Cambodia Holiday Planning Guide
For over six centuries, the mighty Khmer Empire flourished in Cambodia, a scenic land of majestic temples, pristine waterfalls, and dense jungles. A protectorate of France between 1863 and 1953, the country suffered under the Khmer Rouge, a ruling party remembered mostly for its part in organizing the bloody Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Today, a trip to Cambodia will reveal the region's troubled history, but also some of Southeast Asia's most significant archaeological sites. Few tourist attractions in Cambodia match the splendor of Angkor Wat, a World Heritage-listed temple complex that represents the biggest religious monument on the planet.
Places to Visit in Cambodia
Regions of CambodiaSiem Reap Province
: Boasting masterpieces of Khmer art and architecture represented by the world-famous temples of Angkor, this northwestern Cambodian province serves as the country's major tourist hub.Koh Kong Province
: This eco-tourist paradise attracts adventure seekers wishing to spend their Cambodia tour discovering little-known spots within a mountainous rainforest, along an undeveloped coastline, in fishing villages and biodiverse reserves.Preah Vihear Province
: Named after a World Heritage-listed temple, this remote province promises an authentic Cambodia holiday experience.Koh Rong
: One of Cambodia's premier beachside escapes, this relatively untouched island offers a 43 km (26.7 mi) stretch of coastline, and swathes of pristine jungle in its interior.
Cities in CambodiaPhnom Penh
: Sited on the confluence of two major rivers, the "Charming City" represents a thriving regional capital known for its dynamic streets, bustling markets, and cafe culture.Siem Reap
: Serving as a gateway to the Angkor region's World Heritage-listed temple, this hybrid of ancient city planning and French colonial influence represents a good starting point for Cambodia tours.Battambang
: This riverside city provides a special angle to Cambodia sightseeing by offering river cruises and rides on the local bamboo train.Kampot
: The itineraries in this riverside town tend to focus on explorations of evocative colonial architecture and the surrounding scenic mountains, dotted with hidden cave temples.Kep
: The relaxing atmosphere of this seaside resort promises a relaxing Cambodia holiday filled with leisurely walks in the nearby national park, butterfly spotting, and delicious seafood.
Popular Cambodia Tourist Attractions
Angkor Archaeological Park: Home to the impressive remains of the Khmer Empire's capitals and temples, this vast archeological site features the most famous tourist attractions in Cambodia, including Angkor Wat
, Angkor Thom
, and Bayon Temple
.Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
: Commemorating men, women, and children murdered by the Khmer Rouge, the center features a plexiglass Buddhist stupa with about 5,000 skulls.Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
: Preserving the memory of the victims, this former high school turned into a museum confronts visitors with the horrid years of the Khmer Rouge regime.Royal Palace
: Housing a statue of Buddha decorated with more than 9,500 diamonds and the largest frescos in Southeast Asia, the official imperial residence deserves to be included on your Cambodia itinerary.Central Market
: Feel the pulse of Phnom Penh while browsing for souvenirs and haggling like a local at the yellow Art Deco building of the market.Pub Street
: Fusing backpacker-friendly bars, street food, and massage parlors, the heart of the city's nightlife attracts mostly budget travelers on their Cambodia tour.National Museum
: Inspired by traditional Khmer architecture, this museum is the best place to learn about the nation's cultural history on your Cambodia vacation.Otres Beach
: Nestled amid the exotic scenery of tropical mangroves and tranquil waters, this stunning beach lures tourists with a wide choice of leisurely activities.Artisans Angkor
: This socially responsible enterprise revives and sells products of traditional Khmer craftsmanship, including silk, stone, wooden, and silver-plated objects.Cambodia Landmine Museum
: Serving also as a children's shelter, this museum teaches about the importance of clearing landmines set during the years of armed turmoil.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Cambodia
Cuisine of Cambodia
Cambodian cuisine takes various influences from French colonizers, Chinese immigrants, and neighboring countries of Vietnam and Thailand.
Similar to other Southeast Asian diets, the local eating habits are based on staple ingredients like rice, freshwater fish, garlic, coconut milk, lime, lemon grass, chilies, and palm sugar. Cambodian food is organic by default, simply because pesticides are too expensive for the local farmers.
Start your day with "nom banh chok" (rice noodles in a fish-based green curry gravy), considered by some to be Cambodia's national dish.
A typical meal usually includes soup, salad, rice, and a main fish dish like "amok," a catfish steamed in a thick coconut and curry paste.
If you prefer seafood to freshwater fish, pork, and chicken, head to Sihanoukville
, a city built around Cambodia's first deepwater port.
Snacking on street food is inexpensive and practical while sightseeing in Cambodia. Just make sure the food is prepared in front of you (the fire will destroy all potential germs).
Spring rolls and baguettes stuffed with barbecued beef and green mango salad can be found on street stalls next to the more exotic offerings, such as bugs, larvae, and fertilized duck eggs. If you need a boost of vitamins, go for some fresh fruit sold by peddling vendors.
Shopping in Cambodia
Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia is no shopping paradise. What the country lacks in modern shopping commodities it makes up for in traditional goods, such as fine silk, textiles, basketry items, silverwork, statues, and carvings.
In general, Cambodian handicrafts are less expensive than those sold in other Asian countries. If you enjoy haggling, stick to the big markets, unless you have a basic knowledge of the Khmer language.
The boutiques, streets, and markets of both Phnom Penh
and Siem Reap
provide a colorful shopping experience. The night market in Siem Reap is especially famous for offering various silver designs that convey the Khmer culture.
The small island of Koh Dach is the best place to buy handmade Cambodian silk. Copies of Buddha figures and Apsaras (Hindu goddesses), Kampot pepper, Cambodian spirits, and krama (traditional Cambodian scarves) make fine souvenirs to bring home from your trip to Cambodia.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Cambodia
Interesting Facts About Cambodia
● Angkor Wat
, the biggest religious site in the world, features on the country's flag and on the label of Cambodia's national beer
● In the 1970s genocide, the country lost a fifth of its population, so it comes as no surprise that over 60 percent of Cambodians are under 30
● Traditionally, Cambodians celebrate their birthdays not on their actual birth date (which some older people may not even remember), but on the day of Khmer New Year
● On your Cambodia trip, you'll likely ride a moped, since they remain the country's major method of transportation
● Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world in which McDonald's has never set foot and in which KFC is actually losing money
Things You Should NOT Do in Cambodia
Cambodians are traditional and religious people, so don't enter temples or Cambodian homes unless you're properly dressed (with your knees, stomach, back, and shoulders covered). Also remove your shoes and hat as you enter.
Refrain from public displays of affection during your Cambodia holiday, and don't point at anything with your finger or your left hand to avoid appearing rude. Never touch someone's head, locally considered the most sacred part of the body.
Holidays & Festivals in Cambodia
The concepts of Buddhism, Hinduism, and royal cultures shaped the country's many festivals, which often play a key role in putting together a Cambodia itinerary.
Usually dated according to the lunar calendar, local festivals bring a spirit of togetherness and great joy to Cambodians, who otherwise lead simple lives without many luxuries. The four most important holidays are the Buddhist New Year (in April), Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal (in May), Pchum Ben (in September/October), and Bon Om Touk (in November).
Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal, or the Royal Plowing Ceremony, is typically led by the Cambodian king and includes a ritual in which sacred oxen plow a ceremonial row. Pchum Ben, or Ancestor's Day, is a holiday that runs for two weeks--during it, Cambodians dress in white and bring food to pagodas.
Another important holiday is Bon Om Touk, the Water Festival, which brings two million people to Phnom Penh
and includes a race of over 400 colorful riverboats.
Chinese New Year is also widely celebrated in Cambodia.
Useful Cambodia Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Cambodia
When meeting someone for the first time, particularly monks and elders, put your hands together with the palms touching and bow slightly (the lower you bow, the greater the respect you show). This represents a traditional Cambodian way to greet everyone except children, street vendors, and beggars.
Cambodians speak Khmer, but most of the young folk in Phnom Penh
and Siem Reap
are fluent in English.
Still, learning a few Khmer phrases, such as "soum" (please), "orkun" (thank you), and "somm toh" (excuse me), can come in handy. If you're invited to a family home on your Cambodia vacation, bring fruit or flowers to show appreciation.
Climate of Cambodia
Cambodia enjoys a tropical climate throughout the year, with two distinct seasons--rainy (June to October) and dry (November to May).
The coolest period of the year is between November and February, with temperatures ranging between 17 C to 27 C (80 F to 95 F).
April is the hottest month, with temperatures peaking at 40 C (104 F). The southwest monsoon brings showers and hot and humid days from June onwards. This is the optimal time for seeing green paddy fields, waterfalls, and lush tropical foliage of national parks.
The best months for your Cambodia tour may be December and January, when the northeast monsoon brings sunny, dry weather.
Transportation in Cambodia
Continuing armed conflicts have damaged Cambodia's transportation system. From a Western point of view, the traffic is hectic. Only about half of the roads are covered with asphalt and most intersections don't have stop signs or traffic lights, so think twice before renting a car, which can be arranged.
An inexpensive way to get around big cities is the tuktuk (a motorized rickshaw) or the "motodup" (a small motorcycle taxi). You can flag them down on main roads or find them waiting in front of hotels.
The "remork-moto" is Cambodia's version of a mini-bus (a trailer hitched to a motorcycle). In Phnom Penh
, you can also catch a regular taxi (even one with a meter).
An interesting way to do some Cambodia sightseeing is to hop on a local river-bus or the longtail rocket boats and visit small villages on the upper parts of Mekong River
Tipping in Cambodia
Tipping isn't an official part of Cambodian culture, so no one will be offended if you don't leave a reward for provided service. Nevertheless, tips are appreciated as anywhere in the world, especially since Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries.
You can't go wrong if you apply the following tipping etiquette on your Cambodia holiday--5 to 20 percent of the total at restaurants and spa centers, 10 percent for your tour guide, and a small amount in cash at your discretion to the hotel cleaning staff and bellhops.