Are you looking for some insider tips to ensure your trip to Cambodia is amazing? This guide will ensure you not only survive but know everything there is about Cambodia so that you have the trip of a lifetime! Cambodia is very different than other South East Asian countries as it is much less developed, which makes it all the better but there are somethings to know that will help your trip go more smoothly.
This will explain how to avoid getting lost, sick, robbed, frustrated and all the other risks of traveling to a developing country. After living in Cambodia for 3 years, I learned that the Kingdom of Wonder and Cambodian life is not nearly as difficult to navigate as you might think. Knowing what to expect can make your trip so much more enjoyable!
Overview of Cambodia
Cambodia is undergoing rapid urban development in the capital city of Phnom Penh, but throughout the rest of the country change is slow. Outside of the cities Cambodians don’t speak much English, but they are as genuine as ever. More often than not you are greeted by the Cambodian smile and they want to talk to you, offering you a seat, directions or help if needed.
There are a lot of different parts that make up Cambodia and each is worth exploring, from beaches and rice fields to mountainous jungles, temples and nightlife of course. But the real reason to visit Cambodia is because it is very much untouched and undeveloped. There is no McDonalds, very few paved roads and people live much the same as they have for centuries. Do not expect it to be easy to travel but it is well worth it and the further you get from the cities the more authentic it is.
Everything takes twice as long as it should. Any Cambodian is hoping just as much as you are that things will go according to plan. But you never know what can happen here, so you just have to trust that they are doing their best. Don’t plan your Cambodian itinerary too tightly. If you are traveling that day, don’t plan any other events like flights or sightseeing just in case you are delayed. Be prepared for things to take a while, and learn to enjoy the journey.
Tuktuks are everywhere in Cambodia. They are nice people and just trying to make a living but they are insanely overpriced. Cambodia now has a few tuktuk apps that use a meter which is much cheaper. If they call you and ask for you to wait, just cancel and get a new one. Otherwise you can haggle with the tuktuk for a fair price but your never going to get it as cheap as the app or the price Cambodians pay.
Buses & Taxis
Buses are often and everywhere but the larger your vehicle the slower you go. Bus companies ask you to arrive early and then drive around stopping everywhere along the way. There are a few good companies (giant ibis, Larryita and PSD) but if you are going anywhere besides PP-SR and two people or more, you can hire a taxi that will drive you door to door anytime you like a lot faster. This way you don’t have to waste your whole day waiting for a bus or pay tuktuks to and from the bus. You can ask any travel agent for a taxi; its usually a set price between towns but always ask for a discount.
As dangerous as it is to drive a motorbike in Cambodia, I still recommend it. If you can get the hang of driving in schools of fish and don’t drive at night then it is the best way to get around. I don’t go long distances for comfort, but just buzzing around town and day trips are well worth it to explore like a local. It is also cheaper than renting a driver or tuktuk.
Nobody walks in Cambodia, and for good reason. I used to walk everywhere living in Europe or Canada and I tried when I first arrived in Phnom Penh but quickly understood why nobody does it. First you are going to be drenched in sweat immediately, even if your on vacation it is unpleasant in the heat. Also, Cambodia doesn’t really have sidewalks. If they do, they are used as parking for vehicles or vendors and you have to walk up and down and around all these obstacles, on to the road. This puts you at risk of being hit by the busy traffic but more so as a target for thieves that drive by taking your phone or bag. It is much safer just to pay the few dollars for a tuktuk and arrive safely and without any hassle.
- Tap water is not potable in Cambodia, but ice is fine, it is made with filtered water in any restaurant. Drink bottled water but don’t be afraid of the ice in your cocktail or fruit shake. Shop owners get filtered ice delivered each morning, and the ice they use to keep things cold is just blocks of regular water that they don’t use for drinking.
- People often complain of food poisoning, but you can never really pinpoint what it was, so it is hard to avoid. Street food in general should be steered clear of unless you know a place with a good reputation (they do exist!). In general, Cambodia doesn’t yet have the hygiene standards of Vietnam or Thailand. Another thing to watch out for is fruit, sometimes they can wash it or cut it with dirty utensils, so its better to eat bananas or dragon fruit that you open yourself. Coconuts are pretty safe though, the smaller they are the better!
- Cambodian food is often a taste to acquire, as they use a lot of local herbs and fish sauces that western cuisine doesn’t have. Cambodians eat rice for every meal, swapping breakfast rice for a soup every now and again. Typically a meal consists of everyone having a plate of rice with lots of different dishes in the centre that you put on top of your rice. This could be cooked prawns or chicken with herbs and spices or fish soup. Generally it is meat in a clear liquid that you flavour the rice with, very few vegetables are used but mixed in with the meat. Common dishes that you should try are the beef lok lak and fish amok.
Communications in Cambodia
- In southeast Asia, people want to save face and therefore have difficulty saying “no”. Instead will say yes or just make excuses when they don’t have an answer. There isnt really a way to get around this, you can try asking negative questions and also be clear that you know it is not their fault if something has gone wrong, but just expect to be in the dark about a lot of things.
- Get a sim card on arrival, its less than $10 for more than enough data and will save you trying to fight with the shitty internet everywhere. Use google maps and you will be able to get around just fine.
- A critical thing that took me way too long to learn was how to say no. Getting people to back down from selling you stuff or offering you tuktuks can be difficult. I would shake my head and say no, no thank you, not interested, etc. but not until I started shaking my hand did they listen. It’s a comme si- comme ca sort of horizontal hand quiver that means NO. You can use it from as far away as they can see and they immediately understand and don’t bother asking you anymore. Learn it and love it.
- It’s not really necessary to speak any of the local language, Khmer, but why not? Cambodians like hearing us try and it’s fun to learn, here’s a few things you’ll pick up pretty quickly…
awcoon (Thank you)
soasaday, sock sa bye? (hey, how ya doin/all good?)
___ now na? (where is___?)
bon man? (how much?)
cha/ba (yes – girl/boy)
ot day (no)
Security in Cambodia
- Cambodia is a very safe place in comparison to many other developing countries. The main dangers are traffic and petty theft which are both easily manageable. If you are smart and cautious you will be fine. As a solo female I am safe to travel around alone at any time. However if you are walking on the street you are a target for theft as mentioned earlier.
- Purse snatching is the main Cambodian safety issue. Usually two men will drive by on a motorbike and grab whatever they can see. They have probably been following you for a while because they saw something valuable and are waiting for you to stop paying attention. This could be your purse as you walk down the street, your phone from your hands or your lap as you sit in the tuktuk, your bag on a motorbike or the jewelry off your neck. It all happens so fast that it is gone before you realize what happened. Unfortunately this happens because Cambodians can sell these items for more than they make in a month. Pair that with the amount of careless tourists and there is plenty of incentive. Just be smart about protecting your belongings and nothing will happen.
- Cambodians aren’t as sophisticated in scamming tourists as many other places, so don’t be worried about complex scenarios. Mostly they just try to rip you off when you don’t know the price of something, like a tuktuk ride or shopping. Just say you know the price or someone else already gave you a certain price if you think you are being scammed. Just remember that prices do vary on place, conditions, and extra services. Like the cost of a tuktuk ride will go up if it is dark, if there are more people, if its raining, if he has to wait, you get it…. also tuktuks are more expensive in Siem Reap than in Phnom Penh and in some places there are actually set prices (agreed among the tuktuks) so they will not budge, usually to and from airports or common destinations, like beaches or temples. However if you use metered apps you can avoid this!
- On a similar note, pick pocketing is not bad on the street but when you are in a busy market, it can happen quickly. It is better to wear a backpack on your front if there is anything valuable inside. Keep your phone and wallet in your hand or very close to where you can see or feel it since sometimes you get squished in the Cambodian crowds and it is gone. Better yet, leave things locked at your accommodations if you don’t need them.
Don’t freak out about Cambodian paperwork, if you don’t have something in order, its just a little bit more money. The visa process is so simple now that its hard to mess up. Everyone needs a visa and you pay about $30 a month for a tourist one. You can renew it once without leaving the country or pay a fine of $10 per day of overstay. Bring passport photos if you have them. There are no photo size restrictions, but if you don’t have any they will just charge you $3-$5 to photocopy the picture in your passport. It’s good to bring USD but there are ATMs everywhere that should accept all cards. If you are going to be staying three months or longer, get a business visa so you can re-enter and renew without leaving. Business visas are only $5 more and no extra paperwork.
If your renting a motorbike you need to give them your passport, sounds sketchy but its true. No drivers license needed but some places will take it instead of your passport if you ask them. Make sure they give you helmets as cops will stop you if you don’t have one. Renting a car is more difficult as it usually come with a driver! Opt for the taxi and save yourself navigating the unconventional traffic.
You do not need to use local currency, or get any out in advance. Cambodia easily accepts USD everywhere, but recently they are checking the dates of the bills. People are beginning to refuse bills printed in 1999 or earlier. The local currency, Riel is usually around 4000 to 1$ so you will have to carry around a lot of bills and all those zeros get confusing. Stick to USD and everyone will accept it since nobody has card machines.
Enjoy Cambodian Life!
Most importantly, take advantage of all that makes Cambodia amazing. Get out of the cities and into the countryside to meet locals and explore the islands or jungle. Hire local guides through travel agencies and always ask for a discount. Take advantage of how cheap everything is in the developing world. Even though the Cambodian currency is in US dollar, many services are much cheaper than in the western world. Go for some spa treatments, market shopping, even international food and drink have high standards and low prices. Doctor and dentists are foreign trained and speak English well if you want to do some medical tourism.
Cambodia is a beautiful country and actually quite diverse with a vivid history. It is well worth a visit and a longer trip to see the beauty in it. Hopefully these tips will let you enjoy it all the easier.
Continue reading about Cambodia…
- Where to Eat & Drink in Phnom Penh
- Best Things to See in Cambodia
- Mimi the Cat: Part 2
- Why You Need To Go To Phnom Penh
- Cambodian Survival Guide: Insider Tips
- Foreign Operations: The upside of getting surgery in a developing country
- Mimi’s Story: Part 1
- How To Drive A Motorcycle in Cambodia
- Cambodian Electricity Bills
- Cambodia’s Best Waterfalls
- The Hangover
- Asian Driving Games
- Natural Building in Cambodia
- Driving Like A Local
- Corruption at its Finest
- The Cambodian Circus
- The Giant with a Shopping Addiction
- Tarantulas aren’t for me