Cambodia is a Southeast Asian nation on the Indochinese mainland. Its landscape is largely a land of plains, great rivers including massive Mekong Delta, some mountains and coastline of Gulf of Thailand. For thousands of years Cambodia’s civilization was absorbing influences from China and India as it linked important overland and river trading routes between these two countries and whole South East Asia. Truly authentic and in a way charming country which is famous for its Angkorian temples, upcountry adventures, chaotic urban life and unbreakable people who undergone hell, yet, their spirit was never broken.
During Angkor period from 9th to 15th centuries Khmer kingdom was way larger than current Cambodia. Many territories which are now part of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam was controlled by Khmer people when the kingdom reached its peak in the 12th century. This time was marked by the construction of the massive temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Bayon inside the imperial capital of Angkor Thom. Current Cambodia is the successor state of the once mighty Khmer empire and most famous city where most of the travelers go is the gateway to the Angkorian temple ruins – Siem Reap. The site which can be compared to Wonders of the World is adored by millions of wanderers every year.
In addition to majestic temple complex, Cambodia has a lot of rural life and untouched landscapes to offer. Going to live inside a small village or town, communicating with local people and experiencing the local rhythm of life is one way to do it. Swim with one of the last freshwater dolphins in a Mekong River while exploring inland of Cambodia. Or find the country covered by rice paddy fields, swaying sugar palms and rural countryside while visiting the north of Cambodia. On the opposite side, the south coast is full of lofty villages or towns, small tropical islands, some mountains and occasional fisherman villages, however, growing Chinese influence in Sihanoukville city made it full of foreign investment and gambling. Hopefully, it will stay within the city’s borders and do not spread around the magnificent south of Cambodia. The east part is full of ethnic minorities and there it is possible to enjoy plenty of natural attractions and wildlife. Visiting various part of Cambodia and wandering around is the key to witness that this was once one empire and there are not so many key differences between the population or its way of life.
On the other hand, big cities could be an exception. As country is largely rural, the influences of many Asian cultures, together with those of France and United States can be seen in larger cities such as the capital, Phnom Penh, or Siem Reap. Due to the fact that Cambodia was once a French colony in major cities there are still lots of intact French colonial buildings. Even though during the 20th century it experienced the unrest of war and occupation by the Japanese, it managed to claim postwar independence. However, due to political instability between 1975 and 1979 the country was devastated by the reign of the Khmer Rouge – a rural communist guerrilla movement. Unfortunately, during this sad period Khmer Rouge was in power somewhere between 1.5-2.5 million Cambodians were killed or died. Unsettling tragedy where approximately one forth of the country’s population perished will be never forgotten.
Which leads us to our last point - Cambodian soul. Vietnam supported Cambodia to get back on its feet after Khmer Rouge regime. People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established and until 1990s when Cambodia regained political autonomy, established constitutional government and subsequently instituted free elections. Country’s economy has steadily improved, and the country seems to be living by the words of the Cambodian proverb: "Fear not the future, weep not for the past". Despite to almost having one of the Wonders of the World in its backyard, county’s real treasure is its people. Khmer people experienced hell and came back with confidence to smile again. They struggled through years of bloodshed, political instability and enormous poverty. Yet, it did not break them, it made them stronger!
We spent here whole month and we are sure that there is still some magic about this charming kingdom that attracts so many travelers every year. It was quite an adventure!
What to expect
The currency in Cambodia is Cambodian riel. Even if you do not have riel, it is considerably easy to get it changed from your currency in any bank you visit. Most of ATM’s in Cambodia accept VISA or Mastercard. However, even if you use Revolut or equivalent card, you will be forced to pay a certain fixed bank fee (on our visit this was 4-5 USD, which was equal to 3.6-4.5 EUR). So, even if it is convenient and you can withdraw money from almost all of the ATM’s throughout the country, it includes certain cost.
To avoid the ATM’s cost, you can bring enough of cash with you on your trip. Both euro and dollar are very convenient and easy to change here. To lesser the costs, you can withdraw larger amounts every time you need cash. In our opinion it is best to bring enough cash for your trip and then you can avoid the ATM fees.
Keep in mind that US dollar is like a second currency in Cambodia and you do not even need to change it, you can use it everywhere. Most of the shops even have price displayed in US dollars together with or instead of Cambodian riel. So, best currency to have here is US dollars.
Important! Cambodia is still a country where in most places you will not be able to purchase or pay with a card. So, be prepared and always have some cash with you.
In Cambodia you will find truly tropical climate with only two seasons and warm temperatures throughout the year. It is highly dependent on monsoon seasons. Especially dry and sunny days you can experience in January and February due to north-east monsoon season which runs from November to April. When rainy season lasts from May to November impacted by south-west monsoon.
The official language is – Khmer language. This is official language in the country and is spoken by nearly 90% of country’s population. With close to 16 million people who speak Khmer it is also the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language after Vietnamese.
We would suggest visiting Cambodia during warm and dry season someday between November and February. Especially, if you are not a fan of heat. Even though the temperature and weather can hardly be called cool at that time, you will find it great time to enjoy blue sky.
Cambodia is not very expensive when it comes to internet and card. The process to buy a card is quite easy as well, you can do it in many shops which provide telecommunication service. We chose Metfone provider which is said to have highest coverage in Cambodia. The SIM card cost us 2 US dollars (1.8 EUR) and included some credit for calls, on top of that we bought internet data package of 100 GB which was valid for a month for 8 US dollars (7.2 EUR). So, in total we spend less than 9 EUR and we had more data that we could use with quite good coverage. Great experience!
We would advise against drinking tap water in Cambodia. Even though in some sources you could find that water is safe to drink. In most of the places you visit, people have water purifiers or already big canisters of already purified water which is alright. We suggest to doublecheck with your host or locals before you drink it. We drank lots of filtered water during our trip and we consider it to be safe.
We did try hitchhiking in Cambodia, and it was alright experience. Even in really remote places where almost no traffic goes, we managed to get a ride. Before entering the car make sure you are on the same page with the driver and he will not expect cash from you. Thumbs up sign here is usually used to get a taxi, many people advise to waive your hand instead. We did both. And believe us, there are so many unidentified taxies roaming around or just people who want to earn some extra cash ripping off foreigners.
Couchsurfing does not work here as most of the people are inactive, busy or not responding. If you plan on using Workaway here, be prepared to spend some quality time as most of the hosts have a condition that you must stay at least for two weeks. It is amazing but when your visa is only 30 days and you want to travel around the country, that might get it the way. Therefore, in most cities we visited it was very easy and a good choice to use platforms like Agoda, Booking, Airbnb or others. The prices there are genuine and reasonable! All around the country you will find lots of budget good value price ratio deals available if you look for it!