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Cambodia Travel Guide
 
 

Why Travel to Cambodia?

Despite some safety concerns you have to see the sublime temples of Angkor, among the world's greatest man-made wonders.
Apart from temples you should also visit the French-built capital, Phnom Penh, for fine food and museums; Sihanoukville for sun and sand; Ban Lung for nature and ethnic people.
Generally people - even the infamous motorbikers - are charming and friendly while local cuisine is superb and good value while Angkor beer is divine!

Geography

Covering an area of 181,035 square kilometres Cambodia is about half the size of Germany. In the West the country is bordered by Thailand, in the North by Laos and in the East by Vietnam.

By far the most important river of Cambodia is the Mekong, which passes through the country for about 500 kilometres in a northsoutherly direction. The Mekong is passable for ships from its delta in Vietnam until Phnom Penh.

Southeast Asia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, is in Cambodia and is connected to the Mekong by a short river, also called Tonle Sap. For most of the time this river flows from lake Tonle Sap into the Mekong. However, during the Southeast Asian rainy season from June to October when the Mekong drains large areas of Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap river flows from the Mekong back into lake Tonle Sap thus causing enormous floods in the area surrounding the lake. During this time, lake Tonle Sap can swell to more than twice its regular size.

Central Cambodia is a fertile plain. Mountain ranges in the shape of a semicircle form a natural boundary with Thailand. In the West are the Cardamon Mountains (designated after the spice of the same name), in the Southwest the Elephant Mountains and in the North the Dankret Mountain Range. The highest mountain in Cambodia is Phnom Aural in the Cardamon range, at a height of 1,813 metres.

To date these mountain ranges are comparatively densely covered with forest and are only sparsely populated. All three are still operating areas of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

The southern coastal strip has never been of importance for the Cambodian economy. It is separated from the central plain by difficult terrain. The Mekong has always been the economical conduit of Cambodia.

Travel Maps

Climate and Seasons

As a tropical country, Cambodia is bathed in almost all year sunshine and has a high average temperature. There are two distinct seasons, the dry and the monsoon. The monsoon lasts from May to October with southwesterly winds ushering in the clouds that bring seventy five to eighty percent of the annual rainfall often in spectacular intense bursts for an hour at a time with fantastic lightning displays. The dry season runs from November to April averaging temperatures from 27 to 40 degrees Celsius. The coolest and most comfortable period for those from cooler climates is from October to January.

Cambodia's main attractions:

Phnom Penh. People travel to Cambodia for Angkor, but this bustling capital is well worth a couple of days or more. It has some impressive sights, an interesting street life and the riverfront is laid back with trendy shops, restaurants and cafes.
The prime sights are:
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda - the residence of King Sihanouk.
Tuol Sleng Museum, the former high school turned prison for the Khmer Rouge victims - more than 14,000 met their death there - a shocking must see.
Wat Phnom, a hilltop pagoda, was the foundation of the city and is one of the most important spiritual places in the country.
The National Museum of Arts, an imposing Khmer style building in red brick, built by French, shows extensive Angkorian crafts [picture top left].
The Central Market [also known as New Market] and the Russian Market [Psah Toul Tom Poung] are worth visiting.
The Killing Fields [Choeung Ek], were the final destination for the Khmer Rouge victims, 17 km from the city centre.
Angkor [Siem Reap].
Beaches: Sihanoukville [Kampong Som].
Not quite up to neighboring Thailand's pristine resorts, but these uncrowded white sandy beaches are Asia's best-kept secret. Really rewarding after temple travel burn-out, you can go island hopping, snorkelling and diving. There is also Ream National Park nearby for nature and wildlife activities such as jungle trekking and boat trips with rangers.
The best among four beaches is Ochheuteal, with some grand hotels and restaurants, about 230km [143m] from Phnom Penh, 3.5 hours by regular bus.
Ban Lung [Rattanakiri], a small town used as a base to explore Cambodia's largest park, Virachey, containing rainforest, mountains, waterfalls and mountain tribes.
Battanmbang, an enchanting town, with well-preserved colonial architecture.
Also there are some little-known but superb Angkorian temples out in the countryside, including Wat Ek Phnom, Wat Banan and Phnom Sampeau.
A 45 minutes flight from the capital.

Cambodia Religion

Since ancient times, the Khmers had accepted the two great religions from India, i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism. The former one was more popular. Hinduism had played an important role in Khmer civilization as the Angkor monarchs adopted its concept of deva-raja, or "god-king", by which the king was revered as an incarnation of the god Shiva, a supreme Hindu deity who was regarded as a protector.

Most temples in the Angkor Empire were dedicated to either god Shiva or god Vishnu. Believed to be the holy house of the supreme gods, the temples were carefully built with fine arts, and the materials used are those of everlasting stones. Many impressive sculptures of great craftsmanship were enshrined.

The second religion being revered by the Khmers was the Buddhism of Mahayana sect which came into the region at same time as Hinduism though less prominent.

Both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism played an important role as the political, religious and philosophical pillars of Khmer Civilization by which the king was revered as the god-king or deva-raja. This ideology enabled the king to rule over the country as an absolute monarch with sovereign spirituality over his people, and thus enhanced the unity of the kingdom. Successive kings were able to mobilize large manpower to serve the army, to maintain an extensive irrigation system and to build numerous massive temples.

In the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism was introduced to the Khmer from Sri Lanka and became more prominent in the royal court as well as with the local people. The teaching of Theravada Buddhism directly clashed with the original belief of the Khmer people as it taught the people to seek self enlightenment and abandon worldly things. With this teaching, the attitudes of the people towards its Hindu Gods as well as the God-king changed, and thus led to the gradual weakening of the empire which eventually collapsed in the first half of the15th century.

The Khmer people seem to be the obedient students, as they did not raise doubts about the religious teaching of the original doctrines. We can see in Khmer history that the religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism were not divided into the different sub-sects in the land of Khmer, as they were in some other civilizations.

In addition to Hinduism and Buddhism, the Khmer people also had their own indigenous beliefs such as the local deities, ancestral spirits, as well as the evil spirits. There are no inscriptions or manuscripts to describe these beliefs, however, it can be found to be prevalent in modern Cambodia, especially in the remote villages. These beliefs are passed on from one generation to another by word of mouth.

Cambodian Language

The earliest written language to have been found in the region is Sanskrit, an Indian sacred language. The writings were carved in stones which could be dated back to 5th and 6th Century, which show a strong influence of the Indian culture over the indigenous people.

Sometimes later, the Khmer Language seems to appear with many of its characters and words derived from Sanskrit. One of the oldest stone inscriptions written in Khmer language were found to be carved in 612 A.D. as its text said.

The contents of these stone inscriptions which were housed in the temples were mostly concerned with religion, its ritual and philosophy, Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kings' salutations and some poetic verses. Some of these stone inscriptions also list the assets which were owned by the temples and by the dignitaries as well as the different objects needed for ritual ceremonies. Although these assets and objects haave long ago disappeared, these listings served as another jigsaw in our quest for knowledge of the Angkor. Little things have been recorded about the ordinary life of the local people, however, these stone inscriptions have helped us to retrace the history of Khmer and to understand its political and cultural structure.

Around 1,200 stone inscriptions written in Sanskrit and Khmer had been discovered.

The inscriptions were careful engraved on the stone with a great work of real art in order to show high respect to the gods of the temples. This could lead us to imagine that the Khmers were devout to their gods whom they revered as their protector, and God's blessing would bring them prosperity.

Many Angkor temples have been found to contain the stone inscriptions in both languages - Sanskrit and Khmer, however, their contents could be differentiated into two distinct characteristics although both of them served for a religious purpose. Those inscriptions written in Sanskrit were addressed more or less directly to the gods in term of religious prayers and rituals. Sanskrit is the sacred language of India and was maintained in the original form by the Khmers so that its value to their gods would not be deviated by any form of translation.

Generally, the Khmer inscription had its own distinct style and the content was mostly a listing of assets, covering  paddy fields, cattle, objects and furniture, as well as the names of slaves which were owned by the temples. In many instances, some of the stone inscriptions were placed in the shrine by donors who could be the dignitaries or the elites of the Khmer ruling class. These inscriptions could be varied, ranging from the listing of assets to some poetic verses.

According to Zhou Daguan in the Chinese annals, the ancient Khmers knew how to write on the latina leaves as well as by chalk on animal skins. Unfortunately, these materials seem to have decayed over the past centuries due to damp weather and insects.

It is hard to believe that such a high civilization of Khmer with a well-developed writing system would barely have any literature. Only three Khmer literatures are known since they were preserved in the stone inscription. Many literatures and other Khmer manuscripts, being written on unendurable materials other than on stone, are believed to have been lost with time, and some may have survived until the present day as local folklore.

Health:

There are a number of health risks associated with travel to Cambodia and travellers are advised to seek the latest medical advice on vaccinations and precautions especially regarding typhoid, cholera, malaria, hepatitis B and polio, at least three weeks before travelling. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for all areas except Phnom Penh, around Lake Tonle Sap and the Angkor temple complex. Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is prevalent especially in heavily populated areas. Travellers staying long-term, or for more than 1 month and who may engage in unprotected outdooor activities, should be vaccinated against Japanese Encephalitis. There have been outbreaks of bird flu with four deaths in Cambodia, and although the risk of contracting the disease is slight, travellers should avoid contact with domestic, wild and caged birds and ensure that all poultry and egg dishes are well cooked. Diarrhoea is the number one ailment afflicting travellers. Visitors should assume that the water is not safe to drink; bottled water is widely available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads and food sold by street vendors, and don't drink beverages with ice. Medical facilities are poor, except for a few expensive private hospitals in Phnom Penh. Treatment must be paid for with cash and health insurance is essential.

Cambodia Currency


Cambodia Riel

Money: Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are not recommended due to limited acceptance.

 
Official rate: US$1 = 24.6 riels
Black Market US$1 = 60 riels
Equivalent to sterling
£1 = 69 / 144 riels

 

Currency Exchange Rates

KHR 100.00 =

US$ 0.02

£ 0.01

C$ 0.03

A$ 0.03

R 0.18

€ 0.02

NZ$ 0.03

Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.

Cambodia Transport

Air travelers enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh’s Pochentong Airport or Siem Reap Angkor International Airport. Both airports are quite modern. The two-storey one in Phnom Penh even offers a First/Business Class Lounge on the first floor at the International Terminal, near to the main boarding gates. Inside is an assortment of services and modern conveniences including wireless internet. Economy passengers can use the lounge for a nominal fee.

Pochentong Airport offers plenty of other amenities including lost luggage services in Arrivals at the International Terminal, currency exchange, a post office and a smoking lounge. Restaurants and bars include Caffé Ritazza and Angkor Pub in the International Terminal; Café Select in the Domestic Departure Lounge; and a food court outside the International Terminal. Shopping is light but good, with a bookstore, two duty-free outlets and a Khmer handicrafts shop.

The airport serves well over a million passengers annually with a capacity for two million. There are 22 check-in counters and 6 gates, serving 10 international and 3 domestic destinations with 20 airlines. There are 380 parking spaces with parking available for up to 4 hours.

Siem Reap Airport is equally impressive. It has capacity to serve 1.5 million passengers and nearly meets this capacity annually. Although tiny and with just one floor, the airport is very pleasant and has a bookstore and a charming boutique selling souvenirs and other goods. There are less than 200 parking spaces, most at the International Terminal.


Public Transport

There are plenty of ways to move around Cambodia and the best choice for long distances is by air. There are good and frequent connections between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on President Air and Siem Reap Airways.

Local buses can also provide an exciting means of travel and are good for those on a budget. The popular Mekong Express provides a luxury bus ride for just US$6 between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap every day. There are other companies offering the same route as well. You can also get between the capital and Siem Reap via boat in just 5 hours for about $US25.

The best way to see the country at your leisure is to hire a car and driver. You could drive yourself but it probably wouldn’t be as pleasant as having someone else drive you, especially through heavy traffic. Hiring a motorbike is great for short distances and to see rural areas, but be sure you know what you’re doing!

Getting around in cities is best done by motorbike or by hiring a cyclo or a taxi. Walking can be fun if it’s not too hot and you know the distances and where you are going. However, many of the sights and attractions in Siem Reap are too far apart for walking.

Cambodia Festival:

New Year's Day: just as in the rest of the world, this is a day of rest after a night of festivities.

Tet Festival: taking place in either January or February dependent on the Khmer lunar calendar, this is one of the largest celebrations in Cambodia, with an array of fireworks and parades.

Cambodian New Year: traditionally taking place at the end of the harvest, for two days in mid-April, to mark the New Year according to the Khmer lunar calendar. The event is celebrated with decorated homes and shrines filled with food and beverages. Locals gather together to visit temples and pagodas, and many people converge upon Angkor Wat.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal): kicks off the rainy season in Cambodia in late May. During this time, farmers are preparing for the ploughing of the fields. A good place to take part in celebrations is the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where a series of activities take place. Cows are offered a choice of crops, and predictions are made for the coming harvest based upon the ones chosen.

Birthday of Buddha (Visa Bochea Day): is in late May. This reverent day is a time for Buddhists to make merit by visiting temples and making offerings to the monks.

Children's Day: in early June is a celebration of Cambodia’s young people. On this day, children’s festivities and events are arranged throughout the country. Most parents take time off work if they can to spend the day with their children.

Queen’s Birthday: a day celebrated throughout the country, Her Majesty the Queen Preah Akeak Mohesy Norodom Monineath Sihanouk's birthday is on 18 June.

Bonn Phchum Ben: is an annual festival falling in either September or October depending on the lunar calendar. It covers 15 days honouring Buddha's exhortation to remember the dead and during this time offerings are presented to Buddhist monks.

Soul Day (Pchun Ben Day): is a religious festival blessing the souls of ancestors, relatives and friends alike who have passed away. On this day, people usually visit temples to make merit for ancestors.

King’s Birthday: the birthday of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk is so spectacular it takes place across three days from 30 October to 1 November. Visit the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for a fireworks display.

Bonn Kathen: is a very visually appealing event as monks come out of their rainy season retreats at the temples to receive new robes and other offerings.

Water Festival (Bonn Om Touk): is one of Cambodia’s most exciting events, marking the start of the fishing season and the reversing of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river. It takes place around the full moon. The main attraction is the three days of boat races with more than 100 entrants; and nightly fireworks along with lit flotillas sailing for good luck along the Mekong in Phnom Penh. (December)

Visual Arts Open: is a biennial event that takes place in December in Phnom Penh. The show features new work by local artists and is a celebration of the new future of Cambodia, rising from civil war and genocide.

International Half Marathon: is held annually in December at Angkor Wat and draws in contestants and spectators from around the world.

 

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