Cambodia’s charm lies in the fact that it is close to what we imagine South East Asia to be: beautiful, largely undisturbed environment of rice paddy fields, water buffaloes, and little contact with the rest of the world. For those who are lucky enough to visit, Cambodia is regarded as a safe and easy country with high prospects for repeated travel. It enjoys a slow pace of life, and its transportation system is best described as out-dated.
Despite its allure, Cambodia can also be seen as a dangerous and terrifying destination, with ample unexploded ordinances. Traditionally tourists came either for the beach or the mysterious Angkor temple, but increasingly more are coming for dentistry, mixing pleasure with economic benefits of medical tourism. The Kingdom of Cambodia lies in Indochina, besides Thailand, Vietnamand Laos, on the backpacker route.
Today, despite being one of the poorest countries in Asia, it is also one of the fastest-growing economies. Tourism clearly is playing a vital role in boosting economic growth. At the same time, it has contributed to greater spread of unevenness. Worse still is a lack of training, appreciation of local history and infrastructure, all of which gravely hinders development. Until these domains are attended to, tourism will continue along in a largely unsustainable fashion.
Cambodia is a beautiful country where agriculture remains a mainstay. 75 percent of the nation grows rice, corn or vegetables. Not far from the city centres is the countryside and wooden farm houses. Farmers are tilling the fields and working the land as their forefathers did for eons, a kind of sight that is becoming harder to find in Thailand or Vietnam.
Because of its people
Despite the atrocities, most people you meet in Cambodia are resilient and smiling. They are naturally happy, loving people. Over 90% practice Buddhism. For those who loves taking photos, it is a great place to capture infectious smiles. A majority of Cambodians are friendly and they will not try to take advantage of you.
Because of its history
Cambodia has one of the most painful yet richest histories in Asia. From a "no-go" zone of yesteryear to an interesting, hot (or haunted) destination of tomorrow, Cambodia has it all. Angkor Wat located outside Siem Reap takes you back to the time of the Khmer empire. The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh has a much darker history. Learning about the past will not only make us more responsible, but also sensitive to others as well.
Because you deserve to relax
Talk about getting away from it all, Cambodia is a great place to chill. It is a place to go to relax. Little towns are slow and thus suitable for those who want to live a retirement-like life and forget about the rest of the world.
Because it is cheap
It is time to quit complaining that travel is for people born with silver spoons in their mouths. In Cambodia, cross-country buses cost less than US$10, street food is US$1–3 a meal, dorms from US$ 3-5/head and beer at US$0.75! It is still a cheap destination, ideal for backpackers on a shoestring budget.
Grandest wonder of ancient South East Asia If it is the pyramids in Egypt, the Pantheon in Greece, then it’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia—Southeast Asia’s premier UNESCO World Heritage site. This awe-inspiring temple is the most magnificent archaeological treasure is considered the first metropolis and most extensive urban complex in the pre-industrial world. Stunning for both its grand scale and incredible detail. Apsara dancers are captured in various gestures, etched into sandstone. One question that baffles every visitor is what did it take for the Khmer rulers to materialize their vision?
Tourists can look for the Tomb Raider (2000 film) temple and ponder in awe as they explore this archaeological park (400km2, comprising 12 villages). Built as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, it later became a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century, Angkor represents different Khmer regimes from the 9-15th centuries.
Tourism took off after Angkor Watt was uncovered. Cambodians themselves also flocked to the ancient wonder to celebrate its glorious past and seek blessings. At this religious site, tourists are allowed to take photos, but should dress respectfully and keep voices to a low. Temple guards will ensure that knees, shoulders and tops are covered upon entry.
A three day pass will be a minimum, but that does not mean you can see it all in 3-days. English speaking guides are available on site upon request. To avoid the tour bus crowds, plan the routing in reverse walking order.
Other Ancient temples not-to-be-missed:
Prasat Preah Vihear
Sambor Prei Kuk
A prison of no escape
On 17 April 1975, Cambodia began Year Zero, a reign of terror that was more destructive than anything the world had ever seen. All forms of capitalism were destroyed, towns depopulated, and infrastructure dismantled. The educated were executed, those under 6 or harmless “blank slates” were left. It was a dawn of a new era, the horror of Pol Pot that people still refuse to talk about today.
On a dusty road in the outskirts, stood a high school. More than 14,500 prisoners came, only 7 survived. The few that did possessed unique skills, such as painting or sculpturing useful for propagating the Pol Pot regime. Known as “S-21”, it largely remains untouched since the end of the Cambodian Civil War. Under the Khmer Rouge, a former school was transformed into the largest detention and torture center in the country, death row’s first stop. Prisoners were later brought to their final destination—the Choeung Ek killing fields.
Actually the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is neither a real museum nor cemeteries, or prison or place of worship, it is all of these and more. A locale of horror beyond horror, just as daunting as the killing fields itself. It can be hard to reconcile the ordinariness of the place, a school with four buildings, and the atrocities that went on there. But this is a “must see” for those wishing to comprehend the ruthless crimes of Pol Pot.
Visitors will confront thousands of mugshots—ordinary Cambodia men, women and children–staring straight at you, innocent and helpless. Like the Nazi, the Pol Pot were meticulous at keeping records; some who arrived died on site, other at the killing fields, a total of tens of thousands, all victims of cruelty; hardly a soul survived. It was a prison of no escape. This is certainly a very different kind of tourist spot. Unlike other museums, the floors were stained with blood. The stench will certainly bring out many emotions.
Hiring a guide or an audio tour may help you learn more about the Pol Pot regime and its legacies of poverty and conflict seen in contemporary Cambodia. Such a sombre scene reminds us of the horrors of the Holocaust. And being such, it is not suitable for those easily distressed, and especially not children.
Accessible via taxi or remork-moto (tuk tuk) from Phnom Penh. Tourists hoping to grasp the history of modern Cambodia are recommended to stay for 2 hours before heading to the Killing Fields, a ride away.
Hell on earth
Not long after the Second World War and the Holocaust, history repeats itself. Over 2 million or 25% of the population in Cambodia were ruthlessly executed. Choeung Ek, commonly known as the “Killing Fields” is a site of barely 50 m2 in Phnom Penh. It is a sad place that recalls events that are too horrific to describe, a loss that is too hard to quantify. Ideals such as “Better to kill innocent by mistake than leave an enemy alive” showed how ruthless the Pol Pot regime was.
The audio guide provides a good historical commentary of one of the saddest pages in Cambodia's past, but it is also a chapter that should never be forgotten. Yet, some may not feel comfortable the way the mass burial is currently being managed. If you have children, it is probably best to not take them, unless they are old enough. On the whole, the trip can be disturbing if you are not prepared for it. The skulls of genocide victims are painfully sorted according to gender and age, there are more than 8000 on display!
The site is well signposted in English, however, paths crisscross over grave sites, meaning that people are trampling on bones! What’s more gruesome, tour guides were pulling bones out of the ground—coming out due to erosion—so tourists do not trample on them! One would expect more respect for those who lose their lives to horrific abuse.
The site is located recommended after a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A remork-moto will cost you about $10 from Tuol Sleng to Choeung Ek. Entry is $6, and this include entry and an audio guide. Otherwise it is 15 min from central Phnom Phen on a remork-moto.
Following the success of medical tourism in Asia, Cambodia is following suit. A number of dental clinics have mushroomed in Phonon Penh and it is attracting patients from Japan, Australia and US and the Middle East—a market that previously went to Bangkok. Cambodia is expected to overtake Thailand in the dental domain—being equal but better value for money. Needless to say dental care is less complicated than, say heart or kidney surgery. Cambodia is the favourable alternative to those who do not want to pay the higher price tag in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.
One of the largest and most successful clinics, Roomchang Dental and Aesthetic Hospital, is among 20 that operate in accordance with international standards. Given the boom and business potential, foreign dentists are also getting into the act and setting up base in Cambodia.
Despite the culinary high profile of its neighbours, Cambodian’s culinary scene has largely gone unnoticed. Local cuisine is influenced by various traditions. Khmer is evident in the food as well as influences from Thailand, Chinese stir-fry and curries from India. There are even some French influence, but on the whole it remains another fish paste, with its distinctive flair.
At the heart of Khmer cuisine is its herbs and spices. Similar to shrimp paste found throughout Southeast Asia, Prohok—a fermented fish paste (made of trey riel) is used as a salty sauce and earned the nickname “Cambodian Cheese”. People travel great distance for this condiment. And one way of eating it is wrapping pork with rice cooked in a banana leaf.
Sumptuous dishes ranges from noodles and congee, deep-fried tarantulas roasted crickets and seafood. Amok (baked fish with lemongrass, chili and coconut) is the national dish, while crab at Kep is a delicacy that should not be missed.
Best cities for Cambodian cuisine:
Other than sampling local cuisines, why not take Cambodian cooking home with you? To fully appreciate Khmer cuisine, a cooking class will allow you to visit a food market, familiarize yourself with different raw ingredients and discover the process of food preparation.
Tourism in Cambodia is unfortunately linked to the country’s state of deprivation. The legacies of war continues to be one plagues the country. During that brutal time, millions of land mines were planted in Cambodia. Today, six million remain. Alongside poor nutrition or lack of healthcare, Cambodia is categorised as a “dangerous country”, with the world’s third highest amount of hidden landmines.
Social and physical consequences of these realities are felt, including young and old landmine victims with lost limbs on the streets, selling postcards instead of begging for money. Blindness is commonplace as is orphanage. Tourists are recommended to do their own research before visiting a blind massage centre or orphanage. A number of institutions have unfortunately been established to exploit locals and to take advantage of tourists.
Daughters of Cambodia
Families disintegrated during the Pol Pot regime. Sex work became a means to an end. The Daughters of Cambodia offers a glimpse into what is being done to rectify these mishaps. Money earned through the sales of breakfast, lunch and coffee as well as homewares and clothing is directed towards helping women recover from exploitation. The ultimate goal is to eradicate enslavement through alternative and more self-rewarding work. Yet, in reality, clients will return if their new salary is insufficient. Your patronage and donations will keep the doors open. To get the most out of your visit, spend time on the exhibits and watch the video (in the media room between the shop and café). By absorbing more information and meeting the “human face” behind sex work, the aim is to open a dialogue with the general public about exploitation and the prevalence of sex work in Cambodia.
Volunteering is a noble decision that can potentially make an impact. But those thinking of doing so should carefully think before embarking on the endeavour. Many orphanages have popped up in the past few years. But how can nursery rhymes or learning how to “hello” or “thank you” in English be useful to children? Or is it simply just wasting your and the children’s time? Clearly, children’s well-being should be priority. Long term care and qualified teachers are required.
It is also worthy to point out that some may not be “orphans” in the sense we understand. Some parents are willing to neglect their children in hope that a better future can be provided by somebody else. Sadly more often than not these very children are left in deprivation. In orphanages the conditions deplorable at best in hope and remain that way to entice outside “help” to continue to support at the expense of forsaking a children’s future.
On the same token, be wary of children parading through restaurants or selling gum or postcards at Angkor Wat. These poor and innocent children should be at school, not on the streets. If tourists continue to support these “street children” collecting their “school fees”, guardians will think it is more lucrative for them to be on the street rather than studying. Money made from these peddling is often not for extras like schooling, but for sheer survival. It is hard to know the right thing to do.
Cambodia has two internationals airports: Phnom Penh International Airport and Siem Reap International Airport. The former is the largest, the latter is the most frequented and for obvious reasons known as the “Angkor Airport”.
A number of flights connect between neighbouring countries in Asia. For example, Bangkok Airways operates a Siem Reap and Bangkok route that takes over an 1 hour. If you are short of cash, fly into Phnom Penh then take a bus to the Angkor ruins, it is a cheaper option.
Visas are available upon-arrival for most nationalities. They can be obtained from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports.
The national carrier is Cambodia Angkor Air. For more information check its website:
Cambodia is a great country for the experienced cyclist. A mountain bike is recommended if you are thinking of exploring unpaved trails.
Tourists can hire bikes from many guesthouse and hotels. The rental fee is US$2 a day or US$7-15 for better imported varieties. Another option is to bring your own.
Two regular ferries operate within Cambodia:
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (a not very scenic 5 hour trip)
Siem Reap to Battambang (a popular passage through fishing villages and the Tonle Sap lake)
Passengers should buy a ticket at least a day before to ensure seating.
Remember to apply sun-screen before embarking on the boat.
Buses are considered the safest and cheapest way to get about the country. A number of bus companies run fleets between Phnom Penh and other provinces including, Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville, Kompong Cham and Kratie. Long haul buses are usually comfortable fitted with air-conditioning and entertainment such as video TV, Wi-Fi. Overnight buses are particularly popular option.
For ticketing or to check the schedule, check the website below:
Express minibuses are also available on a one person, one seat basis. Older minibus are not recommended, they are not only driven my maniacs but can also be uncomfortably crammed.
No such service exist.
Hiring a car can be a cost effective way to navigating the country on your own. Due to the disrespect for traffic, a lack of road signs, few traffic signs and inadequate street maps, it is no surprise that most rental cars come with a driver. This is advisable for those who wish to tour Phnom Penh and Angkor.
The cost of a 4WD is around US$60-120 a day. Insurance is usually covered when a car comes with a driver. A car without a driver is less common.
Should tourists wish to sit behind the wheel themselves, an international driving license is required. Tourists should make sure they have insurance.
Cambodia is “the land of a million motorcycles”. There are 1.5 million people in Phnom Penh and 1.3 million bikes. Motorbikes are everywhere. Given such prevalence, motorcycle hire and taxis are ubiquitous.
For those who want to rent their own, usually no license is required, provided you can get the bike safely out of the shop. This applies for all place except for Siem Reap. Here a ban took place after too many tourists were involved in accidents, but it seems the government are occasionally turning a blind eye. on the issue. Having said that Cambodia is not the place to start if you haven't been on a motorbike before. But beyond the city it becomes easier and can be great way for half-day excursions.
Passengers not used to riding should be careful not to put your legs near the exhaust; failing to do so, may result in nasty burns that take too long to heal in hot and sticky weather of Cambodia.
Tourists will be required to hand over a passport when procuring a bike. Even when it is insured, it is necessary to be on guard. Bike thief is a problem.
Sadly, there are many more people killed on the roads then by mines. Being extremely vigilant when crossing the road and on high speed motorways is necessary. It is best to stay indoors at night.
take nothing for granted; local road 'rules' differ from your home
size matter, big vehicles wins by default
drive on the right
Advice to motorcyclists
Motorbikes are usually not insured.
get a good helmet
carry a basic repair kit
carry several litres of drinking water, if the journey involves venturing into remote areas
travel in small groups
do not smoke or do drugs when driving
Those who prefer a driver, a small motorcycle taxi charge 2000r or US$1.50 depending on distance. The fare in Phnom Penh may be more expensive. It is best to negotiate in advance. Like most public transport, moto taxi are found waiting outside hotels and marketplaces.
This low-tech local bus consists of a carriage attached to a motorcycle. Its Thai counterpart is known as “tuk tuk”.
Very few metered taxis are available. Those that do can be found operating near guesthouses and hotels and are available for tourist sightseeing.
The cyclo is a local variation of the pedicab or trishaw found Vietnam and Laos. They are a cheap way to get around. It can be flagged down on roads. Most are found near markets and hotels. It can be a cheap and slow ride to experience the city, but still, it is necessary to bargain your fare before embarking. A single ride usually ranges from US$1-3.
Almost no local buses run in Cambodia. The few that do are usually of no use to tourists.
The small 15 - 40 HP engine fibreglass boat (pronounced “out-boor”) has a carrying capacity of six people. The boat takes off once it is filled with people. Private charters are also available.
A water buffalo carriage is a means of conveyance in remote areas.
Early cave dwellers
Indian traders and holy men arrive
Kingdom of Funan at Angkor Borei
RISE OF ANGKOR
Birth of Khmer Empire of Angkor
Ancient capital moved from Hariharalaya to Angkor
Capital moved to Koh Ke, mammoth building spree
Capital moved back to Angkor
Angkor Wat, Suryavarman II dedicated to Vishnu
Jayavarman V11, change of state to Mahayana Buddhism
“The customs of Cambodia” written by Chinese diplomat Chou Ta Kuan
DECLINE OF ANGKOR
Drought and rapid decline of Angkor Wat
King Ang Chai I ascends the throne
Phnom Penh is burned to the ground
THE FRENCH IN CAMBODIA (1863-1941)
Becomes French protectorate, with Vietnam and Laos; capital at Phnom Penh
Rebellion against French rule
King Sihanouk ascends throne
Japanese occupation during World War II
KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA (1953-1970)
Independence from French
King Sihanouk abdicates
US bombing of Cambodia
Khmer Rouge turns nation into a “prison without walls”
War breaks out with Vietnam
Invasion of Vietnam
Vietnamese forces take Phnom Penh
Vietnam withdraws from Cambodia
AN UNEASY PEACE
Tourists kidnapped and killed by Khmer Rouge
Death of Pol Pot
ASEAN joins Southeast Asian nations
CPP wins election but in-fighting prevents new government
Opens free trade
A basic estimate of daily spending (per person) is illustrated below.*
Food & Drink
local meals and street food
bus, cyclos, and motos
boutique hotel, resort
Food & Drink
4WD rental (driver included)
Total basic daily spending ៛68,102 (<US$ 20)
Total basic daily spending ៛1,061,590 (US$ 265)
*This excludes sightseeing, shopping and other personal tourism activities, such as beauty care and hiring eco-guides.