environments). Both are dangerous diseases, lethal in some cases, and there is no vaccine. (There is, however, a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, the third most common disease transmitted by mosquitoes in Asia.)
When it comes to mosquito bites, prevention is essential. Apply a repellent multiple times a day, on all exposed areas of your skin. You can buy one at any convenience store in Cambodia, and they are usually of good quality. Also, prior to the trip you should buy online some portable mosquito nets, to be placed around the bed or on the windows (depending on the model/shape).
Millions of tourists disregard these good practices and they still make it back in one piece — so there’s no need to be scared, let alone paranoid — but you know what they say: better safe than sorry. Take good care of your health.
On this note, it would be prudent of you to get international health insurance before traveling to Cambodia (or anywhere). If you were to need emergency surgery, chances are you would have to fly to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur for that (or better yet, Singapore). Hospitalization can be very expensive in Asia — hence the need for insurance.
Don’t drink tap water anywhere in the developing world (including China). It contains fecal matter and sometimes industrial waste, so it’s basically poison. Only drink bottled water, and don’t put any ice in your drinks.
If you’ve made it until the end of this article (and the last section didn’t put you off traveling abroad altogether), then you have what it takes to explore Cambodia.
It’s not the most accessible of destinations, nor the easiest to navigate, but it has a way of rewarding those who give it a chance. It’s definitely the kind of place that screams adventure, for better or worse.
My job here is done. And if you are left wondering why people go to the trouble of visiting Cambodia… watch the video below, which answers that question better than I ever could.
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