Cambodia Travel Guide
Cambodia is the Kingdom of Wonder for good reason. With over 5 million visitors in 2016, travel to Cambodia has never been more popular. Understandably, knowing when to go, what to wear, how to get around and what to expect are all questions on the minds of first time visitors. Cambodia can be an easy country to travel once you're armed with some key information that many people get wrong. Make sure your trip to Cambodia is stress free with our complete guide for first time visitors.
Travel to Cambodia
Cambodia has three international airports - Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. While you can fly from Europe/US/Australia directly it is often cheaper to fly to Bangkok or Saigon and then take a local flight into Cambodia. Reasonably priced flights from Europe are sometimes available via China Southern/Eastern airlines with a stopover in various Chinese cities. If you're getting a connecting flight from a neighbouring country, be aware that flights run on Asian time in Cambodia - I don't think we've ever taken one that has left exactly as scheduled!
There are 12 land borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam which are accessible to tourists. There are regular tourist buses from Bangkok, Saigon and Vientiane as well as smaller towns. Buses are an inexpensive way of travelling to Cambodia, and depending on your point of entry can be smooth and comfortable, or a bit of a nightmare!
Saigon to Phnom Penh is one of the easiest routes and take around six-seven hours including crossing the border. This border is well maintained, quiet and generally little scams/corruption. At worst, you could pay an extra $5 per visa.
Bangkok to Siem Reap crosses easily the busiest border (Poipet) and in either direction expect to spend 3+ hours queuing here on an average day. In total this route will take anywhere between 10-14 hours. Apart from the $28 bus, all other buses will leave you at the border with all your bags and you'll wait at the other side for minivans to pick you up. This is a route that we always fly now, rather than spend that length of time in transit. There is also enough scams, pickpockets and stress for an average person to justify a flight. You can fly Bangkok → Siem Reap/Phnom Penh for around $70.
August 2017 Update: With new airline JC air, one way flights can be as little as $14 per person! In our experience, Poipet is the worst border crossing in Southeast Asia. This is a no-brainer!
Visas for your trip to Cambodia
Visa on Arrival
Most visitors to Cambodia enter the country on a tourist visa which lasts for one month and can be extended once, for a further month. This visa is $30 but can be up to $40 (depending on entry point and border guard "tax") and can be used to visit or volunteer. In order to work or stay for longer than 8 weeks, an ordinary/business visa can be purchased for $35-45 and extended indefinitely from within the country. Visas can be paid for in US dollars, as well as several other currencies (at an inflated price.) Two passport photos are required, or can be purchased at most borders for an additional $5-10.
Be aware that most land borders are only open 8am-8pm. Any night buses will pull up the the border and wait until morning so should generally be avoided unless the company will guarantee you'll arrive at the border in time to cross. Sleeping overnight in a bus at the border will be no fun, I assure you!
E-visas can be obtained online but we recommend getting the visa on arrival for your trip to Cambodia which is less expensive and requires no prior paperwork. Generally, if travelling to Cambodia via a land border, everyone else on the bus will be queuing for the visa on arrival so you'd be waiting for them anyway!
Related article: Visa guide for Southeast Asian countries
Costs for Cambodia
A trip to Cambodia is very cheap compared to travelling in Australia, Europe or North America. However, if coming from neighbouring countries, some travellers find prices slightly higher than Vietnam and Thailand, particularly in the tourist hub of Siem Reap. This is much lower in the less touristed towns and can be avoided by eating local food and getting away from the main tourist drag.
Anything for sale in markets and shops without price tags are negotiable so get your haggling head on. Expect to politely haggle and end up paying 50-70% of the original price they quote. Remember to smile and walk away if you think they are being really unreasonable. While this is a common part of local life, remember that an extra dollar here and there goes a lot further in their pocket than it does yours as a visitor. Haggle, have fun with it, but don’t be a d*ck.
Something else to bear in mind is there are pricing tiers which exist almost everywhere. This means there is a separate price for locals and tourists, sometimes actually written in documents and adverts. Before you let this upset you, bear in mind that the average wage in Cambodia is $150-200 a month which often supports an entire family. Comparatively, even if you are backpacking your income is wildly higher than this. The Cambodian economy is pretty reliant on tourist dollars and spending your money here actually makes a difference.
Accommodation prices in Cambodia
There is often room to negotiate on room prices, particularly if you arrive in low season and haven’t booked before hand. There is a plethora of all range of accommodation in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Battambang and Koh Rong so there is no need to book ahead unless you are visiting in December or January.
Accommodation is exceptionally reasonable in Cambodia if you do your research. Staying at the most high-end hotels are similar to western prices but there are some terrific deals to be had if you avoid the big-name brands and book in person. Booking sites like hotels.com, agoda etc all add a 10-20% commission so you're almost guaranteed to be paying more than booking directly.
Dorm beds in in hostels start at $4 a night & private rooms from $10 ($15-18 with a/c).
Mid-range hotels start from $25 a night and luxury from $50+.
Food and drink prices
Food prices vary wildly dependant on location and if they are catered to a tourist crowd. Dishes in restaurants start at $2 for Khmer food and $3-5 for western dishes. Street food is around $1+ a dish.
Beer is some of the cheapest in Southeast Asia. A glass of around 400ml of draft starts at 50 cents, up to $1.50 at more expensive bars. Bottled beer is available but is more costly.
Wine is anywhere from $1.50-5 per glass and is generally chilled (even red!)
Cocktails start at $1.50 and go up to around $5 depending on how upmarket the bar. Most places have drinks specials and happy hours to entice you in. We've never had issues with fake spirits in Cambodia like the reports in Thailand and Indonesia, but if you are concerned then there is always beer available.
Travel in Cambodia: Transport
Tuk-tuks start at $1-2 for short journeys across town. Always pre-arrange a price with the driver beforehand. They might quote an unreasonable price, if they do politely say no thank you and walk away. Most will re-negotiate and suggest something more reasonable.
For tuk-tuks around Angkor expect to pay $15 for the small circuit and $20+ for the grand circuit. To visit the Roluos group or other further temples, negotiate a further price with your driver. Do remember that a dollar here or there makes a lot more difference in their pocket than it does yours. If you get a great driver, don't hesitate to leave an extra tip on top of the set rate. Tuk Tuk drivers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country, with an inconsistent income and usually family to support and will always appreciate a tip.
For journeys around town, bicycle rental is available in most towns for $1-2 a day. This is a great way of exploring although we don't recommend it for Angkor trips as the roads between temples are poorly maintained and it is really, really hot most of the year round. Navigating between temples is best done by a driver who knows their way!
Bus journeys around Cambodia are generally very cheap, with varying quality and safety levels. We travel with Giant Ibis buses wherever possible - they have easily the best safety record and comfort ratings. They also usually have free Wi-Fi on board, give out bottled water and honk considerably less than other companies throughout the night (see below.)
What to expect on long distance buses
The roads in Cambodia are in pretty poor condition and the drivers are known to tear down the highway at breakneck speeds. Road etiquette in Cambodia dictates that you honk as your overtake other vehicles (usually motos) which can make for a noisy journey. Travelling with Giant Ibis is the best option for a good night's sleep!
It takes around 6 hours via bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is around 5 hours. Journeys between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville go through Phnom Penh and are around 12-13 hours (including stopping to pick up and drop off passengers in Phnom Penh usually.)
Bus journeys between cities vary from $6-15 depending on the company you choose and relative comfort you opt for.
There are VIP buses and 'hotel' buses which have various degrees of flatness and sometimes a curtain for privacy.
If travelling solo, make sure to book one of the rows of single beds. If you don't, you might have another passenger join in the cosy two berth beds (these are close even if you are dating your bunk mate!)
Keep valuables with you in the bunk preferably under your pillow or attached to you in some way. Your main backpack will be in the hold down below, but it's recommended that you keep you anything of value with you on the bus. There are various reports of thefts on night buses which can honestly be avoided by travelling with Giant Ibis and keeping your valuables with you at all times. Almost all of the crime in Cambodia is opportunist crime. Don't give them the opportunity!
You can book your travel with any local travel agent - there is usually one in your hostel or on a street nearby. or now you can book online using X website. Ticket prices and journey lengths for travel around Cambodia.
For shorter distances, if you’re in a group of four a private taxi could be a good option. For example Siem Reap to Battambang or vice versa. We don’t recommend private cars around Angkor - unless you really object to the heat. Tuk Tuks are far more atmospheric & interesting. Taxis are good for 1-4 hour journeys in groups where you want a flexible start time or airport pick up/drop off.
Many organised tours will be operated by minivan. These can fit up to 11-13 people plus cases and can either be spacious or a squash depending on how many the company squeezes in! Always arrive early and don’t choose the back seats! These are comfortable for 1-3 hour journeys.
Related article: Ultimate transport guide for Southeast Asia
When to visit Cambodia
Cambodia has three seasons - cool, hot and rainy season.
Cool season in Cambodia runs from November-February with Dec & January the coolest months. This can still see temperatures of 30 degrees during the day, but mornings and evenings can go down to 16-18 degrees. Expect to see Cambodian people in ski jackets, hats and gloves! This is a good time to visit for those who don’t cope well in the heat, but is also high-season for tourism so sites, hotels and restaurants will be at their busiest.
Hot season is March-June and can see temperatures of up to 45 degrees. This is usually quite a dry heat, and we find it easier to cope with than parts of rainy season which has a sticky, heavy humidity that accompanies the heat. This is one of the best times to visit if you are good with hot weather as availability and prices are great at this time. You’ll also be supporting the local community when they often struggle with lack of traffic and people will be extra friendly!
Rainy season is July-October but can start sooner. Inland, (think Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh) this just means a shower in the afternoon most days. This can be refreshing from the sweltering humidity and is generally quieter than cool season. On the coast however (Sihanoukville, Kep, Kampot and islands like Koh Rong) the rain can last *all day* and the temperature can actually be borderline chilly! Unheard of for Cambodia usually.
Related article: Ultimate weather guide for Southeast Asia
Eating in Cambodia
Khmer food draws influences from all around Asia. Lots of the noodle dishes have Vietnamese and Chinese flavours, and the curries are rich and often made with coconut milk.
How easy is being a vegetarian in Cambodia?
There are lots of rice, noodle & vegetable dishes readily available for vegetarians. The large Buddhist population means they totally get veggies and you’ll be easily accommodated if you ask. The word for vegetarian in Khmer is: Ahar Buos (and then gesture to yourself). They do use fish sauce sometimes but nowhere near as much as Thailand. Also, meat is pretty expensive and there are plenty of dishes without any! Being vegan is also manageable, particularly if you stick to Khmer dishes. A lot of the western dishes contain cheese and/or eggs.
What about being gluten free?
Gluten free is a little harder to explain, and will require thorough reading of menus. There are however lots of rice & rice noodles, along with meat and vegetable dishes. There are also lots of western oriented restaurants with English speaking staff should be able to help you. If you are coeliac, I’d recommend carrying around a note in Khmer explaining what you can’t eat that you can show to restaurant staff.
In my opinion, Khmer is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn. It contains no tenses, grammar or genders! Khmer people also appreciate it SO much when you attempt even basic and embarrassing Khmer and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Plus it’s easy to pronounce and you’ll definitely get better prices if you try it - a no brainer!
Basic Khmer phrases that come in useful:
Arkun - Thank you!
Arkun Churan - Thank you very much.
Chol Moy! - Cheers. Not to be pronounced Choy Moy which is actually quite a rude phrase (but the locals will just giggle if you say that!)
Tlai Bonman? - How much? Even if you can’t count in Khmer (which is super easy!) Offering to haggle at least a little bit in Khmer will make them drop their first round of ‘tourist prices’ when they haggle with you.
Numbers in Khmer are very easy. It’s basically just 5 numbers that repeat themselves.
1-5 is Moy, Bee, Bai, Buen, Bram. - which are the 5 most important numbers!
5-10 is then Bram Moy, Bram Bee, Bram Bai, Bram Buen, Dap. (essentially 5+1, 5+2, 5+3 etc)
11+ is....Dap Moy, Dap Bee, Dap Bai…. you get the idea.
Ok, that's it for part I - everything you need to know for your trip to Cambodia. Have something in mind you'd like to know for part II? Let us know in the comments!
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