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The Kingdom of Cambodia is bordered by Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, Thailand to the north and west, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south.

Quick Facts
CapitalPhnom Penh
Governmentmultiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy established in September 1993
Currencyriel (KHR)
Areatotal: 181,040 sq km
land: 176,520 sq km
water: 4,520 sq km
Population13,363,421 (July 2004 est.)
LanguageKhmer (official) 95%, French, English
ReligionTheravada Buddhist 95%, other 5%
Calling Code855
Internet TLD.kh
Time ZoneUTC +7

Understand

Cambodia has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last 660 years. Ever since the fall of Angkor in 1431, the once mighty Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbors plus colonial France as well. After a false dawn of independence in 1953, Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horror of civil war in 1970 and then transited Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign of terror, and only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did the country begin to totter back on its feet.

While much of the country's population still subsists on a dollar a day, the provision of even basic services remains spotty and political intrigue remains as complex and opaque as ever, the security situation has improved immeasurably and increasing number of visitors are venturing back and rediscovering Cambodia's temples and beaches. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, now sports luxury hotels, chic nightspots, ATMs and an airport fielding flights from all over the region, but venturing off the beaten track is still an adventure.

History

Following a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns. Over 1 million displaced people died from execution or enforced hardships. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and touched off 13 years of fighting. As a result of the devastating politics of the Khmer Rouge regime, there was virtually no infrastructure left. E.g. no institutions of higher education, money and all forms of commerce industries were non-existent in 1978, so the Country had to be build up from nothing. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid diminishment of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s. A coalition government, formed after national elections in 1998, brought renewed political stability and the surrender of remaining Khmer Rouge forces.

Economy

Cambodia's economy slowed dramatically in 1997-98 due to the regional economic crisis, civil violence, and political infighting. Foreign investment and tourism fell off. In 1999, the first full year of peace in 30 years, progress was made on economic reforms and growth resumed at 5%. GDP growth for 2000 had been projected to reach 5.5%, but the worst flooding in 70 years severely damaged agricultural crops, and high oil prices hurt industrial production, and growth for the year is estimated at only 4%. In 2001, severe floods damaged an estimated 15% of the area devoted to rice. Tourism now is Cambodia's fastest growing industry, with arrivals up 34% in 2000 and up another 40% in 2001 before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. The long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. Fear of renewed political instability and corruption within the government discourage foreign investment and delay foreign aid. On the brighter side, the government is addressing these issues with assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors.

Regions

North-West Cambodia:

Eastern Cambodia:

Southern Cambodia:

Cities

  • Battambang
  • Kompong Thom — waypoint between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
  • Phnom Penh — the capital
  • Poipet — filthy town on the Thai border
  • Siem Reap — the access point for Angkor
  • Sihanoukville — seaside town in the south, also known as Kompong Som
  • Stung Treng — if you're heading North to Laos you'll be stopping here for the night.
  • Kampong Cham — sleepy provincial capital on the Mekong
  • Kratie — small town in the northeast on the Mekong
  • Banlung — far northeastern provincial capital located near some great waterfalls and national parks

Other destinations

  • Angkor Archaeological Park — home of the imposing ruins of ancient Khmer civilization
  • Preah Vihear — hilltop temple predating Angkor

Get in

All visitors, except citizens of some (but not all) Asian countries need a visa to enter Cambodia. As usual the visa can be obtained at any Cambodia Embassy or General Consulate overseas. Visa is available on arrival at Pochentong International Airport (Phnom Penh), Siem Reap International Airport, all six international border crossings with Thailand, and some international border crossings with Vietnam. Recent reports (mid-2005) suggest a visa on arrival facility is being introduced on the border with Laos. You will need one passport-size photo, filled forms and a passport which is valid for at least 6 months. Tourist visas cost US$20 and business visas US$25. The tourist visa is valid for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days in country itself at a cost of US$ 15 through most travel agencies. Beware of the scams listed in the "by bus" section.

By plane

Angkor temple ruins may prefer to use Siem Reap as it's only a few minutes away from the main sites.

Direct flights connect Phnom Penh with China (Guangzhou | Hong Kong | Shanghai), Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).

Direct flights connect Siem Reap with Laos (Pakse | Vientiane), Singapore, Taiwan (Kaohsiung | Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok | U-Tapao) and Vietnam (Danang | Ho Chi Minh City).

From November 2005, low-cost carriers Air Asia (http://www.airasia.com) have introduced flights from both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; JetStar Asia (http://www.jetstarasia.com) have begun flying between Singapore and both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh; and Phnom Penh to Bangkok and Siem Reap to U-Tapao services.

Other airlines already operating flights to/from Cambodia include Angkor Airways (http://www.angkorairways.com), Asiana Airlines (http://flyasiana.com/english/), Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com), China Southern Airlines (http://www.cs-air.com/en), Dragonair (http://www.dragonair.com), Eva Airways (http://www.evaair.com), Lao Airlines (http://www.laoairlines.com), Malaysia Airlines (MAS) (http://www.malaysiaairlines.com), Shanghai Airlines (http://www.shanghai-air.com), Siem Reap Airways (http://www.siemreapairways.com) (a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways), SilkAir (http://www.silkair.com), Singapore Airlines (http://www.singaporeair.com), Thai Airways International (http://www.thaiair.com), and Vietnam Airlines (http://www.vietnamairlines.com).

By bus

There are no direct bus services from Thailand, but there are good Thai bus services to the main border crossings. On the Cambodian side, more basic and less frequent bus services are available from Poipet and Koh Kong. There are direct bus services from Saigon to Phnom Penh. You may want to get your visa from a Cambodian embassy/consulate in advance to avoid the "extra fees" corrupt border officials will want to charge. Travelling by land almost always requires at least one change of transport at the border. If you purchase a single ticket from a travel agent you'll get a spot in a van or pick-up truck. Truly "public" transportation involves taking a bus (or train) to the border and then negotiating for space in a car or pick-up. While this is usually the cheaper option, it will take up a good chunk of time and some (or more) hassle with waiting touts. Beware of scams if traveling overland through Cambodia. In the past scams have included requirements to purchase a SARS health form for 50 baht, a fine for not presenting an international vaccination certificate, a $100 US Dollar into Cambodian Riel exchange requirement and a visa fee of 1000 or more Baht (which is more than the official 20 US $). Tourist bus employees often take kickbacks from restaurants and guesthouses they suggest. Tourist buses will stay at rest stops for 2-3 hours or feign mechanical problems, extending the travel to 12 or more hours, which usually makes tourists too tired to argue when arriving at an overpriced guesthouse. For a good overview on the current overland-transport situation try Tales of Asia (Bangkok-Siem Reap: The overland route across the border at Aranyaprathet/Poipet is in better shape than it once was but still a bit of a hassle, particularly when entering Cambodia. See Aranyaprathet and Poipet for details.

Bangkok-Sihanoukville: This overland route crosses the border at Koh Kong/Hat Lek. Starting in Bangkok catch a bus to Trat, from there a minibus to the border. After crossing into Cambodia there are two possibilities to go on. 1) Take the boat to Sihanoukville, but keep in mind that it leaves only once a day. 2) Catch a minibus or taxi to Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh. But think well about what you are doing as the road is not the best (but this is Cambodia, isn`t it ?).

Saigon-Phnom Penh: It can be interesting to go by tour (3 days) on the Mekong delta, ending up in Phnom Penh. The cost is about 35 US in total for three days from Saigon to Phnom Penh (2002).

By boat

To/from Laos - There is one border crossing for tourists on the Mekong, about 1 1/2 hours speed-boat-ride north of Stung Treng. The border guards are quite corrupt and try to make some extra dollars from tourists.

To/from Thailand -- There are no ferry services between Cambodia and Thailand. However it is possible to cross the border from Thailand to Koh Kong on foot, take a 15 minute share taxi or motodop (a motorbike taxi) ride, and then proceed to Sihanoukville by ferry from there (or vice-versa).

To/from Vietnam -- It's possible to travel between Saigon and Phnom Penh by boat, or by combination of road and boat.

Get around

By road

Cambodian roads, while somewhat improved from their previous state, remain mostly in abysmal condition. Although the three main routes to Phnom Penh (from Siem Reap, Sisophon, and Sihanoukville) are all sealed and in good condition, most other highways are unpaved dirt, and while now maintained fairly regularly, they fall apart with alarming speed in the wet season. Overloaded logging trucks also do a good job of smashing poorly built bridges. In all, buffer your schedule and expect delays when travelling around the country.

Motorcycles can be rented with or without a driver by the hour or day in just about any town, with the notable exception of Siem Reap. For quick trips across town, just stand on a corner for a minute and someone will offer you a lift-- for a small, usual standard, fee.

For longer journeys there is a system of buses and pickup trucks that usually depart from the market square between 6-9am.

Ask price in your hotel, then go to the market and bargain for half of it.

For example: for the trip between Siem Reap and Battambang (2003) By bus you can go for 10 US. By pick-up arranged from your hotel you can go for 5 US. By pick-up arranged yourself bargaining at the truck stop you can go for 2 US. And even this is likely to be well over the local price.

By boat

Ferries operate seasonally along many of the major rivers. Major routes include Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Siem Reap to Battambang. Boats are now slower than road transport, charge higher prices for foreigners, and are often overcrowded and unsafe — sinkings occur regularly. Then again, Cambodia's highways are also dangerous, and boats are probably the safer of the two options.

By train

Talk

Cambodians primarily speak Khmer, which unlike most languages in the region is not tonal, but makes up for it with a large assortment of consonant and vowel clusters. Some elder Khmers speak French from the colonial days, but partly because of the Khmer Rouge era (in which those speaking foreign languages were targetted for extermination), to actually encounter anyone fluent in French is rare in most parts of the country. German and other European tongues can be found in the tourist centres (but are even rarer than French) and Japanese is also a popular language for tourist industry workers.

In market situations, most Khmers will know enough English to complete a basic transaction, though many vendors carry calculators into which they punch numbers and show you the screen to demonstrate the price. Carrying your own calculator for this purpose may help, but is not necessary.

Buy

The Cambodian riel is the local currency, but US dollars are so widely accepted in Cambodia that you don't really even need to exchange money. The exchange rate is fairly stable at 4000 riel to the dollar, and it's not uncommon to receive change in a mix of the two. Thai baht is also accepted, particularly near the Thai border (eg. Poipet and Battambang).

VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards. MasterCard and American Express cards are becoming more widely accepted slowly. American Express traveller's cheques in US dollars are the most widely accepted. Credit cards and traveler's cheques are accepted in major business establishments, such as large hotels, some restaurants, travel agencies and some souvenir shops. Keeping some change of riel to pay for transportation rentals is a good idea.

ATMs can be found only in Phnom Penh and some ANZ and Canadia ATMs now accept international withdrawals, although it would be foolhardy to rely on this entirely. If you must get money, you can go to a bank and get a cash advance on a credit card, but this is expensive and time consuming. For the rest of the country it's best to stick to cash or traveller's cheques.

Keep in mind that traveller's cheques can only be cashed at banks in Cambodia's larger cities. You can cash them at guesthouses in heavily touristed areas, but to do so is inadvisable since the majority of guesthouses that will do this for you offer horrendous rates. If you're planning on heading out off the beaten track, you absolutely NEED to take enough cash to get you back to a point where you can replenish your cash supplies.

Eat

Cambodia food uses coconut, seafood, chicken, and the ubiquitous "river spinach" found in much of Southeast Asia. There is a strong French influence found in the availability of good coffee (served with sweet condensed milk), French bread, and Laughing Cow brand cheese.

Aside from the national noodle dish there is lots to be found on the markets. Try the tarantula, snakes on a stick and different sorts of insects. A simple, cheap but complete meal with rice, veggies, and meat is often served in a plastic bag on the streets.

Drink

Cambodia's domestic beers include "Angkor" and "ABC", most big international labels (San Miguel, Carlsberg, etc) can also be found.

Wine is on most moderate to upper range restaurant menus, but probably wont be found in many bars or night clubs, unless they are in Western hotels.

If you are lucky you can find some coconut beer to try.

Sleep

Cambodia has the usual Southeast Asia range of accommodations from $100-and-up air-conditioned high-rises to $2 guesthouse rooms. On the budget end, expect to provide your own toilet paper, sheets, towels, etc.

Learn

Cambodia has limited opportunities for language and cultural studies.

Work

There are opportunities for volunteer work, mostly in Phnom Penh in the areas of English Language as well as health education, working with homeless youth and other development projects.

Stay safe

Cambodia is a safe and friendly country, with the usual exception for large cities late at night (particularly Phnom Penh) and unobserved luggage or wallets. Bag snatching from tourists on motorcycles has begun to manifest itself in Phnom Penh, but such instances are still relatively rare and you're unlikely to be the victim of such crime, provided of course that you be mindful of common sense.

In urban areas, take care to not flaunt your relative wealth by making it too obvious that you are a tourist. Do not flash your money or sift through it when it's outside your money belt, do not make your cameras and other electronic equipment too obvious, etc. By openly displaying your wealth, you make yourself a much more enticing target for theft, and you don't want that.

Cambodia suffers from a legacy of millions of land mines left during the war years. For the average tourist, however, mines are not really an issue: areas like Siem Reap and Angkor Wat have long since been thoroughly demined. But exercise caution in border areas like Preah Vihear, and heed any warning signs you see: do not venture outside paved roads and paths recently cleared of vegetation.

Stay healthy

Medical services in Cambodia are an absolute joke, and should you become seriously ill or injured while in Cambodia, evacuation to Thailand is your only real option. Because without insurance this can cost thousands upon thousands of dollars, insurance while in Cambodia is an absolute must. There are presently no vaccination requirements to enter Cambodia, though if coming overland from Thailand, border officials may try to scam you by "fining" you for not having proof of vaccinations. Before visiting Cambodia, it's important that you have all the standard vaccinations covered in time for your trip (Hep A, B, Typhoid, TB, etc). Malaria is a problem in most parts of Cambodia, although prophylaxis is probably unnecessary for short stays. Dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are also problematic, but less so. In any event, be sure to check with your local travel clinic before going to make sure you're up to date.

HIV/AIDS is widespread and becoming moreso among Cambodia's significant sex industry, so if you decide to partake in certain less-than-moral activities, always wear protection!

Tap water is not safe anywhere in Cambodia. Phnom Penh municipality claims that its water is treated and cleaned, and this is probably true. By the time it gets to your tap, however, it has been contaminated. Bottled water is the only thing you should ever drink (most foreigners won't even brush their teeth with the tapped stuff), even the cheapest stuff (approximately 500 riel) is fine.

Respect

Remember during your stay that Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. While the more heavily touristed places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will be well adjusted to tourist behaviour, people in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung will be less adapted. Always remember to ask permission before you take a Khmer's photo, as many in the more backwater areas won't like their photo taken, and some in the urban areas will even ask you to pay for the service of having a picture of them!

Khmers are (by and large) not the hardcore hagglers that their Vietnamese neighbours are, so it's important to be respectful when haggling over something in the market or with your motodop. If you're staying at a Western owned hotel, or going to a Western owned bar, realize that the people you haggle with at the markets need your money a lot more than the people at the hotel or the bar that you aren't even bothering to haggle with. The bottom line is that you shouldn't take the attitude that every single transaction at a market must be bargained into the ground. If a woman is asking for 1,000 riel for a bottle of water, don't haggle, pay it. If a vendor is asking for $1 for a small T-shirt, don't haggle, pay it.

Contact

Country Code: +855

Internet cafes are cheap and popular in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh but may be scarce elsewhere in the country.

Get Out

Airport taxes are levied on all international and domestic departures. The international departure airport tax is US$20/pp at Phnom Penh and US$25/pp at Siem Reap. For domestic departures, the tax is US$5/pp at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

You have to pay this fee after checking in at the airlines counter, before going through customs clearance. Do keep the receipt with you since it will be checked later.