Cambodian Travel Information
Best time to visit
The best time to travel is November to early March when it is the cool, dry season. From March onwards, it gets fairly hot before the rainy season that stretches from May to October. Please note that it is still possible to travel during the rainy season, as it generally only rains for a period of time during the day (usually in the afternoon) and this has the positive effect of cooling down an otherwise hot and oppressive climate.
At the time of writing Tourist and business visa’s for Australian citizens are available on entry for $30US. The Cambodian government has introduced an electronic tourist visa ("e-Visa") facility. If entering Cambodia through Phnom Penh or Siem Reap international airports an application for a tourist visa can be made on-line through the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs'website. The cost is $30US for the eVisa and a $7US application fee. The turnaround appears to be within 2 to 3 days and speeds up the immigration process when arriving in the country. Your passport must have at least four months validity remaining when you arrive in Cambodia; however, all neighbouring countries (Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) require passports to have at least six months validity. Local immigration authorities may deny entry and deport people who do not meet this requirement, even if they intend staying only for a short period.
We strongly recommend that you check directly with the embassy prior to travel to check on up to date Visa information.
Cambodian eVisa site: http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/evisa/
Cambodian Embassy of Australia and New Zealand: http://www.embassyofcambodia.org.nz/Visaregulation.htm
There is a domestic service air between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. This flight is great if you only have limited time and takes around 50 minutes. Alternatively there are a host of large tourist coaches which cover this route and takes around 6hrs (but dependent on road conditions). There is also a large network of local and tourist coaches which travel to all the other major destinations such as Sihanoukville, Battambung, Kampong Cham and Kratie. On the main tourist routes from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or down to Sihanhokville many of the tourist coaches are equipped with air-con, onboard toilet facilities and in some cases even a hostess. It is also possible to hire a car and driver - the cost of this will vary depending on where you want to go. Hiring a car in both Siemp Reap and Phnom Penh for visiting local sites start at around $50USD per day.
The cooler, dry period of the year is generally from November to March, and this is regarded as the best time to visit Cambodia. From May to early October, the southwestern monsoon brings strong winds, high humidity and heavy rains. Please note that even in the wet season, it rarely rains in the morning and that, generally, the rain is sporadic rather than continuous.
In general, Khmer cuisine is similar to Thai, but with fewer spices. As in many South East Asian countries, rice is the staple food of the Khmer diet. This is usually served with dried, salted fish, seasoned with chilies, mint, and garlic, although chicken, beef and pork are also eaten. Soup accompanies most meals and is eaten at the same time as the main dishes. Some of the legacies left over from the French colonial period include crispy baguettes, pate, and pastries. Other foreign cuisines including, Italian, Chinese and Vietnamese are readily available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang. Restaurants in tourist centres all provide menus in English and generally provide a range of local foods and some western options.
Cambodia's currency is the Riel. Notes are in denominations of 100,000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5000, 2000, 1000, 500, 200 100. US dollars are widely used, but make sure they are in good condition or they may be refused by local businesses. There are an ever increasing number of ATM's located across the country that dispense US dollars. There are a number of ATMs located just outside the arrivals hall of the Phnom Penh airport and Siem Reap. Most of the major banks within Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will exchange foreign currency for you. There are also a number of money change booths and shops located around the markets and riverside area of Phnom Penh and the restaurant areas in Siem Reap.
Phones, the Internet and Wifi
Most hotels and an increasing number of Internet café's have international phone/fax facilities and internet services. Overseas calls are around the $1.60-$3.00/minute. Domestic calls are 500-700 riel/minute from street side phone booths. Internet access speeds continue to improve and are extremely cheap at $0.50 - $1.50/hour. The international dialing code for Cambodia is +855. If you do not have international roaming on your mobile phone (make sure you check with your service provider to see if your mobile phone is compatible with the networks used in Cambodia). It is easy and cheap to purchase local sim cards and recharges for these across the country. Wifi hotspots are now widely available in all the major tourist centres with most hotels providing free wifi access either in their rooms or in the reception areas of the property.
History and politics
Evidence of early life in Cambodia dates back to 1500BC, and further evidence suggests that by the 1st Century, rice cultivation, fishing and animal husbandry were the basis of organised society in Cambodia. Various empires arose in the early stages of Cambodian history, with the Funan and Chenla Kingdoms reigning before the rise of the Khmer civilisation. Regarded as one of the most powerful empires in the world, the Khmer Empire prospered from the 9th to the 13th centuries and is when the temples and city of Angkor were built.
Cambodia is now a constitutional monarchy and has been since 1993. The head of state since 2004 is King Norodom Sihamoni. The head of government is Hun Sen, who has been the Prime Minister since 1998. Legislative power belongs to the 120-member National Assembly, which is popularly elected for a term of five years. Between 1975 and 1978, Cambodia (known then by its local name, 'Kampuchea') was subjected to one of the most shocking episodes of genocide in history. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot slaughtered about two million of their own people in a bid to create some sort of bizarre Maoist society that did not tolerate any disobedience. They were finally driven out of power by Vietnamese forces, but their painful legacy remains as the country takes its first tenuous strides towards democracy.
Phnom Penh: Cambodia's capital, is nestled on the banks of the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Tonle Sap. These rivers then split again as the Mekong and the Tonle Bassac, at a place known to the Khmers as Chaktomuk, meaning four faces. The city was founded as a small monastery in 1372 by the rich Khmer woman Penh, after she had found four Buddha statues in a tree trunk on the banks of the Mekong. She set up the monastery on a hill near the bank of the Mekong. The Cambodian word for hill is Phnom. Therefore the name of the town correctly translates as Hill of Penh. Today Phnom Penh is largely overlooked by many travellers but the city has an undeniable charm in spite its tumultuous and violent past as it emerges as a thriving city. Facilities for travellers are improving on an almost daily basis as new hotels and guesthouses open up, there is also a growing number of restaraunt and cafe precincts developing across the city. The city has a number of great architectural sites including the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum.Remnants of the horror of the Khmer Rouge days can be seen atS21 (Genocide Museum) or the infamous Killing Fields.During the days of the Khmer Rouge regime Phnom Penh became a virtual ghost town but today the population of Phnom Penh continues to grow as Cambodia's vast population of people under the age of 18 swarm to the city from the rural areas in search of work. The city now has a population of around 2.2 million.
Siem Reap: A few kilometres from the temples of Angkor are the town of Siem Reap. Located 250 northwest of Phnom Penh and 15 km north of Tonle Sap Lake this small town is largely used by tourists as a base for visits to the monuments on the World Heritage Angkor complex. The name Siem Reap means 'Siamese Defeated'. The world-famous temples of Angkor constitute one of the world's most magnificent architectural achievements. From Angkor, the kings of the Khmer Empire ruled over a vast territory that extended from the tip of what is now southern Vietnam northward to Yunnan in China, and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal. The town and province of Siem Reap continues to grow and is now home to a vast number of modern hotels and a growing tourist centre precinct where you can find a large number of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.
Sihanoukville: Located 230 kilometres southwest of the capital city Phnom Penh on a headland surrounded by pristine beaches overlooking the Gulf of Thailand is the town of Sihanoukville (also known as Kompong Som), Cambodia's only maritime port. Sihanoukville's white sand beaches and warm Gulf of Thailand waters combine with a laid back, beach atmosphere to provide a great seaside retreat. Sihanoukville is a place to unwind by the beach, enjoy the fresh seafood or take in a snorkeling or island trip. Located along the coast line is the township of Kep which is also home to a growing number of resorts and tourist attractions.
Cambodia's official language is Khmer, and this is spoken by the majority of the population. Khmer is quite a complex language; however, if you make an attempt combined with a big smile you will find the rewards are a massive appreciation by the local people. Unlike the languages of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and China, Khmer is non-tonal. It uses thirty-three consonants, twenty-four dependent vowels, twelve independent vowels, and diacritic markers. Vowels may be written before, after, over, or under a consonant symbol. Unfortunately, 50% of the population is illiterate. French is sometimes understood by the older generation but English is becoming more widely spoken throughout the country, especially in tourist areas.
Cambodians are generally relaxed and easy going with regard to customs and you would find it difficult to unwittingly offend. The best way to ensure you avoid ofence is to be aware of the actions of the local people around you and follow their lead. There are, however a couple of points, which are worth noting:
- Show consideration if you wish to take photographs or enter Buddhist temples.
- Monks are not allowed to touch or be touched by women or even handed things directly by a woman.
- When sitting in a temple your feet should not be pointed in the direction of the Buddha image.
- Patting someone (even a child) on the head or pointing your index finger is considered to be rude and insulting
- Open displays of affection (such as kissing and holding hands) will generally draw the wrong kind of attention.
- Anger, such as losing your temper and yelling will lead to a loss of face and is highly unlikely to get you what you want.
- Shoes should also be taken off when entering any building that houses a Buddha image or if you are visiting someone's house
Theravada Buddhism is the religion practised by about 95% of Khmers. It is often referred to as a way of life, or a philosophy, rather than a religion. It advocates moderation in all facets of life and sees material objects as standing in the way of greater happiness. There are also a small number of Muslim communities though out the country.
Public holidays and festivals
Cambodia is renowned for its many public holidays and festival days. During public holidays, banks and all government institutions close down and depending on the festival you may see a either a massive surge of people heading home to their family province or into the major towns to join in celebrations. The main holidays celebrated include:
Chaul Chhnam - Cambodian New Year - follows the end of the harvest season. It generally lasts for three days from 14-16 April during which time Cambodians douse each other liberally with water, clean and decorate their houses, and make offerings at the local temple.
Pchum Ben or Soul Day - Running for 15 days from the end of September into October, and the exact date determined by the lunar calendar, this festival is dedicated to blessing the spirits of the dead, and is one of the most culturally significant in Cambodia. Each household visits their Buddhist temple and offers food to the monks for their assistance in blessing the souls of late ancestors, relatives and friends. Pagodas are crowded with people taking their turn to make offering.
Bonn Kathen - A religious festival when monks come out of retreat, and people all over the country form reverent slow processions to their local temple. Monks change their old saffron robes for the new ones offered by the devotees, an action that brings spiritual merit to all participants. Date decided by lunar calendar.
Independence Day - A national holiday on November 9th to celebrate the independence of Cambodia from France in 1953. A parade is held in front of the Royal Palace, which includes floats, marching bands and other entertaining festive activities.
The Bonn Om Took Water Festival (November) - Celebrating the reversed current of the Tonle Sap River that connects the Tonle Sap Lake with the Mekong. During the rainy season from June to October the Mekong rises, causing the Tonle Sap River to flow in reverse, and the lake to swell to more than twice its regular size. At the end of the rainy season, when the water level of the Mekong drops again, the current reverts and flows back into the Mekong. This event is celebrated with three days of boat races, festivals, and fireworks.