Practical tips on traveling to Cambodia

I have just returned from a two-week trip to Cambodia. It was a trip of a lifetime. I was fascinated by the enormous temple Angkor Wat and that was the main reason for going to Cambodia when I planned the visit. However, along the way I found many other great places to visit and see in Cambodia. I will write about my trip in a series of posts in this blog. In this post I will share some tips for a trip to Cambodia, especially those that I couldn’t find anywhere else in the internet and only learned during the trip. So, here we go:

Money

  • No need to exchange the currency to Cambodian Riel, all the transactions are made in US dollars

From tuktuk drivers to restaurants have their prices set in US dollars so don’t exchange your currency to Cambodian Riel. If you are not from the US convert your own currency into US dollars. However they don’t use US coins, so all the change that is less than a dollar will be returned via Cambodian riel. When I was there 1 US dollar was trading at 4000 Cambodian Riel. So if my change was 50 cents in US dollars I will get 2000 Cambodian Riel.

  • If you are using cash, try to avoid brining torn or very old bills

I used cash for all types of transactions in Cambodia. It was easier and in certain cases you cannot use cards for example for tuktuk fares, purchases at the night market etc. However most people in Cambodia will not accept bills that are torn or very old. When I asked them why, they said that banks won’t accept the bills and they cannot convert those US dollars to Cambodian Riel. So try to get some new and crisp US bills when you arrive at the country. At the same time some of those vendors or tuktuk drivers will try to give you their old/torn bills which you will not be able to use in future transactions, so ask them for different bill. If you hesitate to ask you will be stuck with that bill and will not be able to use it again.

  • In an ATM try not to get money in multiples of $100s

Unlike the ATMs in US, if you ask for $200 in a Cambodian ATM it will return you two $100 bills instead of ten $20 bills. It is hard to use $100 in any small purchases and most stores won’t break your bills if you ask them for it. So if you use an ATM request $80 or $120 which will likely give you all in 20’s. Also the ATM fee is usually $4/$5. Most touristy areas like Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh have lots of ATMs. But always try to be cautious and try to use it during the day instead of night.

Things to Bring

  • Bring a padlock and face mask

Unless you are a veteran traveler you might forget the essentials like a padlock and a face mask when visiting countries like Cambodia. Having a padlock handy can help you lock your stuff in the lockers provided by the hostels. Most hostels provide lockers but they want you to bring your own padlock to lock it. But at onestop hostel they gave us lock too which was great! In any case bring one. Also having a face mask can be helpful when you travel around the busy streets in the city or dusty roads in the countryside in an open tuktuk. Some tuktuk drivers might provide you with a face mask but most will not.

  • Bring sunscreen, bug spray and diarrhea medication

Use sunscreen and bug spary at least twice a day: before you leave the hostel for the day and after you return to the hostel. Those two are essential. There are lot of bugs in Cambodia and it would be better to prevent any disease than try to cure it. Regardless of the quality of the food, you will get diarrhea at some point of your travel since the food is different and it takes some time to get used to it. So bring some diarrhea medication and probiotics.

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Country side in Cambodia

Visiting Temples

  • Go to the temples early in the day

Try to go to the temples early in the day. These temples in Cambodia are enormous, usually it will take you about an hour to see a ‘medium’ sized temple if you rush through them. So if you start the day early you won’t feel like you are rushing through the visit. From my understanding Angkor Wat opens around 5 am in order to allow tourists to see the sunrise, other temples open a little later. Also if you are visiting during the dry season temperature will be unbearable during midday so if you start your day early you can finish about two ‘medium’ sized temples or a large temple like Angkor Wat before it feels like a furnace!

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Pre Rup Temple in Siem Reap
  • Try to see the sunrise from a temple other than Angkor Wat

Going to see the sunrise in Angkor Wat is a popular thing to do among the tourists. For this reason Angkor Wat opens earlier than many other temples inside the city. However since it is a popular thing to do there will be thousands of tourists and you will drained in the sea of cameras. I did the same but didn’t really like it. From what I talked to other tourists it would be better to see the sunrise from other taller temples like Pre Rup or Eastern Mebon. You will be able to peacefully see the sunrise without too much company.

  • Follow the dress code when visiting temples, royal palaces etc.

Temples in Siem Reap and the royal palace in Phnom Penh has certain dress code for both men and women. Men are required to wear knee length shorts or trousers and shirt. Women are required to wear sleeved shirt and a skirt or pants. If you are not dressed appropriately you might be required to buy a pants or scarf outside the temple in order to satisfy the requirements. It seemed to me the rules were enforced strictly for women compared to men. Because I saw some guys walking around the temple in short shorts (of course Europeans) but women were not allowed to wear that. As a Hindu I believe the dress code is right but it should be enforced regardless of the gender.

Riding on Tuktuk 

  • Don’t let the Tuktuk driver decide your trip

I had some great Tuktuk drivers in Cambodia but also had some very bad ones. The first tuktuk driver that I had was very persistent in getting me and my friend into his Tuktuk and he also got us to to this overpriced hotel. We had no other option since we arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight. That driver also said that he can plan the trip for us, I right away  said that there is no need for that and we have the plan on what we are doing in Cambodia. Don’t let this happen to you. Always have a destination planned so that Tuktuk driver won’t influence you on where you are going.

  • Rent a tuktuk for the whole day 

When visiting temple in Siem Reap or museums and other places in Phnom Penh rent a tuktuk for the whole day. It may seem counterintuitive at first but tuktuk drivers will wait outside until you are done and then they will take you to your next destination. I didn’t realize it on the first day and I thought I can take different tuktuk from temple to temple. Certain temples don’t attract too many tourists and there won’t be any tuktuk drivers outside. So it will be hard to take a tuktuk from there to other destinations. The same tuktutk drivers who plead for you to ride in their tuktuk will get rude when they already have a customer. In one case I ended up walking from one temple to another. Although it was not that bad, walking in 85 degree Sun in a dusty road will not be a pleasant experience and you might not have enough energy to spend the rest of the day productively.

General Tourist Etiquette

  • Bargain! Bargain!! Bargain!!!

Whether it is a clothing vendor at night market or a tuktuk driver or someone selling fried ice cream roll in the street always bargain the price. Since Cambodia is flooded with tourists most local vendors tend to overprice whatever good or service that they are selling. They also expect you to bargain the price, if you don’t then they have nothing to lose. At first it will feel weird but then you will get used to it!

  • No need to tip

Giving tips in restaurants or anywhere else is not customary in Cambodia. I believe this whole tipping is part of the American culture. Don’t feel obligated to tip your waiter or the tuktuk driver, there is no need to do that. Unless you feel that the service that you got was exceptional go ahead and give  a tip, otherwise you are making it a habit for them!

  • Learn a few words in Khmer

You don’t need to know any Khmer to survive in Cambodia. You can communicate in English and most of the people will understand. However knowing a few words can really help. For example knowing how to say Thank you (Akun in Khmer) and Hi (Suostei in Khmer) can be helpful. Cambodian people are humble and nice if you say a few words in their language they will certainly be very happy. I believe just your eagerness to know a few words in Khmer will show them how interested you are in visiting Cambodia.

  • Try to be a clean tourist

I have seen some tourists littering in the beach, roads etc. If you want everyone else to enjoy Cambodia the same way you did try to clean up after yourself. I have heard many tourists complaining about how dirty certain places are when in fact they are made that way by their fellow tourists.

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Killing Tree in Choeung Ek Killing fields
  • Be respectful at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Choeung  Ek Killing Fields

Despite the glorious past the Cambodia had during Khmer empire it also had a gloomy era during the Cambodian civil war and then inhumane Pol Pot regime. Tuol Sleng is a former school turned concentration camp in Phnom Penh. Now it functions as a museum. Choeung Ek Killing field is just outside of Phnom Penh. Those two places now commemorate the Cambodians and others killed during the Pol Pot regime. I have heard my roommates in the hostel saying that there were some visitors taking selfies and smiling group pictures in these places. Remember these are the places where innocent Cambodians were killed by Khmer rouge cadres by cart axils, bamboo sticks and bludgeons. So be respectful and act that way as well.

  • Be a considerate tourist 

Cambodia is a picturesque place. Total number of photos that I took in Cambodia was more than the total number of photos that I took up until that point with my phone of two years. So you might want to take a picture of  and with everything. But at the same time don’t try to block the entrance to a temple in order to take a group picture or stand in one of the nice places and take twenty different pictures of you in twenty different poses and make everyone else wait or push other tourists so that you can take a better picture. All of this I have noticed in Cambodia. Be considerate about your fellow tourists and don’t be obnoxious.

 

Transportation within Cambodia

  • Try to book the bus tickets early 

Although tourism is soaring in Cambodia there aren’t that many bus services to take tourists from one major city to another. The two good bus services that I heard were Giant Ibis and Mekong Express. However you have to book your tickets early and those two buses fill up very quickly. Since I waited the day before to book the tickets, I ended up traveling in Rithmony bus service which was not that great. Most hostels can help you out with booking the bus tickets and they will also arrange tuktuk to get you to the bus station.

  • You can’t win with bus transport in Cambodia

Taking a night bus is a good option if you want to avoid spending the day inside a bus which could be terrible if the weather is hot and humid. Besides you will be spending hours in the bus which you could have spent something useful and/or fun. However night buses can also be a night mare. When I took the night bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville it was a 11 hour bus route, on top of that our bus broke down in the middle so we had to change the buses. The replacement bus was not as good as the original bus that we took. So in summary you can’t win with bus transport in Cambodia, be prepared for any of these circumstances.

  • Taking speed boat and checking in 

If you go to Sihanoukville, visiting Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloem is a must. You can go there in different types of boats but most people go there by speed ferry. Hostels around Sihanoukville sell the ferry tickets but you can also buy them in many travel agencies in Sihanoukville. Taking the ferry itself is an amazing experience. Some people visit the island as a day trip other stay there overnight for a few days. When you have to take the return ferry you have to check in an hour before in one of the piers. Otherwise you will not be allowed in the return ferry. If you fail to check in before an hour they will make you wait until everyone who has checked in is on board before letting you in. This happened to me and not a great experience!

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View of the ocean from Koh Rong

 Basic Amenities in Cambodia

  • Always book a hostel before you go to a city or town

Don’t book a hostel after you get to a city, always try to get it before you go there. If you visit Cambodia during peak touristy season getting a place might be very competitive. Besides that having a hostel ready will help you to direct the tuktuk driver to the exact place instead of making him or her (yes, I did see a women driving a tuktuk but sadly she was the only lady tuktuk driver that I saw) make the decision for you. I would highly recommend this hostel in Cambodia onestop hostel, impressive service!

  • Electricity in Cambodia 

I brought a converter in order to charge my phone etc. However I didn’t need that in Cambodia. If you are from the US and use electric appliances that only take 110 V, you don’t need a converter you can directly plug them in the wall.

  • Wifi in Cambodia

Almost all the restaurants and hostels in Cambodia have wifi in them. So no need for you to buy any SIM card or data provider in Cambodia. In my opinion these hostels and restaurants put their American counterparts to shame by providing better wifi service.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Smoking will be ubiquitous in almost all places

I have not seen that high prevalence of smoking in the US and I felt fortunate that there are strict laws in the US about smoking in public places. You can find people smoking cigarettes in restaurants, bars, beaches and almost anywhere except for places where it is forbidden explicitly. These are not local Cambodians most of these people are tourists and they have no shame infusing other with their cigarette smoke. So be aware of it in case if you are allergic to cigarette smoke.

  • Familiarize yourself with Hinduism & Buddhism 
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Churning of the ocean of milk in the Phnom Penh royal palace

Although it is not necessary try to read up on Hinduism and Buddhism and especially Hindu mythological stories. Because Hinduism was practiced across Khmer empire during its heyday and most ancient temples in Cambodia are dedicated to Hindu gods. Knowing some of the hindu legends like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Churning of the ocean of milk can provide you some context of the temple and the culture. As a Hindu myself I was able to understand many sculptures and symbolism around many temples. You can of course hire one of the tour guides outside the temples. But in my humble opinion many of them don’t have a deep understanding of Hinduism since it is no longer the dominant religion in Cambodia. I have seen tourist walking around the temples with a guide book in order to understand the sculptures which I thought was a better idea.

  • Most of all Don’t hesitate to try new things, eat new food, talk to different people and go to different places!

I have met a few people in my hostel who go out at night to get food and drinks and then come back and spend the entire day in bed. I guess that is not the point of traveling. There is no better teacher than traveling, but you can only benefit from it if you are willing to experience different things. Cambodia is full of adventures, surprises and stories. Try to experience at least a fraction of them during the time of your stay!

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Mango sticky rice, something that I cherished very much during my Cambodia trip

If you are planning  a trip to Cambodia I hope I have given you some useful tips. If you are not planning a trip I hope I have inspired you to visit Cambodia, the kingdom of Wonders! 

 

 

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