When most people hear about Cambodia, their first thought is Angkor Wat. It’s a name somewhat synonymous with Cambodia, and it’s the main draw for nearly every visitor—for good reason. Like the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt or Machu Picchu in Peru, this massive temple complex is one of the most unique and memorable archaeological and historical sites in the world.
Don’t forget, though, there’s so much more under the umbrella of “Cambodia travel.” From its beaches and islands in the south to its national parks and other historical sites in the north to its modernizing capital of Phnom Penh, there’s much to see and to experience in this vibrant and quickly evolving country.
While the struggles of living through the Khmer Rouge rule and the impacts of the Vietnam War are still fresh on many people’s minds, the country has taken a turn for the better in the last 25 years. Much of this is due to the dramatic rise in tourism to the country and its boost to the overall economy. Put this beautiful country at the top of your travel list, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised at all this beautiful country and culture have to offer.
Cambodia has a rich history, as any visitor to the incredible temples of Angkor Wat can attest. In the first to sixth centuries AD, Cambodia was part of a state referred to as Funan, and it was greatly influenced by elements of Indian culture. Its language, Khmer, evolved during this time, incorporating elements of Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism and Buddhism.
The rise of King Jayavarman II in 802 marked the transition to the Khmer rule, which controlled the country for the next 600 years. During this time, the Khmer empire dominated much of present-day Southeast Asia, from Laos and Vietnam to Myanmar and Thailand, and it built the world-famous temples of Angkor.
As part of French efforts to colonize the entire region, France designated Cambodia a protectorate in 1863, and it was under French rule until the middle of the next century. In 1953, King Sihanouk was able to garner international support and to successfully negotiate Cambodia’s independence from France. (The French were already embroiled in a war in Vietnam and were not eager to begin hostilities on a second front.)
The 1950s and 60s brought better times for the country, but the destruction and strife of the American War in Vietnam soon meant a dramatic turn for the worse. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped an estimated 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, all of which took a staggering death toll. The bombing was an extension of the war in Vietnam, and it was done in support of Khmer Republic military forces who were fighting the communist Khmer Rouge. The communist regime was led by the brutal and fanatical Pol Pot, an ally of North Vietnam who was responsible for killing millions of his own citizens.
Following the end of the war, Pol Pot and his infamous regime ruled the country and were ultimately responsible for killing millions of innocent people in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge rule officially ended in 1979, but it wasn’t until democratic elections in 1993 (supervised and overseen by the UN) that the country entered a new era of development and peace, which has largely continued to this day.
Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. Its troubled history in the latter half of the 20th century has had a profound impact on the people—even decades after the official end of the Khmer Rouge rule. At the same time, tourism is one of its primary industries, and people are realizing there’s great appeal to visiting its historical sites and natural wonders. It’s still a very poor country, with most of the citizens subsisting on the equivalent of less than a US dollar a day. Despite its past struggles, however, many visitors find the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
Cambodian artisans are known for silk and cotton weaving, silver work, silver and gold jewelry, and basketry. Handmade pottery can sometimes be found from oxcarts that travel from city to city. There is a long tradition of writing, including important religious texts, royal chronicles and epic poetry, but modern literature is undeveloped due to the crackdown on nearly all artists and creative expression during the dictatorship. On the other hand, oral traditions have remained strong as storytelling and narrative singing play important cultural roles. These days, Cambodia enjoys a thriving scene aided by the reopening of the Phare Ponleu Selpak arts center, followed by refugees’ return to their country, and the birth of a new generation of daring, determined artists.
The large majority of the population is Theravada Buddhist, and this has a clear influence on the customs, etiquette and traditions of the people. Generally, the greater a person’s age, the more respect should be granted to him or her. In fact, Cambodians are usually addressed with titles before their names that correspond to their seniority. Visitors might find that Cambodians ask personal questions when they first meet you. This is simply to establish rank and to understand the best way to communicate with you. Like in most of Southeast Asia, avoid touching anyone on the head as that area of the body is considered sacred.
Good to Know
When traveling in Cambodia, keep some of the following in mind:
Both the local currency, the Cambodian riel (KHR), and the US dollar (bills only, not coins) are used throughout the country. The riel is used primarily for small cash transactions. Be careful with torn or old currency (both USD and riel) as they’ll likely not be accepted. ATMs (usually dispensing USD) are plentiful in the large cities and tourist areas, and they’re even popping up in smaller towns as well.
Tap water in Phnom Penh has improved to where some insist it’s safe to drink, but it’s recommended that, throughout the country, travelers stick to bottled and filtered water. Ice is usually safe to consume as it’s manufactured in places that only use filtered, clean water.
While it's not required or expected, leaving a tip of about 10% for good service at a sit-down restaurant or for hotel staff is a nice gesture, especially since most of these workers earn very little in their general pay.
While the more heavily touristy places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are well adjusted to tourist behavior, locals in less-traveled places, such as Stung Treng or Banlung, are less so. Always ask permission before you take somebody’s picture. Many people in the more remote areas don’t like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment. Dress is more conservative in Cambodia than in its neighboring countries. While shorts are tolerated in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it’s recommended that both men and women wear knee-length pants in other areas. This is particularly necessary when visiting temples. It’s important to be sensitive when talking to locals about political issues, particularly the Khmer Rouge. This is still a touchy topic and one about which many Cambodians still carry trauma.
The standard voltage is 230V, and the frequency is 50Hz—both of which are different from North America. Travelers should ensure their devices work at this voltage or bring a voltage converter with them. Power sockets can be the American type (A) but can also be C (European) or G (British). It’s best to travel with an adapter able to handle any type of outlet.
Public toilets are rare and will come with a minor charge for use. (They’re free at Angkor on presentation of a temple pass.) Most local restaurants have some sort of toilet. If there’s a wastepaper basket next to the toilet, that’s where the toilet paper goes as many Cambodian sewage systems cannot handle toilet paper. It’s a good idea to keep a stash of toilet paper with you at all times since it’s rarely provided in public settings.
When to Visit
The ideal time to visit is the dry season, which is during December to February. During this time, the heavy rains have stopped, and temperatures have cooled to their most comfortable state. This is also the busiest time of year so it’s best to plan well in advance as things can book up fast! The shoulder seasons (April and October to November) can also be good times to visit. The weather is hotter and wetter than winter, but there are less crowds. Traveling in May to September is less recommended since the weather is very hot, and the rains are heavy.
Full Article Coming Soon!
- Angkor Wat is considered the world’s largest religious building.
- Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world that has never had a McDonald’s.
- The country boasts a very unique and extraordinary animal: the river dolphin called the Irrawaddy dolphin, which today can only be seen in a short stretch of the Mekong River.
- Cambodia is home to Tonle Sap: the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
Temples of Angkor: This temple complex, spread across miles of natural scenery, was the home of the Khmer empire and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also one of the world’s most significant archaeological sites. Nearly all visitors come to Cambodia to spend time exploring this historic and beautiful place.
Siem Reap: While this is undoubtedly the gateway to the temples of Angkor, there’s plenty to do within the city and the nearby area as well. It’s the most developed place in Cambodia for tourism, boasting countless accommodation and dining options. There’s truly something for every type of traveler here.
Phnom Penh: The capital city, Phnom Penh has a tourist-friendly infrastructure, a pleasant riverside area and a number of Cambodian Buddhist wats (temples).
Southern Islands: Cambodia’s southern islands are the tropical Shangri-la many travelers seek. Free of the mega-resorts seen across southern Thailand, many of the islands have been tagged for major development by well-connected foreign investors. For now, though, they’re limited to rustic bungalow resorts.
Sihanoukville: In a land with thousands of years of history, Sihanoukville is a colorful upstart and seaside town featuring Cambodia‘s best-known beaches.
Worth a Visit
Tonle Sap Lake
This huge lake boasts floating villages and Southeast Asia’s premier bird sanctuary.
The majority of visitors come here to spend time enjoying the river and the local countryside, although there’s a sizable town set back from the river as well.
As Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest, the Cardamom Mountains are also home to a swathe of rare and endangered flora and fauna that make any visit here special.
Kep National Park
Known for its crab (very tasty!) and the terrific hiking opportunities.
Things to See and Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Cambodia
There are two international airports: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The latter is closest to Angkor Wat and many of the tourist sites. Both airports have connections to many Asian cities, including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and many places in mainland China.
Any visitor from North America or Europe needs a visa to enter. Tourist visas are available upon arrival at the airport or at any of the land crossings. Visas are valid for 30 days but can be extended for an additional 30 days at an extra cost. It’s possible to obtain a visa for longer than two months, and this can be done at travel agencies in Phnom Penh or at a Cambodian embassy or consulate. It’s also possible to obtain an e-Visa online, but this must be completed ahead of time through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website.
Getting Around - Transportation
Infrastructure is still a work in progress in Cambodia. After decades of civil unrest and instability, roads have undergone great change in the last decade. This is largely due to an influx of funding from the recent increase in tourism. That said, car and bus travel can be challenging and lacking in comforts. Many bus options are available for travel between tourist sites. Flying is a good option when visiting Siem Reap as there are many direct flights there from other Asian cities.
Cambodians speak Khmer, which differs greatly from Thai, Vietnamese and other neighboring languages in that it’s not tonal. This makes it easier to speak. Nevertheless, the lack of a consistent Romanized transcription means you might often see slightly different English spellings for the same words. Public signs in large cities and tourist areas are usually written in both Khmer and English.
Locals greatly appreciate any attempt made in Khmer, so don’t hesitate to learn and to practice a few phrases! Here are some basic words and phrases to get you started:
- Hello: Jum-reap soo-a
- Good morning/afternoon/evening/night: Arun/tiveah/sayoanh/reah-trey sour sdei
- Please: Suom mehta
- Thank you: Or-koon
- Sorry/Excuse me: Sohm dtoh
- Where is the restroom?: Bang-kon noun aina?
- Good-bye: Joom-reap leah
Food and Drink
Although Cambodian cuisine isn’t as well known as the food of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, it’s tasty, healthy and abounding with delicacies. No Cambodian travel guide would be complete without mentioning rice. Rice is a staple that’s served at all times of the day as an accompaniment or part of the main dish, and it’s said there are over 2,000 types of rice indigenous to Cambodia! Freshwater fish is also very common and can be prepared in soups, curries and other forms. Travelers used to Thai cuisine will find some commonalities with Cambodian dishes, although Cambodian fare tends to be less spicy and strongly flavored. Because Cambodia was colonized by France, many influences of French cuisine are present, such as the baguette, which is ubiquitous throughout the country.
Cambodians often eat their meals with at least three or four side dishes. A meal will usually include a soup served alongside the main courses. Each individual dish will be sweet, sour, salty or bitter in taste. Chilies (fresh, pickled or dried) and chili sauce are typically served on the side, and individual diners are left to add as much or as little as desired. In this way, Cambodians ensure they get a bit of every flavor to satisfy their palates. Don’t forget to try the widely available abundance of fruits. (Durian and mangosteen are a couple of favorites.)
Food in Cambodia: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
With the usual exception of large cities late at night, particularly Phnom Penh, Cambodia is generally a safe and friendly country. Petty theft (e.g., purse, bag and phone snatching), especially from those on motorcycles, is common in Phnom Penh. Be discreet with your possessions, especially electronics, and as always, take extra care in all poorly lit or more remote areas. In Siem Reap, a general rule is that it’s not safe for younger female travelers to be out alone after 8:00 p.m. in certain areas. It’s best to use tuk-tuk or taxi drivers who are reputable and well known to the place you’re staying.
The police are not the most useful as they’re usually conspicuously absent from tourist areas and anywhere else on the street after nightfall. Police assistance can, in many cases, require some “facilitation” money, especially to initiate investigations. That said, to reach the Tourist Police by phone you can try the following numbers: 012 942 484 in Phnom Penh, or 012 402 424 in Siem Reap.
All this being said, the violent crime rate is very low—especially toward foreign visitors, whose harm carries the perceived threat of foreign government involvement. Tourists who use common sense have little to fear.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Cambodia adventure!