When Europe was going through its Dark Ages, Angkor was the largest city in the world and the seat of the ancient Khmer Empire. Today, the remnants of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple complex is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia and a place visited by millions of people every year. As you’ll see in this article, Angkor Wat might be a good reason for visiting Cambodia but it’s certainly not the only one. There are a lot of good reasons to travel in this part of the world but before that, there are some certain things you should know before visiting Cambodia. Here are some of the things I wish I knew before visiting this beautiful country!
It’s Not All About Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the most famous tourist attraction in Cambodia but there are a lot of other places that are worth visiting. Phnom Penh is an interesting, chaotic city, eco-tourism destinations like Kampot and Battambang are becoming increasingly popular, the national parks of Phnom Kulen and Preah Monivong Bokor are amazing but the most beautiful part of Cambodia, in my opinion, are the islands.
Speaking of them…
You Must Not Miss The Islands
When you have a country like Thailand as a neighbor, it’s not surprising that your islands will not be as talked-about. However, that doesn’t mean Cambodia doesn’t have any gorgeous islands. Predominately situated off the southwestern coast, Cambodia’s islands are beautiful, pristine, underdeveloped, and not crowded. In other words, it’s like visiting Thailand 30-40 years ago. If you’re in Cambodia for two or three weeks, you just have to spend some time on the islands.
The most famous, biggest, and busiest island is Koh Rong. Most travelers who visit Cambodia head here because it’s close to the coast and has good tourist facilities. The busiest part of the island is already starting to resemble Thailand but if you don’t like it, there are always plenty of other beautiful islands to choose from, such as Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Thmei, King Island, etc.
Are you already sold on visiting Cambodia? Great! You just have to get a visa first…
If you’re getting a tourist visa, there’s no need of going to the embassy before your trip. Cambodia offers a visa on arrival for all tourists visiting Cambodia. The fee is $30 USD and the visa is valid for 30 days. In addition to the $30 fee, you would also need to provide one passport-sized photograph.
PS. there are many “tour operators” that might try to trick you into paying more than $30 for the visa, mostly when crossing the border with a bus from Vietnam, Thailand, or Laos. If you experience something like this, politely decline and get your own visa at the border. You can do this when crossing the border by road too.
And speaking of scams, here are a few more tourist scams you should be aware of.
Don’t Give Money To Children/Girls With Babies
While walking the streets of any touristy town in Cambodia, you’ll inevitably see children or young girls with babies begging for money. Feeling bad, you might give them some money or even buy some food for them. I know this might sound harsh, but don’t do it. A lot of these kids will just go ahead and return the product(s) you bought for them to the store and share the earnings with the seller. I’ve seen this happening many times with my own eyes and this is definitely one of the most important things you should know before visiting Cambodia.
Another variation of this scam features these same kids asking for a meal and pointing at a restaurant where after ordering a meal, you’d be hit with an astronomical bill. Don’t fall for it.
Learn Some History Before Visiting Cambodia
If you think some of the things mentioned above are different or even shocking, that’s probably because you’re not familiar with Cambodia’s history, especially its recent dark history under the Khmer Rouge. Reading some history will be a good intro to visiting some interesting landmarks such as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre.
Properly Greeting People
Handshake is not a typical greeting in Cambodia. Instead, they put their palms together in front of their chest, similarly to Thailand and India. The greeting is called Sampeah. When greeting people of similar age, place your palms in front of your chest and when greeting elderly people, place your palms at mouth level.
Another thing you should prepare for when meeting people is…
The Loss of Face
Generally, Cambodians smile at everything. However, that doesn’t mean that they always understand what you’re talking about. When asking for directions, ordering food, showing a driver where you have to go, etc. if you notice an unusual smile on their face, this probably means they don’t quite understand what you want or where you want to go. This is one of the important things to know before visiting Cambodia because it can save you from a lot of awkward situations.
And speaking of avoiding awkward situations…
Needless to say, at temples and holy places, you have to take your shoes off. But that’s not the only place people walk bare-feet. If you ever visit a Cambodian family’s home, taking your shoes off before entering is a must. A lot of hostels practice this and you’ll even see restaurants that ask their customers to take their shoes off before entering.
Another perhaps uncomfortable thing you should get used to are…
If you’re not used to, get used to Asian bathrooms. Western bathrooms in Cambodia are not very common. This means that the shower and the toilet are often together and you have to squat to use the toilet and carry your own toilet paper around.
You Can Use Dollars
The official currency of Cambodia is Riel but you can pay for anything in USD. This includes restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and even tuk-tuk drivers. However, since they don’t use any American coins, you’ll always get your change in Riel. Knowing this, it’s probably a good idea to always have $10 and $5 bills for your smaller expenses so that you don’t get a lot of change in Riel. It’s frustrating, I know, but you can use this change to buy things like snacks, water, etc.
But the good thing is, if you’re coming from the US or have savings in USD, you don’t have to lose money on conversion to the local currency. Another good reason to have dollars with you is that…
Cash Is King
Most local shops, guesthouses, and even restaurants don’t accept credit cards. And even in places where cards are accepted, you’ll always be slapped with a 4-5% transaction fee, depending on the bank. Even if you withdraw money at the ATM, you’ll pay at least $5 per transaction (more for bigger transactions).
And just like in most other countries where cash is king…
Planning in advance isn’t necessary
If you don’t like planning ahead and this stresses you out, you should definitely consider visiting Cambodia. There are a lot of bus companies with buses going to every corner of the country and there are a lot of hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and other types of accommodation. Booking in advance won’t make anything cheaper (except for your flight ticket, of course) but if you’re visiting a super-touristy place like Angkor Wat, try to arrange your accommodation and bus at least one day in advance.
Speaking of buses, traveling, and other things to know before visiting Cambodia, get ready for…
Chaotic Traffic And Slow Journeys
Traveling around Southeast Asia, you might be used to crazy traffic but Cambodia is on another level. Even though there aren’t as many bikes as in Vietnam, traffic in Cambodia is quite chaotic and you should think twice if you’re considering renting a car. The fact that Cambodia doesn’t have a railway, except for the tourist train from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh doesn’t help ease the traffic. In addition to this, the chaotic traffic allows a lot of pickpockets to target people (and especially tourists) by snatching phones, wallets, purses, etc.
Similarly to Laos, the roads are also not very good and that’s why traveling from one city to another can take hours even though Cambodia is a relatively small country. And when traveling between cities, keep an eye on the map and mark the local bus stations. Some bus drivers drop tourists in the middle of nowhere where they will be intercepted by a tuk-tuk driver who was most likely informed about your situation by the bus driver.
However, don’t let this discourage you from exploring. The real beauty of Cambodia lies in…
The Rural Areas
You might not find beautiful beaches, historic landmarks, or thriving urban neighborhoods but you’ll discover a new dimension of Cambodia where local culture is strong and the traditional way of doing things is preserved. These are the places where one can fall in love with this country and experience the real-life in Cambodia.
In the end, I would like to point your attention to a couple of problems you should be aware of before visiting Cambodia.
Don’t Ride Elephants And Avoid Animal Tourism
In case you didn’t know, 90% of the so-called animal sanctuaries in Southeast Asia that profit from wildlife tourism use barbaric and unacceptable methods of treating the animals that bring them these profits. Some major travel companies like Tripadvisor already banned selling tickets to most of these places but unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from participating in activities like elephant riding and seeing other circus-like performances.
Please, before visiting Cambodia, educate yourself (and if possibly others) on this issue. Together, we can make a difference. To learn more about this topic and responsible tourism, you can start by reading our post.
Water and Litter Problems
You probably don’t know this but the peak season in Seam Reap, the most touristy place in Cambodia is between November and February. This also happens to be the dry season and the increased demand for laundry, swimming pools, and showers by the increased number of tourists reduces the area’s water table. Subsequently, this causes the land around the Angkor Wat to move, putting all these amazing temples at risk. Please, have this in mind when traveling to Cambodia and use water conservatively.
However, this isn’t the only problem Cambodia has. The country also struggles with a major garbage disposal problem. That’s why you can see trash everywhere walking on the streets around Cambodia. This presents an organizational and I would even say cultural issue and tourists don’t help make it any better. Having this in mind, try to avoid buying products with plastic (or other) disposable packages made of materials that can’t be recycled. Or even better, use a refillable travel bottle. Do your research, be aware of all these cultural and economic issues, and do your best to at least not make things any worse.
Helpful resources for traveling to Cambodia
Looking for an affordable flight to Cambodia? From my personal experience, Qatar Airways has the cheapest flights and this code can get you as much as 20% off on all flight bookings.
If you want to save on accommodation, use this Booking discount code to get up to 10% off on all accommodation bookings in Cambodia.
For travel insurance, use this World Nomads discount code to get a great deal.
Did you ever visit Cambodia? Are you thinking of traveling to Cambodia soon? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.
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