Nestled into Southeast Asia, Cambodia is like a magic kingdom with ancient ruins, magnificent temples, dense jungles, and impressive waterfalls. Rice paddies and villages fill the countryside, while the modernity of Phnom Penh may surprise you with its energetic contrast to the quiet landscape.
But Cambodia hasn’t always been idyllic, and the people have overcome a tumultuous past due to their optimism and everlasting spirit. With a population of 16.01 million, your journey through this overseas destination will be welcomed with kindness and smiles.
សូមស្វាគមន៍ – Welcome to Cambodia
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and it rests at the junction of the mighty Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. The city has had a difficult history with the country’s wars and revolutions, but it has since been rebuilt to be a hip enigma with cafes, cars, and appetizing dishes. As a city of contrast, Phnom Penh blends the line between two worlds – ancient and modern. Travelers can relish in the city’s exotic landscape, architecture, cuisine, and culture and get a feel of this up and coming Asian capital.
Culture and Language
Cambodia is a unique country because it has cultural influences from other Asian countries like India and China. It’s kingdom once ruled parts of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos but it was the Khmer empire is perhaps the most historically famous rulers of Cambodia who peaked in the 12th century.
The country then faced several hundred years of decline until it became a French colony in the 20th century. But the tranquility didn’t last, and they struggle during the Japanese occupation during World War II and an instable government. Then from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was devastated by a guerrilla movement made of rural communists called the Khmer Rouge who killed 1.5 million Cambodians. Since then, Cambodia has had help from Vietnam to overcome their dark history and re-establish a constitutional government.
Now, Cambodia is frequently listed as a must-see Southeast Asian destination that attracts tourists worldwide. The Cambodian people are very friendly, even after everything they have gone through and their cheery spirit helps the country thrive. The people’s resilience has help re-shape the country and helps them strive for a better future.
Similar to many other Asian cultures, religion and family are important parts of Cambodian culture. The gentle people are very close with their family with multiple generations often living together and distant relatives visiting for the holidays. Respect is also important, and you’ll find that elders honored. Religion is also important with the majority of people (97% of the population) following Theravada Buddhism.
Heritage is also important for the country, alongside tradition. National pride is important, and the country comes to together to celebrate big holidays like Pchum Ben (Khmer New Year). For visitors, the Cambodian culture is fascinating and inviting.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is spoken by about 90% of the country’s population. It is also the only official language for the country and is used in the government, education, and media. However, due to the country’s geological location, other regional languages like Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao may be spoken as well.
The two most prominent foreign languages spoken in Cambodia are French, which was once the official language for all of Indochina and English. From its days as a French colony, older Cambodians may still speak French and younger generations may still learn because of French government programs.
But English is an extremely important language for the country’s international relationships, and you’ll find that the English language has become more popular than French. English is used in the streets and many signs are even translated from Khmer to English. The English language is also used throughout the universities and is quickly gaining popularity amongst urban streets due to the influx in tourism.
No matter which language you speak, good manners and a smile can go a long way. Cambodian people are always smiling and while you may not speak Khmer, the people are more than happy to invite you in with a warm gesture.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Cambodia, you will need a tourist visa approved before you will be allowed entry into the country. Tourists visas are normally valid for 30 days from the date of entry into Cambodia. But there are a few different ways that you can get a tourist visa and it will depend on how and where you plan to enter Cambodia.
If you are arriving at one of the three international airports (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Sihanoukville) or at any land border (Thailand’s Poipet/Aranya Prathet or Cham Yeam/Hat Lek and Vietnam’s Bavet/Moc Bai), you can pay for a 30-day tourist visa upon your arrival to customs. The visa costs $30 US dollars and requires that you have one passport photo with the application. If you arrive without a passport photo, you will have to pay a fine of $2 US dollars.
For travelers who wish to arrange their visa before they fly to Cambodia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does have an e-visa program, which can be applied for online at the government website. The visa costs $30 US dollars and there is an additional charge of $7 US dollars as a processing fee. But the e-visa is only valid for use at the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. You will not be granted entry into the country with an e-visa if you are entering through Sihanoukville or any of the land borders with Thailand, Vietnam, or Laos.
Overcharging seems to be a common problem that tourists face when going through customs, as the agents like to dramatically round up the price of visas. You can avoid being overcharged by paying for the e-visa ahead of your arrival to the airport, but again, remember that the e-visa is only valid for entry in the Phnom Penh and Siem reap airports.
You can also extend a tourist visa once, by paying a $45 US dollar fine for another 30 days. A 3-month, 6-month, and year-long extensions are also granted but they cost $75, $155, and $285 US dollars. A visa extension can be applied for with the assistance of travel agencies in Phnom Penh. Overstaying a visa has a fine of $5 US dollars per pay and it is not recommended to overstay your time.
For any visa application and entry into Cambodia, you will need a valid US passport that has at least 6 months validity past the date of your departure from Cambodia. Your passport should have a single blank page for every Cambodian visa that you will use. Most people only need one full blank page for entry and exit, but you will need additional blank pages if you plan on seeking a visa extension. A single passport photo will also be required for your tourist visa.
While your visa is essential to entering the country, it is also important that you consider your spending budget for the time that you will be in Cambodia. Cambodia is an extremely affordable country to travel and with the right planning you can survive on a backpacker’s budget. But the most important parts of your budget will be the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
For travelers from the United States, Asia is a faraway continent and that means that travel times and prices increase. Most flights will leave from the West Coast and you may be able to find a direct flight to Cambodia. But if you live in another part of the US, the price will likely go up and it will take to longer to fly to the country. Most flights will cost about $1,500 US dollars for a round trip. You may be able to find deals that lower the price, but $1,5000 US dollars is what you should expect to pay in economy.
The most popular times to visit Cambodia are October to March, which is when the monsoon season is not active. Airline ticket prices during this time will likely increase, compared to off tourist months when it will decrease. You can also save money by booking your ticket in advance and not waiting for a month before your planned departure date.
The good news is that while the airline ticket is pricey, you can save money by staying in cheap accommodation. Cambodia has plenty of affordable accommodation options that can help you stay on track with your budget.
Inexpensive hostels will cost about $5 US dollars per night, but they will likely not have air conditioning or hot water. Air conditioning is the downside, but since it’s so hot in Cambodia, you probably won’t want a steaming hot shower. A room with air conditioning will cost about $8 US dollars per night, while nicer accommodation options will be $20 US dollars per night.
For travelers who want to spend a little more on accommodation but not quite hit the luxury options, you should expect to spend about $40 US dollars per night for a hotel. Luxury options will easily cost hundreds per night and may not be affordable for your budget.
Airbnb is available in Cambodia, but you should really only expect good listings to be available in the popular cities. In the countryside or outside of main cities, people may not have the ability to list their property. But nice properties and locations can usually be booked for less than $50 US dollars per night.
Once you’ve decided on where to stay and which flight to take, the next most important considerations of your budget are food and drink. Cambodian food is not the most famous cuisine and it is often overshadowed by their Thai neighbors, but their dishes are filled with tasty herbs and loaded with condiments. Fresh ingredients are staple for the cuisine and like many Asian cultures, rice is a central ingredient. Most Cambodian meals will serve several small dishes with a bowl of rice.
Fish amok is a fish served in creamy curry and perfectly balances flavors like lemongrass and coconut. Banana blossom salad is famous for its strong citrus flavor and is served throughout the country. Lap Khmer is a tasty dish of lime marinated beef, which is tossed with herbs and chilis. Khmer red curry is a milder cousin to Thailand’s curry dish, and it is typically made with chicken, beef, or fish. Finally, you may find interesting critters like octopus or insects fried on a stick. Cambodians are bold eaters and a few crunch fried tarantula legs make a tasty snack.
Similar to many Asian countries, Cambodian food is very affordable if you are willing to try street food and stay away from the big chains or tourist traps. Most dishes can be bought for less than $2 US dollars and a nice sit-down meal at a decent restaurant will cost about $5 US dollars. Single plate dishes can cost as little as $1.25 US dollars, while any critters on a stick would be less than $2 US dollars. Any food at touristy spots or that are not as local will likely have a higher price with meals costing up to $20 US dollars.
Once you’ve had your fill, you may be interested in drinking, which is also usually affordable. Most bars will sell drinks for less than $3 US dollars and this includes a possible fee for the glass bottle that the drink is served inside. Local beer can cost just $1 US dollar and most other drinks will cost less than $5 US dollars if you stick to local hotspots. But most drinking will be done in your accommodation and with your group or new travel friends. There is less bar culture in Cambodia and most people are rather relaxed in their drinking activities.
Overall, Cambodia is a country where you can survive on a backpacker’s budget of about $30 US dollars per day. In order to achieve this budget, you would have to find affordable accommodation and be willing to eat the delicious street food. Other travelers will likely spend more than $30 US dollars, but most won’t spend more than $100 US dollars per day – unless they are on a luxury vacation.
How to Get Around
Cambodia is not massive, but that doesn’t mean that it can still be easily travelled on a time sensitive vacation. The country is still big enough that reaching some destinations can be difficult if you are not taking a domestic flight, but buses are available. Most people will want to see as much as they can, which means it’s important to budget the cost of transportation.
For travelers who want to see everything but can’t take the time to travel by bus, domestic flights are your only option. Many domestic flights will get you between the cities quickly, so that you can head off on you adventures and not sit on a bus for long hours. Most domestic flights will cost $60 US dollars or less and can be booked quickly for efficiency. There are a few discount airlines and some sights may have better deals than others, so take the time to look around.
If you don’t want to spend the money on a flight and are willing to spend the time to travel by bus, you can save money. Most buses will cost less than $10 US dollars, even if you are going long distances. Shorter bus rides can cost as little as $3 US dollars.
If you are traveling around one city like Phnom Penh, motorcycle taxis or tuk tuks and buses are the best way to go. Most motorcycle taxis will cost about $1 US dollars to travel 6-9 miles. Shorter rides will cost even less. Motorcycle tuk tuks should have similar rates or you can sometimes hire one for the day for $15 US dollars. Local buses are also affordable and should have similar prices, but there is a specific tourist bus that costs about $5 US dollars.
Finally, walking is a great way to explore a concentrated area – and, it’s free. Many cities and locations can be safely walked and explored, but you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep any belongings that you are carrying close.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Phnom Penh is the most well-known city in Cambodia, there are plenty of other cities to visit too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Cambodia.
As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh was at the forefront of the country’s past hardships. Within the city walls, memorials and museums remind people of the horrific past and actions of the Khmer Rouge, while just outside the city are the Killing Fields. But until you visit these historic and somber sites, you wouldn’t know because the city is full of smiles and there are many amazing treasures to explore in its streets.
Siem Reap is the world-famous location where Angkor Wat is located. The city is famous for the temple, but it is fascinating in its own right too. A lively energic fills the streets and tourists can relax and enjoy the night with a tasty meal and fun out on the town.
Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s top resort destinations, which was once a fishing village. Now, the city is busting with tourists who flock to the white sand beach. Hotels, bars, and restaurants line the seaside and while it is popular, it is still somewhat a hidden destination.
As a smaller city, Battambang display the colonial history in its street through the crumbling architecture. The quiet streets are also home to ancient temples and monks can be frequently seen walking in their robes. As an up and coming destination, the historic preservation of the city is at risk, so it’s best to see it now before modernity catches up.
Located along the Mekong river, Kratie is where you go if you want to see the famous Irrawaddy dolphins. But besides the wildlife, you can tour the markets and experience the local lifestyle.
One of the most peaceful cities, Kampot is not busy like Phnom Penh or even Sihanoukville. Instead, this is a city that is nestled in nature and filled with serenity. Many people have fallen in love with this destination and you’ll find a strong expat community have begun to stay permanently and call it home.
A more remote destination, Banlung is near the borders with Vietnam and Laos and highlights Cambodia’s countryside. The area is still new to tourism because of previous logging activity, but off the beaten path travelers will enjoy experience the Cambodian jungle.
Points of Interest
While cities are often the main destinations that are visited, you may find that there is a specific point of interest that you want to see too.
Located in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat or the City Temple in English, is Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction. The temples were built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman the II and are known for their balance and beauty. The main shrine stands at 669 feet tall and rises above the rectangular reservoir that is also on the grounds.
Bayon Temple is located within Angkor and is known for having hundreds of smiling faces that are positioned out in every direction. The faces have become another famous part of the Ankgor temple complex and is another must-see attraction.
The Angkor complex is large. So large that one location, Banteay Srei is considered its own attraction. While it is technically a part of Angkor, this temple sits 15 miles outside of the main Angkor Wat temples. The temple is stunning because of its red sandstone construction, which have been painstakingly carved to have ornate details. The carvings are still visible today, which makes it another must-see in the Angkor complex.
Koh Ker used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire, which is when ornate buildings and sculptures were erected. The most famous is the 30-foot-tall Prasat Thom temple, which is hidden in the jungle. As one of the last temple destinations open to the public because of its remote location, a new road has allowed visitor access to this incredible site.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is a large complex of buildings that was constructed for the country’s king. The impressive outline is striking against the blue sky and you can see classic architecture with the Khmer roofs and gold gilding. While not all of the complex is open to the public because the current king does reside on the grounds, the famous Silver Pagoda is open for visits.
Get Out and Go
While Cambodia is often overlooked as a tourist destination, this country is filled with hidden gems that will open your eyes to a rich and troubled history. But the country has emerged victorious in their dark past and is now becoming a top tourist destination. With locations like Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh, it is easy to see why people fall in love with this beautiful country.