Cambodia is situated on the Indochinese peninsula and bordered by Thailand and Laos on the north and Vietnam on the east and south. Off the western coast, there is the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia consists on the most part of a large alluvial plain, centered around Lake Tonle Sap. The plain is surrounded by mountains – the Dangrek Mts. form the frontier with Thailand in the northwest and the Cardamom Mts. and the Elephant Range are in the southwest – and on the east is the Mekong River. About half the land is tropical forest.
Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate, with the wet southwest monsoon occurring between November and April and the dry northeast monsoon the remainder of the year.
The ideal months to visit Cambodia are December and January as humidity is bearable at this time of the year, temperatures are cooler and it’s unlikely to rain. From early February temperatures start to rise until the hottest month, April, when temperatures often exceed 40°C (104°F). Come May and June, the southwestern monsoon brings rain and high humidity, cooking up a sweat for all but the hardiest of visitors.
The wet season (from May to Oct) is a good time to visit Angkor, as the moats will be full and the foliage lush but northeast regions should be avoided, as the going gets pretty tough when the tracks are waterlogged.
Most of Cambodia’s population is ethnically Cambodian with 10% being other ethnic groups such as Chinese, Vietnamese, hill tribes, Chams, and Laotian. Although Theravada Buddhism is the religion of the most population, other religions such as Islam, animism, and Christianity also are practiced as religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed.
The official language Khmer is spoken by more than 95% of the population, english is increasingly popular as a second language while French seems to be fading fast as a language within Cambodia.
The number of tourist arrivals is increasing, but most only stay a few days, ticking off tourist hotspots. Most tourists arrive in Siem Reap (a provincial town) by air, spend two or three days visiting the Angkor temples, buy some souvenirs, take some pictures and then fly away, seeing nothing of the rest of the country, missing on meeting and understanding the people and contributing little to the economy.
Stay Another Day Initiative
This is why an initiative ‘Stay Another Day’ was launched to promote ‘destination friendly’ tourism. The tourism products and services featured in the Stay another Day Cambodia booklet include: eco-tours, local cuisine and cooking classes, traditional massage, visits to development projects, orphanages, rehabilitation centers, artisans and the concerts of master musicians, as well as many other interesting activities. Typically the enterprises featured were set up to directly or indirectly benefit disadvantaged people such as abused and abandoned women and children, children who have lost their parents, people with disabilities and communities with high rates of poverty.
Developed tourism can do a lot for a poor country like Cambodia as it brings jobs and human resources development to rural areas, and it also stimulates the development of all kinds of enterprises such as furniture makers, organic growers, craft producers, craft sellers, performers etc. ‘Stay Another Day’ initiative is promoting sustainable tourism in order to prevent negative aspects of tourism such as ruining of the environment, sex tourism and trafficking.
Places to stay and see
You would be surprised to hear that Cambodia has a good range of accommodation — from budget backpackers’ to six star style. There’s something for most budgets in all the major tourist centres like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the beach areas of Sihanoukville and Kep. However, out of these area, the range drops off considerably.
The country’s main highlights begin in the capital Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is a beautiful city although many visitors write it off. It has a stunning colonial heritage, a gorgeous riverside promenade with a glittering Royal Palace, a great selection of restaurants and bars and a great shopping offer ranging from “antique” finds, wispy organza fabrics, chic ceramics, to home-grown designer clothes and leather shoes.
In Cambodia, bargaining is the rule in markets, when hiring vehicles and sometimes even when taking a room, but you don’t have to be too forceful.
The Royal Palace is the residence of King Sihanouk in Phnom Penh. There are a number of buildings of note including the impressive Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda (floored with over 5000 silver tiles) and an iron house given to King Norodom by Napoleon III of France. Visitors can also see hundreds of gifts which have been presented to the royal family over the years including a 90kg solid gold Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds.
Phnom Penh is unfortunately getting the worst characteristics of Asian cities. People from the poor rural regions flooded what seems to be a comparatively rich city in order to make a living. Old structures such as water supply and electricity are outdated and unable to keep up with the rising demands. Refuse piles up everywhere, feeding hordes of rats and stray dogs, and exponentially growing traffic is congesting the streets.
Rapid increase in crime is what worries tourists the most. For this reason, they are advised not to stay out or travel after nightfall.
Traveling northwest, Siem Reap is a good jumping-off point for other area attractions. Siem Reap is the town next to Angkor, whose main purpose is to provide accommodation, food and a convenient transport hub to those visiting Angkor Wat and other temples in the vicinity.
Having such role, this town has experienced a construction boom which will probably end the towns tranquil atmosphere. Travellers find all the requisite services such as banks and (cyber)cafés. If interested in something other than temples, there is a crocodile farm, located at the river in Siem Reap’s south.
Angkor Wat is a man-made wonder and one of the world’s largest religious monuments, featuring elaborate 12th century stone carvings that remain hauntingly vivid.
Covering about 400 square kilometers, this is the largest religious structure ever built. It is surrounded by a moat 190m wide and 5.5km in length beyond which is a high laterite wall. Angkor Wat was the site of a series of capital cities of the Khmer empire. In 1992, Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and underwent extensive conservation work with considerable results. There are no hotels at Angkor. Siem Reap is the most convenient hotel base.
This quiet valley / river of the 1,000 lingas is regarded as holy.It is located about 50 kilometers from Siem Reap near the foot of Kulen mountain. It is known by the images of various gods and lingas carved into the rocks of the river bed said to fertilize the water. There is also a lovely waterfall during the rainy season. Kbal Spean is ideally combined with Phnom Kulen and Banteay Srei.
In the ninth century, the first royal palace of the Khmer was built on Phnom Kulen mountain. However, the capital was later moved down to Angkor.
To reach the area, tourists can drive or walk up Phnom Kulen on a privately maintained road and pay an access fee to do so. Near the top, there is a religious center consisting of new temples and a shrine with a giant reclining Buddha. Natural sights include beautiful waterfalls. Phnom Kulen is ideally combined with Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei.
Sihanoukville (Kampong Saom)
Sihanoukville is a coastal town, dotted by three beaches of white sand where you can have great fun through snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming and sun bathing.
It is a popular holiday destination for both locals and tourists. The trip from Phnom Penh, is about four hours by bus. One can also go for boat trips to nearby islands in the sparkling waters and watch the fish’s fishy antics all the way.
Tonle Bati is a small lake and a popular picnic spot on weekend excursions.
- Landmines are still a real danger in Cambodia, with up to six million live mines dotted around the countryside and near the border with Thailand. It is advisable to stick to the beaten tracks and use guides although there have been no reported incidents of any foreign visitor stepping on a mine in Cambodia. The major tourist areas are absolutely mine-free.
- Never drink tap water purified, bottled water is available everywhere
- No vaccinations are officially required for entry to Cambodia, it is recommended to protect against malaria, typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A and B. If you are on a special medical treatment, then you should bring all of your medications with you as there is no guarantee they will be available in Cambodia.
- Violent armed robberies, snatch-and-grab thefts and pickpockets are fairly common and there have been reports of sexual assaults. Particularly Phnom Penh is considered increasingly dangerous, but Cambodia’s other tourist hotspots do not follow far behind.
- Packs of wild dogs – in some regions of SE Asia, wild dogs roam the streets after nightfall to scavenge for food. Do not travel or stay out after nightfall
Cambodia’s currency is the riel. Its second currency (some would say its first) is the US dollar, which is accepted everywhere and by everyone
Some but not all banks in Cambodia accept major credit cards as do some of the hotels. It is best to check with the hotel where you will be staying to see if they accept your preferred credit card.