Cambodia is a favourite destination for many travellers, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. Despite the scars left by country’s sad past, the people are incredibly warm and friendly; also, there are some stunning sites, including the archaeological marvels of Angkor, the culinary and cultural highlights are many and varied, and there’s a real sense of vibrancy in the capital Phnom Penh. Before you head off, do a bit of research to make the most of your trip. Start by reading our mini-guide, below!
Where to stay Siem Reap
“We visited Angkor Wat two years ago with our three little ones in tow. We chose to stay at Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort. We arrived to a sold-out hotel and a missed request for connecting rooms so we were upgraded to the two-bedroom Presidential Suite – a fabulous mistake! The cast of Tomb Raider even stayed in this hotel during filming in 2000; since this is the best room in the hotel, I went to bed every night knowing that Angelina Jolie and I shared the very same pillow.
Obviously, the temple complex is the main draw for tourists – Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon are popular for good reasons. To escape the crowds, take a 50-minute drive to see the intricate stone carvings of Banteay Srei (pictured). Siem Reap’s food scene has undergone a bit of a renaissance as of late; try Chanrey Tree for excellent Khmer food, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor for afternoon tea, Malis for a special night out and Haven to support a worthy cause. The latter is owned by a Swiss couple who house and help teens transit from orphanages to adult life. And while we’re on the subject, don’t visit an orphanage in Cambodia; google it if you don’t know why. We also enjoyed serving breakfast to students at a school opened by Caring for Cambodia.
We have been to Cambodia a few times before, but this was the first time with our kids – ages four, two and one at the time. The kids loved the tuk-tuks! We took turns exploring the steeper temples while the kids played in the grass. Caution, however, should be taken when travelling on major holidays; you’d want to avoid New Year in Siem Reap.”
– Monica Pitrelli, American
“I’ve been to Siem Reap five times and would love to go back – there’s always something different to see and do. I’ve stayed in US$20-a-night rooms at The Villa Siem Reap that is close to town; simple but fine. I’ve also stayed in top-end hotels including Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Jaya House Riverpark is probably my favourite!
While there, I have done ATV trips, spa sessions, shopping and, of course, a couple of different temple tours. The ATVs would be okay with smaller kids, although you’ll drive through some city traffic which can be a little scary. I also visited the Angkor National Museum which was interesting, as well as Phare, The Cambodian Circus – amazing! The Angkor Wat runs and cycles (Angkor Wat International Half Marathon and Angkor Wat Bike4Kids) are definitely worth doing once, even if it’s just a short one.
A round trip of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is usually good value if you have time to do both at once, but I’d recommend at least three full days in Siem Reap. The food and drinks are good and cheap – who doesn’t like $2 beers!”
– Rebecca Bisset, British
Where to stay Phnom Penh
“We normally stay at The Quay Boutique Hotel on Sisowath Quay along the Tonle Sap river where it meets and flows into the Mekong. The hotel has a nice rooftop bar to watch the river traffic while sipping a cocktail. Alternatively, we walk to the Foreign Correspondents Club down the road for sundowners. On the way back, there are a host of Asian restaurants to choose from for dinner. We also like the Riverside Bistro for after-dinner nightcaps to experience the feel and buzz of the foreign community living there.
The Quay Boutique Hotel provides an excellent breakfast and selection of coffees. An early morning walk downriver provides a true picture of Phnom Penh. After breakfast, we also like to walk inland towards the Central Market through the small back streets, stopping at all the various boutiques, cafés and art galleries as we go by. This normally takes a full morning, with refreshments. After exhausting our cheap shopping at the Central Market, we head back to The Quay, partaking in street food along the way.
My (Deborah’s) favourite thing to do is head towards 240 Street, which is full of boutiques, cafés and bakeries, and wander up one side and back the other. My favourite boutiques are Jasmine and Bliss (search them online!). Bliss also has an amazing spa upstairs, set in an old wooden conservation style house. I get the best massage there every time.”
– Ian and Deborah Law, British
“After a few days in Siem Reap, where I competed in the Angkor Wat run, I took a five-hour bus south to Phnom Penh to catch a connecting flight. With only a few hours in the capital, I got straight in a tuk-tuk and headed across town to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I know that “dark tourism” – travelling to places associated with death and suffering – is increasingly becoming a “thing”, but I’m not naturally drawn to it. In this instance, though, I felt compelled to learn more about Cambodia’s bleak past. And I put it down to the race I’d just entered at Angkor Wat. For the final few kilometres, I had found myself running step for step with a local competitor; our rhythms were so similar that we developed a kind of silent contract: we would run together, helping each other to the finish line in the best time possible. Crossing the tape, he grabbed my fist and raised it in the air; a nice moment. Only then did I notice that his other arm was missing. He was one of many local amputees who compete in the event to raise awareness of the country’s issue with landmines and other UXO (unexploded ordinance).
So, my visit to Tuol Sleng, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, was to get a better understanding of this modern-day problem and its historical origins. It’s an astonishing place: a small high school converted to an execution centre from 1975 to 1979. It was almost empty on the day of my visit – you could hear a pin drop – and it was entirely raw and shocking. I didn’t feel better for going, but I’m glad I went.”
– Shamus Sillar, Australian
Population: 16 million
Capital: Phnom Penh
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Emergency number: 117
- The Cambodian flag is the only flag in the world to feature a building.
- Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world.
- The flow of the Tonlé Sap river changes direction twice a year.
- Tarantula kebabs are a popular delicacy in Cambodia.
- April: Chaul Chnam, the Cambodian New Year celebration, lasts for around three days from mid-April.
- September to October: Pchum Ben or Soul Day. Running for 15 days, this festival is dedicated to blessing the spirits of the dead.
- 9 November: Independence Day. A national holiday celebrating Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953.
Hot spots and itineraries
Among the World Heritage Sites are the incredible Angkor temple complex, and the Temple of Preah Vihear.
Some itinerary ideas
- The Big Two: Phnom Penh – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
- The South: Phnom Penh – Kep – Kampot – Sihanoukville
Staying safe and healthy
- Malaria is present throughout the country, so see your health practitioner about antimalarial drugs. Also, wear long sleeves and trousers, and plenty of repellent.
- Cambodia is still affected by unmarked landmines. Don’t stray off main routes, including those around temples.
- Always check for the latest COVID-19 updates and restrictions.
While you’re there, please don’t…
Point with your index finger; instead gesture with your right-hand palm up.
Before you go, read …
- A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam by Norman Lewis – the British travel writer’s memoir includes a meeting with the King of Cambodia.
- When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him – a mesmerising account of the Khmer Rouge genocide written by a child survivor of the period.
- The Gate by Francois Bizot – an account of the fall of Phnom Penh and the early days of the Pol Pot era.
Before you go, watch …
- The Killing Fields – depicting the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime in the 1970s, which resulted in mass genocide, as seen through a local and US journalist’s eyes.
- Who Am I? – by Pan Phuong Bopha, one of Cambodia’s first working female writer-directors.
- First They Killed My Father – Angeline Jolie-directed movie based on a memoir by Loung Ung and filmed entirely in Cambodia
They said it
“The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world. Their misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer.” – Prince Sihanouk
“Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” – Khmer proverb
Do I need a visa?
All visitors to Cambodia require a visa except passport holders of Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei and Myanmar. Other passport holders can apply for an e-visa at evisa.gov.kh. You can get also a visa on arrival at most ports of entry at a cost of US$30 (bring two passport photos).
How long will it take me to get there?
It’s two hours to Phnom Penh from Singapore. Cambodia is seven hours ahead of GMT and one hour behind Singapore.
What’s the money situation?
Cambodian currency is the Cambodian riel (KHR). US dollars are widely used in Cambodia, though it’s useful to have some Cambodian currency for small purchases. Small change is also returned in riel. ATM withdrawals using Visa or MasterCard are available in the major cities. Credit cards are accepted in many upmarket hotels, boutiques and restaurants.
When’s the best time to visit?
You can visit Cambodia any time of the year; the average temperature is around 27 to 28 degrees Celsius.
Cambodia has four seasons:
- November to February, cool and dry
- March to May, hot and dry
- June to August, hot and wet
- September to October, cool and wet
What’s the lingo?
The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. English and French are also spoken. Here are some phrases to get you started:
- Hello: Suosdei / Choum reap sor (formal)
- What is your name? Naek chmuah ey?
- My name is __: Knyom chmuah __
- How much? Nih th’lay pohnmaan?
- Thank you: Aw kohn
- Yes: Baht (for males) / Jaah (for females)
- I don’t understand: Khnom men yol teh
Last but not least
Is there anything I should know about meeting the locals?
For a formal greeting, place your hands together close to your chest and face; dip your head at the same time in a slight bow.
What’s a must-try dish?
Fish amok, a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk, and kroeung, a type of Khmer curry paste. Try the fried insects too, if you dare – grasshoppers, bamboo worms and more.
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Khmer silk, woven mats, candles and soaps, rice paper and Mekong quilts.
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