Introduction to Cambodia
Cambodia is a country of incredible beauty, with famous temples, fertile plains dotted with rice fields, and a history unlike any other. The dominant religion is Buddhism, which places value on hospitality and kindness. Each year, Cambodia draws millions of tourists who come to enjoy the country’s breathtaking sights and enter the walls of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat – one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The ancient Khmer Empire ruled much of Southeast Asia for centuries and gave Angkor Wat to the world. However, for four years in the late 1970’s Cambodia came under the control of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and fell victim to a failed political ideal that left over two million of the nations citizens dead from disease, malnutrition and persecution.
Many people only know of Cambodia in terms of these two periods but there is far more to this country than ancient temples and past tragedies. Its topography and climate are as varied as its culture. The Tonle Sap Lake at the heart of Cambodia is one of the richest freshwater fishing grounds in the world and is home to a variety of migratory birds. Cambodia’s mountain and jungle areas abound with rare and beautiful fauna. In these regions the indigenous tribal peoples continue to follow a centuries-old way of life. Cambodia has its own unique and much underrated cuisine and produces delicious, organic meat and fruit. This was showcased in Rick Stein’s Asian Odyssey cooking programme.
The burgeoning tourist industry has brought relative wealth to some Provinces while in other the life of Cambodia’s agricultural workers has changed little in a milennium. The Khmer people have a warmth, strength and spirituality that is a surprise and delight to most visitors. There seems to be an unquenchable spirit, humour and gentle pride in most Cambodians that perhaps explains how they have succeed in surviving years of political experimentation and civil war.
Cambodia is an extraordinary country and offers the adventurous visitor a wealth of experiences.
A mixture of Cambodian hospitality and Indochinese charm await the visitor to Phnom Penh. Nestled majestically on the banks of a confluence of three great rivers, known as the ‘Chaktomuk’ (four faces) or ‘Quatre Bras’ (four arms) of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. Phnom Penh is a city of more than two million people, the capital of Cambodia and the country’s commercial, economic and political hub. It is also a comparatively new travel destination.
Phnom Penh is a real oasis compared to the modernity of other Asian capitals with its wide tree-lined boulevards and French colonial buildings but with recent urban development it is quickly morphing an air of edgy chic with bistros and boutique hotels lining the riverfront, smart little silk boutiques and galleries dotting the side streets, a budding art scene and a heady dusk-to-dawn nightlife. With so much to offer the modern traveller the capital of Cambodia still retains an undeniable charm.
Points of Interest:
• Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
• Tuol Sleng Museum – S21
• The Killing Fields of ‘Choeung EK’
• Olympic Stadium
• Phsar Thmey – Central Market
• Phsar Toul Tom Poung – Russian Market
• Independence Monument
• Wat Phnom
• National Museum
• Street 178 – ‘Artist Street’
• Street 240 – ‘Boutique Street’
Cambodia’s premier beach town, sporting miles of white sandy beaches, uninhabited islands and warm clear tropical waters. Originally founded as a port town half a century ago, but these days it’s very much a beach town and tourist destination. The main town area sits on a beach lined peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Thailand. The pace of life in this provincial town is very relaxed and unhurried. The beaches offer umbrellas, thatched roofed bars, restaurants and a range of hotels.
Sihanoukville is a place to unwind by the beach, enjoy the fresh seafood, party at the bars, take an island excursion or experience a scuba trip.
From the turn of the century through the 1960’s, Kep was Cambodia’s ‘premier beach town’, drawing weekend holiday-makers to its picturesque shore and sporting luxurious ocean side villas of Cambodia’s privileged class. Nowadays, the old villas are ruins and Kep is known more for its oceanfront seafood stalls than for its beaches, which are short and stony but offer picturesque slivers of sand. Rabbit Island offers day trippers a beautiful remote beach and is only a short boat ride away. For the moment at least Kep has a ‘real out of the way’ feel to it and is surrounded by mountains of jungle. No trip to Kep is complete without sampling the exquisite fresh locally caught crab.
Set with picture perfection near the base of the Elephant Mountains on the Kampong Bay River. Classic French colonial, Cambodian and Chinese architecture as well as very few tourists all serve to lend Kampot a quaint, welcoming, small town ambiance. Visitors come to Kampot for a taste of provincial Cambodia, the relaxed atmosphere, and to use the town as a stepping stone to the nearby beaches and islands of Kep, the Bokor Hill Station and south-eastern Cambodia.
The Koh Kong province is only just being discovered as a destination in itself, largely unexplored and offering a wealth of eco-tourism, adventure and beach hopping possibilities, with Koh Kong town being the most convenient base from which to explore the province.
The town sits on the Kah Bpow River about 10 km from the Thai border.
Points of Interest
• Kirirom National Park
• Bokor Mountain Hill Station
• Bamboo Island
• Koh Kong Island
• Rabbit Island
• The Caves near Kampot
• The Kampot pepper plantation near Kep
Nestled between rice paddies and stretched along the Siem Reap River, the provincial capital of Siem Reap town serves as the gateway to the millennium-old temple ruins of the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire. Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses dozens of temple ruins including Bayon, Bantaery Srey, Ta Prohm and legendary Angkor Wat whose artistic and archaeological significance and visual impact put it in a class with the Pyramids, Machu Pichu and the Taj Mahal. Although the major temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park have many tourists these days, it is still possible to get away from the crowds, explore the area and discover the ancient temples of Angkor.
Siem Reap town has been receiving foreign visitors to the temples for over 100 years. The town is actually a cluster of old villages, which originally developed around individual pagodas. Nowadays the town has grown out of recognition from its humble roots. There are several elegant 5 star hotels, and a multitude of alternative accommodation options; an amazing variety of restaurants, lots of shopping opportunity and vibrant nightlife. Often missed are the many opportunities to experience traditional Cambodia: boat trips on the great Tonle Sap Lake to fishing villages and the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, craft shops and silk farms, road tours through rice paddy countryside to distant temples and beyond.
‘Battambang’ means disappearing stick and is named after a powerful stick used by a legendary Khmer king to achieve and maintain power in the Battambang area.
Sitting on the Sangker River just southwest of the Tonle Sap Lake, Battambang town is at the heart of Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’, and even though it is the country’s second biggest town, it still has a very local provincial atmosphere. Much of the architecture is French colonial and traditional Cambodian. Few buildings are over three stories, and the main streets are shared by cars and horse carts alike. Unlike most tourist towns, the local economy is truly local, based firmly in rice, wood, sapphires and food crops, and this is reflected in the character of the town.
Kampong Thom is one of the five provinces that surround the Tonle Sap Lake. It is another sleepy Provincial capital, but the ruins of the nearby Sambor Prei Kuk and the hill top temple of Phnom Suntok make it a very rewarding stop.
Kampong Chhang is a sprawling lake side fishing town which is relatively unvisited but offers the inquisitive traveller a real insight into quintessential Cambodian riverside life. Take some time to walk down to the river and sit on the bank and watch the daily grind of the hard working fishermen.
Points of Interest:
• Angkor Archaeological Park
• Roluos Group
• Sambor Prei Kuk
• Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
• Angkor National Museum
• The Bamboo train
• The Mine Museum
Ban Lung is nestled in the highlands of the Ratanakiri province, and is high enough for the nights to feel colder compared to the rest of the country. This remote North Eastern region is like another planet compared with the rest of Cambodia – dusty red roads carve through the landscape in summer, while in the rainier months the area becomes lush and green. The area is also rich in minerals boasting deposits of gold and precious stones. Although the province is remote it has a lot to offer the adventure enthusiasts and the eco-tourist seeking a different travel experience.
San Monorom lies in the Mondulkiri province- the largest and most sparsely populated region in Cambodia. The area is full of natural beauty, with forested mountains, powerful waterfalls and lush green rolling hills. The town is the perfect base camp for travellers who want to explore the surrounding areas. It is a quiet town nestled in the hills and is a new centre for eco tourism, which at present is very undeveloped making you feel that you are totally off the tourist trail.
Kratie is a delightful town with a very relaxed atmosphere situated on the mighty Mekong River. The town is the natural place to break the journey when travelling further north. Visitors are rewarded with a burning red sunset that descends into the picturesque sand bars that lay opposite the river front.
No visit is complete without a boat trip to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that make their home a short way up the river.
Stung Treng is a small, provincial town situated on the Mekong River in North-eastern Cambodia. The town itself is undeveloped and retains a distinctly Khmer Character. There is little to see in Stung Treng itself but the surrounding countryside is spectacular.
Kampong Cham is the fourth largest town in Cambodia and reportedly gets its name from the legend of a hill building competition between the town’s men and women. Kampong Cham is the home town of the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen and has some good colonial shop house architecture and a thriving river port.
Points of Interest:
• Yaek Lom Lake
• Bou Sraa Waterfall
• Irrawaddy Dolphins
Full name: Kingdom of Cambodia
Population: 14.8 million (UN, 2009)
Population Make Up: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, Other 4%
Capital and largest city: Phnom Penh
Area: 181,035 sq km (69,898 sq miles)
Major language: Khmer
Major religion: Buddhism 95%
Main exports: Clothing, timber, rubber
Economy: Agriculture 75%, Services and Industry 25%
Internet domain: .kh
International dialling code: +855
Cambodia General Information
Time Difference: GMT +7 Hours
Visas & Taxes
Please make sure your passport does not expire within six months of your travel period. Cambodian visas are issued on arrival at all crossings where foreigners can legally cross. You will need to bring with you a passport size photo.
Visas cost US$20 for a tourist visa and these last for a period of 30 days. If you are looking to stay longer then ask for a Business visa US$25. A tourist visa can be extended for one month, but business visas can be extended indefinitely. You don’t have to have any special papers to get a business visa, simply pay the extra five dollars. (For every day you over stay your visa there is a $5 per day fine)
Please note that there is an airport departure tax that you have to pay when leaving.
For domestic flights it will cost you $6 and for international flights $25.
The Cambodian riel is the official currency of Cambodia; however the US dollar is the de-facto currency and is accepted pretty much everywhere.
Bank notes in circulation are: 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 Riel.
Make sure if you do pay in US dollars that the notes are not torn or marked in any way as these notes will not be accepted.
Because the Cambodian Riel used to be unstable and sustainable to fluctuation, it was decided to bind the Cambodian Riel to the US Dollar. Since that time, the Cambodian Riel has been a steady currency and the exchange rate has constantly remained at about 1 US Dollar = 4000 Riel.
There are several national banks where you can change or withdraw money. Working hours are 8am-3.30pm, Monday to Friday. All banks will accept travellers’ cheques at 2%-4% commission being the usual charge. Most of the provincial and large towns now have ATM’s however you should always double check before you leave for some of the remote areas.
Visa, JCB, Master Card and American Express credit cards are all commonly accepted. You will sometimes need identification if using your credit card to get cash.
1 US Dollar (USD) = 4000 riel
1 Pound (GBP) = 6644 riel
1 Euro (EUR) = 4897 riel
1 Hong Kong dollar (HKD) = 510 riel
1 Australian dollar (AUD) = 2863 riel
1 Canada dollar (CAN) = 2902 riel
When to Go:
Cambodia has two main seasons the green season and the dry season, with a couple of what could be called sub-seasons in between where it is slightly hotter or cooler.
Cambodia can be visited at any time of the year and has a mild tropical climate. Travellers should not be put off by the myth of South East Asia’s monsoon period or ‘Green Period’ as we like to call it.
The ‘Green Season’ extends from May until October and is an extremely good time to travel. The rain tends to come in short sharp down pours and at this time the country is probably at its most beautiful. The sights are also a lot less crowded and Angkor is surrounded by lush foliage and the moats are all full of water, perfect for that picture postcard photograph.
The ‘Dry Season’ is from November to April. The most pleasant time to travel is from November to January when the weather is dry and cool; the days are full of bright crisp autumn like days.
The weather is at its hottest and stickiest in late March and April, where temperatures hover around thirty-five degrees centigrade.
Cambodia has something to offer at any time of the year and our tours and tailor made itineraries will make sure you get the most out of your trip whatever time of year you travel.
Khmer New Year
Cambodian New Year ‘Chol Chnam Thmey’ means “Enter the New Year”. The holiday lasts for three days beginning on New Year’s Day, most commonly April 13th but sometimes on the 12th or 14th in their keeping with the lunar calendar. This time of the year is at the end of the harvesting season. The farmers enjoy the fruits of their harvest and relax before the rainy season begins.
Khmer New Year is also the time to prepare special dishes. One of these is kralan, a cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk. The mixture is stuffed inside a bamboo stick and slowly roasted.
Royal Ploughing Ceremony
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony is an ancient royal rite held in Cambodia and Thailand to mark the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season. In the Khmer language, it is called “Preah Reach Pithi Chrot Preah Neangkol”
The date is usually in May, but varies as it is determined by Hora (astrology)
Water Festival (Bonn Om Touk)
The Khmer Water Festival is celebrated in November with every town and province joining in the celebrations but the best place to be is Phnom Penh. For three days, workers from every province join with the city’s residents to celebrate by night and day.
The river comes alive with fireworks and flotillas of over 300 brightly-lit boats propelled by precision-trained oarsmen who take part in the annual boat race. It is not surprising that the city takes on a carnival air during this period.
The full moon which coincides with the festival is worshipped by many households as this good omen promises a bountiful harvest. The highlight of the festival is a series of boat races. These take place over three days and honour the twelfth century Khmer naval victories achieved under King Jayavarman VII.
Bon Om Thook is an ancient festival having its roots in a time when the Angkorian kings would test the fighting prowess of their warriors by holding competitions. The races were a form of training and a means by which the king could choose his champions. To this end they were used in a similar way to jousting tournaments in medieval Europe.Cambodian temple carvings at Bayon and Banteay Chmar have numerous depictions of battles fought on water. Spiritually, the festival provides a chance to give thanks to Buddha for the year’s rice crop, to ask for sufficient rain in the coming year and usher in the fishing season.
The Water Festival also marks a unique natural phenomenon – the Tonle Sap river reverses the flow of its current. It is probably the only waterway in the world which flows in opposite directions at different times of the year. From November to May, the Tonle Sap river runs into the Mekong just like any other tributary. But with the arrival of the monsoon rains, there is such build-up of water in the main stream that excess pours into the Tonle Sap river, forcing it to change direction an flow back into the Tonle Sap lake.
Bon Phchom Ben (Khmer Festival of the Ancestors)
Bon Phchom Ben is the autumnal festival dedicated to the spirits of the dead. During this 15 day period following the full moon, food and money are offered to monks. On the 15th day of the festival the new moon appears. This day is Bonn Phchom Ben (the collection of the Bens, or offerings). It is believed that the souls of the dead will not leave a place in the light of the full moon so the festival ends when the night is at its darkest. It is also believed that dead relatives will return to haunt their descendents if suitable offerings are not made. Respect for ancestors and fear of ghosts (K’maoch) are both strong elements in the Khmer belief system.
There are so many cultural differences; it’s very useful if you read about some of them before you go.
Permission should be sought before taking pictures of people, particularly monks. Avoid touching someone on the head as it is considered the most sacred part of a person’s body. Women should wear modest clothing, preferably a long skirt or loose-fitting trousers. When visiting religious sites, shoes should be removed, and shorts avoided. A traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow, bringing together the hands at chest level (similar to hand position for prayer). With foreigners Cambodians sometimes convert to the handshake. The simple rule is to respond with the same greeting you were given.
Here are a few more points:
Don’t go topless unless you’re on a beach – men and women alike.
Do accept food when offered – it’s rude not to.
Don’t point your feet at any religious statue or shrine.
Do be prepared to be stared at like a zoo animal and be asked personal questions.
Don’t touch monks if you’re female.
Do be open and talkative – most people are thrilled to welcome and talk to you.
Do carry your own toilet paper if it matters to you – it’s a rare commodity.
Don’t offer food or drinks with your left hand – this is your hygiene hand in the absence of toilet paper.
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