Cambodia Travel Guide
Nonetheless, travellers to Cambodia will be richly rewarded by doing a little research into the country’s recent history. Civil war and genocide are of central importance to contemporary Cambodia. Hostilities ended in the mid-1990s but the country continues to struggle to recover from the previous 20 years of violence. War has ceased but the power vacuum has quickly been replaced by a political system recognised as one of the most corrupt in the world.
Tourists are returning in large numbers, flocking to Angkor, a stunning complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples uncovered in the heart of Cambodia’s jungle. A visit to Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, is the best way to understand the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and is a must for all travellers. At the same time, travelling to places like Kratié and Ratanakiri Province can help travellers understand Cambodians as they live today.
The Rise and Fall of Angkor
Before the rise of Angkor there were several smaller Khmer kingdoms such as Funan, which was at its height from the 1st to 6th century AD, and Chenla. The Khmer Empire, with its capital of Angkor, flourished from the 9th century till the 13th century. The empire shared close cultural ties to Java, at that time a Hindu empire, and India. The empire converted from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century. The main legacy of this empire are the amazing temples and city of Angkor. Many anthropologists believe that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world, covering a larger surface area than modern day New York City.
While there is still mush debate about the issue, many scholars believe that Angkor fell because of the inability the Kings to maintain infrastructure like canals for rice production and transportation. This might be because a growing population demanded too much water to support the canal system. At the same time, the neighboring Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya was growing in power. The Thais starting attacking in 1350 and continued to attack the Khmers until finally sacking the city of Angkor in 1431.
The period between the mid 15th century and the take over by France in 1863 is considered Cambodia’s Dark Ages. The Thais and Vietnamese slowly spread into Cambodia’s territory. When the Thais sacked the new capital of Oudong it was almost impossible for the Khmer government to recover because the Thais marched thousands of peasants, skilled artisans, scholars and members of the Buddhist clergy back to their capital. Without its brain and manpower, the Khmer empire further declined. The Vietnamese slow move into the Mekong delta also didn’t help, and by the end of the 17th century the Vietnamese had complete control of the delta and the coastline. By the mid 18th century, the Vietnamese reached their current day borders. This made the Khmer Empire dependent on Vietnam’s permission for sea trade. These events put the Khmer kings into a submissive position to their neighbors. The Vietnamese and Thais continued to fight over control of Cambodia until 1863.
In 1863, when Cambodia became a protectorate of France, the process of forcing the Vietnamese and the Thais to hand Cambodia over to the French started. In 1887, the French announced the formation of the Union of Indochina and the final piece was added in 1893, when France forced the Thais to annex Laos to them. Cambodia was viewed as the backwater of the colonial empire and very little development happened in the area.
France maintained control of the Khmer Kings and therefore maintained control of the country. The French built some roads and encouraged rice cultivation but not much else. A nationalist movement began to grow in the 1930s, which became particularly fervent during World War II. Shortly after the war, a young King Sihanouk successfully campaigned for complete independence from Cambodia, and France gave up power in 1953.
Cambodian history after colonialism is a shameful blemish on the records of powerful Western states and the United Nations. King Sihanouk was only able to keep the country out of neighboring wars for 15 years before he was forced to leave the country.
Heavy bombing of the Eastern half of Cambodia by American forces throughout the US/Vietnam war provided a rallying point for the Communist Khmer Rouge forces in defeating the US backed Lon Nol Government. The West’s reluctance to intervene to stop the horrible atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the latter half of the 1970s coupled with active support of the Khmer Rouge in forming a resistance to the Vietnamese caused incalculable damage to the country. It is somewhat ironic, in fact, that the nation’s relief from Khmer rule came from communist Vietnam – a nation perceived as a threat to the West in the 1970s.
By the time the Vietnamese army pushed the Khmer Rouge from power 1.7 million people were killed in either extermination camps, forced labor or by starvation. The Vietnamese continued to fight in Cambodia until 1989, when the final troops left due to internal problems in Vietnam and the cessation of economic support from a struggling USSR and eastern European allies.
In 1992, UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia) took control of the country fractured by war and suffering. While they were not necessarily successful in stopping the fighting between the parties, they did bring about elections in which a large part of the population of the country participated.
The civil war did not officially end until 1998, when the Khmer Rouge officially surrendered, but there had been no heavy fighting since 1993. The peace process was slow throughout the 1990s. In the past few years, Cambodia has slowly been rebuilding itself – one shattered building and soul at a time.
Located between Latitude 10º-15º and Longitude 102º-108º, Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand. The country has a topography reminiscent of a frying pan, with a flat central river basin of young alluvial deposits and highlands defining the borders. Between Lake Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand lie the Cardamon Mountains rising to over 1,800 metres. To the north of the central plain lie the Dangrek Mountains at around 500 metres and the to the northeast, the fertile and volcanic Rattanak Kirri Plateau.
The Mekong river system and lake Tonle Sap dominate the lowland regions with an annual flood proving rich agricultural lands and freshwater fishing grounds. Joined to the Mekong by the unique Tonle Sap River, which reverses direction of flow twice a year, is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia: Lake Tonle Sap. The flooding of the Mekong following seasonal melting of the Himalaya forces water into the lake which grows from around 3,000 km² to 10,000 km².
Sights and Activities
Angkor is an ancient city with a collection of over a thousand temples, including the world’s largest religious structure ever built: Angkor Wat. After entering one of the stunning gates lined with statutes into the ruined city, the number of stone carvings and statues can become overwhelming. Temple after temple, of a size and complexity that most nations would kill for just to have their hands on one. It is very easy to spend several days or even almost a week climbing and descending the absolutely amazing temples of Angkor.
Tonlé Sap is the large river lake in the centre of Cambodia. For most of the year this lake is only a meter deep but during the rainy season Mekong reverses flow and the lake swells in size and become over 9 metres deep. It is the largest lake in South East Asia and of huge importance to Cambodia.
Although not as developed or as crazy as the beaches in Thailand, the beaches in Cambodia do have a certain charm and fun. Sihanoukville is the main beach town but several more beach towns are starting to appear further east down the coast. This is a great place to spend a few days enjoying the sun and surf, while at the same time enjoying some Angkor Beer.
Outside of Kratié there is a protected area for the rare Mekong River dolphin. Although you’re not guaranteed to see one of the few fresh water dolphin species remaining, it is a nice trip. The river scenery is amazing and the boat ride is fun. Just remember that river dolphins do not make for great photos as it’s difficult to capture them on photo, so this is an experience to be enjoyed, not documented.
The northeastern part of the country is a fantastic area to enjoy both the cultural and natural diversity of Cambodia. Visitors to Ratanakiri Province can trek out into protected forests and the Virachey National Park. They can take a day to wander among the beautiful waterfalls in the Banlung area. Or they can visit villages inhabited by non-Khmer ethnic groups with their own architecture, languages and traditions.
Other Sights and Activities
Bokor Hill Station – an interesting sight outside of Kampot.
Colonial Architecture – there are several places in Cambodia that offer great colonial buildings like Phnom Penh or Battambang that have survived the wars.
Heart of Darkness is one of the most famous bars/night clubs in all of Cambodia and Asia.
Shooting Ranges – ever dreamed of shooting an AK-47, Tommy Gun or throwing a hand grenade into a pond? What about firing a real rocket launcher? This is the place to do it, for a very responsible price.
Killing Fields – visiting one of the several killing fields around Cambodia is a sobering, enlightening experience and gives a glimpse into the horrors that man can commit.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21 or S-21) was one of the main processing centers for political prisoners in Phnom Penh before they were sent to the killing fields.
When to go & Weather
Cambodia has a hot and humid tropical climate. The country is dominated by the wet southwest monsoon from May to October and the dry northeast monsoon from November to April. Most of the rain falls in the southwestern hilly area and the coastline facing the Gulf of Siam. The central lower areas are somewhat drier but hotter. Temperatures are between 23 °C and 26 °C at night, and 30 °C to 35 °C during the day most of the year, but April sees temperatures of 40 °C occasionally. September and October are the wettest months. The country experiences the heaviest precipitation from September to October with the driest period occurring from January to February. Disastrous flooding occurred in 2001 and again in 2002, with some degree of flooding almost every year.
All visitors, except citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam need a visa to enter Cambodia. The official price for a tourist visa is US$30 and US$35 for an Ordinary visa and people from most countries throughout the world can get a visa on arrival.
Visas can be obtained at Cambodian embassies or consulates. Visas are also available “on arrival” at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos.
All are valid for one stay of up to 30 days. Those issued in advance expire 90 days after issue. In Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies), tourist visas can be extended only once, allowing an additional 30 days at a cost of US$15.
Ordinary visa or Type-E
The best choice for stays over two months and/or multiple entries, as they can be extended indefinitely (approximately US$140 per 6 month extension) and have multiple entry status when extended. Most Phnom Penh travel agencies process the extensions. Foreign nationals of some countries including India require prior permission from the Department of Immigration of the Ministry of Interior to gain an Ordinary visa. Such visitors can also apply for permission with the Department of Immigration after entering the country on a T (Tourist) visa, which is located near the Phnom Penh International Airport, after which they may be granted an Ordinary visa upon exiting and entering the country once again.
Citizens of most nations can apply for an e-Visa online at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website, through a service provided by a private Cambodian company (CINet). This is a normal Tourist Visa but costs US$25 instead of the normal US$20. The visa arrives as a PDF file by e-mail within 3 business days. The application requires a digital photograph of yourself (in .jpg format). You can scan your passport photo or have a passport sized photograph taken with a digital camera. There are other websites pretending to make a Cambodian e-visa. At best, these are just on-line travel agencies which will charge you more (US30$-45) and get the same US$25 visa for you; at worst, you may end up with a fake e-visa.
You need to print two copies (one for entry and one for exit) of the PDF visa, cut out the visa parts and keep them with your passport.
Visas in advance (either on-line or from an embassy/consulate) save time at the border but are more expensive. However, you do get to skip the queues of people applying for the visa’s delivery, although sometimes you may simply spend the saved time waiting at the airport luggage belt for your suitcase.
E-Visas are only valid for entry by air or at the three main border crossings: Bavet (on the Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh road); Koh Kong (near Trat in Eastern Thailand); and Poipet (on the Bangkok-Siem Reap road). You may exit the country with an e-visa via any border crossing, however. Given the general reduction in visa scams at the major land borders, paying the extra US$5 to guarantee the price may (more likely if entering from Thailand) or may not worth it. Getting a tourist visa on arrival for US$20 is more likely than being overcharged. Plus it keeps the option open of the enjoyable Phnom Penh-Chau Doc boat trip (and the use of other minor border crossings)!
Visa On Arrival
It is also possible to obtain a visa on arrival at some border checkpoints.
Cambodia’s food is mainly rice with some sort of curry, more like Thai curry than Indian curry. Cambodia is also well known for its sour soups, and when Cambodians eat together there is usually a soup involved. International foods are available especially in the major cities. There is also plenty of fresh fruit to eat like pineapple, but most Khmers like to eat their fruit a little unripe.
Typical Khmer dishes include:
Amok – Arguably the most well known Cambodian dish. A coconut milk curried dish less spicy than those found in Thailand. Amok is usually made with chicken, fish, or shrimp, plus some vegetables. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side. Quite delicious.
K’tieu (Kuytheav) – A noodle soup generally served for breakfast. Can be made with pork, beef or seafood. Flavourings are added to the customers taste in the form of lime juice, chilli powder, sugar and fish sauce.
Somlah Machou Khmae – A sweet and sour soup made with pineapple, tomatoes and fish.
Bai Sarch Ch’rouk – Another breakfast staple. Rice (bai) with pork meat (sarch chrouk) often barbecued. Very tasty and served with some pickled vegetables.
Saik Ch’rouk Cha Kn’yei – Pork fried with ginger. Ginger is commonly used as a vegetable. This tasty dish is available just about everywhere.
Lok lak – Chopped up beef cooked quickly. Probably a holdover from the days of French colonization. Served with a simple dipping sauce made from lime juice and black pepper, lettuce, onion, and often with chips.
Mi/Bai Chaa – Fried noodles or rice. Never particularly inspiring, but a good traveller’s staple.
Trey Ch’ien Chou ‘Ayme – Trey (fish) fried with a sweet chilli sauce and vegetables. Very tasty. Chou ‘ayme is the phrase for “sweet and sour”.
K’dam – Crab. Kampot in the south is famous for its crab cooked in locally sourced black pepper. A very tasty meal.