Cambodians primarily speak Khmer, which unlike most languages in the region is not tonal, but makes up for it with a large assortment of consonant and vowel clusters. Young Khmer prefer to learn English over other European languages and you will find people who speak anywhere from basic to fluent English in major towns and cities. In market situations, most Khmers will know enough English to complete a basic transaction, though many vendors carry calculators into which they punch numbers and show you the screen to demonstrate the price.
Some elder Khmers speak French from the colonial days, but partly because of the Khmer Rouge era (in which those speaking foreign languages were targeted for extermination), to actually encounter anyone fluent in French is rare in most parts of the country. German and other European tongues can be found in the tourist centres (but are even rarer than French) and Japanese is also a popular language for tourist industry workers.
Khmers are by and large not the hardcore hagglers that their Vietnamese neighbours are, so it's important to be respectful when haggling over something in the market or with your motodop. If you're staying at a Western owned hotel, or going to a Western owned bar, realize that the people you haggle with at the markets need your money a lot more than the people at the hotel or the bar that you aren't even bothering to haggle with. The bottom line is that you shouldn't take the attitude that every single transaction at a market must be bargained into the ground. If a vendor is asking 1,000 riel for a bottle of water, or US$1 for a T-shirt, don't haggle - pay it. They need the extra 50 cents much more than you do. As with any third world country, however, straying far beyond the customary prices can lead to inflation and over-dependence on tourism.
The Cambodian riel is the official currency, but US dollars are universally accepted in Cambodia. Given that there are still few ATMs, bring a large quantity of US$1, $5, $10 and $20 bills, and bear in mind that notes in $50 and $100 denominations are hard to use or exchange. US dollar coins buy nothing but confused looks.
The exchange rate is fairly stable at 4000 riel to the US$, and it's not uncommon to receive change in a mix of the two. Near the Thai border (especially Battambang, Koh Kong, and Poipet) Thai baht is also accepted; further east (including Siem Reap) baht can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Likewise Euro can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Instead of queueing up and filling endless paperwork at banks, you'll have better luck changing money at the nearest market - just look for the guys with a glass case full of cash. Torn foreign currency notes can be difficult to exchange. It's acceptable to check each note and ask to have them changed if you aren't happy with the quality, even in banks.
If you're planning on heading out off the beaten track, you need to take enough US dollars to get you back to a point where you can get more.
In many of the larger towns one or more of the local banks operate as Western Union Money Transfer agents.
ATMs can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Kampot; both debit card withdrawls (Maestro, Cirrus, Plus) and cash advances on credit cards are possible. For the rest of the country it's best to stick to cash or traveller's checks (in US$).
VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards; MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.
Traveller's checks, like credit cards, are accepted in major business establishments, such as large hotels, some restaurants, travel agencies and some souvenir shops; American Express (in US$) are the most widely accepted flavour. However, competitive rates are only usually found in banks in Cambodia's larger cities (guesthouses in heavily touristed areas may offer similar services but at horrendous rates). The usual fee for cashing traveler's checks is 2% and US$2 minimum.
Tap water is not potable. Bottled water is ubiquitous and cheap Khmer brands in blue plastic bottles sell for 1000 riels or less (although prices are often marked up for tourists).
Iced coffee is made Vietnamese style, freshly brewed and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Iced tea made with lemon and sugar is also refreshing.
Fresh coconut can be found everywhere, and is healthy and sanitary if drunk straight from the fruit.
In general, Khmers are not what could be described as casual drinkers: the main objective is to get hammered as quickly as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in!
The two domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor — best ordered "an-CHOR" with a ch sound! — and Angkor. Beer Lao and Tiger are popular beers with foreigners. A plethora of other beers include ABC Stout, which is dark and not so bad, in addition to the standard Heineken and Carlsberg. Many of the cheaper beers are not especially nice, such as Crown or Leo, and only drunk by the locals.
Palm wine and rice wine are available in villages and can be OK at 500-1000 riel for 1 litre bottle. However, some safety concerns have been raised with regard to sanitation, so the local wines may be best avoided. Bottled water is readily available at 500 riel for a cheap 1L bottle, or double that for a screw-cap. In Phnom Penh tap water is theoretically clean, though most travellers still buy bottles.
For a truly Khmer experience, hunt down a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the "X.O." version, it's also the cheapest legitimate tipple around.
Drugs, including cannabis, are illegal in Cambodia, and penalties can be very severe. That said, enforcement tends to be on the lax side and many guesthouses are permanently shrouded in purple haze. Low-grade cannabis (ganchaa) is fairly common in Cambodian cooking (for the flavor), but the days when you could just walk up to the Central Market and buy a kilo are over.
Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are full of Happy Herb pizzerias, but the police crack down occasionally, so even if you ask for "extra happy" and try out your secret handshake, you may only end up with lawn clippings. Alternatively, if they do deliver, be warned that effect of eating Happy Pizza comes on only slowly and you may end off biting more than you can chew, so proceed with caution.
Cambodia is a safe and friendly country, with the usual exception for large cities late at night, particularly Phnom Penh, and unobserved luggage or wallets. Bag snatching, even from those on bicycles and motorcycles, is a problem in Phnom Penh. Be discreet with your possessions, especially cash and cameras, and as always, take extra care in all poorly lit or more remote areas.
The Kingdom of Cambodia(sometimes transliterated as Kampuchea to more closely represent the Khmer pronunciation) is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, Thailand to the northwest, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
Cambodia has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last half-millennium
or so. Ever since the fall of Angkor in 1431, the once mighty
Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbors, plus colonial
France as well. After a false dawn of independence in 1953,
Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horrors of civil war
in 1970 to suffer the Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign
of terror, and only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did
the country begin to totter back onto its feet.
Much of the population still subsists on less than US$1 a day,
the provision of even basic services remains spotty, and political
intrigue remains as complex and opaque as ever; but the security
situation has improved immeasurably, and increasing numbers
of visitors are rediscovering Cambodia's temples and beaches.
Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, now sports luxury hotels,
chic nightspots, ATMs, and an airport fielding flights from
all over the region, while Sihanoukville is getting good press
as an up-and-coming beach destination. However travel beyond
the most popular tourist destinations is still an adventure.
Following a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces
captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and ordered the evacuation of all
cities and towns. Over 1 million displaced people died from
execution or enforced hardships. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion
drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and touched off 13
years of fighting. As a result of the devastating politics of
the Khmer Rouge regime, there was virtually no infrastructure
left. Institutions of higher education, money, and all forms
of commerce industries were non-existent in 1978, so the country
had to be built up from nothing. UN-sponsored elections in 1993
helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid
diminution of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s. A coalition
government, formed after national elections in 1998, brought
renewed political stability and the surrender of remaining Khmer
The two pillars of Cambodia's newly-stable economy are textiles
and garments, and tourism. The latter has grown rapidly with
over 1.7 million visitors arriving in 2006. The long-term development
of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge,
as the population (more than half under 27 years of age) lacks
education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden
countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic
infrastructure. 80% of the population still gets by on subsistence
farming. On the brighter side, the government is addressing
these issues - plus government corruption - with assistance
from bilateral and multilateral donors.
- Cardamom Mountains - west
- Central Plains - central
- Chhlong Highlands - east
- Dangrek Mountains - north
- Elephant Mountains - southwest
- Rattanakiri Plateau - east
- Banlung - far northeastern provincial capital located near some great waterfalls and national parks
- Battambang - the second biggest town, after the capital
- Kep - a Resort town not to be missed
- Koh Kong - small town border crossing town on the Thai border
- Kompong Thom - access to less well known (and less crowded) ancient temples and other sites
- Kratie - relaxed river town in the north-east on the Mekong, and an excellent place to get close look at endangered river dolphins
- Poipet - the busiest border crossing town on the Thai border
- Siem Reap - the access point for Angkor
- Sihanoukville - seaside town in the south, also known as Kompong Som
- Kampong Speu - just south of Phnom Penh, it's home to Kirirom national Park
- Angkor Archaeological Park - home of the imposing ruins of ancient Khmer civilization
- Bokor National Park - ghostly former French hill resort
- Kampong Cham - Nice countryside village on the Mekong river. Good to meet real Cambodia.
- Kompong Luong - a permanently floating town located on the Tonlé Sap
- Preah Vihear - cliff-top temple pre-dating Angkor
- Tonle Sap Lake - take a cruise across the lake past floating villages and spend a day or two at Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve, Southeast Asia's premier bird sanctuary
All visitors, except (as of May 2006) citizens of Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Laos, need a visa to enter Cambodia. The official price for a tourist visa is US$20, and US$25 for a business visa - but expect much higher prices (US$30 or more for the tourist visa) to be demanded at land border crossings.
Visas can be obtained at any Cambodian embassy or consulate overseas. Visas are also available "on arrival" at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos.
- Tourist visa: when applied for in advance, these are valid for 90 days (ie must be used within 3 months), and good for a 30 day entry permit stamp which can be extended once only for a further 30 days in Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies) at a cost of US$15.
- Business visa: the best choice for stays over two months and/or multiple entries, as they can be extended indefinitely (approx US$140 per 6 month extension) and have multiple entry status when extended. Most Phnom Penh travel agencies process the extensions.
To apply for a visa, you will need one or two (depending on where you apply) passport-size photo(s) (although when applying on arrival, the fee for not having one is usually only US$1-2), a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, passport photocopies when applying at some embassies/consulates (not needed if applying on arrival), and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee (expect to pay a substantially higher price if paying in a local currency).
Alternatively, citizens of most nations can now apply for an e-Visa online. The cost is US$25 (US$20 + US$5 processing charge) instead of the normal US$20. The service is excellent and you get the visa by e-mail in 3 business days. For the e-visa you will need one photograph of yourself. You can scan your passport photo (into .jpg format, please!) or take a passport photograph of yourself with a digital camera.
Current e-Visa system was sued for infringement of copyright. Some suggested that the current e-Visa project was hijacked by greedy parties. All travelers are advised not to use e-Visa until the case closed. Refer to .
With the e-visa you will breeze through immigration. The e-visa will come back as a .pdf file. You will then need to print out TWO copies (one for the entry and one for the exit). After printing out your two copies, cut out the e-visa part and put both copies into your passport. If only other countries had this excellent service!
For those entering by air, the e-Visa is valid at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. It's cheaper to get your visa on arrival at either airport. However if you get a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) you do get to skip two lines at the airport: the line to apply for the visa, and the line at the cashier to pay the fee. Of course, if you checked luggage, you'll probably have to spend the saved time waiting for your bag.
For those entering overland, do note that overland e-Visa entries are restricted to just three border crossings: Bavet (Svay Rieng) from Moc Bai (Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam); Koh Kong (from Hat Lek / Trat, Thailand); and Poipet (from Aranyaprathet, Thailand). However getting a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) is definitely the way to go in order to avoid the common scam of visa overpricing at border crossings.
If you are a foreign national, be aware that you will have to pay an airport departure tax when you leave Cambodia through the airports, about $25 for international flights, it is about $4-6 for internal flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
International departure tax
From both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the surcharge is a steep US$25 for adults and US$13 for children 12 and under. The tax is not included in your flight ticket.
Cambodia has international airports at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Direct flights connect Phnom Penh International Airport (previously Pochentong International Airport) with China (Guangzhou | Hong Kong | Shanghai), Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon/Seoul), Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).
Direct flights connect Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport with Laos (Pakse | Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon/Seoul), Taiwan (Kaohsiung | Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok | U-Tapao (Sattahip/Pattaya)) and Vietnam (Hanoi | Ho Chi Minh City).
Travellers going specifically to visit the Angkor temple ruins may prefer to use Siem Reap as it's only a few minutes away from the main sites; however as Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on direct flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap, it's a lot cheaper to fly to Phnom Penh and to take the bus (or cross overland from Bangkok).
Low-cost carrier Air Asia has introduced flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, while Jetstar Asia has begun flying from Singapore to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Other airlines operating flights to/from Cambodia include Asiana Airlines , Bangkok Airways , China Southern Airlines , Dragonair , Eva Airways , Korean Air , Lao Airlines , Malaysia Airlines (MAS) , Shanghai Airlines , Siem Reap Airways (a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways), SilkAir , Singapore Airlines , Thai Airways International , and Vietnam Airlines .
Warning: if arriving to or exiting Cambodia through China, you are now required to purchase a Chinese Visa, $130 for US Citizens, with a 4 day processing time. This is a new rule (April '08) designed by China to produce income for the upcoming Olympics. Consider this when booking your flight, and either have the Visa prior to departure, or better yet, come in through Thailand or another country.
While not as spicy or as varied as food from Thailand or Vietnam, Khmer food is tasty and cheap and is invariably accompanied by rice (or occasionally noodles). Thai and Vietnamese characteristics can be found in Khmer food, although Cambodians love a stronger sour taste in their dishes, especially through the addition of prahok, the famous Khmer fish paste (although for most foreigners this is most definitely an acquired taste!). In addition to Khmer food, there are large number of Chinese restaurants, especially in Phnom Penh and large provincial centers.
Typical Khmer dishes which are palatable to westerners include:
- Amok - The most popular Cambodian dish with travellers. A coconut milk curry dish less spicy than those found in Thailand. Amok is usually made with chicken, fish, or shrimp, plus some vegetables. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side. Quite delicious.
- K'tieu (Kuytheav) - A noodle soup generally served for breakfast. Can be made with pork, beef or seafood. Flavorings are added to the customers taste in the form of lime juice, chili powder, sugar and fish sauce.
- Somlah Machou Khmae - A sweet and sour soup made with pineapple, tomatoes and fish.
- Bai Saik Ch'rouk - Another breakfast staple. Rice (bai) with pork meat (sec trouk) often barbequed. Very tasty and served with some pickled vegetables.
- Saik Ch'rouk Cha Kn'yei - Pork fried with ginger. Ginger is relatively commonly used as a vegetable. This tasty dish is available just about everywhere.
- Lok lak - Chopped up beefsteak cooked quickly. Probably a holdover from the days of French colonization. Served with lettuce and onion, and often with chips.
- Mi / Bai Chaa - Fried noodles or rice. Never particularly inspiring, but a good traveller's staple.
- Trey Ch'ien Chou 'Ayme - Trey (fish) fried with a sweet chili sauce and vegetables. Very tasty. Chou 'ayme is the phrase for "sweet and sour".
- K'dam - Crab. Kampot in the south is famous for its crab cooked in pepper. A very tasty meal.
Don't forget Khmer desserts - Pong Aime (sweets). These are available from stalls in most Khmer towns and can be excellent. Choose from a variety of sweetmeats and have them served with ice, condensed milk and sugar water. A must try is the Tuk-a-loc, a blended drink of fruits, raw egg, sweetened condensed milk and ice.
There is also a wide variety of fresh fruit available from markets. The prices vary according to which fruit is in season but mangoes (around Khmer New Year, with up to 9 varieties on sale) and mangosteen (May/June) are both superb.
Other popular Khmer foods which are less palatable to westerners include pregnant eggs (duck eggs with the embryo still inside), Prahok (a fermented fish paste) and almost every variety of creepy or crawly animal (spiders, crickets, water beetles) as well as barbecued rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds.