The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, and Thailand to the west of the country. The country has a turbulent and unstable history and still suffers from great poverty today. Overall security has improved immeasurably, and this allows ever-increasing numbers of visitors to safely visit and discover Cambodia's stunning temples and beaches. If you’re planning on visiting Cambodia, be sure to approach your travels with an open mind and an adventurous spirit - Cambodia is a place where things don’t always go according to plan, and the more you’re able to relax and go with the flow, the better your trip will be.
We spent a month visiting Cambodia for the first time in December 2019. We still only scratched the surface of Cambodia and flew into Sihanoukville and out of Siem Reap while visiting Kampot, Kep, Phnom Penh, and Battambang along the way. While the bustle of the big cities might be the country’s main attractions, our favourite spots in Cambodia are the smaller towns and villages. From the jungles to the beaches, this country is full of amazing sights just waiting to be explored.
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CAMBODIA QUICK FACTS
Currency: Cambodian Riel (KHR). Although the Riel is the official currency, the US Dollar is most widely used and is what most ATMs dispense. Despite prices often being indicated in USD in most of the country, expect to likely receive Riel as change during transactions. The conversion rate is pegged to 4000 KHR to 1 USD.
Electricity: 230V AC electricity. Power outlets are both flat and small round two-prong sockets (type A and type C) as well as flat three-pronged (type G). Be sure to carry a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices. If you are from a country with 110V as a standard be aware that you will need a voltage converter.
Visa: Traveling to Cambodia is easy; Cambodia grants a paid e-Visa entry to passport holders of most countries valid for a single stay of up to 30 days. Be sure to check online for the latest visa requirements and be VERY CAREFUL when applying for the online e-Visa as there are NUMEROUS fraudulent websites out there! At best, these are just online travel agencies that charge you more to obtain the same visa for you; at worst, you may end up with a fake e-Visa or nothing at all. You can also obtain your visa upon arrival at most ports of entry. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your entry and that you have an available completely blank page in your passport. You will also need to bring a passport-sized photo with you. Also, note that you may need to hold a valid ticket for either a return journey to your country of origin or your next country of destination. For those planning on extending their visa once in Cambodia, make sure to apply for the correct visa from the start as the Ordinary Visa can only be extended once for a total maximum stay of 60 days and this is not the simplest process. The latest entry requirements and e-Visa application process are available here. https://www.evisa.gov.kh/
Safety: Cambodia is a safe and friendly country with the usual exception of large cities, particularly Phnom Penh, late at night. Petty crime such as pickpocketing and bag snatching (even from scooters) is a common issue, especially in public crowded places like bus and train stations, so keep your belongings close. One thing to be very aware of if you are renting a motorcycle is to rather purchase and use your own lock for securing it as it is fairly common for rental companies to use their copy of the key to steal bikes and leave the traveller paying the exceptionally high value estimation. Once again, this is most prevalent in Phnom Penh. In general, the violent crime rate is amazingly low, especially toward foreign visitors. Depending on where you will be travelling, consider the necessary precautions against malaria and dengue fever, in particular by using a trusted DEET mosquito repellent to avoid mosquito bites.
Avoid wandering off in rural areas such as forests and rice paddies without a guide. While not common, it is possible to stumble upon unexploded mines. In most of the places you’ll be visiting, this won’t be an issue, but just take heed from the locals and don’t go wandering off in the jungle alone. Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
Language: The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which is not a tonal language. There is no universal system of Latinized transcription for Khmer characters, so don't be surprised if you see three different spellings for the same word. Most Cambodian youths study English in school and maybe eager to practice their few English phrases with any foreigner they see, though few outside of major cities can actually use the language to communicate.
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CAMBODIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
7 January, Victory over the Genocidal Regime Day
8 March, International Women’s Day
13-15/14-16 April, Cambodian New Year
1 May, Labor Day
14-15 May, King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday
1 June, International and Cambodian Children’s Day
18 June, Former Queen Norodom Monineath’s Birthday
24 September, Constitution Day (Recoronation of King Norodom Sihanouk)
15 October, Homage to the Late King Father (King Norodom Sihanouk)
23 October, Commemoration of the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991
29 October, King Norodom Sihamoni’s Coronation Day
9 November, Independence Day
10 December, International Human Rights Day
Also, Meaka Bochea Day, Visakh Bochea Day, Royal Ploughing Day Ceremony, Bonn Phchum Ben Day (Ancestors Day), and Bonn Om Touk (Water Festival).
FESTIVALS IN CAMBODIA
Festivals in Cambodia are strongly linked to Theravada Buddhist rituals. Cambodia holidays and festivals are based on the Khmer lunar calendar and are a celebration of Cambodian culture, values and traditions. People from all over Cambodia will often flock to the capital to take part in festive celebrations and enjoy the accompanying fireworks displays. With more than two dozen public holidays every year, there is definitely no shortage of festivities in Cambodia!
- Cambodian Independence Day - Celebrated on 9th November each year, this day marks Cambodia’s independence from 90 years of French rule. On this national holiday, celebrations take place at the Independence Monument in the capital city, Phnom Penh, with the ruling king of Cambodia presiding over the event.
- Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei (Khmer New Year) - Celebrated around mid-April, this is one of the biggest festivals in Cambodia. This is a three-day-long holiday during which Cambodians traditionally stop working and return to their hometowns or villages to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Cities pretty much come to a standstill for a week over this time and even farmers take some leisurely time off. You will find that the Khmer community celebrates by uniting with their family members, performing purification ceremonies, visiting temples and playing traditional games.
- Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water & Moon Festival) - The Cambodian Water and Moon Festival mark when the water in the Tonle Sap changes flow direction. Colourful boats race down the river and millions of Cambodians descend on Phnom Penh to watch these festivities. There are also festivities in Siem Reap, but not to as large an extent. It corresponds to the lunar mid-autumn festival, so dates vary slightly each year, usually sometime in November.
- Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day) - Usually celebrated at the end of the Buddhist lent, Vassa, this - the most important of Cambodia's religious festivals - generally runs across a 15-day period from September through October, culminating in celebrations on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar. Ancestor’s Day is also known as the “Festival Of The Dead” or the “Hungry Ghosts Festival” and is the time when Cambodians pay respect to their ancestors. It is believed that on the first day of this festival, the gates of hell are opened and all ghosts are let out, some being ancestors. The celebration involves many food offerings in pagodas with the expectation that the merits earned by offering food to the monks will reduce the sins of the ancestors and thus free them.
- Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal (Royal Ploughing Ceremony) - The Royal Ploughing Ceremony or Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal is held in May, to mark the start of the rice-growing season, A representative of the King of Cambodia starts the ceremony by ploughing a ceremonial row with the royal and sacred oxen which marks the start of a good harvest season. The oxen are then presented with plates of food, most of which represent the crops of Cambodia. The Royal Palace's soothsayer makes predictions for the year ahead based on which foods the oxen eat after the ploughing ceremony.
- Magha Puja Day or Meak Bochea - Celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month (around mid-February), monks all over Cambodia celebrate when Lord Buddha delivered his sermon to the 1250 monks who had gathered at Rajagaha Valuwan Vihara, which is the place where Lord Buddha had retreated. This marks the beginning of all the religious festivals in Cambodia. The Theravada Buddhists gather in a procession in Dhammakaya, which is a temple in Khlong Luang, and meditate & pray in the morning followed by circling the central altar twice with incense sticks, candles and flowers under the full moon night sky.
- Vesak Bochea (Buddha Day) - This day celebrates three major events in the life of Buddha which are: Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and his passing into nirvana. On this day, Buddhists in Cambodia pray to Lord Buddha and donate food and clothes to the local monks in the area. This is predominantly celebrated in the areas where there is a strong following of Buddhism. Buddha Day is celebrated on the night of the full moon in the sixth month of the Khmer lunar calendar.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CAMBODIA
Cambodia is hot and sticky throughout the year, with the peak visitor season from November to April, when the weather is fairly dry and temperatures are at their coolest (25-30°C). This means that the temples are packed, especially around the end of year holidays and accommodation prices are also at their highest. March to May are the hottest months, with temperatures easily reaching 40°C. The rainy season is from May to October when some roads leading to the temples can turn into muddy messes. The advantage of braving the wet season is that the temples are at their quietest, and it's still often possible to do a half-day of sightseeing before the afternoon rains start.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
HIKING & CYCLING IN CAMBODIA
Cambodia receives a lot of rain from June to October. The best time for outdoor activities is from December to March when it is driest and the temperatures are mildest. March to May can become very hot with the odd rain showers.
BEACH OPTIONS IN CAMBODIA
Cambodia's beaches are best visited from October to May, with April and May being particularly hot and October and May still having a few rain downpours. The beach scene in Cambodia is changing rapidly, so do a little homework before deciding on which beach to head to.
SURFING IN CAMBODIA
For the best surf in Cambodia, head to Koh Russey from June to October to get the best waves from the monsoon swells. Just note that this is also the rainy season!
KITESURF IN CAMBODIA
You can find suitable wind for kitesurfing close to Kampot from May to December, but you'll need to have your own equipment and know what you're doing!
For more details on kite surfing in Cambodia expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN CAMBODIA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
CAMBODIA TRAVEL COSTS
Travel in Cambodia is pretty affordable which explains why it is a popular destination along most backpackers' routes through Southeast Asia. If you’re happy sleeping in a hostel and eating street food, you can easily get by on as little as $15-25 a day. If you want to stay in slightly nicer accommodation (simple double en-suite style) but are happy to eat local food, up your budget to $35-50 per day and if you prefer to splurge on fancy digs or a few gourmet meals, you might want to up your budget to $100.
Note that ATM withdrawals are generally limited to 1000 USD. Try to get smaller notes if possible as 100 and 50 USD bills may be difficult to use in general as most smaller shops will not have change.
CAMBODIA TRAVEL TIPS
Getting around Cambodia is simplest done by bus. Three are fairly good quality roads linking most major cities, although the traffic and general lawlessness on the roads can be horrendous. You can also find a few internal flight options which may be safer but will take equally as long at a far greater cost. Skyscanner.com or Kiwi.com are handy tools for finding great flight deals.
You will need to take a boat to reach the southern islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. There are only limited rail routes remaining and the famous Bamboo Train near Battambang is now for tourist purposes only. Bus accidents are common and often fatal, so be sure to rather spend a little more for a bus ticket from a more reputable agency.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF CAMBODIA
Most people visiting Cambodia are there to see some of the many temples and beaches that Cambodia has to offer. Out of respect, both men and women should make sure to cover their shoulders and knees when entering temples.
Visit Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap
Angkor Archaeological Park, just 6km south of Siem Reap, is so much more than just the famous Angkor Wat. The most famous temples are indeed Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world) and the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. The temple and surrounding complex engulfs over 400 sq km and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Angkor was once the heart of the Khmer civilization, and the temple is now perhaps the best remaining representation of Khmer art and culture. Whether you’re interested in history and archaeology, or just like taking in the incredible views at sunrise, Angkor Wat is a must-see. There's also much more to Siem Reap than just temples, so don't fear the inevitable temple burn-out!
Watch our VIDEOS on visiting Angkor Wat:
Angkor Wat Temple, Srah Srang Baray, Banteay Kdei Temple, Ta Prohm Temple, Ta Keo Temple, Bayon Temple, Baphuon Temple, Phnom Bakheng Temple, Pub Street, Siem Reap.
Preah Khan Temple, Banteay Prei Temple, Neak Poan Temple, Ta Som Temple, Eastern Mebon Temple, Pre Rup Temple.
As independent travellers, we usually prefer to go at activities ourselves and although you can most definitely just wander around on your own at Angkor Wat, it definitely makes a difference when you have a guide giving you some relevant background information about each temple - which is why in this case we strongly recommend going on a day tour.
- Angkor Wat Sunrise Day Tour With a small group tour (max 10 people) this tour will take you to experience the legendary Angkor Wat sunrise as well as taking you around the other famous temples like Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom City, and Bayon Temple.
- Full-day Angkor Wat Private Tour Perfect if you prefer to explore on your own, this private tour will give you the freedom to sightsee and explore at your own pace. The guide will be there to explain historical temples and to take you to the best spots around the Park. Being a sunrise tour, this offers a great chance of seeing the park "come to life" as visitors flood in.
- Angkor Temples Siem Reap Bike Tour For something a bit more active, opt for a bike tour around the Park. As you are travelling by bike, your guide will be able to take you through some lesser-known temples which make the entire experience super memorable.
- Angkor Wat Two Day Private Tour Two days of exploring the Park is an absolute minimum as you can see and everything without ever feeling too rushed.
Explore The Capital of Phnom Penh
The capital city of Cambodia is a busy city where, amongst other city attractions, you can visit the Royal Palace, National Museum, and Toul Sleng Museum. While a visit to the historical parts of Phnom Penh like the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields will probably be a harsh reality check and can be painful and depressing, they are absolute musts in your visit to this country. Understanding the history of the country will give you a new sense of comprehension of the true resilience and kindness of the Cambodian people.
As with Angkor Wat, you can visit the sites by yourself but by joining a tour you will better understand the scale of what the Cambodian people went through and the extent of their suffering.
- Phnom Penh’s Past Small Group Tour This tour includes an English speaking guide that will take you to all the highlights including Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and Choeung Ek Killing Field.
- S21 and Killing Fields Private Tour Getting a private tour allows you to take your time through the sights - recommended if you prefer travelling at your own pace. As with the "Small Group Tour" just above, you'll also have an English-speaking guide on the Private Tour.
- Relax in Kampot - Kampot is a charming place where you can relax and enjoy the peacefulness of The Kampot River. Kampot is also home to the beautiful and scenic Preah Monivong Bokor National Park which is well worth visiting. Kampot has become increasingly popular with tourists and ex-pats in recent years and it has plenty of restaurants, quaint shops, and riverboat cruises to keep you entertained. It's a great place for a breather during your travels, with time and space to relax.
- Kep - The original beachside town of Kep is slowly gaining popularity once again as fewer people are attracted to the mass development of Sihanoukville. In addition to beautiful white sand beaches, Kep is also home to Kep National Park.
- Battambang - While Battambang has become famous for Norry, the Bamboo Train, there is so much more to see in this area. A great way to start is by doing a walking or cycling tour of the city. There are also numerous temples to explore such as Baset Temple, Wat Ek Phnom, Prasat Banan, and Prasat Snung. Located between two mountains, you will find Kamping Puoy lake which is famous for its giant lotus flowers whose fiber is spun and weaved to make a new organic fabric. We also really enjoyed attending the Battambang Circus (Phare Ponleu Selpak) for a fun and affordable night of entertainment!
- Koh Kong - In addition to white sand beaches for relaxing, Koh Kong also claims to have Southeast Asia’s largest mangrove forest. Or you can explore the Cardamom mountains with jungle trekking and waterfalls.
- Visit The Islands Of Cambodia - Currently, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloeum are the only two islands accessible to the public and with any form of development. Koh Rong is the larger of the two islands and is easier to reach from Sihanoukville. It does, however, have a fast-growing backpacker presence and is developing to this ever-growing tourist market. Koh Rong Samloeum is the smaller of the two islands, is just as beautiful, and is currently favoured as the quieter and less developed island getaway.
Join a Tour of Cambodia - If you prefer travelling with a group tour, we highly recommend G Adventures. With many years of running tours around Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia, they're known to be reputable and reliable. We particularly love this Ultimate Cambodian Adventure as it covers all the highlights. G Adventures has loads of different tour types that cater to all travellers such as well as wellness tours, tours for 18-30-year-olds, and even tours that take you all over Southeast Asia, allowing you to explore a little bit of everything on one trip.
If you prefer travelling in a group and making new friends, check out their website for details of the variety of tours that G Adventures offer, using the filters in the side-bar to match your travel style and -dates to an available option.
WHAT TO PACK FOR CAMBODIA
The acceptable dress code is fairly conservative in Cambodia for both men and women. Women are expected to at a minimum have their knees and shoulders covered, although you will find most locals covered from head to toe to fingertip (mainly to reduce sun exposure). It is generally acceptable for men to wear shorts, although knees will also need to be covered when entering temples. Western beach attire is only acceptable on the beaches of some tourist locations and should not be worn when leaving the beach.
One thing to remember when packing for Cambodia is that it is going to be hot, humid, and possibly wet. Bring lightweight, comfortable walking shoes, breathable clothes, and pack a lightweight rain jacket or poncho, especially if you’re travelling in the rainy season! Do not forget to pack your mosquito repellent! The humidity of Cambodia brings with it many mosquitoes! While most of Cambodia is considered low malaria risk, there are higher risk areas (towards the Northeast), so check this and take the necessary precautions before you go. A lightweight jacket or sweater is always a good idea, especially as the freezing cold air-conditioned busses feel like a refrigeration chamber compared to the heat outside!
Major cities like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap will have any amenity you could need, so don’t worry if you forget to pack something; you’ll likely be able to find it there.
WHAT TO EAT IN CAMBODIA
While Cambodian food might not be as well known as neighbouring Thailand’s, it’s a unique cuisine full of vibrant flavours and spices and is a must-try when you’re in the country. We'll briefly describe some of the most popular and common Cambodian dishes below.
- Bai Sach Chrouk (pork and rice) - This is one of the simpler dishes and should satisfy even the pickiest eaters out there. Sweet pork is grilled, often marinated first in coconut or garlic, and served over warm rice with a side of pickled cucumbers and radishes and broth. This is a common breakfast item in Cambodia, and you’ll find it on most street stalls throughout the country.
- Bai Sach Chrouk (pork and rice) - A common breakfast item found in the street stalls of Cambodia, this is one of the simpler dishes that should satisfy even the pickiest eater. Often first marinated with coconut or garlic, sweet pork is grilled and served over warm rice, accompanied with broth, pickled cucumbers and radishes.
- Fish Amok - While the idea of a “fish mousse” might sound repulsive, this curry dish offers a warm and buttery melt-in-your-mouth taste that perfectly balances local herbs like lemongrass and ginger with just the right amount of spice. This is one of the most popular dishes in Cambodia.
- Lap Khmer (lime-marinated beef salad) - The thin slices of beef, marinated in lime juice and spaces, that make up Lap Khmer often reminds of ceviche. Sometimes the beef is lightly seared first. Packed with fresh chillies, this is definitely not a dish for those with sensitive palates!
- Nom Banh Chok (Khmer noodles) - Noodle soup tends to be most popular for breakfast in Cambodia, contrary to the expectation that it's more suited to lunch or dinner. You can find it at street stalls or from vendors wandering the streets in the early mornings. Rice noodles are combined with a fresh green curry sauce and topped with bean sprouts and other vegetables.
- Khmer Red Curry - Similar to, but less spicy than Thailand's famed red curries, Khmer Red Curry has a creamy coconut milk base blended with chunks of beef, pork, or chicken and a mix of local herbs and spices. Most often served with bread, you can also it served with rice.
LGBTQ IN CAMBODIA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons in Cambodia face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Same-sex sexual activity is legal in Cambodia. Currently, Cambodia does not recognise same-sex marriage or civil unions but does recognise a limited form of "declaration of family relationship" as of May 2018, which is available in 50 communes out of 1 646. Cambodia's Constitution currently bans same-sex marriage by defining marriage as a union between "one husband and one wife" in line with Khmer values and traditions.
On 30 January 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) recommended Cambodia to legalise same-sex marriage and on 5 July 2019, the Cambodian Government accepted these recommendations.
Although Cambodia is considered tolerant toward the LGBT community, there are widespread reports that discrimination is still present. There are annual Gay Pride Parades in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
WHERE TO STAY IN CAMBODIA
From $5 hostels to $100 hotels, Cambodia has a huge variety of accommodation options. Competition can be fierce and spending a few extra dollars can get you significantly nicer accommodation. While you can find some luxurious stays in the main cities, venturing off into the countryside, you will have to accept very basic accommodation.
We recommend booking accommodation in advance, especially when travelling during peak season or holidays, and checking sites like Booking.com or Agoda. Also, consider using Airbnb as an alternative. Often just as cheap, and the added bonus is you may get the whole place to yourself.
Airbnb Travel Tip: Airbnb is recommended for an apartment- or villa-style accommodation. Check out our full article on how to get $65 coupon code for your booking or simply click here to get our coupon code to apply on your next booking.