Cambodia is a country deeply rooted in and fiercely proud of its Buddhist traditions. Across its diverse landscape lie sleepy fishing communities, frenetic, pulsing commercial centers, and ancient temples preserved for centuries. Though planning a trip here may seem daunting, this Insider’s Guide to Cambodia will help you peel back the layers to expose the true heart of Cambodia.
Located in mainland Southeast Asia, Cambodia shares borders with Vietnam to the east and southeast and Laos and Thailand to the north and west. To the southwest lies the Gulf of Thailand, which encompasses 60 islands spread across four coastal provinces.
Cambodia has an approximate area of 70,000 square miles, about 20 percent of which is agricultural. Lowland plains cover much of the country and contain the Mekong River Basic and south-central Tonle Sap Lake. The densely forested and sparsely populated highlands comprise the low-lying Cardamom Mountains and Elephant mountains in the west and southwest.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is spoken by approximately 90 percent of the population. Though French was dominant beginning in the late 19th century, the mid-1900s saw a shift to English as the most commonly spoken international language. Most street signs are written in Khmer and English, and English is used in many universities and publications throughout the country. However, don’t expect a seamless conversation in English with most locals. It would be helpful—and polite!—to learn a few key words and phrases in Khmer.
Money & Tipping
The official currency is the Cambodian riel, but U.S. dollars are commonly accepted and exchanged. ATMs are widely available, and many hotels and restaurants in larger cities accept credit cards.
Tips are not generally expected, but can go a long way in Cambodia’s struggling economy. A general rule of thumb is 5 to 10 percent for the fancier restaurants and hotels, and up to a few thousand riel—use your discretion—for taxi drivers or tour guides who go above and beyond the call of duty.
Cambodia’s modern culinary traditions borrow heavily from the cuisine of the rest of Southeast Asia. Dishes include Thai-inspired salads and sour soups, spicy Indian curries, and stir fries adapted from generations of Chinese migrants. Rice is the foundation of every meal—so much so, in fact, that Cambodians greet each other by asking, “Have you eaten rice yet?”
Seafood is a staple in Cambodian cuisine and finds its way into most meals. A common breakfast is kuyteav, a hearty noodle soup made from dried squid and beef or pork bone broth. For lunch locals enjoy fish amok: freshwater fish mixed with coconut cream and curry paste and steamed in banana leaves.
If you’re feeling wary about the local cuisine, you won’t have trouble finding international restaurants that cater to Western palates. Vegans and vegetarians will generally have an easier time eating here, though you can sometimes order traditional Cambodian dishes like amok with a vegetarian option.
These days, Cambodia is a relatively safe country for tourists. However, it’s always a good idea to be alert in a new environment. Robberies tends to spike before major festivals, especially in Phnom Penh, so stay vigilant. Despite the number of guns in the country, armed theft is relatively low, prompting you to be cautious but not paranoid. Make sure you stick to marked paths when visiting remote areas, as there is the potential for landmines left over from the years of Khmer Rouge rule.
Weather and When to Go
Due to its proximity to the equator, Cambodia is warm to hot all year round with the climate following the monsoon cycle of wet and dry seasons. November through March marks the dry season, with average temperatures anywhere from 80°F to 100°F. The wet season is June through October, and the temperatures don’t drop much, if at all, from those of the dry season.
Many visitors avoid traveling here during the monsoon months. If you go during October and November as the rains taper off, you’ll be rewarded with lush green landscapes and escape the dust—not to mention the crowds—of the dry months. While you’ll be fine in a tee-shirt year round, you might want to bring along a light sweater to keep your teeth from chattering in air-conditioned hotels and restaurants.
Culture & Etiquette
Cambodia is a conservative country that places a premium on modesty and respect. As with other countries in Southeast Asia, the Buddhist concept of “keeping face” governs every level of social interactions. It is very important to Cambodians that they retain their dignity, so they react to embarrassment or confusion by giggling or laughing. Be calm and patient and keep your sense of humor at the ready!
While handshakes among men are common in Cambodia, it is polite for foreign women to greet locals with the sompeyar—placing palms together with fingers pointing upward and inclining the head forward as if bowing. A general rule for both men and women is to respond with the greeting you are given. Other tips to keep in mind:
-Cover your arms and upper legs, particularly at religious sites.
-Remove shoes and hats or head coverings before entering a temple.
-Be aware of your feet: do not point them at anyone, particularly a monk, or a statue or image of Buddha.
-Don’t touch anyone on the top of the head.
-Don’t hand an object to someone with your left hand.
-Locals consider it rude to step over food or another person.
Cambodia’s capital is a bustling hub at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Angkor, the previous capital, was poorly situated for trade and prone to attacks from the Siamese. In 1430 the country’s political center was relocated to Phnom Penh. Today the city is a thriving metropolis known for its ornate palaces and religious sites. Particularly noteworthy is the Silver Pagoda on the compound of the Royal Palace. Its floors comprise five tons of glistening silver, though most of these tiles—aside from those located in the entrance—are covered for preservation. In contrast to the opulence of the Silver Pagoda, sites such as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek provide you with a glimpse into Cambodia’s turbulent history under the Khmer Rouge.
The jewel of Siem Reap and surrounding region is Angkor Wat, the 12th-century Buddhist temple complex spread across more than 400 acres. Through it fell gradually into disuse over the centuries, it was never fully abandoned. It remains today one of the most important religious and architectural structures in Southeast Asia. But Siem Reap is much more than its iconic temple. Go on a guided tuk-tuk tour or try a handful of crispy fried tarantulas at the Old Market. Enroll in a Khmer cooking class or grab dinner and take in a traditional Apsara performance. Our On the Trails of the Khmer Escorted Tour will guide you through the region from arrival to departure.
Hear “coast” and you might picture beaches, but Cambodia’s southern region is more than white sands and crystal-clear water. From the sleepy riverside town of Kampot, head into Bokor National Park to explore its cascading waterfalls (particularly impressive during monsoon rains) and dense forests. Don’t miss the Bokor Hill Station, an abandoned French military retreat complete with a post office, church, and casino. While there’s not much in downtown Sihanoukville aside from casinos and glitzy restaurants, the city’s beaches are worth a mention. Walk along Sokha Beach’s squeaky golden sands, or admire the seemingly endless strip of casuarina trees along Otres Beach.
Ancient temples are the main attractions of this region, though Tonle Sap (Great Lake) is a magnet for boaters, birders, and fishermen alike. Despite being the second largest city in the country, Battambang has a small-town feel. Its colonial architecture, merchant shops, and cafes are a recipe for a pleasant afternoon of exploration. However, its access to nearby secluded sites, like the heritage houses at Wat Kor Village, make Battambang worth the trip. The floating village of Kompong Luong, with its petrol station, karaoke bar, and ice-making factory is definitely worth a visit, though you may have to get creative when it comes to transportation.
Cambodia’s sparsely populated rural east rewards those willing to venture off the beaten path. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of the region and plays a part in many of the area’s attractions. The rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins make their home here near the town of Kampie. Further south is the provincial capital of Kampong Cham. Once a trading post, it is now a quiet riverside village with bike paths, temples, and a renovated French lighthouse. In the rolling hills of Mondulkiri, the Elephant Valley Project invites mahouts—those who train and ride elephants—to retire their animals to its 4,000-acre sanctuary.