In just a couple of months I will be taking a group of friends with me to Cambodia for the first time. Now that flights are booked, the countdown is on to give them the lowdown on how best to prepare for their first time there. So as I sat to draft an email to them, I thought, why not share it with the world since I’m often asked for my pointers anyway?
Note: these mostly apply to the cities and not necessarily to the more remote, less beaten path.
Where to start: I always recommend that first-timers start in Phnom Penh to learn about the country’s tragic recent history. Personally–and embarrassingly–I knew nothing about the genocide the first time I went to Cambodia. It was a huge punch in the gut when I visited Tuol Sleng (a high school turned prison turned museum) on my first day in Cambodia and learned about the Khmer Rouge regime that killed millions of their own people in the 1970s. It’s humbling to learn about and makes you appreciate the kindness and generosity of the people you will encounter that much more.
Where to end: If you are traveling just to Cambodia, end your trip in Siem Reap with a visit to the Angkor temple complex. If you plan to spend a lot of time in other countries in the region too, personally I would suggest going to Cambodia early in your journey and not leaving Angkor Wat for last. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Angkor temples until 3 months after seeing temple after temple after temple in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, so by the time I got to Siem Reap I was a bit templed-out and not as impressed as I imagine I would have been if I wasn’t so jaded at that point. I know that many people may argue the opposite because nothing would be impressive after seeing the motherload of temples, but I personally prefer one massive memorable WHOA experience to trump all others than a lot of MEH ones. Especially when you’re talking about frickin’ Angkor Wat! Learn from my mistake. No one should look at Angkor Wat and say MEH.
Where to stay: In Phnom Penh I always stay in the area around Street 278. It’s full of low cost guesthouse options compared to the more popular riverfront area and has some good food options, too.
In Siem Reap, unless you are looking to party, stay on the “other” side of the river from downtown. There are many guesthouses off of Wat Bo Road. Downtown is still very accessible by foot or bicycles (which you can rent from any guesthouse) but you don’t have to deal with the rowdier tourist crowd. The prices are lower there too and the restaurants are far more authentic.
Wherever you stay, ask for a business card when you check in. This may come in handy if it has the address written in Khmer to show tuk tuk or moto drivers who may not understand English. However, it is also likely that your driver may not be able to read, so I try to carry a photo of a landmark within walking distance of my hotels to show if all other communication fails. Have the photos printed out if possible, because flashing a fancy phone may not be smart if the wrong people are around.
How to pay: This is the most unexpected—and also most convenient—part of traveling in Cambodia. As far as foreigners are concerned, Cambodia runs on U.S. dollars. ATMs will give you U.S. dollars. You can pay for everything in U.S. dollars as long as the bill is small enough for the occasion (i.e.- don’t pay a street food vendor with a $20 bill). Change, however, is usually given in the local currency (riel). You can also use the dollars and riel interchangeably and combined using the universally-accepted exchange rate of 1 USD = 4000 riel. For example, if something is labeled as $1.50, then you can give them $1 + 2000 riel. Or you can give them $5 and you’ll get 14,000 riel (or any combination of dollar bills and riel) back. Sounds complicated but it is very easy to get used to.
So if you are traveling from the U.S. and want to avoid overseas bank charges, bring cash with you. Make sure that the money is clean with no rips and with minimal folds/wrinkles. Cambodians are suspicious of fake or worn money, so even if you think a bill looks OK, they may reject it because it is too tattered. I go into my bank before each trip and specifically ask them for new bills in $20, $10, and $5 denominations. I don’t think I’m their favorite customer when I ask this, but they do it! I also start breaking $20s to collect $1 and $5 bills in the weeks before my trip. Those are usually harder to come by at the bank and will be the most valuable to have in Cambodia to easily pay drivers, street vendors, and others selling low cost items that usually don’t have change (or at least say they don’t).
How to dress: The joke in Southeast Asia is that there are three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. This holds especially true in Cambodia where the temperature usually hovers in the 80s and 90s year-round. Not to mention the intense humidity, which can be overwhelming in the spring (side note: showering in the morning can be quite useless since on most days I would start sweating as soon as I walk out the door). All this to say, pack breathable, light clothing—cotton tops, linen pants, jersey skirts, etc. You’ll also see that in Cambodia scarves are used to protect from the heat rather than cold. They are also great to have on hand should you need to cover your shoulders to enter a holy site (knees and shoulders must be covered and shoes removed), or your mouth when going down a dusty road on a tuk tuk (might I take this opportunity to shamelessly plug krama wheel scarves?).
Also keep in mind that most guesthouses offer cheap wash and fold laundry service, so keep the number of clothes you take to a minimum.
How to eat: Two words: Street stalls. Just point and pay for anything that looks good to you. No need for questions.
This is by no means comprehensive (there are guidebooks for that), but they are the tips that I have found to be the most valuable after several trips to Cambodia.
Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments below!