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Introduction to Cambodia

Ancient temples, empty beaches, mighty rivers, remote forests ...and (outside Angkor) only a handful of tourists. But the word is out - Cambodia has emerged from decades of war and isolation and is well and truly back on the southeast Asian travel map.

The successor-state of the mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, Cambodia boasts a rich culture, a weathered French-era capital and impressive natural scenery. The peace is young but the country is slowly attracting the tourism currently sweeping Vietnam.


Cambodia's on a slow mend, but there's nonetheless a continuing potential for the kind of petty crime, banditry and officious corruptions that take logic and common sense to negotiate. Street crime remains a problem in the capital - take particular care at night and travel by taxi rather than moto or cyclo. Petty crime is a problem in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, so be aware. Landmines are still a real danger in Cambodia, with up to six million undetonated mines dotted around the countryside, particularly at the Thai border and in remote areas. Stick to the beaten track - even at Angkor.

Full country name: Kingdom of Cambodia

Area: 181,035 sq km

Population: 14 million

Capital City: Phnom Penh

People: 96% ethnic Khmers, 2% Chinese, 1% Vietnamese

Language: Khmer, English, French

Religion: Buddhist, Cham Muslim and Roman Catholic

Government: multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy

GDP: US$3 billion

GDP per capita: US$300

Annual Growth: 4%

Inflation: 4%

Major Industries: Timber, rubber, shipping, rice milling, textiles and fishing

Major Trading Partners: Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan

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Traveler Facts

Visas: A one-month visa, available on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports, costs 20.00 for a tourist visa and 25.00 for a business visa.

Health risks: hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, rabies, Japanese B encephalitis

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +7

Dialling Code: 855

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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Chaul Chnam Chen (Lunar New Year) is celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese in late January or early February. The Chaul Chnam (Khmer New Year) celebrations bring the country to a standstill for three days in mid-April - a fair amount of water and talcum powder gets thrown around at this time, so it's a lively but noncontemplative time to visit. Chat Preah Nengkal, the Royal Ploughing Festival, takes place near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in early May. The Khmer calendar's most important festival is Bon Om Tuk, celebrating the end of the wet season in early November - it's the best time to visit Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Banks, ministries and embassies are closed during all public holidays and festivals.

Public Holidays:

January 1 - New Year's Day

january 7 - Victory Over the Genocide

March 8 - Women's Day

April 13 - Khmer New Year

May 1 - Labour Day

May 1 - International Children's Day

September 24 - Constitution Day

October 23 - Paris Peace Accords

October 30 - King's Birthday

November 9 - Independence Day

December 10 - Human Rights Day

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Best time to Visit

The ideal months to be in Cambodia are December and January, when humidity is bearable, temperatures are cooler and it's unlikely to rain. From February onwards it starts getting pretty hot, and April is unbearably so. The wet season (from May to October), though very soggy, can be a good time to visit Angkor, as the moats will be full and the foliage lush - but steer clear of the northeast regions during those months, as the going gets pretty tough when the tracks are waterlogged. The country's biggest festival, Bon Om Tuk, is held in early November, and is well worth catching.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Riel


Budget: US$1-2

Mid-range: US$3-10

High: US$10-15

Deluxe: US$15+


Budget: US$2-10

Mid-range: US$10-50

High: US$50-70

Deluxe: US$70+

For the most part, Cambodia is a pretty cheap place to travel. Rock-bottom budgeters can probably get by in Phnom Penh on US$10 a day - accommodation can be as cheap as US$2-3 in the capital, though you'll pay about US$5 elsewhere, and you can feed yourself for US$2-3. If you want to travel around you'll need to spend more - transport is a major expense. Entrance fees (particularly for Angkor Wat - around US$20 a day) can also set you back a fair bit. Mid-range travel is very reasonable, with excellent accommodation from US$15-25 and good meals for around US$5.

If you've got cash US dollars, you won't need to change money in Cambodia and you'll pay much the same as you would with riel. Thai baht are also widely accepted, particularly in the northwest. Both of these are easy to change, as are most other major currencies. It can be difficult to change travellers cheques outside Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Battambang and Kompong Cham. Cash advances on credit cards are available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang, but charges are high. Otherwise, there are no ATMs and credit cards are rarely accepted.

Tipping is not expected in Cambodia, but salaries are very low and any gratuities for good service will be gratefully accepted. Bargaining is the rule in markets, when hiring vehicles and sometimes even when taking a room, but you won't need to be as forceful as you would in Thailand or Vietnam.

Top-end accomodation is available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap only.

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Phnom Penh

Cambodia's capital retains an undeniable charm despite its tumultuous and often violent past. The crumbling colonial architecture makes an attractive backdrop to bustling streetside cafes and the redeveloped riverfront precinct - a particularly lively part of town on Friday and Saturday nights.

The city has several impressive wats (temple-monasteries), including Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom and Wat Moha Montrei. Pride of place goes to the spectacular Silver Pagoda, one of the few places in Cambodia where artefacts embodying the richness of Khmer culture were preserved by the Khmer Rouge.


Cambodia's second-largest city is an elegant riverside town, home to some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country. Battambang used to be off the map for road travellers, but facilities have been improved and it makes a great base for visiting the nearby temples and villages.

It's a secondary hub on the overland route between Thailand and Vietnam. The network of charming old French shop houses clustered along the riverbank is the real highlight here, and there are a number of wats scattered around the town. The small museum has a collection of Angkorian-era artefacts, and beyond the town there's a number of hilltop temples, yet more wats and a large lake. Battambang is a pretty bumpy 293km (181mi) bus or share-taxi ride from the capital.


Sihanoukville's beaches aren't a patch on Thailand's, and sights are few and far between, but as Cambodia's only maritime port it makes a reasonable base for exploring the south coast and nearby Ream National Park. Four beaches ring the headland - Ochheuteal, Sokha, Independence and Victory - and the fishing port offers the odd photo opportunity at sunrise or sunset. There are a few dive operations in town, plus a waterfall an hour's drive away that's swimmable. The sleepy colonial riverside resort of Kampot isn't too far away, with the strangely skeletal remains of seaside Kep further along. Sihanoukville is 232km (143mi) from the capital, and is served by regular buses.

Temples of Angkor

The celebrated temples of Angkor are Cambodia's greatest tourist attraction. The 100 or so temples are the sacred remains of what was once a much larger administrative and religious centre, and were built between the 9th and 13th centuries to glorify a succession of Khmer kings. The three most magnificent temples are Bayon, Ta Prohm and the immense Angkor Wat.

Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century and the temples were gradually cloaked by forest. The site became the source of scholarly interest in the late-19th century after the publication of Voyage Siam et dans le Cambodge by French naturalist Henri Mouhot. Efforts were undertaken to clear away the jungle vegetation that threatened to completely destroy the monuments, and restoration continues today.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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