Cambodia can and will capture your heart. Its ancient empire is the first reason to visit, but there is so much more it has to offer. Stay a bit longer, step away from the tourist spots, and you will fall in love and never want to leave.
Here are the things I’ve learned that will keep you safe and prepared for this incredible country:
The easiest and most straightforward way to get a visa for Cambodia is at the airport. Bring a couple of photos with you to avoid extra charges. Fill in the form on arrival, wait while 20-odd officials process it, and off you go! In the past, if you planned on staying longer than 60 days it was easy to get an ‘ordinary’ visa. This now comes with strings attached, involving a work permit.
So, if you’re on holidays in the region, the tourist visa is the best option. It costs US$ 30 for the initial visa and most travel agencies can add an extension of 30 more days for around $50-55. Overstay penalties are $10/day.
You can get a visa on arrival for overland travel too, but it’s best to read up as there are scams and pitfalls to be aware of. It’s also not recommended to get visas online because there are many scam websites. Even legitimate visas are often questioned upon entry.
2. Don’t get scammed
Tourism can have a profound effect on a community, especially a poor community like Siem Reap. There, poverty and mass tourism collide. Make sure your money goes to helping by supporting social enterprises and NGOs. There are several that give free baby milk powder to those that need it. That is what makes a lasting and positive difference for the people of Cambodia.
Visit ConCERT in Siem Reap for the best recommendations on how you can help.
3. That I wouldn’t need my mini skirt or a jumperCambodia is a very conservative country. You will see some locals dressed in western style at some of the clubs. Most likely they’re in a profession you’re not interested in. Leave the mini skirt and tank tops (yes boys too) at home. You’ll feel a lot more relaxed and comfortable amongst the Cambodian people. Plus, they will appreciate you respecting their culture.
Cambodia is hot. Very hot, especially March and April. During the wet season (roughly May to September) it’s a good idea to bring a lightweight waterproof jacket. Even in the cool season, the lowest temperatures are around 18 degrees Celsius at night time. Save your luggage space and don’t worry about bringing too much heavy clothing. If you are visiting Cambodia during the wet season do carry eco-sensitive bug spray with you.
4. Drinking water
As an eco conscious traveler, I worried about drinking water when I came to Cambodia. Especially since I like to keep my plastic footprint small. What I soon discovered is that it’s easy to get filtered water in lots of places. Most guesthouses and restaurants will fill your bottle on request. Some for free, and some for a nominal fee. Some will promote it, some you can ask. This is a good result – so pack your water bottle and know that you can drink your fill.
It is possible to hire motorbikes in Cambodia, but it’s actually illegal! As well as avoiding fines on your holiday, it’s much safer to avoid the motos.
The traffic operates in a very unusual way to how it does anywhere out of Southeast Asia. Road rules are flexible and it’s not uncommon for people to ride/drive the wrong way down the street. They also cut corners or use ‘creative’ maneuvers for getting to their destination. Safe to say, avoid driving a moto yourself.
There are moto taxis, but make sure you get a helmet and of course, check if your insurance covers use of moto taxis. The best option is to use tuk tuks.
6. Cultural sensitivitiesAs well as respectful attire, there are a few more things that make your stay in Cambodia easier. Smile! Sometimes things can get difficult. Your tuk tuk drivers can’t find an address, sellers trying to upsell, and many other things that are new and unusual. The best reaction is always to smile, laugh, say thank you or goodbye.
As with many Asian cultures, Cambodians don’t want to lose face in front of you. Tourists are important, so everyone will leave happy if you can stay calm and patient. Don't forget to part company with a smile.
Greetings between Cambodians are typically hands in prayer position (Sampeh). Don’t hug or do affectionate greetings with Cambodians. If you do, it’s going to be awkward. Keep this in mind especially in photos. Try to assess if someone actually wants to be in your photo or if they’re being polite. Limit the body contact for the pose or you’ll end up with a bunch of photos of grimacing Cambodians!
7. You will need more than 3 days
The temples in Siem Reap are fantastic. They can be exhausting, though, especially in the hotter months. Best to get a multi day temple pass and pace yourself. Spend half day on temple adventures and other fun activities.
Around Siem Reap, make time for Cambodian style picnics and relaxation. You can do this in places like Kulen Mountain, West Baray, and Phnom Kraom. Visit the Tonle Sap lake and explore the Banteay Srei region for wildlife and history sites. When in Phnom Penh, it’s only a short excursion to the beach side and islands.
Battambang is a lovely place to visit. As Cambodia’s second biggest city, it’s a good place to enjoy Cambodia’s hospitality. Be sure to visit attractions like the Bamboo Railway and the Bat Cave.
Travel insurance is a must! This shouldn't be daunting, but there are some risks in Cambodia and so it is necessary. A lot of people visit Cambodia for volunteer opportunities. Some insurance policies don’t cover work even in a voluntary capacity, so check out your policy first.
Risk of theft is high. It's petty theft, but it’s best not to carry a handbag or backpack out at night time, especially in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Health care is both basic and expensive. The international hospitals charge well beyond $150 for a basic gastro treatment. For more serious injuries or illnesses, you want to have the option of going to Bangkok or Singapore.
By the way, you will get an upset stomach while you’re here, no matter what. Be sure to bring medicine with you from home.
If you run out, visit a pharmacy. They have everything you will need, no prescriptions required. If you need some advice, try UCare Pharmacy. They’re open longer hours and experienced in traveler questions.
9. There are pools everywhere, even if you don’t stay at that hotel
Want the swanky hotel but can’t afford the price tag? Don’t worry, a lot of hotels and guesthouses in Cambodia have an open door policy. Some charge $1-2 for use of a basic pool in a basic hotel, while it's up to $25 for use of a pool in a luxury hotel. It’s also possible in many places to order something from their menu and have complimentary use of the pool. Bliss!
Cambodia is a place full of kind-hearted and generous people. This in itself makes it a great place to live and to feel at home. There is a lot of fun to enjoy too, picnicking is definitely high on the list. Cambodians love to eat, so most social activities revolve around food. The natural environment is stunning. The countryside is where the ‘real’ Cambodia is, away from the busy cities. The cities are interesting too. There's lots of diversity thanks to large numbers of foreigners and locals co-existing.
Sarah’s background in tourism is what brought her to live in Siem Reap. She wanted to get involved with a tourism industry early on and has been in Siem Reap since 2014. She loves hiking and cycling and being in nature. Originally from Australia, she believes she's lucky to live in such a different place. She advocates for environmental protection and works online. Who knows where else she may live in the future.