Mysterious ruins of ancient temples, traditions that hint at surprising connections to other major civilizations and the unbreakable spirit that still keeps the people going strong despite adversities – all of these come to mind when you think of Cambodia.
Steeped in tradition and mysticism yet modern and progressive, the Kingdom’s capital city Phnom Penh has rightfully made its place as a visit-worthy spot for travelers who would typically head straight to Angkor. That’s not all this Southeast Asian destination offers. Battambong, Cambodia’s second largest city, is yet1 another good place to visit with its unique French architecture and tranquil riverside establishments. The gateway to the ancient temple cities, Siem Reap, is a popular addition to sight-seeing itineraries and so is Kampot, if you are looking for beach-side spots.
There is much to do and see in Cambodia and a good way to cover it all is to do your research before you start on your vacation.
Although Khmers dominate the ethnic groups in Cambodia, Vietnamese and Chinese do make their home here too albeit in much smaller numbers. In terms of religion, you will find a predominance of Buddhism here. The language used is modern Khmer although you might find quite a few French words peppering any conversation, a remnant of the years of French colonial ruling. Thankfully, English is spoken and understood by many, particularly in the locations where tourists tend to throng. French and Mandarin are also spoken, although primarily by the older generation of Cambodians.
One of the most interesting aspects about the Cambodian society is that individuals are always secondary to the groups they belong to. That is, the people traditionally put their family, their society and their country ahead of their own needs.
For foreigners in Cambodia, etiquette is a very critical aspect to brush up on before heading out here. Causing offense to others inadvertently or deliberately can cause serious problems and it is very important to avoid embarrassing or criticizing others, especially in public. On the other hand, complimenting someone in public on their hospitality is a simple way to add to their honor and show them respect or appreciation.
Despite its unfortunate association with the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is, today, one of the most tranquil vacation spots you might ever see. The beguiling Angkor is a fixture on every holiday maker’s itinerary and with good reason. The massive religious complex with the Angkor Wat temple still standing guard over the ruins is truly an awe inspiring sight. Don’t rush your visit because the magical beauty of the intricately designed Banteay Sreri or the magnificent faces of the Bayon will surely make you lose track of time.
In the capital city, the Silver Pagoda as well as the Royal Palace are great attractions for all tourists. If you want to take in all of the Khmer temples in one sweeping panorama, the Preah Vihear situated on a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains is the perfect spot. The floating villages around the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s large freshwater lake is another interesting sight to see. The lake may look dramatically different at different times of the year as the volume of water increases and depletes. If you love sealife then a visit to Kratie should be on your list. If you are lucky you can catch a glimpse of the Irrawaddy dolphin which is, sadly, dwindling down to extinction. Finish up your visit at Koh Ker, an ancient capital of the Khmer empire where you will find the imposing, pyramid like Prasat Thom that dominates the landscape.
On the subject of food, one of the places that truly deserve a shout out is the New Hope restaurant in Siem Reap. The surprising and heartening fact is that this is a trade school where former sex workers learn life skills. There is also a school for at-risk kids here. The food is delicious and you come away knowing that you have helped encourage a good cause!
If out-of- the-ordinary cuisine is what you are looking for, then maybe you would enjoy some spiders or a couple of tarantulas? At Eat a Spider, these are the special dishes you should expect to find. Does that make your stomach turn? Well, Cambodia is famous for its mangoes and bananas too so help your stomach settle down with these delicious fruits.
Traditional Cambodian food is characterized with surprising contrasts in flavor. To taste the true Khmer flavor, a good start is the Bai sach chrouk which is a dish that combines rice and pork. This simple dish is something you will find on street corners too. Fish amok is another traditional dish which also shows the influence of Thai and Vietnamese cooking on Cambodia’s cuisine. Khmer noodles or Nom banh chok makes for a filling breakfast especially if you like the typical Asian combination of flavors and spices. On the beverages front, the Chinese tea, tikalok (fruit smoothie) are good options.
With its spectacular beaches, Cambodia has much to offer for those who just want to unwind during their holidays. But if relaxing is getting to be a bore, then you can always get some fantastic shopping done and top it all off with some rocking night time partying. On the subject of shopping, Cambodia is the perfect place to buy silk, ethnic / artistic pieces and silver work. Expect to find Buddha themes predominant in the art pieces. If regular shopping is what you need to do, then the Russian market is a good stop. Souvenirs, western clothing, handicrafts, fake ‘antiquities’ and knick-knacks of all kinds – this market has it all. The Psar Thmei or Central Market is a good place to go to if you want to avoid the sun during your shopping spree.
The market features a stunning domed hall that is an added attraction. You will find the shops more organized here and there are food stalls if you want to ‘refuel’ in the midst of your shopping. Willing to bargain hard? Then Psar Cha is a shopping center that you will find quite interesting too.
Take a tuk-tuk ride to the nearest local night club or spa just to experience the novel transportation method. And while you are at it, also experience the ‘fish pedicure’ where little fish nibble your feet. Don’t worry, it is safe, although maybe not the perfect activity for the ticklish or squeamish. The Siem Reap night market is a great place to get some really cheap shopping done. There are quite a few casinos here where you can play games of chance and test your luck too.
Rainy season in Cambodia is from May to October and it is best to avoid this time for a visit to this location because getting around with flooded roads can be a huge challenge here. November and January are the most ideal vacation times here as the weather is quite cool and pleasant.
You can get your visa when you land in the Kingdom either at Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. However, for entry from certain points, visitors need to have a visa ready. Online visa processing is possible and you can also get further information about these requirements from the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Cambodia located in their country.
The ubiquitous use of the U.S. dollar here is a great convenience although the Reil is the official Cambodian currency. Keep in mind though that Riel is not convertible so if you do opt for currency exchange into this currency do so with care. Keep well stocked with cash and travelers checks because credits are not accepted everywhere.
World class medical facilities are not easy to find in Cambodia and even the number of pharmacies is rather limited. Getting immunizations for malaria, thyroid, tetanus, cholera, TB, hepatitis A/B before you leave is a great idea. Carry your own medicines for relatively minor problems like diarrhea, cold and fevers and you should be able to manage just fine.