Going to Cambodia? Here's everything you need to know in order to have a great trip.
When Europe was still in the Dark Ages, the largest city in the world was thriving in what is now Cambodia. The remains of this civilization—the UNESCO-honored temples of Angkor—are visited by over two million tourists annually. Visitors to Cambodia first come to see the Angkor temples but return after they’ve fallen in love with the country and its people. Want to be one of those tourists? Here’s what you need to know to make it smooth.
Plan Your Visit (and Get a 7-Day Ticket) to Make the Most of Angkor
Angkor can get very busy, particularly at Christmas and Chinese New Year. But crowds can sap all the enjoyment from the mystical and serene temples. Sunrise at Angkor Wat and sunset at Phnom Bakheng are popular, but lost their magic years ago. Instead, visit Angkor Wat mid-day when the queues to climb to the third level are shortest. While the walk along the causeway to the temple is hot, most of your time will be spent under the shade of the temple.
The faces of Bayon temple are beautifully lit in the golden hours after sunrise and before sunset. It’s almost always crowded. Spend more time exploring all the Angkor Thom temples: you’ll have many of them to yourself, even in high season. Consider skipping popular Ta Phrom, the “Tomb Raider” temple, for other temples where the trees are taking over, such as Ta Som, Banteay Kdei, and Preah Kahn. And don’t ride the elephants: the seats damage their backs, and some elephants have collapsed in the heat.
The Angkor Archeological Park raised its ticket prices in 2017 and also started accepting credit cards rather than just US cash. A one-day Angkor pass now costs $37 USD, a three-day pass (valid for 10 days) costs $62, and a seven-day pass (valid for 30 days) costs $72. Children under 12 are free if they show a passport. Be sure to follow the rules on your ticket, including dressing so that your knees and shoulders (and everything in between) are covered.
You can rent a bike or e-bike, or hire a tuk-tuk or car to tour the temples. Prices range from about $10 for the six-kilometer trip to Angkor Wat to $25 for the “grand circuit” of temples in a tuk-tuk that provides icy cold water and cold cloths to refresh your face and hands. If you want to get an early start, buy your Angkor tickets the day before (between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m). The ticket is valid for watching the sunset that evening as well as for the normal duration of the pass you purchased.
Keep in mind that Cambodia is about more than just Angkor. Ideally, you’ll also have three to four nights in each of Phnom Penh, the UNESCO City of Performing Arts Battambang; Kampot or Sihanoukville near the Gulf of Thailand; and an island like Koh Rong.
Follow the Rules and Treat Monks and the Buddha With Respect
The Angkor temples are a religious site considered sacred by Buddhists and Hindus. It’s fine to take pictures of the sculptures and architecture, but otherwise, behave as you would in a church, mosque, or other sacred space. Speak quietly (tour groups: this means you!), dress modestly (knees and shoulders must be covered), and avoid touching the ancient stones as much as possible.
You might see monks at Angkor. Yes, their robes are marvelously photogenic against the stone temples, but ask before taking their picture. Avoid standing above a monk, as this is disrespectful. Women should never touch a monk or his robes (be careful in crowds). Know that some entrepreneurial boys and young men dress as monks at Angkor Wat and will take your money in exchange for a “blessing” and a bracelet. Some temple staff take a cut in exchange for turning a blind eye.
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The Phare Circus Should Top Your To-Do List for When You're Templed out
The best thing in Siem Reap aside from the Angkor temples? The Phare Cambodian Circus, a Cirque du Soleil-esque spectacle of acrobatics and heart. If it’s sold-out, see a shadow puppet or photography show at the Bambu Stage, or a fusion of modern and Apsara dance by New Cambodian Artists.
Dine out on some of Siem Reap’s excellent cuisine. Swiss-trained Cambodian chef Siv Pola’s Mie Café is ideal for a midday temple break and for dinner. Try Khmer gastronomy at Embassy Restaurant, run by two female chefs. Another female chef, formerly at the exclusive Amansara Hotel, offers refined street food at Khmer Touch Cuisine. Cuisine Wat Damnak has modern Cambodian food and Rohatt Café serves authentic versions.
Be sure to have a massage. The spa at Udaya Residence offers a sublime traditional Khmer massage, which combines a deep tissue treatment with a hot compress of aromatic herbs. Blind massage centers provide employment opportunities to a vulnerable group, but choose carefully, as some don’t offer a living wage.
Spend Your Time and Money Away From Siem Reap’s Pub Street
Every tourist goes to Pub Street in the center of Siem Reap, but it has nothing to do with the real Cambodia. Bars compete for customers by turning up their pounding tunes and calling out for customers. Take a quick look so you can say you’ve been, but spend your time and money elsewhere. Good restaurants and cafés are everywhere, and prices are often better away from Pub Street.
What to Expect at Your Hotel
Where to stay in expanding Siem Reap, where new hotels pop up monthly? Unless your goal is just to party, avoid Pub Street. The areas near Wat Bo and Wat Damnak have plenty to offer. Quieter neighborhoods include east of the river below Street 60. Hotels further from downtown often offer a free one-way or return tuk-tuk ride.
Cambodians rise early to take advantage of cooler temperatures. You will likely be woken by traffic, roosters, voices, and construction noise. Be aware that Cambodian weddings are a two-day affair with music blasted from loudspeakers at (almost) all hours. If your hotel is in a residential area, you might be affected.
All but the lowest budget hotels will have a swimming pool. Most hotel rooms come with a fridge, daily breakfast, and airport pick-up (higher-end hotels via an air-conditioned car). As you move up in price, you can expect stronger English skills and improved service. Beds in Cambodia are on the harder side regardless of hotel price point.
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Traffic Is Your Biggest Safety Risk in Cambodia
Cambodia is generally a safe place to travel, though, as with all tourist destinations, be aware of pickpockets in crowded areas. There are occasional reports of someone on a moped grabbing a bag or phone. Always be aware of your belongings and surroundings.
The biggest safety risk is traffic. Lanes are only a suggestion in Cambodia. Traffic generally drives on the right, but a vehicle planning a left-hand turn is likely to travel the wrong way down the left side of the road for a few blocks in anticipation. Intersections are a free-for-all, with traffic somehow sorting itself out. Pedestrians should never step off a curb without triple checking that they won’t be hit by a quiet bicycle, moped, or tuk-tuk coming from either direction. Be brave and consistent when crossing the street; traffic will weave around you if you make no sudden moves.
Cambodian Etiquette Isn’t Difficult to Learn, But Might Not Be What You Expect
What is considered rude and polite in Cambodia likely differs from your hometown. Cambodian etiquette echoes that of other Buddhist countries. It isn’t difficult to learn, but isn’t always obvious to the first-time visitor. Modest behavior is appreciated as much as modest dress. Speak quietly. Don’t take up a lot of space when you walk down the street or with your belongings. Don’t flash your expensive items. Avoid public displays of affection and of your temper. Don’t take photos of people without their permission.
Avoid using your left hand to give something to someone. To show respect, give and receive objects of value with both hands—your Angkor ticket, money, credit cards, and when accepting the goods you’ve just purchased. When gesturing for directions or an item you’re interested in, use an open hand, not a pointed finger. Remove your shoes when entering a home, most temples (not at Angkor), and some shops. If you see flip-flops at the threshold, that’s the signal.
Dressing modestly isn’t just for Angkor, but is appreciated everywhere in the region. Showing too much skin embarrasses your hosts, so cover up except when at the pool or beach. Walking barefoot on the street is the height of rudeness (and an easy way to get an infection). Avoid short shorts, tank tops and backless shirts especially. While knees should be covered at Angkor, shorts or a skirt slightly above the knee are acceptable in town. Yes, it’s hot. But loose clothing is much more comfortable for catching a breeze anyway, plus you’ll need protection from the tropical sun.
It’s polite to make the effort to learn a few phrases in the local language. Cambodia’s national language, Khmer, isn’t the easiest for native English speakers to learn. But Cambodians are happy to help and thrilled with anyone who can say more than “hello” and “thank you”. In fact, when you say do anything more, Cambodians will reply, “Oh, you speak Khmer!” The correct response is “tie-tie,” meaning “a little bit.”
Beware of Voluntourism
While volunteering in a developing country might make you feel good, it often doesn’t do much good. Consider: Are you taking a paying job away from a local person? Is money being spent to keep you comfortable (training in English, a western toilet, transportation, cold drinks?) that should be spent on the people in need? Are you donating supplies from home that would do much more good if purchased in the local economy?
Be extra cautious volunteering with children. Kids need trained teachers and caregivers, not do-gooder voluntourists without the local language who leave as soon as the kids have started to develop a bond. Know that many Cambodian orphanages are actually for-profit businesses and the kids often are not orphans at all. Vet your voluntourism work through an organization like ConCERT, Cambodia’s Connecting Communities, Environment and Responsible Tourism NGO. Giving cash to a reputable organization almost always does the most good. NGOs know what they need, and buying it in the local economy helps more people in the long run.
Children will approach you selling postcards and bracelets or asking you to buy them a school book or even milk for their baby sibling. Don’t. Many children in Cambodia are part of cartel-run pyramid schemes. At best, the child receives pennies and is robbed of the opportunity to go to school and have a long-term future. NGOs like ThinkChildSafe.org advise you to never buy from a child, even if you hear a heart-wrenching story about needing a school uniform or food. Don’t give kids a treat like candy or school supplies. You encourage begging, the disparity between tourists and local people, and continue the cycle of poverty. Child protection NGOs say kids should be in school, studying, sleeping, playing, or spending time with friends and family. They shouldn’t be working or be walking advertisements for fundraising. And never take photos without a parent’s permission. Children are not tourist attractions.
Shop for Real Cambodian Souvenirs, Not Stuff From Factories in China
Much of the goods pitched to tourists in Cambodia are imports from China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Many are counterfeits. Despite what the label says, that scarf is likely not handmade nor is it really silk. The Cambodian seller will get some of your purchase price, but most goes to the supply chain distributors. The maker likely receives pennies.
Yes, touts who call out to you to buy a scarf, tuk-tuk ride, or a cold drink can be annoying. But you have the power to influence the behavior of touts. Do not look at sellers or their goods unless you intend to buy something. If someone asks you appropriately, like the tuk-tuk driver when you’ve just come out of a restaurant, say, “no thank you” once, and feel free to ignore him if he asks again. If a tout yells or follows you, do not make eye contact and keep walking. Engaging in any conversation gives false hope of a sale, and encourages badgering. When you do want to buy something, choose a non-aggressive seller.
Choose carefully where you spend your money. Choose to help the local economy, encourage the production of more unique items, and get a higher quality handmade souvenir to bring home. It’s easy to find authentic products if you shop at places like the Made in Cambodia Market or the boutique at the Phare Circus. Bonus—they’re low-pressure and sellers understand that “just looking, thanks” means just that.
Help Cambodia With Its Water and Litter Problems
High season in Siem Reap is the dry season, and the tourism industry’s demand for laundry, swimming pools, and showers is lowering the area’s watertable. This is causing the land under Angkor to shift, putting the temples at risk. Use water conservatively.
You do need to keep hydrated, though. At the temples, choose a young coconut over a plastic bottled drink (they all cost $1 anyway). If you buy water, buy the largest bottle possible. Better, use a refillable water bottle. Cambodia has a new Refill Not Landfill project. Buy a bottle (some hotels will give you one) and refill it for free at two dozen spots in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Every little bit counts. Only take a plastic bag if you really need it. Cambodia has a litter problem, so don’t add to it. If you can tolerate the heat, rent a bike or e-bike to get to the temples.
Be aware of the cultural, economic, and environmental consequences of your actions. With care, tourists can avoid making destinations worse when they visit, and maybe even make them a little bit better. You can do this by how you talk, dress, spend your money, and interact with Cambodians (especially kids).