Cambodia Country Guide
When is the best time to visit Cambodia?
There are four annual seasons: cool and dry between November and February; hot and dry between March and May; hot and wet between June and August; and cool and wet between September and early November.
The best time to visit is the cool season, when the weather usually benefits from a pleasant dry heat and the countryside is still green from the rains. As February turns into March, the heat begins to build until April and May, when it can be quite oppressive and uncomfortable.
In May and June, the rains come and bring a measure of relief. It rarely rains all day, and mostly it will rain for an hour or two in the afternoon or evening. By early September, the heat begins to dissipate and the evenings are cooler.
Through October, the frequency of the showers slows and the humidity starts to lower. Although the wet season is low season for tourism throughout most of the region, visiting at that time does have its advantages. It is when the Angkor complex is at its most beautiful, the vegetation is lush, and the crowds are relatively thin.
All visitors, except citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, need a visa to enter Cambodia. The official price for a tourist visa is US$20 and US$25 for an ordinary visa. Staff may try to charge more at some land border crossings, so hold out for the official price, particularly at major crossings, but don't be upset if you have to pay 1 or 2 dollars extra.
Visas can be obtained at Cambodian embassies or consulates. Visas are also available "on arrival" at international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos.
Getting here & around
From/to Cambodia International flight:
Direct flights connect Phnom Penh International Airport with mainland China (Beijing, Guangzhou), France (Paris), Hong Kong, Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon), Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). Myanmar (Yangon)
Direct flights connect Siem Reap’s Angkor International Airport with Laos (Pakse, Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon, Busan), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City). Myanmar (Yangon), and The Philippines (Manila).
Travelers going specifically to visit the Angkor temple ruins may prefer to use Siem Reap as it's only a few minutes away from the main sites. However, as Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on direct flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap, it's a lot cheaper to fly to Phnom Penh and to take the bus (or cross overland from Bangkok).
Low cost carrier Air Asia has introduced flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, while Jetstar Asia has begun flying from Singapore to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Get in by road
All six border crossings with Thailand are open 7 am to 8 pm, and each offers Cambodian visas on arrival. All the crossings are served by paved roads in both countries, except the Cambodian side of the Daun Lem crossing, which is being paved as of March 2012.
In Cambodia, four of the six border towns (Poipet, Koh Kong, Daun Lem and O'Smach) are directly served by buses. Pailin, Anlong Veng and Samraong (each less than 20 km from a border) are each served by buses, motorbikes and shared taxis which connect each of the towns with their respective border crossings.
Ferries operate seasonally along many of the major rivers. Major routes include Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Siem Reap to Battambang. Boats are slower than road transport, charge higher prices for foreigners, and are sometimes overcrowded and unsafe. Then again, Cambodia's highways can be tricky, and boats are sometimes the safer of the two options. The high speed boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap costs US$33 and takes about 6 hours, departing at 7:30 am, and offers a spectacular view of rural life along the Tonle Sap River.
There are also a few luxury boats operating between Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Saigon. For something around $150 per day, including accommodation, food and excursions, it's a good alternative to regular boat service.
The boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang takes longer (especially in the dry season), and is less comfortable and more expensive than taking a seat in a shared taxi, but is favoured by some travelers for its up-close view of subsistence farming (and hundreds of waving children) along the river. Taking the boat late in the dry season (April and May) is not advisable as low water levels mean that you must transfer to smaller vessels mid-river.
When shopping, be sure to look for businesses that display the Heritage Friendly business logo. Heritage Watch has launched a campaign that aims to encourage support for Cambodia's arts, culture, heritage and development. Businesses that are giving back to the community are certified as Heritage Friendly by the independent organization and permitted to display either a gold or silver Heritage Friendly logo. Look for the logo to ensure that you are supporting socially responsible corporate citizens!
You can get away with haggling for most anything in Cambodia, including at restaurants, outdoor food stalls, and even guesthouses. Be confident and resolute, and be prepared for emotions to run high, because as the old saying goes, “The Khmer do not lose face, they lose their temper!”
The Cambodian riel and US dollar are both official currencies, with the riel only used for small transactions (i.e. below $5). ATMs will generally only dispense US dollars, though some are loaded with both currencies. They generally charge $3-5 per withdrawal, but Canadian Bank and Mekong Bank are fee free. ATMs are common throughout the country with a surprising penetration even into backwater towns, though if in doubt, stock up before a trip into the wild. High denomination notes are easy to break. Even in the smallest of provincial markets, traders will not flinch at the sight of a $100 bill, just look for traders with glass cabinets filled with money (they're advertising a service rather than showing off).
ATMs are spreading far beyond the main cities. They are generally compatible with Maestro, Cirrus, Plus, and VISA cards. Cash advances on credit cards may also be possible. VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards, while MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.
Cambodian ATMs only accept 4-digit PINs. If your PIN is more than 4 digits, you should change it before you leave for Cambodia.
Traveler's cheques, like credit cards, are accepted in major business establishments, such as large hotels, some restaurants, travel agencies and some souvenir shops, with American Express being (in US$) the most widely accepted. However, competitive rates are only usually found in banks in Cambodia's larger cities (guesthouses in tourist heavy areas may offer similar services but at bad rates). The usual fee for cashing traveler's cheques is 2% and there is a US$2 minimum.
While not as varied as food from neighboring Malaysia, Thailand, or Vietnam, Khmer food is tasty and cheap and is invariably accompanied by rice (or occasionally noodles). And unlike their Thai and Lao neighbors, Cambodians generally do not have a taste for spicy hot food, and black pepper is the preferred choice in cooking instead of chili peppers which are usually served on the side. Thai and Vietnamese influences can be noted in Khmer food, although Cambodians love a stronger sour taste in their dishes. The addition of prahok, the famous Khmer fish paste, is ubiquitous in Khmer cooking (although for most foreigners this is most definitely an acquired taste!). In addition to Khmer food, there are large number of Indian and Chinese restaurants, especially in Phnom Penh and large provincial centers.
Typical Khmer dishes include:
Amok - Arguably the most well known Cambodian dish. A coconut milk curried dish less spicy than those found in Thailand. Amok is usually made with chicken, fish, or shrimp, plus some vegetables. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side.
K'tieu (Kuytheav) - A noodle soup generally served for breakfast. It can be made with pork, beef or seafood. Flavorings are added to the customers taste in the form of lime juice, chili powder, sugar and fish sauce.
Somlah Machou Khmae - A sweet and sour soup made with pineapple, tomatoes and fish.
Bai Sarch Ch'rouk - Another breakfast staple. rice (bai) with pork meat (sarch chrouk) often barbequed. Very tasty and served with pickled vegetables.
Saik Ch'rouk Cha Kn'yei - Pork fried with ginger. Ginger is commonly used as a vegetable. This tasty dish is available just about everywhere.
Lok lak - Chopped up beefsteak cooked quickly. Probably a holdover from the days of French colonization. Served with a simple dipping sauce made from lime juice and black pepper, lettuce, onion, and often with chips.
Mi / Bai Chaa - Fried noodles or rice. Never particularly inspiring, but a good traveler's staple.
Trey Ch'ien Chou 'Ayme - Trey (fish) fried with a sweet chili sauce and vegetables. Chou 'ayme is the phrase for "sweet and sour".
K'dam - Crab. Kampot in the south is famous for its crab cooked in locally sourced black pepper.
Don't forget Khmer desserts - Pong Aime (sweets). These are available from stalls in most Khmer towns and can be excellent. Choose from a variety of sweetmeats and have them served with ice, condensed milk and sugar water. A must try is the Tuk-a-loc, a blended drink of fruits, raw egg, sweetened condensed milk and ice.
Cambodia, one of the world's poorest countries, and lacks reliable medical facilities, doctors, clinics, hospitals and medication, especially in rural areas. Any serious problem should be dealt with in Bangkok or Singapore, which do boast first rate services (at least to those who can afford them). Repatriation is also more easily arranged from either of those cities. Make sure that your insurance covers medical evacuation. The private and pricey Royal Rattanak Hospital in Phnom Penh can be trusted for emergency medical care and can treat most diseases and injuries common to the region. Naga Clinic has branches in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It is also clean, safe and useful for minor conditions.
Local hospitals and clinics vary from mediocre to poor quality. Expect poor equipment, expired medicines and placebos of flour and sugar. In local clinics don't let them put anything in your blood and treat dehydration orally and not with a drip, as there is a risk of septicemia (i.e. bacterial blood poisoning). The same goes for blood transfusions.
The contents of a basic medical kit-such as panadol, antihistamines, antibiotics, kaolin, oral rehydration solution, calamine lotion, bandages and band-aids, scissors and DEET insect repellent can be acquired in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The particularly fastidious should put their kits together in Bangkok or Saigon before coming to Cambodia.
Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. While the more heavily touristic places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are well adjusted to tourist behavior, people in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung are less so. Always ask permission before you take somebody's picture, as many in the more remote areas do not like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment.
Dress for women is more conservative in Cambodia. While shorts are now acceptable in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it is more respectful to wear knee length shorts or trousers when outside of these areas.
The Khmer Rouge issue is a very delicate one, and one which Cambodians generally prefer not to talk about.
Cambodia uses the GSM mobile system and Mobitel is the largest operator, although competition is stiff. Pre-paid SIM cards are widely available (from US$1), but require a passport to buy. A guest house operator or tuk-tuk driver may just buy one for you.
Internet cafes are cheap (US$0.50-US$1/hour) and common, even small towns will have at least one offering broadband. In Kampot, Kratie and Sihanoukville rates are around US$1/hour. WiFi is increasingly popular, with signals available in some unlikely places, not just in coffee shops but also fast food restaurants, bars, and even gas stations.