Cambodia is putting its past behind to embrace the 21st century. It is emerging as a vibrant, exciting tourist travel destination, offering an opportunity to step back into ancient history, get off the beaten track into a lush yet unpredictable rural countryside and to immerse in a kind and charming culture.
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and in its turbulent past, was invaded by two of its neighbours several times. It shares the powerful Mekong River with Laos and Vietnam. The river enters the country from Laos in the North, and in its southbound journey almost divides Cambodia into halves.
The Mekong splits off into two at Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, before ending in Vietnam. One of its tributaries feeds Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, which lies south of Siem Reap, the town closest to the Angkor temple complex.
No one can visit this bite-sized country and not be changed by it. As the temple hub of the world, tourists are arriving fast and furious, and not everyone saw it coming. But tourist dollars are doing some good in this charming country and the government is responding to it.
You can travel cheaply in Cambodia, sleep reasonably comfortably and eat well. Or you can sink into unabashed luxury and dine in restaurants to rival the best in other Asian capitals. It is pretty easy to fly in and out but not so from province to province.
Unspoiled mountainous forests, ornate stone temples more than 1000 years old, idyllic islands and unspoilt beaches these are the makings of a dream vacation.
Be sure to support the local artists and artisans. Many of them would be jobless but for these vocational skills picked up at dedicated training centers. Shop Cambodian should be the mantra, as the tourist dollar really goes a very long way. Bargaining is a part of life but bear in mind that many of these people live on less than US$0.50 a day. Be part of the sport but be gentle.
There is magic in Cambodia and as a tourist, you want to travel responsibly and make sure that there is more of the country to re-visit. Tipping is not part of their culture but the extra money is appreciated; good etiquette is probably just as well appreciated.
A mostly flat and forested land, Cambodia is a small, compact country. But for more than 500 years, Angkor (in northwestern Cambodia) was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which controlled mainland Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 13th century. Thailand and Vietnam encroached upon the kingdom until 1863, when France made Cambodia a protectorate. Independence came in 1953.
Coming into the 21st century, Cambodia enjoys relative stability; but subsistence farming employs 75 percent of the workforce and many live in poverty. Cambodians hope that tourism focused on Angkor Wat, meaning "capital monastery," will bring prosperity; it is the largest temple at Angkor its image is on the flag of Cambodia.
People in Cambodia are well-known for their hospitality and warmth. Out of respect, visitors to the Kingdom should take care to observe local customs and practices. You may find it useful to familiarise yourself with the following common dos and do nots before embarking on your trip to Cambodia.
DOs in Cambodia
- Ask for permission before taking photographs of any Cambodian people or monks.
- It is customary to remove your shoes when entering a place of worship such as a pagoda or temple. Additionally, visitors should dress appropriately when inside a religious site (upper arms and legs should be covered, hats removed).
- It is respectful to remove your shoes when entering a home.
- Though not always expected, a respectful way of greeting another individual is to bow the head slightly with hands pressed together at the chest.
- If invited to dine in a Cambodian family home, it is polite to bring a small gift for the host such as fruit, dessert, or flowers.
- If invited to attend a Cambodian wedding, it is customary to bring cash as a wedding gift.
- When using a toothpick at the table, use one hand to cover your mouth.
- Keep business cards ready, and present them with both hands. Accept business cards with both hands.
DO NOTs in Cambodia
- Do not use your feet to point at someone.
- Do not touch a Cambodian person on the head.
- Do not begin eating if you are a guest at a dinner and the host has yet to take a bite.
- Women should never touch male monks or hand something directly to them.
- Keep public displays of affection to a respectful minimum.
What to Wear in Cambodia
The weather in Cambodia generally falls under two categories: the wet season (May to October) and the dry season (November to April).
Lightweight, loose-fitting, cotton clothing is recommended for the dry season, when the weather is hot and humid. Visitors may wish to pack long pants and long-sleeved shirts for hiking, trekking, or outdoor activities. A hat and sunglasses may be useful for when walking around under the sun.
During the rainy season, visitors may want to bring a light rain poncho (plastic ponchos can be purchased cheaply in Cambodia) or a sturdy umbrella. A light jacket or cardigan will come in handy during the months of December and January, when temperatures are at their coolest.
When visiting outdoor temples, including those of Angkor Wat, shorts and T-shirts are acceptable. Shoes and hats are generally removed at the entrance to pagodas. For visits to the Silver Pagoda, which is within the Royal Palace grounds. visitors are asked to dress more formally. Gentlemen are required to wear long trousers and ladies should wear long trousers or long skirts and keep their shoulders covered.
What to Bring to Cambodia
- Photocopies of your passport
- At least two passport-size photographs of yourself
- Cash in US$1s, $10s, $20s, $50s
- A folding umbrella or lightweight rain poncho if you plan to visit during the rainy season
- Zip lock bags. They are cheap, disposable, and keep all kinds of things fresh and dry
- An adventurous spirit.