Cambodia remains consistently hot year-round – seasons are defined principally by rainfall rather than temperature. The dry season runs from November to May, subdivided into the so-called cool season (Nov–Feb), the peak tourist period, and the slightly warmer and more humid hot season (March–May). The rainy season (roughly June–Oct) is when the country receives most of its annual rainfall, although occasional downpours can occur at pretty much any time of year.
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Cambodia is one of the cheapest Asian countries to visit, and although prices are starting to creep up, the country still offers outstanding value.
Good budget rooms are available for around $7 in most parts of the country (slightly more in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap). Eating is also cheap. A meal at a local market or Khmer restaurant can be had for $2 or even less, while main courses in tourist restaurants start from as little as $2 (although upscale places can cost considerably more). A small bottle of mineral water costs just 1000 riel, while draught beer usually sells for $1 a glass. Transport is similarly inexpensive – $1 per hour of travel suffices as a rough rule of thumb, although you’ll pay a bit more on certain routes or when travelling with more upmarket bus companies. Entrance fees are also generally modest – tickets to visit the temples at Angkor are excellent value, although a few museums and other sights are disproportionately expensive.
Transport and tours are the two things most likely to blow your budget. Hiring a car and driver to explore remote temples like Banteay Chhmar, Koh Ker, Preah Khan (Kompong Thom) and Preah Vihear can easily set you back something in the region of $60–100 per day. Tours are also pricey. Visiting the temples of Angkor by tuk-tuk is relatively inexpensive, but more unusual tours – personalized itineraries around the Mekong Trail, trekking in Rattanakiri, birdwatching and boat trips, quad-biking, horseriding, and so on – will generally set you back at least $60 a day, and often much more.
All of which means that staying in budget guesthouses, eating at local restaurants and markets and travelling on public transport you could conceivably get by on as little as $10 per person a day if travelling in a couple and cutting out all extras. Eating in tourist restaurants, indulging in a few beers and taking the occasional tour by tuk-tuk will push this up to $15–20 a day. For $50 a day you can live comfortably, staying in nice hotels and eating well, while $100 a day allows you to stay in luxurious accommodation – although it’s also possible to spend a lot more than this.
A sales tax (comprising a ten percent government tax and ten percent service) is often charged in mid-range hotels. Always check in advance. Tax is also sometimes added to food at restaurants – in which case this should be clearly stated on the menu.
Despite its turbulent recent history, Cambodia is now a generally safe country in which to travel. It’s important to be mindful, however, of the fact that Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and also has significant quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO) lying around. In the countryside you must stick to well-trodden paths.
Crime and personal safety
Mines and ordnance apart, there is still a culture of guns in Cambodia, and there have been incidents of armed robbery against locals and tourists alike. Gun crime is a regular occurrence in Phnom Penh (although considerably less common elsewhere in the country), usually reaching a peak at festival times, most notably Khmer New Year. Don’t be paranoid, but, equally, be aware that a small but significant number of visitors continue to be mugged at gunpoint (and occasionally shot), even in busy and touristed areas. Given this, it’s a very good idea to keep all valuables well out of sight. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself being robbed, on no account resist – the consequences if you do so could possibly be fatal. It’s also worth making sure that all bags are hidden between your legs if travelling by moto – snatch-and-grab robberies have also been reported, with victims occasionally being pulled off the back of motos by the straps of their bags during attempted grabs. All incidents should be reported to the police as soon as possible – you’ll need a signed, dated report from them to claim on your travel insurance – and, if you lose your passport, to your embassy as well. In Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, English-speaking tourist police will help, but in the provinces you’ll have to deal with the local police, who are unlikely to have more than a smattering of English, so if possible take a Khmer-speaker with you.
Though the vast majority of Cambodian police will do their best to help in an emergency, a small minority are not averse to trying to elicit money from foreigners. If you’re riding a motorbike or driving a motor vehicle, they may well deem that you’ve committed an offence. You can argue the “fine” down to a few dollars and may as well pay up, although if you can stand the hassle and don’t mind wasting a lot more time you may feel it worth reporting such incidents to the police commissioner.
Road accidents usually attract vast crowds of curious onlookers, and if any damage to property or injury to a person or domestic animal has occurred, then you’ll have to stay at the scene until the police arrive. It’s the driver’s responsibility to come to a financial arrangement with the other parties involved. In spite of their general amiability, it’s not unknown for locals to try to coerce foreigners into coughing up money, even if they are the innocent party or merely a passenger.
As you’d expect given its proximity to some of the world’s major drug-producing regions, drugs both soft and hard are common in Cambodia. Marijuana is widely available, especially around the southern beaches, and you’ll be approached by peddlers on a fairly regular basis in all major tourist spots. Possession is of course illegal, and although prosecutions are rare, purchasing and consuming dope always carries a risk of falling foul of the police – and most likely having to pay some sort of backhander in order to avoid having charges pressed. Hard drugs including opium, cocaine and so on are also available. Needless to say the authorities take a much dimmer view of these than of dope, and possession may well earn you a term in the nearest Cambodian prison – and, given the suspect quality of a lot of the drugs sold on the street, could even be fatal. There have been cases of travellers dying after buying what they believed to be cocaine but which turned out to be pure heroin.
Note that in the case of any medical complications the nearest properly equipped hospital is in Bangkok.
Land mines and unexploded ordnance
The UN estimates that between four and six million land mines were laid in Cambodia between 1979 and 1991, but no one really knows. The Vietnamese and the government laid them as protection against Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who in turn laid them to intimidate local populations; neither side recorded the locations of the minefields. To date more than two thousand minefields have been identified (usually through members of the local population being blown up), and new locations are regularly being reported. Several organizations are actively working at de-mining the countryside, and at last the number of casualties is decreasing; but given the scale of the problem, it will be many years before the mines are cleared completely. The border area with Thailand between Koh Kong and Preah Vihear is particularly dangerous. In rural areas, take care not to leave well-used paths and never take short-cuts across rice fields without a local guide. Areas known to be badly contaminated are signed with a red skull and the words “Beware Mines”.
As if this problem weren’t enough, in the 1970s the United States dropped more than half a million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia. This began as part of a secret and illicit plan to expose the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by communist North Vietnamese troops, and ended up in a massive countrywide bombing campaign to support the pro-American Lon Nol government against the Khmer Rouge. Unexploded ordnance (UXO), or explosive remnants of war (ERW), remains a risk in rural areas, with the southeast, centre and northeast of the country particularly affected; in the countryside it’s foolish to pick up or kick any unidentified metal objects.
The electrical supply is 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Most Cambodian sockets take two-pin, round-pronged plugs (although you’ll also find some which take two-pin, flat-pronged plugs). The electricity supply is pretty reliable, although power cuts are not unknown and some places (particularly island resorts in the south) may rely on solar power.
Gay and lesbian Cambodia
Gay and lesbian travellers shouldn’t experience any problems when travelling in Cambodia – homosexuality is not illegal, although neither is it recognized and talked about. It’s acceptable for two men or two women to link hands or arms in public, which would be unacceptable for straight couples. Cambodians find overt displays of affection offensive, however, so it’s as well to be discreet. Be that as it may, there’s an emerging gay scene (cambodia-gay.com) with gay-friendly establishments in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (which has the country’s only male-exclusive resort, the Men’s Resort and Spa; mens-resort.com) and Sihanoukville.
Before travelling to Cambodia you’d do well to take out an insurance policy to cover against theft, loss of personal items and documentation, illness and injury. However, before you pay for a new policy, it’s worth checking whether you are already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas, and many private medical schemes include cover when abroad – check that they cover Cambodia. Students will often find that their student health coverage extends during the vacations and for one term beyond the date of last enrolment.
A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called “dangerous” activities unless an extra premium is paid: in Cambodia this can mean scuba diving, riding a motorbike and trekking.
Getting online in Cambodia is relatively easy. Almost all hotels and guesthouses now offer free wi-fi (as do many restaurants and bars), while most towns of any size boast at least one internet café. Rates are generally cheap (2000–4000 riel/hr), although connections may be slow.
You can get laundry done practically everywhere, at hotels and guesthouses or at private laundries in all towns – look for the signs in English. Prices are pretty uniform, at 500–1000 riel per item or $1–2 per kilogram. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there are a number of places with driers, giving a speedy turnaround (3hr).
Mail to Europe, Australasia and North America takes between five and ten days. Stamps for postcards cost around 3000 riel to Europe/North America.
Airmail parcels to Europe and North America cost more than $20 per kilo, so if you’re heading to Thailand it’s worth waiting until you get there, where postage is cheaper. You’ll be charged 3000 riel for the obligatory customs form, detailing the contents and their value, but it isn’t necessary to leave the package open for checking. Post offices also sell cardboard boxes for mailing items.
Poste restante mail can be received at the main post offices in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, for 500 riel per item. When collecting mail, bring your passport as proof of identity and ask them to check under both your first name and your family name.
Most maps of Cambodia are horribly inaccurate and/or out of date. Far and away the best is Reise Know-How’s Kambodscha map (that’s “Cambodia” in German), beautifully drawn on un-rippable waterproof paper, and as detailed and up-to-date as you could hope, given Cambodia’s ever-developing road network.
Cambodia uses a dual-currency system, with local currency, the riel, used alongside (and interchangeably with) the US dollar, converted at the rate of 4000 riel to US$1 (an exchange rate which has remained stable for several years now). Riel notes (there are no riel coins, nor is US coinage used in Cambodia) are available in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000. You can pay for most things – and will receive change – either in dollars, in riel, or even in a mixture of the two; there’s no need to change dollars into riel. Larger sums are usually quoted in dollars and smaller amounts in riel (although sometimes, as in menus, prices are quoted in both currencies).
Things get a bit more confused near the Thai border, where Thai baht are generally preferred to riel, or at Bavet, the Vietnamese border crossing, where you may be quoted prices in Vietnamese dong. If you don’t have baht you can generally pay in US dollars or riel, though you might end up paying fractionally more.
Prices at upmarket hotels, shops, food stalls, cafés and restaurants are fixed, as are fares for flights, bus journeys and boat trips. However, when shopping in markets, taking motos, tuk-tuks or cyclos, bargaining is expected. Prices in more downmarket hotels can often be negotiated as well, especially if you’re going to be staying for a few nights or longer.
Accessing your money
All large (and an increasing number of smaller) Cambodian towns now have ATMs accepting foreign cards and dispensing US dollars. The two main networks are those belonging to Canadia Bank (which accept both Visa and MasterCard) and Acleda Bank (pronounced A-See-Lay-Dah, which accept Visa only). Canadia Bank ATMs won’t charge you a commission fee to withdraw money – although you’ll still be charged by your card issuer back home – while Acleda and other banks generally charge $4–5 on top of whatever fees are levied by your card provider.
An increasing number of places accept credit cards, typically mid- and upper-range hotels and Western-oriented restaurants and shops in bigger towns and cities. You may be charged a surcharge (around five percent) if paying by card, however.
Most banks also change travellers’ cheques, usually for a two-percent commission; travellers’ cheques in currencies other than dollars are sometimes viewed with suspicion and may be rejected. You can also get cash advances on Visa and MasterCard at some banks and exchange bureaux (including the Canadia, ANZ and Acleda banks – although the last accepts Visa only). It’s also possible to have money wired from home. The Acleda Bank handles Western Union transfers, while the Canadia Bank is the agent for Moneygram. Fees, needless to say, can be steep.
While there’s no need to change dollars into riel, if you need to change currency you can head to a bank – there will also be one or two moneychangers around most markets in the country. Thai baht, pounds sterling and euros are all widely accepted for exchange, although other currencies may not be, especially outside larger cities and tourist centres. Check your money carefully before leaving and feel free to reject any notes in particularly dire condition, especially larger-denomination dollar bills with tears or blemishes.
Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3.30pm (often also Sat 8.30–11.30am).
Opening hours and public holidays
Key tourist sights, such as the National Museum, the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, are open every day including most public holidays. The temples at Angkor, Tonle Bati and Sambor Prei Kuk and the country’s national parks are open daily from dawn to dusk. Markets open daily from around 6am until 5pm, shops between 7am and 7pm (or until 9/10pm in tourist areas). The main post office in Phnom Penh is open from 7.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 7.30am to 11am on Saturday. In the provinces, post office hours tend to be 8am to 11am and 2pm to 5.30pm (earlier on Saturday), with some, in Siem Reap, for example, open on Sunday. Banks tend to open Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 3.30pm, and sometimes on Saturday as well, between 8.30am and 11.30am.
Dates for Buddhist religious holidays are variable, changing each year with the lunar calendar. Any public holidays that fall on a Saturday or Sunday are taken the following Monday.
Note that public holidays are often “stretched” by a day or so, particularly at Khmer New Year, Bonn Pchum Ben and for the Water Festival.
Calendar of public holidays
January 1 International New Year’s Day
January 7 Victory Day, celebrating the liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in 1979
February (variable) Meak Mochea, celebrating Buddhist teachings and precepts
March 8 International Women’s Day
April 13/14 (variable) Bonn Chaul Chhnam (Khmer New Year)
April/May (variable) Visaka Bochea, celebrating the birth, enlightenment and passing into nirvana of the Buddha
May 1 Labour Day
May (variable) Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal, the “Royal Ploughing Ceremony”
May 13–15 (variable) King Sihamoni’s Birthday
June 1 International Children’s Day
June 18 Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s Birthday
September 24 Constitution Day
Late September/early October (variable) Bonn Pchum Ben, “Ancestors’ Day”
October 15 King Father’s Commemoration Day, celebrating the memory of Norodom Sihanouk
October 23 Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords
October 29–November 1 (variable) King’s Coronation Day
November 9 Independence Day
Early November Bonn Om Toeuk, “Water Festival”
December 10 UN Human Rights Day
Cambodia’s vast potential for outdoor and adventure activities is slowly being tapped, with myriad tour operators offering an ever-expanding spread of one-day trips and more extended tours. The main appeal of most outdoor activities is the chance to get off the beaten track and out into the countryside for a glimpse of the time-forgotten lifestyles of rural Cambodia, with numerous trekking opportunities, along with trips by bike, kayak and boat.
Trekking, ranging from one-day to week-long hikes, is the major draw in the upland forests of eastern Cambodia. Banlung is the main trekking centre, while there are also a growing range of hiking opportunities at Sen Monorom, including the chance to walk through the forest with elephants at the innovative Elephant Valley Project. Hiking trips around Siem Reap can be arranged through Hidden Cambodia and Terre Cambodge. In the south, you can hike into the southern Cardamoms from the community-based ecotourism project Chi Phat – they arrange trekking and cycling trips that last from just a morning to a few days. The Wild KK Project in Koh Kong offers multi-day adventures into the Areng Valley (deep in the Cardamoms), including hiking, cycling and kayaking.
Cycling tours are another popular option, ideally suited to Cambodia’s predominantly flat terrain and extensive network of relatively traffic-free rural backroads. Tours are run by Camouflage, Terre Cambodge and Hidden Cambodia in Siem Reap, Grasshopper Adventures in Phnom Penh (see Culinary tours) and Siem Reap, Soksabike in Battambang and the Wild KK Project in the south. There are also many cycling possibilities around the Mekong Trail, with tours run by Xplore Asia in Stung Treng, who can also arrange trekking, cycling and fishing trips. The country’s rough backcountry dirt tracks are also a magnet for off-road motorbike enthusiasts; Hidden Cambodia in Siem Reap organizes a range of group dirt-biking tours. Quad-biking excursions can also be arranged in Siem Reap through Quad Adventures Cambodia and in Kampot through Quad Cambodia Kampot.
Cambodia’s majestic lakes and rivers are another major draw. Kayaking trips are run by Sorya Kayaking Adventures in Kratie, Green Orange Kayak in Battambang, Indo Chine EX in Siem Reap and Xplore Asia in Stung Treng. There are also plenty of boat trips on the Mekong available at Kompong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng; around the various floating villages on the Tonle Sap at Siem Reap, Kompong Chhnang and Pursat; and around Ream National Park, Koh S’dach and the islands near Kep in the south. There are also plenty of watersports and snorkelling/island-hopping trips available from Sihanoukville, plus diving at Sihanoukville and Koh S’dach.
Elephant rides remain popular in Banlung, Sen Monorom and around the temples of Angkor, while horseriding excursions are available through The Happy Ranch in Siem Reap. There’s some outstanding birdwatching around the Tonle Sap lake at the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve and at Ang Trapaeng Thmor Crane Sanctuary between Siem Reap and Sisophon. Visits can be most easily arranged through tour operators in Siem Reap such as Osmose tours and the excellent, albeit pricey, Sam Veasna Centre.
There are balloon, helicopter and microlight flights above the temples of Angkor, while real adrenaline junkies should make for Flight of the Gibbon in Siem Reap, offering tree-top ziplining adventures through the forest canopy or rock climbing in Kampot.
If you are going to be spending long in Cambodia or making a lot of calls it’s well worth buying a local Sim card, which will get you rates for both domestic and international calls far below what you’re likely to pay using your home provider (although obviously you’ll need to make sure that your handset is unlocked first – or buy one locally that is). Sim cards can be bought for a few dollars at most mobile phone shops; you’ll need to show your passport as proof of identity. International calls can cost as little as US$0.25 per minute, while domestic calls will cost about 300–500 riel per minute.
Cambodia’s three main mobile phone service providers are Cellcard/Mobitel (mobitel.com.kh), Smart (smart.com.kh), and Metfone (metfone.com.kh), all of which offer reliable countrywide coverage, with Cellcard/Mobitel perhaps being the best. A pre-paid mobile broadband account costs around $30 per month, although given the universal availability of wi-fi, it’s unlikely to be worth the money unless you’re spending a lot of time in very out of the way places.
If you want to use your home mobile phone, you’ll need to check with your phone service provider whether it will work abroad, and what the call charges are to use it in Cambodia. Most mobiles in the UK, Australia and New Zealand use GSM, which works well in Southeast Asia, but a North American cellphone is unlikely to work unless it’s a tri-band phone.
You can make domestic and international phone calls at the post offices and telecom offices in most towns. These services are invariably run by the government telecommunications network, Camintel (camintel.com).
Many internet cafés also allow you to make calls via Skype; better places have headphones with a microphone so that you can talk in reasonable privacy.
For domestic calls only, the cut-price glass-sided booths found in all major towns are a cheap option at around 500 riel per minute, payable to the attendant. The booths vary in their coverage of Cambodia’s various networks: accessible numbers will be written on the side of the booths.
Calling abroad from Cambodia
Dial your international access code, followed by 855, then the local area code (minus the initial 0), then the number.
Calling Cambodia from abroad
There is no international directory enquiries service in Cambodia.
To Australia 001 or 007 + 61+ city code without the initial zero
To New Zealand 001 or 007 + 64 + city code without the initial zero
To the Republic of Ireland 001 or 007 + 353 + city code without the initial zero
To South Africa 001 or 007 + 27 + city code without the initial zero
To the UK 001 or 007 + 44 + area code without the initial zero
To the US and Canada 001 or 007 + 1 + city code without the initial zero
Cambodians generally love being photographed – although it is common courtesy to ask first; they also take a lot of photos themselves and may well ask you to stand in theirs. It’s best to avoid taking photographs of anything with a military connotation, just in case. You can get your digital shots transferred to CD or printed at most photographic shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although the quality of the prints may not be as good as you’d get at home.
Cambodia is 7hr ahead of GMT; 12hr ahead of New York and Montréal; 15hr ahead of Los Angeles and Vancouver; 1hr behind Perth; 4hr behind Sydney and 5hr behind Auckland; 5hr ahead of South Africa. There is no daylight saving time.
Tipping is not generally expected, but a few hundred riel extra for a meal or a tuk-tuk or moto ride is always appreciated.
Apart from in places that are used to catering for foreigners, squat toilets are the rule. In general there are no public toilets apart from a few places set up by enterprising individuals that you can use for a few hundred riel. It is fine to ask to use the loo at restaurants, even if you’re not eating there, although you may sometimes wish you hadn’t as they are often unsavoury. At transport stops there are almost always toilets out at the back, but you’ll need to bring your own toilet paper, sold in the markets and worth carrying with you. Sometimes you may have to do as the locals do and take to the bushes – but remember there is still a risk of mines, so don’t stray off well-trodden paths.
There are tourist offices in many larger towns, but most are chronically underfunded, totally lacking in English-speaking staff, and often closed even when they should be open. The best source of local information on the ground is likely to be your hotel or guesthouse, or a local tour operator or travel agent. There are no Cambodian tourist offices abroad, and Cambodian embassies aren’t equipped to handle tourist enquiries; there is some useful information online, however.
Travellers with disabilities
Cambodia has the unhappy distinction of having one of the world’s highest proportions of disabled people per capita (around 1 in 250 people) – due to land mines and the incidence of polio and other wasting diseases. That said, there is no special provision for the disabled, so travellers with disabilities will need to be especially self-reliant. Stock up on any medication, get any essential equipment serviced and take a selection of spares and accoutrements. Ask about hotel facilities when booking, as lifts are still not as common in Cambodia as you might hope.
Getting around temples can be a problem, as even at relatively lowly pagodas there are flights of steps and entrance kerbs to negotiate. The temples at Angkor are particularly difficult, with steps up most entrance pavilions and the central sanctuaries. However, negotiating at least the most accessible parts of the temples is possible with assistance, while some tour operators may also be able to arrange customized visits including all required assistance – try Cambodia specialists About Asia (aboutasiatravel.com).
Travelling with children
Travelling through Cambodia with children in tow is not for the nervous or over-protective parent, although many families find it a rewarding experience, especially with slightly older kids. Cambodians love children, although they do have a habit of greeting them with an affectionate pinch, which can be disconcerting – the protectiveness of the West is nonexistent and there are no special facilities or particular concessions made for kids. On public transport, children travel free if they share your seat; otherwise expect to pay the adult fare. It’s worth considering hiring a car and driver – not only will this mean you can stop when you want for food and comfort breaks, but it’ll be more comfortable – although note that child car seats are not available. Some hotels have family rooms, while extra beds can usually be arranged. Note that under-11’s are admitted free to the Angkor Archaeological Park (passport required as proof, or they’ll be charged the adult fee).
If you’re travelling with a baby or toddler, you’ll be able to buy disposable nappies, formula milk and tins or jars of baby food at supermarkets and mini-markets in the major cities, but elsewhere you need to take your own supplies.
Visas for Cambodia are required by everyone other than nationals of Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Visas are issued on arrival for $20 at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports, at Sihanoukville port, at all overland crossings from Thailand and Vietnam, and at Voen Kham from Laos.
A single-entry tourist visa obtained on arrival ($20; one passport photograph required, or pay a small surcharge – usually a dollar or two – to have your passport photo scanned) is valid for thirty days, including the day of issue, and can be extended once only, for one month. Note that at the Thai border Cambodian officials may ask for an bit more than the official fee – having an e-visa avoids this hassle. You can also buy a business visa ($25; one passport photo) on arrival. Like the tourist visa this is valid for thirty days, but can be extended in a variety of ways (ranging from one-month single-entry extension, three months’ single-entry, six months’ multiple-entry and twelve months’ multiple-entry; costs range from $42 to $270). Multiple entries are only available on a business visa.
Single-entry, thirty-day tourist e-visas are available online at www.mfaic.gov.kh for $20 plus a $5 processing charge, although they are only supported if you enter through the airports at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, or overland at Koh Kong, Bavet and Poipet. They must be used within three months of the date of issue. They’re mainly useful if you’re entering via Poipet and wish to avoid the traditional hassles associated with that crossing.
Tourist and business visas can only be extended in Phnom Penh at the Department for Immigration (Mon–Fri 8–11am & 2–4pm; 017 812763, www.evisa.gov.kh) 8km out of the centre opposite the airport at 332 Russian Blvd. Given the serious amounts of red tape involved and the inconvenient location of the office, however, it’s far preferable to use one of the visa-extension services offered by travel agents and guesthouses in town, who will do all the running around for a commission of around $5–10. If you overstay your visa you’ll be charged $5 per day. There is no departure tax.
Cambodian embassies and consulates
Australia & New Zealand embassyofcambodia.org.nz/au.htm.
Canada c/o Embassy of Canada, 15th Floor, Abdulrahim Place, 990 Rama IV Rd, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand ([email protected]).
Laos Thadeua Rd, KM2 Vientiane, BP 34 ([email protected]).
South Africa c/o Embassy of South Africa, 12th A Floor, M Thai Tower, All Seasons Place, 87 Wireless Rd, Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok (dirco.gov.za).
Thailand 518/4 Pracha Uthit Rd (Soi Ramkamhaeng 39), Wangtonglang, Bangkok 10310 ([email protected]).
UK & Ireland cambodianembassy.org.uk.
Vietnam 71A Tran Hung Dao St, Hanoi ([email protected]); 41 Phung Khac Khoan, Ho Chi Minh City ([email protected]).
There are plenty of opportunities to do voluntary work in Cambodia – although in many cases you will actually have to pay to do it. The UK charity Voluntary Service Overseas (vso.org.uk) and Australian Volunteers International (australianvolunteers.com) both recruit volunteers to work on projects in Cambodia, paid at local rates. Frontier (frontier.ac.uk) has projects teaching English or helping with wildlife conservation, while Coral Cay Conservation (coralcay.org) has an ongoing project on Koh Rong (cheaper if you have diving experience). When you’re in Cambodia keep your eye out in cafés and bars where organizations post their projects and ask for volunteers. The services of teachers, doctors and vets will be much appreciated even if it’s only for a day or so.
Travelling around Cambodia shouldn’t pose any problems for foreign women. All the same, it’s as well to dress modestly and to avoid overfamiliarity, which can be misconstrued, particularly after men have had a few beers. If someone does overstep the mark, a firm “no” will normally suffice to ward them off. A good ruse used by Khmer women is to subtly put yourself in a position of superiority, by referring to yourself as the older sister (bpong serey) or aunt (ming) or by addressing the man as nephew (kmaoy bprohs). If this doesn’t work, then kick up a huge fuss so that everyone in the vicinity knows that you’re being harassed, which should shame the man into backing off.
Children at risk
Cambodia has an unfortunate reputation as a destination for paedophiles, and child sex tourism has grown here as a result of crackdowns on child prostitution in other Southeast Asian countries.
The Ministry of the Interior (National Police) asks that anyone witnessing child prostitution in Cambodia immediately report it to the police on their national “child-wise” hotline (023 997919). ChildSafe also has a 24-hour national hotline to report children at risk (012 311112, childsafe-cambodia.org). You could also consider contacting ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking, ecpat.net).
Money on arrival
There are ATMs at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports and in the border areas at Poipet, Bavet and Koh Kong, so you can get US$ cash as soon as you arrive in Cambodia. Note also that unless you have obtained a Cambodian visa in advance, you’ll need $20 in cash to buy one on arrival.
Walk around any Cambodian town towards dusk and you’ll see groups of young men stood in circles in parks, on pavements, or any other available space playing the uniquely Cambodian game of sey. The aim of the game is simple, with a kind of large, heavily weighted shuttlecock being kicked from player to player around the circle, the goal being to keep the shuttlecock in the air for as long as possible. It’s a kind of collaborative keepy-uppy rather than a competitive sport, although players typically attempt to outdo one another in the flamboyance of their footwork. Simple side-footed kicks keep the shuttlecock moving; cheeky backheels gain extra marks for artistic merit; and for maximum kudos players attempt spectacular behind-the-back overhead kicks, before the shuttlecock falls to the ground, and the game begins again.
Beer girls and taxi girls
Cambodia’s beer girls, mostly working in local restaurants and bars, will approach you almost before you’ve sat down. Each representing a brand of beer, they rely on commissions based on the amount they manage to sell, and will keep opening bottles or cans and topping up your glass, hoping to get you to drink more. You don’t pay them for the beer, as the cost is calculated at the end by counting up the empties. Although it is not part of the deal, some beer girls may drink and chat with men to up their consumption, but that’s as far as it goes. In some Western establishments, beer girls may also help serve food.
Although things are more relaxed than they used to be, “decent” Cambodian women tend neither go to bars nor drink alcohol, so, while beer girls are somewhat looked down upon, the taxi girls who frequent the karaoke parlours and nightclubs are beyond the pale. Usually from very poor families, they have a role akin to that of hostess, dance partner and sometimes call girl rolled into one. If you invite them to join you at your table or dance with you, the charge will be added to your bill at the end of the evening, as will the cost of their drinks.
The abuse that taxi girls receive is a serious issue, and a number of NGOs in Cambodia – daughtersofcambodia.org, for example – have been set up to offer women alternative incomes in the form of spa and beautician training, handicrafts and the like.
Shopping in Cambodia
Cambodia has a wide range of souvenirs – colourful cotton and silk fabrics, wood and stone carvings, lacquerware, jewellery and much more. Local handicrafts have also been given a boost thanks to various local and NGO schemes set up to give Cambodia’s large disabled population and other disadvantaged members of society a new source of income by training them in various traditional crafts.
Local markets are often the best place to hunt for collectibles. In the capital, Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market) is the acknowledged place to buy souvenirs, and there are also several excellent markets in Siem Reap. In both towns you’ll also find plenty of specialist shops, galleries and hotel boutiques – usually more expensive, though quality is generally significantly higher.
As a general rule, when shopping for souvenirs it’s a good idea to buy it when you see it. Something unusual you chance upon in the provinces may not be available elsewhere.
The ubiquitous chequered scarf, the krama, worn by all Cambodians, is arguably the country’s most popular tourist souvenir, and there are plenty to buy in markets everywhere. Many kramas are woven from mixed synthetic threads; although the cloth feels soft, a krama of this sort is hot to wear and doesn’t dry very well if you want to use it as a towel. The very best kramas come from Kompong Cham and Phnom Sarok and are made from cotton (umbok). Those from Kompong Cham are often to be had from female peddlers in the markets – a large one costs around $3.
Though cotton kramas feel stiff and thin at first, a few good scrubs in cold water will soften them up and increase the density of texture. They last for years and actually improve with wear, making a cool, dust-proof and absorbent fabric.
The weaving of silk in Cambodia can be traced back to the Angkor era, when the Khmer started to imitate imported cloth from India. Weaving skills learned over generations were lost with the Khmer Rouge, but the 1990s saw a resurgence of silk weaving in many Cambodian villages (the thread is usually imported from Vietnam, though a few Cambodian villages have again started to keep their own silkworms). Most of the cloth is produced to order for the dealers and silk-sellers of Phnom Penh, so if you visit a village where silk is woven, don’t be surprised if they haven’t any fabric for sale. Unpatterned silk is sometimes available by the metre in dark and pastel colours, and modern designs are also becoming available.
Silk is produced in fixed widths – nearly always 800mm – and sold in two lengths: a kabun (3.6m), sufficient for a long straight skirt and short-sleeved top; and a sampot (half a kabun), which is enough for a long skirt. A sampot starts at around $15–20, but you can easily pay double this, depending on quality and design. Sometimes the silk will have been washed, which makes it softer in both texture and hue – and slightly more expensive. Silk scarves are inexpensive (around $5–6) and readily available. They come in a range of colours and are usually pre-washed, with the ends finished in hand-tied knots.
There are several different styles of fabric, with villages specializing in particular types of weaving. Hol is a time-honoured cloth decorated with small patterns symbolizing flowers, butterflies and diamonds, and traditionally produced with threads of five basic colours – yellow, red, black, green and blue (modern variations use pastel shades). The vibrant, shimmering hues change depending on the direction from which they are viewed. Parmoong is a lustrous ceremonial fabric, made by weaving a motif or border of gold or silver thread onto plain silk. Some parmoong is woven exclusively for men in checks or stripes of cream, green or red, to be worn in sarongs. Traditional wall-hangings, pedan, come in classical designs often featuring stylized temples and animals such as elephants and lions; they’re inexpensive ($5–10) and easily transportable.
Wood and stone carvings
Wood and stone carvings are available in a wide range of sizes, from small heads of Jayavarman VII, costing just a couple of dollars, to almost life-sized dancing apsaras costing hundreds of dollars. In Phnom Penh you’ll find a good selection along Street 178 near the National Museum, or in Psar Toul Tom Poung, though the fact that they’re mass-produced means that they lack a certain finesse; to find something really fine you’re better off at the workshop of the Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap or a traditional stone-carving village such as Santok.
Antiques and curios
Antiques and curios can be found at specialist stalls in and around Psar Toul Tom Poung in Phnom Penh, and at the Siem Reap Night Market. Look out for the partitioned wooden boxes used to store betel-chewing equipment, as well as elegant silver boxes for the betel nuts, phials for the leaves and paste, and cutters – a bit like small shears – for slicing the nuts. There are plenty of religious artefacts available too, from wooden Buddha images and other carvings to brass bowls and offering plates.
You may occasionally find antiquated traditional musical instruments, such as the chapei, a stringed instrument with a long neck and a round sound-box; and the chhing, in which the two small brass plates, similar to castanets in appearance, are played by being brushed against each other.
Compasses used in the ancient Chinese art of feng shui can be bought for just a few dollars; they indicate compass directions related to the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. You might also be able to search out opium weights, used to weigh out the drug and often formed in the shape of small human figures or animals.
Cambodia’s ancient temples have suffered massively from looting, and although it’s unlikely that you’ll be offered ancient figurines (most of the trade goes to Bangkok or Singapore), many other stolen artefacts – such as chunchiet funerary statues from Rattanakiri – are finding their way onto the market. To export anything purporting to be an antique you’ll need the correct paperwork, so check the dealer can provide this before agreeing a deal. Also be aware that Cambodians are expert at artificially ageing their wares and be sure that you want the item for its own sake rather than because of its alleged antiquity.
Woven baskets, rattan and bamboo
A versatile fibre, rattan is used to produce furniture as well as household items such as baskets, bowls and place mats. In Rattanakiri you can find khapa, deep, conical rattan-and-bamboo baskets fitted with shoulder straps so that they can be worn on the back; they cost around $10 and are still used by the chunchiet to carry produce to market. Everyday items made from rattan and bamboo and available in the markets can also make interesting souvenirs, including noodle ladles and nested baskets; the latter are used to measure out portions of rice but are also useful back home for storing fruit and vegetables.
Silver and gold
Most silverware in Cambodia is sold in Phnom Penh and produced in villages nearby, particularly Kompong Luong. The price will give you an indication of whether an item is solid silver or silver-plated copper – a few dollars for the silver-plated items; more than double that for a comparable item in solid silver. Small silver or silver-plated boxes in the shape of fruits or animals make terrific, inexpensive gifts. Considerably more expensive are ceremonial plates and offering bowls, usually made of solid silver and intricately decorated with leaf motifs. Silver necklaces, bracelets and earrings, mostly imported from Indonesia, are sold only for the tourist market (Khmers don’t rate the metal for jewellery) and go for just a few dollars in the markets; modern silver designer jewellery is also available in the NGO-run shops and boutiques of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
There’s nothing sentimental or romantic about the Khmer obsession with gold jewellery. This is considered a means of investment and explains the hundreds of gold dealers in and around markets all over the country, where it’s not unusual to see local people negotiating to trade in their jewellery for more expensive pieces. Gold is good value and items can be made up quickly and quite cheaply to your own design, and even set with gems from Pailin and Rattanakiri.
Prices are fixed in shops and malls, but you’re expected to bargain in markets and when buying from hawkers. Bargaining is seen as an amicable game and social exchange. The seller usually starts at a moderately inflated price: for cheapish items, with a starting price below $10, expect to be able to knock around a third off; with pricier items you might be lucky to get a reduction of ten percent. To keep a sense of perspective while bargaining, it’s worth remembering that on items like a T-shirt or krama, the vendor’s margin is often as little as a thousand riel.
Festivals in Cambodia
Cambodians are always celebrating a festival of some sort, heading out to the pagoda with family and friends or taking off for the provinces; unsurprisingly, festivals are the busiest times for shopping and travelling. For details of public holidays, consult the “Travel essentials”.
The most significant festival of the year is Bonn Chaul Chhnam (Khmer New Year; April 13 or 14), when families get together, homes are spring-cleaned and people flock to the temples with elaborate offerings. Bonn Pchum Ben (late Sept), or “Ancestors’ Day”, is another key date on the festive calendar. Families make offerings to their ancestors in the fifteen days leading up to it, and celebrations take place in temples on the day itself.
Marking the start of the planting season in May, the ceremony of Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal (Royal Ploughing Ceremony), held at Lean Preah Sre park in Phnom Penh, combines animism, Buddhism and plenty of pomp. It begins with chanting monks asking the earth spirits for permission to plough. Then ceremonial furrows are drawn, rice is scattered and offerings are made to the divinities. The most important part of the ceremony, however, is what the Royal Bulls choose when offered rice, grain, grass, water and wine. Rice or grain augur well; water signifies rain; grass is a sign that crops will be devastated by insects; and wine, that there will be drought.
Though it has been cancelled for the last few years, the Bonn Om Toeuk (early Nov) water festival has traditionally been celebrated when the current of the Tonle Sap River, which swells so much during the rainy season that it actually pushes water upstream, reverses and flows back into the Mekong. The centre of festivities is Phnom Penh’s riverbank, where everyone gathers to watch boat racing, an illuminated boat parade and fireworks.
Buddhist offering days (exact dates vary according to the lunar calendar) are also colourful occasions: stalls do a roaring trade in bunches of flowers that are taken to temples and used to decorate shrines at home. Lotus buds – the traditional offering flower to the Buddha – are artistically folded to expose their pale-pink inner petals, while jasmine buds are threaded onto sticks and strings as fragrant tokens.
Accommodation in Cambodia
Finding accommodation is seldom a problem. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville all have plenty of accommodation in all categories, and even smaller towns usually have a reasonable choice of guesthouses and a couple of modest hotels.
In most towns touts meet incoming transport and will take you free of charge to their favourite establishment; if you don’t like it, feel free to go elsewhere. Sometimes tuk-tuk and moto drivers get a dollar or so in commission for dropping you off at a particular guesthouse – this premium may be added to your room rate. In Sihanoukville some drivers may resist taking you to a guesthouse of your choice, asserting that it has closed or is full of prostitutes or some such excuse in the hope of being able to take you to a place that pays them commission. Mostly, however, they’re just keen to introduce themselves and to secure work driving or guiding you for the duration of your stay. If you’ve booked accommodation in advance, some hotels and guesthouses will send someone to pick you up from the bus, boat or plane for no extra charge.
Note that camping in Cambodia is technically illegal and also potentially dangerous due to the risk of land mines.
Budget accommodation in Cambodia is generally excellent value, available in a range of guesthouses and hotels (note that many places which call themselves guesthouses are actually more like small hotels). Most places are functional concrete boxes, rather lacking in character, although a few livelier establishments geared towards Western backpackers can be found in the major tourist centres. Sihanoukville and the islands have a plethora of bungalow resorts; these are very simple timber affairs (usually with shutters rather than glass windows) perhaps with a fan (although this is rare on the islands), that can cost as little as $5 for a simple room.
Most budget rooms cost in the region of $7 a night (slightly more in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) and are usually clean and tidy with cotton sheet(s), basic toiletries and towels, a TV and ceiling fan, and sometimes with optional air conditioning for an extra $5 or so a night. A lot of budget guesthouses and hotels also have fancier rooms with air conditioning for around $15 a night. Virtually all except the very cheapest budget rooms come with en-suite bathroom with Western-style toilet and sometimes hot water as well. Wi-fi is now available in the vast majority of places, although mosquito nets are only rarely provided – bring your own.
A few places also have dorm beds, typically costing around $3–10 per night, and there are a couple of hostels in Siem Reap. On the islands a number of establishments offer hammocks for a few dollars, and tents ($6–25), the most expensive of which are crafted into spacious “rooms”.
Note that you might also be able to bargain down your room rate if you’re going to be staying in one guesthouse/hotel for a few nights or longer, especially in more downmarket places.
Mid-range and luxury
Mid-range (roughly $25–75 per night) and luxury ($75 and upwards per night) accommodation is found only in major towns and tourist hotspots. Mid-range accommodation ranges from smart business-style hotels to lower-end boutique hotels and resorts. Facilities are often not significantly different from those in more expensive rooms in budget hotels and guesthouses (with a/c, hot water, minibar and perhaps tea- and coffee-making facilities), although rooms are likely to be more comfortably and stylishly furnished, and you’ll probably also get a pool plus in-house restaurant and perhaps other facilities including a gym or spa. Breakfast may also be included in the price.
Luxury accommodation is widely available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville and Kep, with even a few places elsewhere. It’s worth making a reservation if you want to stay somewhere particular, and you should always check online for special deals. Accommodation in this price bracket ranges from international five-star chain hotels through to chic boutique hotels and idyllic resorts constructed in traditional Khmer style. Many top-end establishments offer memorable style and luxury at far lower prices than you might pay in other Asian countries, although rates at the very best places still commonly run into hundreds of dollars per night.
At more expensive places be sure to check whether government tax and service are included in the rack rate, as these can add as much as twenty percent onto the bill.
An increasing number of off-the-beaten-track destinations in Cambodia are now organizing village homestays, offering visitors the chance to experience traditional rural life at first hand. Homestays typically provide simple but comfortable accommodation in a local house, with traditional Khmer meals included. Homestays are usually sold as part of integrated tour packages, often including transport along with various activities that might include walking or cycling tours, wildlife spotting or the chance to explore the culture of your host village and interact with the locals. Rewarding homestays include those at the Mekong villages of Koh Pdao and Koh Preah; at the Dei Ey Forest Experience near Sen Monorom; at the magnificient Banteay Chhmar temple; and at Chi Phat in the southern Cardamom Mountains.
Health advice for Cambodia
Health care in Cambodia is poor. Even the best hospitals have inadequate facilities, low standards of cleanliness and appalling patient care, and should be used only in a dire emergency. For anything serious, if you are able to travel then get to Bangkok. Should you have no option but to go to a Cambodian hospital, try to get a Khmer-speaker to accompany you.
In Phnom Penh a couple of private Western-oriented clinics offer slightly better care than the hospitals, at a higher cost. If you get ill outside Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, self-diagnosis and treatment is often better than visiting a clinic. Wherever you seek medical attention, you will be expected to pay upfront for treatment, medication and food.
Although every town has a number of pharmacies (typically daily 7am–8pm) stocking an extensive range of medications, the staff aren’t required to have a dispensing qualification, so you may want to check the product sheets (and even expiry dates) before you buy. Fake medicines abound and there’s no easy way to determine if what you’re buying is the real thing. Whenever possible buy only in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, which have a couple of reputable pharmacies employing qualified personnel who can help with diagnosis and remedies for simple health problems.
Consider getting a pre-trip dental check-up if you’re travelling for an extended period, as the only places to get reliable dental treatment in Cambodia are in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. If you wear glasses, it’s worth taking along a copy of your prescription (or a spare pair of glasses); you can get replacements made quite cheaply in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Vaccinations and immunizations
It’s worth checking before you leave that you are up to date with routine immunizations, such as tetanus and diphtheria. For Cambodia, you should consider immunizing yourself against hepatitis A, tuberculosis and typhoid; inoculations against hepatitis B, rabies and Japanese encephalitis are recommended if you are going to be at a particular risk (for example if you’re working in a remote area). You’ll need to produce proof that you’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever in the event of arriving from an infected area (West and Central Africa, or South America).
It is as well to consult your doctor or travel clinic as early as possible since it can take anything up to eight weeks to complete a full course of immunizations. All inoculations should be recorded on an international travel vaccination card, which is worth carrying with you in case you get sick.
Hepatitis A, a viral infection of the liver, can be contracted from contaminated food and water – shellfish sold by hawkers and untreated water are particular risks in Cambodia – or by contact with an infected person. Symptoms include dark-coloured urine, aches and pains, nausea, general malaise and tiredness, with jaundice following after a few days. A blood test is needed for diagnosis, and rest, plenty of nonalcoholic fluids and a high-carbohydrate diet are recommended for convalescence. A single shot of immunoglobulin offers short-term protection against hepatitis A.
Far more serious is hepatitis B, passed via contaminated body fluids; it can be contracted through non-sterile needles (including those used in tattooing and acupuncture), sexual contact or from a blood transfusion that hasn’t been properly screened. Symptoms include nonspecific abdominal pain, vomiting, loss of appetite, dark-coloured urine and jaundice. Immunization may be recommended if you are staying in Asia for longer than six months. If you think you have contracted hepatitis B, it’s especially important to seek medical attention.
A combined vaccine is available offering ten years’ protection against hepatitis A and five years’ against hepatitis B; your doctor will be able to advise on its suitability.
Tuberculosis, rabies and tetanus
Tuberculosis, contracted from droplets coughed up by infected persons, is widespread in Cambodia and is a major cause of death in young children. You may have been inoculated against the disease in childhood, but if you’re unsure, consider a skin (Heaf) test, which will determine if you already have immunity.
Rabies is contracted from the bite or saliva of an infected animal. Vaccinations are recommended if you’re going to be spending a long time in rural areas; but even if you’ve been vaccinated, if you are bitten (or licked on an open wound) you will need to get two booster injections as quickly as possible, preferably within 24 to 48 hours.
Tetanus, a bacterial infection that causes muscular cramps and spasms, comes from spores in the earth and can enter the blood circulatory system through wounds and grazes. If left untreated it can cause breathing problems and sometimes death. It’s worth checking if you’ve been vaccinated against tetanus in the last ten years and getting a booster if necessary.
Typhoid and cholera
Typhoid and cholera, bacterial infections that affect the digestive system, are spread by contaminated food and water, and outbreaks are thus usually associated with particularly unsanitary conditions.
Symptoms of typhoid include tiredness, dull headaches and spasmodic fevers, with spots appearing on the abdomen after about a week. Vaccination is suggested if you plan to stay in rural areas of Cambodia, but it doesn’t confer complete immunity, so it remains important to maintain good standards of hygiene.
Sudden, watery diarrhoea and rapid dehydration are among the symptoms of cholera, and medical advice is essential to treat the infection with antibiotics. Vaccination is no longer recommended for cholera due to its poor efficacy. From time to time there are outbreaks of cholera in Cambodia that are well publicized in the media.
Cambodia is a hot and humid country, and dehydration is a potential problem, its onset indicated by headaches, dizziness, nausea and dark urine. Cuts and raw blisters can rapidly become infected and should be promptly treated by cleaning and disinfecting the wound and then applying an air-permeable dressing.
Bites and stings
Insects are legion in Cambodia and are at their worst around November, at the start of the dry season, when there are stagnant pockets of water left from the rains. Even during the hot season (March–May) they come out in the evenings, swarming around light bulbs and warm flesh – they’re annoying rather than harmful, with the exception of mosquitoes.
On the coast, sand flies appear in the late afternoon and evening, delivering nasty bites that don’t erupt until a few hours later, when they become incredibly red and itchy. Once you scratch, the bites become even more inflamed and can take up to a month to recede, leaving behind nasty scars. These little blighters have a limited range and mostly attack victims on the sand; if you’re on or near the beach, it’s probably best to use an insect repellent.
Sun and heat
Even when the sky is overcast the Cambodian sun is fierce, and you should take precautions against sunburn and heat stroke wherever you are. Cover up, use a high-protection-factor sunscreen, wear a hat and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.
Hygiene and stomach complaints
Though catering facilities at many restaurants and food stalls can appear basic, the food you’ll be served is usually absolutely fresh; all ingredients are bought daily and are mostly cooked to order. A good rule of thumb when selecting a place to eat is to pick one that is popular with local people, as the Khmers are fussy about their food and seldom give a place a second chance if they’ve found the food isn’t fresh. Food from street hawkers is usually fine if it’s cooked in front of you. Tap water isn’t drinkable, but bottled water is available everywhere – stick to that and be cautious with ice, which is often cut up in the street from large blocks and handled by several people before it gets to your glass (though in Western restaurants it will probably come from an ice-maker).
The most common travellers’ ailment is upset tummy. Travellers’ diarrhoea often occurs in the early days of a trip as a result of a simple change in diet, though stomach cramps and vomiting may mean it’s food poisoning. If symptoms persist for more than a couple of days, seek medical help as you may need antibiotics to clear up the problem.
Most diarrhoea is short-lived and can be handled by drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding rich or spicy food. Activated charcoal tablets help by absorbing the bad bugs in your gut and usually speed recovery; they’re sold across the counter at pharmacies, but it’s worth bringing some with you from home. It’s often a good idea to rest up for a day or two if your schedule allows. In the event of persistent diarrhoea or vomiting, it’s worth taking oral rehydration salts, available at most pharmacies (or make your own from half a teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar per litre of bottled water).
Unless you’re going on a long journey, avoid taking Imodium and Lomotil. These bung you up by stopping gut movements and can extend the problem by preventing your body expelling the bugs that gave rise to the diarrhoea in the first place.
Dysentery and giardiasis
If there is blood or mucus in your faeces and you experience severe stomach cramps, you may have dysentery, which requires immediate medical attention. There are two forms of the disease, the more serious of which is amoebic dysentery. Even though the symptoms may well recede over a few days, the amoebae will remain in the gut and can go on to attack the liver; treatment with an antibiotic, metronidazole (Flagyl) is thus essential. Equally unpleasant is bacillary dysentery, also treated with antibiotics.
Giardiasis is caused by protozoa usually found in streams and rivers. Symptoms, typically watery diarrhoea and bad-smelling wind, appear around two weeks after the organism has entered the system and can last for up to two weeks. Giardiasis can be diagnosed from microscope analysis of stool samples, and is treated with metronidazole.
Given the prevalence in Cambodia of serious diseases spread by mosquitoes, including multi-resistant malaria, it is important to avoid being bitten. Mosquito nets often aren’t provided in guesthouses and hotels, so it’s worth bringing your own.
Wearing long trousers, socks and a long-sleeved top will reduce the chances of being bitten. Insect repellents containing DEET are the most effective, although you may want to consider a natural alternative such as those based on citronella.
Malaria is prevalent year-round and throughout the country – with the exception of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the area immediately around the Tonle Sap lake. More than 40,000 cases were reported in 2013, and almost 70,000 in 2012.
Malaria is contracted from the night-biting female anopheles mosquito, which injects a parasite into the bloodstream. Chills, fevers and sweating ensue after an incubation period of around twelve days, often along with aching joints, a cough and vomiting, and the symptoms repeat after a couple of days. In Cambodia the dangerous falciparum strain of the disease predominates; if untreated, it can be fatal.
Before you travel, it is important to take advice on a suitable prophylaxis regime, as a course of antimalarial medication needs to be started in advance of arriving in a risk area. Malarone (atovaquone/proguanil) and doxycycline are the two most frequently prescribed antimalarials for Cambodia. Mefloquine (aka Larium) is also sometimes recommended, but has the drawback of well-publicized side effects and may not be effective in western and northern provinces close to the Thai border thanks to the presence of mefloquine-resistant malaria in these areas. Note that taking antimalarials doesn’t guarantee that you won’t contract the disease, a fact that reinforces the need to avoid being bitten.
Emergency treatment for falciparum malaria is 600mg of quinine sulphate, taken three times a day for three days, followed by a single dose of three Fansidar tablets once the quinine course is completed. These tablets are available over the counter at pharmacies throughout Cambodia, but if you suspect malaria you should still see a doctor for a diagnostic blood test.
Outbreaks of dengue fever occur annually in Cambodia with 37 deaths reported in 2009. Spread by the day-biting female aedes mosquito, this is a viral disease that takes about a week to develop following a bite. It resembles a bad case of flu; symptoms include high fever, aches and pains, headache and backache. After a couple of days a red rash appears on the torso, gradually spreading to the limbs. There may also be abnormal bleeding, which requires medical attention.
No vaccine is available at the time of writing, and there is no effective treatment, although paracetamol can be taken to relieve the symptoms (not aspirin, which can increase the potential for bleeding); you should also drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest. Although the symptoms should improve after five or six days, lethargy and depression can last for a month or more – consult a doctor if symptoms persist. Anyone who has previously contracted dengue fever is at particular risk if they subsequently contract a different virus strain, which can result in dengue haemorrhagic fever. In this condition the usual symptoms of dengue fever are accompanied by abdominal pain and vomiting; immediate medical help should be sought, as it can be fatal.
Japanese encephalitis is a serious viral disease carried by night-biting mosquitoes that breed in the rice fields. The risk is highest between May and October. It’s worth considering vaccination if you’re going to be in rural areas of Cambodia for an extended time or are visiting during the high-risk period. Symptoms, which appear five to fifteen days after being bitten, include headaches, a stiff neck, flu-like aches and chills; there’s no specific treatment, but it’s wise to seek medical advice and take paracetamol or aspirin to ease the symptoms.
Sexually transmitted diseases
Cambodia has one of Asia’s highest levels of HIV/AIDS infection, much of it the result of the country’s burgeoning sex trade. An estimated 0.7 percent of the adult population aged 15–49 carries the disease, although rates are slowly falling from a high of 2 percent at the beginning of the millennium thanks to vigorous intervention by health services. Syphilis and gonorrhoea are also rife. Condoms are widely available, although it’s best to stick to Western brands wherever possible.
Canadian Society for International Health csih.org. Extensive list of travel health centres.
CDC cdc.gov/travel. Official US government travel health site.
Hospital for Tropical Diseases Travel Clinic UK thehtd.org.
International Society for Travel Medicine istm.org. A full list of travel health clinics.
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad) UK masta-travel-health.com for the nearest clinic.
Tropical Medical Bureau Ireland tmb.ie.
The Travel Doctor – TMVC traveldoctor.com.au. Lists travel clinics in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The media in Cambodia
Much of Cambodia’s media is sponsored by the country’s political parties, and though the prime minister has declared his support for press freedom, the media continues to be subject to the government’s whims.
Newspapers and magazines
Cambodia has around seven daily Khmer-language newspapers. The two main dailies are Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) and Koh Santepheap, both of which are pro-government.
Cambodia’s two English-language newspapers – the Cambodia Daily (cambodiadaily.com; published daily except Sun) and the Phnom Penh Post (phnompenhpost.com; Mon–Fri) – can be found at newsstands in larger cities. It’s also worth looking out for the several English-language magazines. Asia Life (asialifemagazine.com; free from cafés and restaurants) is the Time Out of Phnom Penh with a host of articles related to new things happening in the city. Bayon Pearnik (bayonpearnik.com), a free satirical monthly, available in Western restaurants and bars in Phnom Penh, includes travel features and news of bar and club launches.
Television and radio
Cambodia’s seven Khmer TV stations broadcast a mix of political coverage, game shows, concerts, cartoons, sport – kick-boxing is a huge favourite – and Thai soaps dubbed into Khmer. The state broadcaster, TVK, is owned by the ruling CPP, who also have influence with most of the other channels. Guesthouses and hotels usually offer cable and, increasingly, satellite TV stations, enabling you to watch a vast selection of foreign channels, typically including BBC World, CNN, CNBC, HBO, National Geographic and Star Sport.
Among the many Khmer radio stations, just a couple carry English programmes. The principal local station favoured by foreigners is Love FM on 97.5 FM, featuring a mix of Western pop, news stories and phone-ins.
Culture in Cambodia
These days the handshake has become quite common in Cambodia, and is used between Cambodian men or when Cambodian men greet foreigners; generally, however, women still greet foreigners using the traditional Cambodian form of greeting, the sompeyar.
The sompeyar is a gesture of politeness and a sign of respect. Typically, it is performed with hands placed palms together, fingers pointing up, in front of the body at chest level, and the head is inclined slightly forward as if about to bow. When greeting monks, however, the hands should be placed in front of the face, and when paying respects to Buddha (or the king), the hands are put in front of the forehead. The sompeyar is always used towards those older than yourself, and is taught to children at an early age.
Cambodians are reserved people and find public displays of affection offensive; people in the provinces are particularly conservative. Holding hands or linking arms in public, though quite a common sign of friendship between two men or two women, is considered unacceptable if it involves a member of the opposite sex; even married couples won’t touch each other in public. Traditionally, Cambodian women would not have gone out drinking or have been seen with a man who was not her fiancé or husband. Times are changing, however, and a more cosmopolitan attitude is gaining ground in the towns, where you’ll see groups of girls and boys out together.
Everywhere in Cambodia, travellers will gain more respect if they are well dressed. Cambodians themselves dress modestly, men usually wearing long trousers and a shirt. Many women wear blouses rather than T-shirts, and sampots (sarongs) or knee-length skirts, but many also wear trousers or jeans, and younger girls in larger cities can increasingly be seen in the kind of short skirts and strappy tops favoured by their Western counterparts. Even so, as a general rule it’s best to avoid skimpy clothes and shorts unless you’re at the beach.
When visiting temples it’s important to wear clothes that keep your shoulders and legs covered. Hats should be removed when passing through the temple gate and shoes taken off before you go into any of the buildings (shoes are also removed before entering a Cambodian home). If you sit down on the floor inside a shrine, avoid pointing the soles of your feet towards any Buddha images (in fact, you should observe the same rule towards people generally, in any location). Monks are not allowed to touch women, so women should take care when walking near monks, and avoid sitting next to them on public transport.
Cambodians are often intrigued at the appearance of foreigners, and it is not considered rude to stare quite intently at visitors. Local people may also giggle at men with earrings – in Cambodia boys are given an earring in the belief it will help an undescended testicle. It’s worth bearing in mind that displaying anger won’t get you far, as the Khmers simply find this embarrassing.